By Rwenshaun Miller told Stephanie Watson
As a black man, I can only express two different emotions – anger and joy. Anything else, I’m considered weak. Being weak in this culture can easily get you killed. We definitely don’t talk about mental health. There is a stigma associated with it.
I grew up in Bertie County, a rural community in northeastern North Carolina. When we see someone in the neighborhood who is homeless or always on the corner of a store, we say, “Don’t bother him, he won’t bother you.” That’s the scope of our conversations about mental health .
It wasn’t until after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder that I talked to my grandmother who learned about all my symptoms. I asked her, how did she know? Because she has dealt with it her whole life, she said. She just never talks about it or gets any help. That was the conversation that my family started after dragging me to the hospital.
I graduated high school at the top of my class and ended up attending UNC Chapel Hill on an academic scholarship. I walked into the football team and the track and field team.
But after my freshman year, I was really close to getting kicked out of school. My grades are terrible. Just adjusting to college is one thing, but adjusting to a college where I’m not well represented as a black person is even harder. I had to find my sense of community.
I came from a small town where I was a top athlete and a top academic and came to this big school where I was underdog in track and field and I was underperforming in school. I’m in an identity crisis. Then in my sophomore year, I injured my knee, which basically took my athletic career away. Things started to spiral upwards.
It started when I quit my friends. I don’t want to talk to them. Whenever they call, I don’t answer the phone. I don’t open the door when they come to my room. I don’t watch TV. I just sit on my bed. Some days it’s hard to get out of bed. Other days, if I do get up, I’ll sit in my chair and stare at the wall for hours on end.
That was in 2006. I am 19 years old. At the time, I wouldn’t call it depression, just because I didn’t know what the word depression meant. I would say I am sad or scared.
I didn’t go to class. I did not eat. In about 6 weeks, I lost about 25 pounds. I don’t shower or do any type of grooming. My hair is all over the place. I went through a period of not sleeping for two weeks. Since I wasn’t sleeping, I started hearing noises.
put one’s oar in
My mom would often call me and ask, “How are you?” I’d lie and say, “I’m fine and school is fine.” At this point, I probably hadn’t left my room for 2 months. “I can tell from your voice that something is wrong,” she said.
She hung up and called my cousin, who attended North Carolina Central University. When my cousin came to my dorm to see me, she started crying. I’m not the Sean she’s seen before.
About 2.5 hours later, my family showed up – my mom, my dad, my aunt and uncle. When they saw me, they were worried because I had lost a lot of weight. I’m pretty sure I smelled it because I didn’t shower. I just look bad.
When they ask me what’s wrong, I don’t tell them what happened. I try to act like everything is fine in front of them. But they looked at me like, you can’t lie to us while we’re sitting here looking at you.
They said, “If you don’t want to talk, we’ll take you somewhere for help.” They told me they were going to take me to the hospital. I kicked and yelled. I fought them all the way there.
They took me to the psychiatric ward at Duke University Medical Center. When I got there, I ended up hitting the nurse. I didn’t mean to hurt her, I just didn’t want to go to the hospital. I’m afraid to go in because when you hear about people entering an establishment like this, they’re considered crazy. No one wants to be considered crazy.
Once I punched the nurse, I had to be restrained because they saw me as a threat. They put me on sedatives to try and calm me down. They asked me a lot of questions, in my case. That’s one of the hardest things to do. I was confined to an upholstered room and they asked me all these questions. I looked at my family through the glass and they cried because they had never seen me in this state.
On top of that, no one in the hospital looked like me. As a black male in a mental hospital, I don’t trust anyone there. I’m afraid to talk about what’s going on in my head because I don’t know what they’re going to do with the information.
When I was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder with psychotic features, I thought to myself, I don’t believe you. I do not care. I just want to say ok so I can get out of here.
They told me that once I was out, I didn’t need to go back to school because it was one of my triggers. It was a stressful environment. I need to develop a treatment plan that includes medication and therapy.
After I was discharged from the hospital, I didn’t want to go home. Coming from a very small town, you won’t come back for failure. I thought it was a failure that I had to leave school, and I was embarrassed about having to go to the hospital to be labeled as bipolar.
Fortunately, my uncle lives in Charlotte. So I moved there. No one knows me in Charlotte.
Once there, I connected with psychologist Dr. Kendell Jasper. He was a game changer for me because he was a black male. He’s down to earth. When I first went to his office, he was wearing a T-shirt, basketball shorts, and Jordans. I’m not used to seeing a doctor like this. It’s reassuring, but I’m also a bit skeptical, like, are you sure you’re not lying to me that you’re a doctor?
But once we started talking therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, he was able to help me a lot. He also referred me to a psychiatrist. Sometimes he goes with me to see my psychiatrist so they can prescribe medication and figure out what works, what helps me sleep, and what calms the voice in my head.
Once I got better, I stopped taking the medication and got treatment because I thought I was cured. In the fall of 2007, I returned to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But as soon as I got back to my school best, my symptoms came back.
Instead of going back for therapy, I self-medicated with alcohol. I drink a fifth of my tequila every other day. I did this for 3 years. I became a functional alcoholic.
I still have to go to work. I still go to class. I’m still doing everything I need to do, but I’ve been in emotional pain. People will think that part of my life is successful, but they don’t know the struggles I go through every day.
I feel like I need alcohol to get through my day. I would wake up and drink and I would drink all day until I went to bed. I thought it helped, but it didn’t. This made things worse.
During this time, I made three different suicide attempts. On the first two attempts, I tried to overdose on the pills. The last time, I pointed the gun to my head, pulled the trigger, and it stuck on me. That’s my lowest point.
treatment, part two
After my last suicide attempt, I had to understand what helped me get better the first time. Not alcohol. I had to go back to treatment.
This time I was very interested in the treatment. I started incorporating different techniques into my daily routine that helped me, such as meditation, yoga and journaling. I started making sure I was eating healthier, making sure I got the sleep I needed, and making enough time for myself.
The second course of therapy is about understanding who I am and understanding what my triggers are and what are my protective factors. Once I got into that state and understood that, I started accepting my diagnosis. I have to take responsibility and have my bipolar disorder and also understand what I need to do to stay healthy. That’s when I started to change.
From patient to therapist
Once I got healthier, I started noticing that some of my family and friends were struggling, whether they were diagnosed or undiagnosed. Most of them go undiagnosed because they won’t get help. That’s what motivated me to become a therapist, get a master’s degree in mental health counseling, and pursue a PhD in international psychology.
Many of the clients I work with are people of color. I can’t expect them to come in and be completely vulnerable to me in a traditional healing setting. I can’t deal with them with textbook solutions. Textbooks are not written by us, or even for us. I have to meet them where they are and make them comfortable.
I joined physical activity, whether it was going to the gym and playing basketball, or going to the local trails and walking. Especially when I work with young boys, playing games is my way of building trust with them.
I also started Eustress, a nonprofit organization. [Eustress is “good” stress — the kind that challenges you and helps you grow.] I do a lot of work in the black and brown community to raise awareness and give them the tools to address their own mental health issues.
I conduct mental health awareness campaigns three times a year—once in my hometown of Bertie County, once in Chapel Hill, and once in Charlotte. While walking, we had a yoga class. We have other mental health resources as well. We do fitness training camps.We understand mental health Yes healthy.
I also host adult coloring nights across the country. We raise awareness and use coloring as a healing tool. This is something people can do at home every day.
Every Wednesday night, I would have a conference call called Locker Room Talk, and men from all over the country would call, and we would talk about anything in about an hour. We talk about different things that affect our mental health, so we have open space.
Last year, I launched the Young Black Male Actress program. I went into a local middle school to do therapy for seven seventh graders. I also do therapy with their teachers and everyone in their family. The point is to reduce their inability to get treatment because I go to them, and their inability to pay for treatment because I do it for free.
It also changed the entire ecosystem of how they viewed mental health. I give parents the opportunity to solve their own problems, and after they do, I teach them how to work with their children. That way, we can really start to influence change and break these vicious circles we deal with in the black community, whether it’s trauma, depression, alcoholism or sexual abuse.