By Rwenshaun Miller, as told to Stephanie Watson
As a black man, I’m only allowed to show two different emotions — anger and happiness. Anything else, and I’m considered weak. Seeming weak in this culture can easily get you killed. We definitely don’t talk about mental health. There’s a stigma associated with that.
I grew up in Bertie County, a rural community in northeastern North Carolina. When we’d see certain people around the neighborhood who were homeless or who were always on the corner by one of the stores, we’d write 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 my bipolar disorder diagnosis that I had a conversation with my grandmother, and she ran down every symptom that I had going on. I asked her, how did she know? And she said, ’cause she’s been dealing with it all of her life. She just never talked about it or got any help. That was a conversation that only came up after my family had 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 walked onto the football team and the track team.
But after my freshman year, I got really close to being kicked out of school. My grades were terrible. Just adapting to college was one thing, but adapting 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 a top scholar, to this large school where I was at the bottom of the barrel when it came to athletics and I wasn’t doing well at school. I was in an identity crisis. Then in my sophomore year, I suffered a knee injury, and that essentially took away my athletic career. Things started to spiral.
It started with me withdrawing from my friends. I didn’t want to talk to them. Whenever they would call, I didn’t answer the phone. When they came to my room, I wouldn’t 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 did get up, I would sit in a chair and stare at the wall for hours on end.
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 in a funk.
I didn’t go to class. I didn’t eat. Over a matter of about 6 weeks, I lost about 25 pounds. I wouldn’t shower or do any type of grooming. My hair was all over the place. I went through a period where I didn’t sleep for like 2 weeks. Because I wasn’t sleeping, I started to hear voices.
My mom would constantly call me and ask, “How you been doing?” I would lie and say, “I’m good and school is going well.” At this point I hadn’t left my room in maybe 2 months. She said, “I can hear it in your voice that something’s wrong.”
She got off the phone 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 wasn’t the Shaun she was used to seeing.
About 2½ hours later, the rest of my family showed up — my mom, my dad, my aunts and uncles. When they laid eyes on me, they got worried because I had lost a lot of weight. I’m pretty sure I smelled because I wasn’t taking showers. 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 in front of them like everything was OK. But they’re looking at me like, you can’t lie to us while we’re sitting right here looking at you.
They said, “If you don’t want to talk, we’re going to take you somewhere to get you some help.” They told me they were going to take me to the hospital. I went kicking and screaming. I fought them the entire way there.
They took me to the Duke University Medical Center psychiatric ward. 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 scared to go in there, because when you hear about someone going into an institution like that, they’re considered crazy. Nobody wants to be considered crazy.
Once I punched the nurse, I had to be restrained because they considered me a threat. They put me on sedatives to try to calm me down. They asked me a bunch of questions as far as what had been going on with me. That was one of the hardest things to do. I was restrained in a padded room, and they were asking me all these questions. I looked through the glass at my family, and they were crying because they’d never seen me in this state.
Then on top of that, nobody in the hospital looked like me. To be a black male in a mental health hospital, I wasn’t trusting anybody in there. I was scared 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 received my diagnosis of bipolar I disorder with psychotic features, in my head I was like, I don’t believe you. I don’t care. I’m just going to say OK 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 it was one of my triggers. It was a high-stress environment. I needed to go on a treatment plan, which included medication and therapy.
Once 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 considered it a failure that I had to leave school, and I was embarrassed at having had to go to the hospital and receive this label of bipolar disorder.
Lucky for me, my uncle lived in Charlotte. So I moved there. No one knew me in Charlotte.
Once I was there, I got connected to Dr. Kendell Jasper, a psychologist. He was a game changer for me, because he was a black male. He was down to earth. When I first went to his office, he had on a T-shirt, basketball shorts, and Jordans. I wasn’t used to seeing doctors like that. It was comforting, but also I was a little leery, like, are you sure you’re not lying to me that you’re a doctor?
But once we started to engage in talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, he was able to provide me with so much help. He also referred me to a psychiatrist. Sometimes he would go to my psychiatrist appointments with me so they could work on my meds and figure out what was working, what would help me sleep, and what would calm down the voices in my head.
Once I got better, I stopped taking my meds and going to therapy because I thought I was cured. I went back to UNC Chapel Hill in the fall of 2007. But once I got back into the groove of school, my symptoms came back.
Instead of going back to therapy, I self-medicated with alcohol. I was drinking a fifth of tequila every other day. I did that for 3 years. I became a functional alcoholic.
I was still going to work. I was still going to class. I was still doing everything I needed to do, but the entire time I was in emotional pain. People would consider that part of my life a success, but they didn’t know the struggle I was going through on a daily basis.
I felt like I needed alcohol to get through my day. I would wake up drinking and I would drink throughout the day until I went to sleep. I thought it was helping, but it really wasn’t. It was making things worse.
During this time 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, and it jammed on me. That was my lowest point.
Treatment, Part Two
After the last suicide attempt, I had to understand what had helped me get better the first time. It wasn’t the alcohol. I had to get back into treatment.
I was very intentional about therapy this time. I started to incorporate different techniques into my daily lifestyle that helped me, like meditation, yoga, and journaling. I started making sure that I ate healthier, making sure I got the sleep I needed, and that I made 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 that, I started accepting 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 be healthy. That’s when things started to change for me.
From Patient to Therapist
Once I got healthier, I started noticing that some of my family and friends were struggling too, whether they were 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 my master’s degree in mental health counseling, and also pursue my PhD in international psychology.
A lot of the clients that I work with are men of color. I can’t expect them to come in and be completely vulnerable with me in a traditional therapeutic setting. I can’t come at them with a textbook solution. The textbook wasn’t written by us, or even 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 basketballs, or going to the local trail and walking the trail. Especially when I’m working with young boys, playing games is how I build trust with them.
I also started a nonprofit 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 communities to raise awareness, 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 the walks, we have a yoga class. We have other mental health resources. We do fitness boot camps. We understand that mental health is health.
I also do adult coloring nights across the country. We raise awareness and also introduce coloring as a therapeutic tool. It’s something people can do at home on a daily basis.
Every Wednesday night, I do a conference call called Locker Room Talk, where men across the country call in and we talk about anything and everything for about an hour. We talk about the different things that affect our mental health, so we have space to open up.
Last year, I started the Young Black Male Eustress Initiative. I go into a local middle school and do therapy with seven seventh-graders, young men. I also do therapy with their teachers and everyone in their household. The point is to reduce their inability to get to 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 of how they view mental health. I allow the parents a chance to address their own issues, and after they address their issues, I teach them how to work with their child. That way, we can really start to impact change and break these vicious cycles that we’re dealing with in the black community, whether it be trauma, depression, alcoholism, or sexual abuse.