By Rwenshaun Miller, as told to Stephanie Watson
As a black man, I can only show two different emotions – anger and happiness. Anything else and I’m considered weak. If you appear sick in this culture, you can easily get yourself killed. We definitely don’t talk about mental health. There is a stigma attached to it.
I grew up in Bertie County, a rural community in northeastern North Carolina. When we saw certain people around the neighborhood who were homeless or who were always on the corner of one of the stores, we wrote them off by 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 had a conversation with my grandmother, and she dismissed all the symptoms I had. I asked her, how did she know? And she said, because she’s been dealing with it all her life. She just never talked about it or got help. It was a conversation that only came up after my family had dragged me to the hospital.
A downward spiral
I graduated from high school near the top of my class and ended up going to UNC Chapel Hill on an academic scholarship. I walked onto the football team and the track team.
But after my first year, I came very close to being kicked out of school. My grades were terrible. Just adjusting to college was one thing, but adjusting to a college where I wasn’t very 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 an excellent academic, to this big school where I was at the bottom of the barrel when it came to athletics and I didn’t do well in school. I was having an identity crisis. Then my sophomore year I injured my knee and it basically took my athletic career off. Things started to turn around.
It started with me withdrawing from my friends. I didn’t want to talk to them. Whenever they called, I didn’t answer the phone. When they entered my room I didn’t want to open the door. I didn’t watch TV. I would just sit in my bed. Some days it was hard to get up. Other days if I got 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 wouldn’t have called it depression, just because I didn’t know what the word depression meant. I would have just said I was sad or happy.
I didn’t go to class. I didn’t eat. In about 6 weeks I lost about 25 pounds. I wouldn’t shower or do any grooming. My hair was all over the place. I went through a period where I didn’t sleep for like 2 weeks. Since I wasn’t sleeping, I started hearing voices.
My mom kept calling me and asking, “How have you been?” I would lie and say, “I’m good and school is going well.” At this point I hadn’t left my room for maybe 2 months. She said, “I can hear it in your voice that something is wrong.”
She took the plunge and called my cousin, who went to North Carolina Central University. When my aunt came to my dorm and saw me, she started crying. I wasn’t the Shaun she was used to seeing.
About 2½ hours later, the rest of my family arrived – my mom, dad, aunts and uncles. When they looked at me, they became worried because I had lost a lot. I’m pretty sure I smelled it because I didn’t shower. I just looked bad.
When they asked me what was wrong, I didn’t tell them what was going on. I’m trying to act in front of them like everything is fine. But they look 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’re going to take you somewhere to get you help.” They told me they were going to take me to the hospital. I started kicking and screaming. I fought them all the way there.
They took me to Duke University Medical Center Psychiatry. When I got there I ended up punching the nurse. I wasn’t trying to hurt her, I just didn’t want to go to the hospital. I was afraid to go in there, because when you hear that someone has gone into such an institution, they are considered crazy. No one wants to be seen as crazy.
When I punched the nurse I had to be restrained because they thought I was a threat. They put me on a sedative to try to calm me down. They asked me a lot of questions about what had been going on with me. It was one of the hardest things to do. I was stuck in a padded room and they were asking me all these questions. I looked through the glass at my family and they cried because they had never seen me in this state.
So on top of that, there was no one in the hospital like me. To be a black man in a mental hospital, I don’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 got my diagnosis of Bipolar I with psychotic symptoms, I was like I can’t believe you. I do not care. I’m just going to say okay so I can get out of here.
They told me that when I got out I didn’t have to go back to school because that was one of my triggers. It was a high pressure environment. I had to go on a treatment plan, which included medication and therapy.
When I got out of the hospital, I didn’t want to go back home. Being from a very small town, you don’t come back because you failed. I felt like a failure to have to leave school and I was ashamed to have to go to the hospital and get this sign of bipolar disorder.
Fortunately, my cousin lived in Charlotte. So I moved there. Nobody knew me in Charlotte.
While I was there I connected with Dr. Kendell Jasper, psychologist. He was a game changer for me, because he was a black man. He was down to earth. When I first went to his office, he was wearing a t-shirt, basketball shorts, and Jordans. I was not used to seeing such doctors. It was comforting, but I was also a little suspicious, like, are you sure you’re not lying to me that you’re a doctor?
But when we started doing talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy he was able to help me so much. He also referred me to a psychiatrist. Sometimes he would take me to see a psychiatrist so they could work on my meds and figure out what worked, what would help me sleep, and what would calm the voices in my head.
When I got better, I stopped taking my medication and went to therapy because I thought I was cured. I went back to UNC Chapel Hill in the fall of 2007. But when I got back to school, the symptoms returned.
Instead of going back to therapy, I self-medicated with alcohol. I was drinking a fifth of tequila every other day. I did it for 3 years. I became an active alcoholic.
I was going to work anyway. I was going to class anyway. I was still doing everything I needed to do, but the whole time I was in emotional pain. People would see that part of my life as successful, but they didn’t know the struggles I was going through on a daily basis.
I felt like I needed alcohol to get through the day. I would wake up drinking and I would drink all day until I went to sleep. I thought it was helping, but it wasn’t. It was making matters worse.
During this period I made three different suicide attempts. In the first two attempts, I tried to overdose on pills. The last time I put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger, it stuck in me. That was my lowest point.
Treatment, part two
After my last suicide attempt, I had to understand what had helped me recover the first time. It wasn’t the alcohol. I had to go back to therapy.
I was very intentional about therapy this time. I started incorporating different techniques into my daily lifestyle that helped me, such as meditation, yoga, and journaling. I started making sure I ate healthier, made sure I got the sleep I needed, and made sure I took enough time for myself.
The second treatment process was about learning who I was and learning what things were my triggers and what things were my protective factors. And once I got into that groove and understood it, I began 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
As I got healthier, I began to notice that some of my family and friends were also struggling, diagnosed or undiagnosed. Most of them were undiagnosed, because they weren’t going to get help. That’s what led me to become a therapist, get a Masters in Mental Health Counseling and also pursue a PhD in International Psychology.
Many of the clients I work with are men of color. I can’t expect them to come in and be completely exposed with me in a traditional therapy setting. I can’t come to them with a textbook solution. The textbook was not written by us, or even for us. I have to meet them where they are and make them feel comfortable.
I incorporate exercise, whether it’s going to the gym and shooting a basketball, or going to the local trail and walking the trail. Especially when I’m working with young guys, playing games is how I build trust with them.
I also founded a non-profit organization, Eustress. [Eustress is “good” stress — the kind that challenges you and helps you grow.] I do a lot of work within the black and brown community to raise awareness and give them tools to deal with 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. During the walks we have yoga classes. We have other mental health resources. We do fitness exercises. We understand that mental health is health.
I also hold coloring nights for adults around the country. We draw attention and also promote coloring as a therapeutic tool. It’s something people can do at home every day.
Every Wednesday night I host a conference call called Locker Room Talk, where men from all over the country call 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 Black Male Eustress Initiative. I go to a local elementary school and do therapy with seven seventh graders, young men. I also do therapy with their teachers and everyone in the home. The point is to reduce their inability to get treatment, because I go to them, and their ability to pay for treatment, because I do it for free.
It also changes the entire ecosystem of how they view mental health. I give parents the opportunity to deal with their own issues and after they deal with their issues I teach them how to work with their child. That’s how we can really start to affect change and break this vicious cycle that we’re dealing with in the black community, whether it’s trauma, depression, alcoholism or sexual abuse.