Previously, I did not have the desire, nor the language, to name my darkness, deep valleys, loneliness, isolation and fears. As a result, I did not have the tools to understand, manage and ultimately heal from those challenges. I had been conditioned as a part of my (toxic) masculinity grooming process that these moments of suffering, no matter how extended or destructive to self and others, were mine and mine alone to overcome. The concept of needing tools specifically to manage or improve my emotional and mental health was not only foreign, but therapy in particular had been positioned as a modality of whiteness.
While I had tried therapy before, I now realize that I sat on those couches trying to prove to the therapist and myself that I was okay and didn’t need them to solve my problems. The proof was in my high function and success, I reasoned. But, in those rooms, I was performing a choreographed waltz, much like the one I performed every day in public, only often to end my day exhausted and disconnected. I was a superhero whose powers lasted in limited short bursts, only to crumple into a heap of my personal darknesses behind closed doors.
Behind those closed doors, I had built a towering monument to a term that my therapist introduced me to called "pain avoidance." I developed a gilded set of strategies designed to avoid catastrophic and disruptive pain, loss and/or disappointment. These strategies allowed me to carefully control and manage relationships and situations to avoid painful outcomes at the expense of my growth and development. Fear, abandonment issues and anxiety were deeply embedded in the walls of my monument, distorting my self-image like a funhouse mirror.
While I was dodging the inevitable debris of life, I was dancing repeatedly headfirst into the walls I had built to protect myself. I may have avoided some forms of heartbreak and disappointment, but I normalized a dull but constant pain which resulted in ongoing and relentless suffering. The nicks and bruises became normal, and I did not recognize that they were changing me and crippling me until 2019, when the careful choreography of avoidance failed me. The dancing began to take up so much energy and cause so much injury that I no longer had the strength to hold space for romantic love, my friends, family and my business all at once. And as an overachieving problem solver, the inability to manage my circumstances was maddening.
Luckily, I am blessed with a community, both personal and professional, that is filled with people doing the work to process and improve their mental health in a variety of ways. In particular, in my personal life, Stephanie Young, and in my professional life, my partners Janelle Monae and Angela Rye and my colleague Gillian Williams, have all demonstrated what it means to prioritize mental health while in the pursuit of personal and professional excellence. Their personal work and willingness to discuss that work created a safe space and allowed me and others to disabuse ourselves of the notion that one could not both be strong and seek tools to manage and improve your mental health at the same time. As their self-work deepened, I gained strength. As their willingness to share grew, our community began to share resources and discuss mental health more openly. As they went through their respective mental health journeys, I witnessed each of them become more powerful, more creative, and demonstrate what true boldness and leadership looks like.
Through the support of my community, I have developed a relationship with therapy that is centered on giving voice to my joys, pains, traumas, roadblocks, triggers and triumphs. Therapy has provided me with tangible tools to work through moments of darkness and doubt and an objective accountability partner for the ongoing work that I am committed to, including deconstructing those monuments. Consistent therapy has not been a magic bullet, but it has been my gateway to a mindfulness practice that has facilitated tremendous healing, which now also includes yoga, writing, laughing, dancing, working out, talking shit, listening to my grandmothers talk shit, healthy eating and psychedelics.
I recognize that I and others are privileged to have the support, resources and access to mental health tools that so many do not have. As such, we have the responsibility to normalize and broaden access to mental health resources as a human right on a policy and economic level.
It is my hope that the sort of community and industry safe space that I have experienced for the maintenance of my mental health can be integrated into all of our social and business practices and live beyond an annual month of awareness. Each of us can participate in building a future that allows space for the celebration of our mental health and therapists/coaches, in the same way we celebrate our weight transformations, trainers and food regimens.
So, at Wondaland, we are following the lead of companies like my brothers at LVRN, who have made mental health a community, social and business imperative. As of this writing, Wondaland provides unlimited PTO, mandatory company closures for a three-day weekend every month and a four-day weekend every quarter; an additional mental health stipend to offset costs if a team member's preferred therapist is out of network; a mental health fund for emerging artists for therapists or other mental health maintenance activities; a discretionary designated "treat yo’ self" annual bonus in addition to pre-negotiated compensation; semi-annual, company-wide wellness-focused retreats; executive and staff training focused on supporting mental health; and annual 360 review for team and artists to make sure our policies, business structures, compensation, strategy and service is aligned with a supportive mental health ecosystem.
It is my hope that the various partners in our industry all recognize that they have a role to play in supporting the mental health of the communities they partner with and profit from. All too often, they contribute to its diminishment. Partners must understand that the various stressors embedded in business models and practices contribute to the mental health of the industry. Partners must engage in fair business practices, healthcare resources, strategic planning and investment in the communities from which they extract so much wealth and value. We have an opportunity to re-center mental health as a key daily community and business metric, and it is something we can do together by providing the necessary safe spaces and resources to support the artists, support staff and business partners within our industry.
The future of the Black community and the industries that leverage our genius is dependent on how seriously we take the current mental health crisis. This crisis, where so many suffer in silence, is a byproduct of an intersectional oppression built on a foundation of economic, spiritual, physical and emotional violence against our minds and bodies. It is going to take our full personal and professional communities to shift the thinking around how we identify, de-stigmatize, brand, support and treat mental health. It is why moments like Mental Health Awareness Month are so important as starting points, not finish lines.
As told to Joe Lynch and Ian Davis.
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