By Rowenshawn Miller, as told to Stephanie Watson.
As a black man, I am only allowed to express two different emotions – anger and happiness. Anything else, and I’m considered weak. Appearing weak in this culture can easily get you killed. We certainly 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 saw some people around who were homeless or who always lived at the corner of a shop, we would write them off saying “Don’t bother him and he won’t bother you.” That was the extent of the conversations we would have about mental health.
It was only after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder that I talked to my grandmother, and she brushed off every symptom I was going through. I asked him, how did he know? And she said, ‘Because she’s been dealing with it all her life. He never talked about it or got any help. It was a conversation that only came to light when my family dragged me to the hospital.
I graduated from high school near the top of my class and ended up going to UNC Chapel Hill on an academic scholarship. I went on the football team and the track team.
But after my freshman year, I really came close to getting kicked out of school. My grades were terrible. Just adjusting to college was one thing, but adjusting to a college where I wasn’t well represented as a black person was even harder. I had to find my own sense of community.
I came from a small town where I was a top athlete and a top scholar, to this big school where I was the bottom of the barrel when it came to athletics and I wasn’t doing well in school. I was in an identity crisis. Then in my sophomore year, I suffered a knee injury, and it basically took away my athletic career. Things started to take a turn for the worse.
It started with withdrawing from my friends. I didn’t want to talk to them. Whenever they called, I didn’t answer the phone. I don’t open the door when they come to my room. I didn’t watch TV. I’ll just sit on my bed. It was hard to get up for a few days. On other days, if I woke up, I would sit in a chair and stare at the wall for hours.
This was in 2006. I was 19 years old. At the time, I didn’t call it depression, just because I didn’t know what the word depression meant. I would have just said I was sad or a joke.
I didn’t go to class. I didn’t eat. Over the course of about 6 weeks, I lost about 25 pounds. I will not shower or do any grooming. My hair was scattered all over the place. I went through a period where I couldn’t sleep for like 2 weeks. Because I couldn’t sleep, I started hearing voices.
My mother would call me constantly and ask, “How are you?” I would lie and say, “I’m good and school is going well.” At that point I hadn’t left my room for maybe 2 months. “I can hear in your voice that something is wrong,” she said.
He hung up and called my cousin, who went to North Carolina Central University. When my cousin came to my dorm room and saw me, she started crying. I was not the glory she was used to seeing.
About 2½ hours later, the rest of my family arrived — my mom, my dad, my aunt and uncle. When they looked at me, they were worried because I had lost a lot of weight. I’m pretty sure I smelled because I wasn’t showering. I just looked bad.
When they asked me what was wrong, I wouldn’t tell them what was going on. I’m trying to act like everything is fine in front of them. But they’re looking at me, as long as we’re sitting here looking at you, you can’t lie to us.
“If you don’t want to talk, we’ll take you somewhere to help you,” he said. They told me that they were taking me to the hospital. I left kicking and screaming. I fought them all the way there.
They took me to the psychiatric ward at Duke University Medical Center. When I got there, I punched the nurse. I wasn’t trying to hurt her, I just didn’t want to go to the hospital. I was afraid to go there, because when you hear about someone going to such an institution, they are considered crazy. No one wants to be considered crazy.
Once I punched a nurse I had to stop because they thought I was a threat. They put me on sedatives to try to calm me down. They asked me a bunch of questions as far as what was going on with me. It was one of the most difficult tasks. I was stuck in a padded room, and they were asking me all these questions. I looked in the mirror at my family, and they were crying because they had never seen me like this.
Then on top of that, no one in the hospital looked like me. To be a black male in a mental health hospital, I didn’t trust anyone there. I was afraid to talk about what was going on in my head because I didn’t know what they were going to do with the information.
When I was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder with psychotic features I was like, I don’t believe you. I don’t care, I’m just going to say okay so I can get out of here.
They told me that once I got out, I didn’t need to go back to school because that was one of my motivations. It was a very stressful environment. I needed to go on a treatment plan, which included medication and therapy.
Once I left the hospital, I didn’t want to go back home. Being from a small town doesn’t make you come back because you failed. I considered it a failure that I had to drop out of school, and I felt ashamed for going to the hospital and getting this label of bipolar disorder.
Lucky for me, my uncle lived in Charlotte. So I moved there. Nobody knew me in Charlotte.
Once I got there, I connected with Dr. Kendall Jasper, a psychiatrist. He was a game changer for me, because he was a black man. He was on the ground. When I first went to his office, he was wearing a T-shirt, basketball shorts, and Jordans. I was not used to seeing doctors like this. It was comforting, but at the same time I was a little nervous, like, are you sure you’re not lying to me about being a doctor?
But once we started engaging in talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, he was able to help me a lot. He also referred me to a psychiatrist. Sometimes he would accompany me to my psychiatrist appointments so he could work on my medication and find out what was working, what would help me sleep, and what caused the voices in my head. Has calmed down.
Once I got better, I stopped taking my medication and going to therapy because I thought I was healed. I moved back to UNC Chapel Hill in the fall of 2007. But once I got back into the school groove, my symptoms returned.
Instead of going back to therapy, I self-medicated with alcohol. I drank a fifth of wine every other day. I did this for 3 years. I became an active alcoholic.
I was still going to work. I was still going to class. I was still doing everything I needed to, but the whole time I was in emotional pain. People would consider this part of my life a success, but they didn’t know the struggle I went through on a daily basis.
I realized that I needed alcohol to get through my day. I would wake up drunk and I would drink all day until I fell asleep. I thought it was helping, but it really wasn’t. It was making things worse.
During this period, I made three separate suicide attempts. In the first two attempts, I tried to overdose on pills. The last time, I put the gun to my head and pulled the trigger, and it jammed on me. This was my lowest point.
Treatment, Part II
After my last suicide attempt, I had to understand what had helped me get better the first time. It wasn’t alcohol. I had to get back into therapy.
I was very intentional about therapy this time. I started incorporating various techniques into my daily routine that helped me, such as meditation, yoga, and journaling. I started making sure I ate healthy, made sure I got the sleep I needed, and took enough time for myself.
The second process of treatment was about learning who I am, and learning what are my triggers and what are my protective factors. And once I got into that groove and understood it, I started to accept my diagnosis for what it was. I had to take responsibility and own my bipolar disorder, and also understand what I needed to do to stay healthy. That’s when things started to change for me.
From patient to therapist
Once I got healthy, I started to notice that some of my family and friends were struggling too, whether diagnosed or undiagnosed. Most of them were not diagnosed, because they were not getting help. That’s why I became a therapist, got a master’s degree in mental health counseling, and a PhD in international psychology.
Many of the clients I work with are men of color. I can’t expect them to be completely vulnerable with me in a traditional therapy setting. I cannot come to them with textbook solutions. The textbook was not written by us, not for us. I have to meet them where they are and make them comfortable.
I incorporate physical activity, whether it’s going to the gym and shooting a basketball, or going to the local trail and trail running. Especially when I’m working with young guys, playing games is how I build trust with them.
I also started a non-profit organization called Eustress. [Eustress is “good” stress — the kind that challenges you and helps you grow.] I do a lot of work to raise awareness in the black and brown communities, and give them the tools to be able to address their own mental health issues.
I do three mental health awareness walks a year — one in my hometown of Bertie County, one in Chapel Hill, and one in Charlotte. At Walk, we have a yoga class. We have other mental health resources. We run fitness boot camps. We believe that mental health Is Health
I also do adult color nights around the country. We create awareness and also introduce coloring as a therapeutic tool. This is something that people can do at home on a daily basis.
Every Wednesday night, I do a conference call called Locker Room Talk, where men from all over the country come in and we talk about anything and everything for about an hour. We talk about different things that affect our mental health, so we have room to open up.
Last year, I started the Young Blackmail Eustress Initiative. I go to a local middle school and do therapy with seven seventh graders, teenagers. I also do therapy with their teachers and everyone in their home. 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 changes the entire ecosystem in how they view mental health. I give parents the opportunity to solve their problems, and when they solve their problems, I teach them how to work with their child. That way, we can really begin to affect change and break the vicious cycles that we’re dealing with in the black community, whether it’s trauma, depression, alcoholism, or sexual abuse.