National Alliance on Mental Illness
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I could feel my old friend depression returning. Not again, not today, not in my house.

Juno's Story

How does a black kid from small-town Virginia with an IQ of 165, a 1,400 SAT score and an Ivy-League scholarship offer end up a mail clerk? Give up? It’s quite simple really—he bets it all on becoming a rock star.

As the brain is individual, so must the treatment be. We must each find the path that works for us.

I graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a B.A. in African American Studies. I wrote my own curriculum because they didn’t have such a thing at the time. Then I set out to become a rock star—or more precisely, a rap star. I had garnered some label attention with high school demo tapes, so it didn’t seem like a stretch that a major-label deal was well within reach. But an overnight success never is.

It’s fall, a couple of years after graduating, ’96 I think. A morning meeting with the label dudes went well. We were supposed to be signed when the annual artist budget went through in January. That night, our Hollywood Hills hotel room looked just like you’d imagine. It was late, probably 4 a.m., and as I watched the L.A. groupies doing lines of cocaine off the dresser, I thought, the gamble has paid off, in a few months this will be my life.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’d moved home with two of my crew—month-to-month so we could leave as soon as we were signed. The local newspaper did a big spread on me. I was a celebrity. I took a BS job for pocket money while we awaited the contracts. January: nothing. February: nothing! March: finally, the call comes. It’s my agent in Cali. I can no longer recall the conversation, only the outcome.

Months later, my life was a sad cycle of work, alcohol, sex, repeat. I wasn’t playing music; I had given up on everything. I was waiting for something to end my life for me. The thought of my grandmother was the only thing that prevented me from pulling the trigger myself, though I often came close. One night, after the usual debauchery, I stumbled into a chair in the room I was renting at a friend’s in front of the TV, and was jarred out of my drunken stupor when I heard the voice of a hot chick (yes, I can tell by the voice).

It was just the TV. There was somber classical music playing as she asked, “Has your life gotten out of control?”

Um, duh!

“Are you always sad and you don’t know why?”

Wait, does she know me?!

I watched the infomercial that followed. I can’t remember the dude’s name. The gist was, I had lost control gradually and had to take it back the same way. Trying to do too much would result in failure and deeper depression. Master one small facet of your life, and then extrapolate the process. I didn’t need to send them $69.95 for the DVDs. Even wasted, I was still a genius.

A couple of weeks later, I was at the bar still pondering what part of my life I could take back. As I tried to light another cig, my lighter died. That’s it, it was a sign!

I rushed out of the bar, went to the first store and bought a black Bic. I decided to keep that lighter until it ran out; this was much harder than it sounds. “The Lighter Chronicles” could be a book of its own. One day I went to light my cigarette and that black Bic lighter was finally empty. I had done it. I was not hopeless after all. From there I increased the scope and import of each challenge until the last—leaving town. When I came home that Christmas, my mother gave me a really nice black Zippo lighter. She hates me smoking, but it was the principle of the thing.

I was playing music again, working and living in Northern Virginia. Things were good—maybe too good. I had just moved in with my new girlfriend when I got laid off. I did whatever I could to pay my part of our expenses, but emotionally I was checking out again. She stood by me in those dark days and I am eternally grateful. After months of struggling on all fronts, a friend of a friend got me an interview at NAMI.

Surprisingly, when I started, my black clothes, purple dreadlocks and facial piercings did not make me most eccentric person at NAMI—though maybe the creepiest. I had found a place where my work was what truly mattered. I was a production coordinator—think a one-man Kinko’s. It was cool, not too much interaction and I got to be slightly creative on occasion. It was the ideal situation to get my mind right.

Eventually things changed—both in my position at NAMI and in my personal life. When my five year relationship ended and I moved out, I could feel my old friend depression returning to keep me company. Not again, not today, not in my house. I refused to let it happen again and chose to do something. My relationship counselor referred me to a therapist. Her first available appointment was Feb. 14. She couldn't be serious—my Valentine’s Day date was with the shrink!? Alas, how far the mighty have fallen. God has a sick sense of humor.

The shrink was totally cool. She seconded my premise that life is hard and people often suck. With that agreed on, she went on to say that since we cannot change my entire world, we must try to change my perception of it. That’s typically how treatment works in most all of its guises. Some people use prescription meds, some counseling, some holistic methods and many, like myself, self-medicate in a variety of ways. It all changes how we feel about the crap. None of it changes the reality of the crap.

So, we set out to change my mind, literally. Through mental gymnastics—exercising the brain—we found the problems and dispatched them. We replaced negative behaviors and memories with better ones. With practice and Herculean effort, that new paradigm eventually became my normal behavior. For example, the metro escalator that led to NAMI’s office reminded me of the meat grinder from Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Because I never achieved fame as a rock star, I felt ground up every morning I had to go work. She charged me with finding another escalator that led to a happier place, to something I liked. It took a while, but nowadays, escalators lead me to the Macy’s lingerie department and no longer grind me up. The brain can be exercised and strengthened just as the body. I went through mental boot camp and, with vigilance, my mind remains fit to this day. Of course, the haters may still say different.

The human brain is one of the great mysteries of the universe. What we don’t know about it is much greater than what we do. In my opinion, anyone who claims to have “the answer” to recovery is both ignorant and arrogant. As the brain is individual, so must the treatment be. We must each find the path that works for us. Be it medication, counseling, holistic means or any amalgamate; the only matter is that it works for that individual. They are simply alternate paths to the same destination: wellness. My way may not work for some, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t work for me.

That’s the quick and dirty version of my story with mental illness—the high and lowlights. Do I still wish I was famous? Occasionally I do. After all, I am a rock star, famous or not. However, this is not self-deification. I didn’t write this to remind you of the genius in the basement. This is only me shining my light into the darkness, hoping that my beacon might spark the way for another lost traveler. If you are intrigued by my story and would like me to share it publicly, you need only ask. It is the duty of the well to help the sick. If you’d like to hear all the sketchy details, for that, you will have to buy me a Belvedere.

“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”  -Desiderata

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