NAMI Pomona Valley’s Education Coordinator Kyoni Cummings shares a few words about her experience.
I read an article recently and it took me back to my school days when we would learn about the Civil War, read certain books, or even “celebrate” Black History Month. I can see myself sitting in my elementary and high school classrooms, in the exact seat that I chose each day. I can see the whiteboard and the overhead projector. Then I start to feel anxious. My palms are sweating, and my hands are shaking ever so slightly. I am trying to count the number of paragraphs before it is my turn to read. “Is the N-word in my paragraph? I hope it’s not in mine. Wait. If it’s not in mine, whose will it be in? Are they going to skip the word completely? Will they say it? I hope everyone doesn’t look over here again. I wish the bell would just ring”. Sometimes the N-word was in my paragraph, and other times it wasn’t. No matter how it shook out, I always reminded myself to sit up tall in my chair and look as proud as I possibly could, because I was…I am! All of those thoughts, all of that anxiety. When I think on it now, I just shake my head – oh, to be Black in America!
My family and I have recently taken up sharing little-known Black History facts with each other. Each Saturday morning, one of us shares something we’ve learned. We’ve gone from Hiram Revels and Blanche Kelso Bruce to Frank Sebastian. From Lovie Louise Yancey, Hercules, and James Hemings to learning okra’s introduction to the U.S. was through slavery. It’s been a joy to delve into my culture and see all of the beautifully amazing things we’ve done since my ancestors stepped foot on this land. How Black people have taken impossible situations and turned them into triumph, inspiration, and a path forward for those to come is astounding.
I constantly stand in awe of those who have come before me. Their fight. Their drive. Their determination. Their resilience. I realize that those things live in me, and it is absolutely my responsibility to build on what they’ve given – to make things even a little better for those who come behind me. One of the many ways I strive for that is through mental health advocacy. I fight hard because I want my loved one to see himself in the spaces he enters. I want….I NEED him to know that his Black skin is beautiful. His creativity is beautiful. His sense of humor and loving heart is beautiful. Mental illness already preys on these things and I am determined to not let the world around him do the same.
Admittedly, mental illness was never on my radar until it was staring me in the face. Watching someone you love go through the highs and lows of mental illness takes a toll on everyone involved. While I can’t speak for my loved one’s experience directly as a Black man in America living with a mental health condition, I can speak to my experience loving and supporting a Black man in America who is living with a mental health condition. There were times his paranoia wouldn’t allow him to come home and every time my phone rang with an unknown number, I would tremble inside. “Is this the day I get a call to come to identify his body?”. “How will he respond to being racially profiled now?”. “What happens if he has a mental health emergency and I’m not there?”. You become hyper-aware of others’ missteps because they can cost your loved one their life. The anxiety and sheer dread over him simply walking outside of the house is almost unbearable at times.
Over the years, I’ve realized these scenarios wouldn’t be too different if he weren’t living with a mental health condition and that my friends, is heartbreaking. That thought would infuriate me and to a certain degree, it still does, but I decided early on that I would fight like hell to love and support him through whatever comes. No matter which crisis team gets called to the house, which ER bed he’s sitting in for hours on end, or which hospital he gets transferred to, this young man has a family who will be right there each and every time to be sure he is getting the care he needs and deserves.
My family and I are about 10 years into this mental health journey, and we’ve learned so much. Sometimes I forget how far we’ve come, but something will trigger a memory, or I’ll find old hospital paperwork, and it all comes flooding back. I used to avoid thinking about those things. Now I welcome the thoughts. I allow myself those moments to grieve and feel sad because our lives will never be the same. I also know that God is good, and He’s blessed my family and I with just as many good times. We have learned to hold closely to the village around us who gives love and support when we ask for it…and when we don’t!
I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to give to other families that look like mine through NAMI. I’ve had the honor to walk with families through some of the most difficult moments of their lives. Often, I have to remind myself that I can’t fix it, no more than I can “fix” my loved one, but I can help them prepare for crisis, learn to communicate more effectively, introduce them to resources and show them THERE IS HOPE. I am them – they are me! I’ve been through NAMI’s Family to Family classes. I’ve gone to the Family Support Groups. I know what it’s like to feel desperate, angry, alone, and completely clueless about what to do next. I am grateful that the families in the community that I serve trust me enough to allow me to hold their hands in such a vulnerable time. I never take that lightly.
This is my advocacy. This is a piece of the legacy that I hope to leave for those who come after me. To see that as my ancestors, I too have tapped into that fight, drive, determination, and resilience to forge a better path for others.
While I fight for the rights of everyone living with mental health conditions, I also know it is indescribable what representation can do. My prayer is that the Black families that I encounter through NAMI will see themselves in my family’s story and know that they aren’t fighting alone. We stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us and if they can fight, we can too!
NAMI Greater L.A. County – Pomona Valley