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Black Men and Mental Health

Sowing Seeds That Never Dies: Gordon Smalls Testimony

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Gordon Smalls' name should begin with "The Amazing," just like all superheroes. I say that because he is genuinely an amazing human being. Gordon is an amazing artist, an amazing barber, an amazing son, an amazing brother, and an amazing friend. But, sometimes, a superhero face challenges in life that can trigger mental health issues. And when it seems they are reaching the point of throwing in the towel and giving up, a real superhero knows when to seek help from sources that can help restore their power.

I had the opportunity to travel to Charleston, SC, and have a conversation with The Amazing Gordon Smalls about Black Men and Mental Health issues. Yes, I could have done his interview virtually, but who would pass up a golden opportunity to meet face to face and enjoy his beautiful and colorful Garden. Not to mention, Gordon has a fishpond that he built with his own hands that house a collection of exquisite fishes. Gordon's Garden, which you will learn more about in his interview, is full of life and breathtaking.

As most know, there is a strong stigma associated with mental health problems and illness related explicitly to black men that men aren't supposed to display emotions that show signs of weakness. Gordon openly shared his story about the first time he realized he was battling mental illness after the trauma of losing his parents. His transparency, honesty, and willingness to share his story without fear, doubt, or shame is his mission to help others deal with the seriousness of mental illness and guide them first to admit they have a problem and seek professional help.

I hope you are inspired, motivated, and encouraged by Gordon's powerful words. Remember, if you are suffering from any mental health issues, it is vital that you seek the necessary help you need to get healthy.

Always Vibrate Higher in your purpose. 

 

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RJ:

Thank you so much, Gordon, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak with me today on the issue of Black Men and Mental Health. I will like to begin with you telling me a little about yourself. Where did you grow up?

 

GS:

Well, I am from Charleston, South Carolina. I was born and raised here, and I attended college here at the College of Charleston.  I come from a very loving family. I had my mother and father in my life because, as you may know, when I was coming up back in the 70s, many people didn't have both parents in the household.  I have eight siblings. Of the eight, it is seven boys and one girl who passed away. And I had a brother that passed away in 2007. So, I've been here most of my life. Also, I love to travel, and I've traveled extensively. I live a very private life, you know, quiet life, I should say - a good life, nonetheless.

 

RJ:

Did you enjoy growing up in Charleston? Talk about some of the things you did for fun.

 

GS:

 

Well, you know, growing up in the 70s, we rode bikes and played games that kids played back in the day. We played with marbles, did a lot of wrestling, basketball, football, and baseball. I grew up in a very athletically inclined family. My mom was also pretty much athletically inclined, too - she was a tomboy [laughs]. So whatever sports we played, she participated with us, and it was a good life. You know, my parents back in the 70s, for my parents to make the money that they did, their income was well over a hundred- thousand dollars, and that was in the 70s! So, they gave us the best life that they know how to provide us with.

We had our chores and got disciplined when we did wrong. I think because of those disciplines, it turned us into the men we are today. You know, some of us chose the right path, and some of us decided other ways, but it's the path that we chose, and it has made us who we are today.

 

RJ:

 

Tell me about your occupation. What do you do for a living?

 

GS: 

 

I'm a barber. I've been barbering for the last 35 years.

 

RJ:

 

Did you always want to become a barber? What made you choose that profession?

 

GS:

 

Well, my dad always used to say, if you're not going to take your ass to college, you better get a trade. So, in my case, I did both. I did The College of Charleston (CofC), and I also got a barbering trade. Was barbering something I wanted to do? Absolutely. I was a backyard barber, cutting hair from the backyard, from the house, from the porch, or wherever. But I also knew that it was essential to have a trade. And that's one thing that's missing in the school system, that they don't have trade classes anymore. And I think that is something that the schools should bring back. I believe it is necessary because all kids do not want to go to college. You know, everybody doesn't want to go to college. So, it is something good to fall back on.

 

RJ:

 

I want to move on to questions surrounding our topic on Mental Health and its effects on Black Men.  Many studies show that men, especially Black men, are under pressure to appear strong and stoic. It does not matter how badly they are hurting. Is that something that you had to deal with growing up?

 

GS:

 

As men, and as young men by design, we are supposed to be strong. And I'm not saying that it's necessarily true, but you don't want to show any form of weaknesses when you're coming up. You have to appear strong, and you tend to bottle things up, not talking about certain things.  I was always a pretty sensitive kid, you know, and I would see things entirely differently, especially from an artist's point of view and not being able to express myself in fear of being misunderstood.


RJ:

 

Growing up with your father and other male siblings in the home, did they ever tell you that you are not supposed to show emotions, reflecting a sign of weakness as a young Black man? For example, men aren't supposed to cry.

 

GS:

 

I was a strong kid, physically and mentally, but I was also sensitive at the same time. And I think with those sensitivities and not being able to express myself as it relates to just understanding certain things that some of my friends were probably going through at that particular time. Of course, as I became older and had to experience certain things for myself, one of those things being death- Just experiencing that changed my whole perspective on many things related to what defines you as a man and how you should react to certain situations. You know, because we as black men, as you mentioned, we tend to keep things in and not allowing ourselves to express ourselves fully.

RJ:

Tell me about an unpleasant occurrence that has impacted your mental health and the different techniques you used to cope with the situation. 

 

GS:

 

Well, in October 2007, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. That changed my whole world – it rocked my world when she was diagnosed with cancer—and only given a short time to live. [long pause] That's when I started to view things entirely different as it relates to life and how precious it is and how it can be gone within a blink of an eye. And to be honest with you, it hurt me to the core of my existence to see my mom go through chemotherapy and, I had to be strong and be there to take care of her.

 My brother and I, along with my oldest niece, did the best possible. We did all that we can, you know, to take care of her. And that was one of the things that brought on my mental illnesses because it's incredibly stressful. Even on her last day, when I think about it, it still saddens me from this day on because I sometimes question myself if I did all that I can do. [long pause] And the answer is a resounding yes. I knew for a fact that I did all that I can do to make her comfortable, to keep her here as long as she wanted to be here.

 

RJ:

 

I know you did all you could for your mother. I know that is a formidable memory to recount. And, I know she is so proud of you and all that you accomplished.

 

GS:

 

Yeah, always a tough thing to talk about, you know.

 

RJ:

 

Do you need some time to take a break?

 

GS:

 

No, I'm good. We can continue.

 

 RJ:

 

I want to change gears a little. Your mother and father were married for a long time and raised eight beautiful children, which decreased to seven after your sister's passing. Tell me, your father being a Black man - Strong Black man. Do you believe the death of your mother triggered his mental health? Did you witness his grief, or do you think he suppressed those feelings?

 

GS:

 

 As strong as my dad was, you know, he was a disciplinarian. He will look at your ass when you do wrong, and he would praise you when you do right. And I think he often suppressed many of his feelings as a Black man or didn't know how to express himself, you know? So that's what I grew up with. And as I became aware, as I got older, I tend to hold in some of the same things, too. But I also know that I watch my daddy display his anger. Well, in my case, I thought it was that he didn't love you because he used to spank us. But that was not the case; it is to make you a better person if you will? And, I watched him suppress that shit for an extended period, and I guess his acting out would be in the form of punishment or a good old-fashioned ass whipping, you know? But he was a good man! He was a strong man; he was a damn good provider- A damn good provider! Oh, yes.

 

RJ:

 

Now that we are in a global pandemic have your mental health been compromised because of the significant changes we are focused on adapting to now? I'm talking about fear, edginess on nerves.

 

GS:

 

I think the pandemic has created its share of fear in every one of us. In my case, I felt like it was the end of the world. I had to find a coping mechanism to bring some peace and balance to everything that was going on around my family and me. I had to find a way to exist and deal with everything that had transpired throughout the years, And I did it in the form of gardening. Gardening became my panacea for all my aches and pains. And it also taught me a lot about patience. You know, if you put a seed in the ground, you have to be patient and wait for it to come out of the earth. And that's what I learned about gardening. It taught me how to be patient and to take my time, and not rush everything. And for the most part, it made me a better person. Everything does not happen overnight, just like things in life. It takes time, and it takes time to cultivate and to grow.

 

RJ:

 

Your Garden is gorgeous and filled with so much color, peace, and life. When did you start gardening?

 

GS: 

 

I've always been into gardening because my daddy was a gardener and my mom and dad were vegetable type gardeners. They planted the basic stuff, cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, corn, peppers, and garlic. My mom also liked a lot of flowers. So, I would watch them do their thing, buy flowers, and plant seeds.

I didn't get into the full swing of gardening until 2009 when my dad had suffered a massive stroke, and I needed an outlet. Again, gardening was the one thing that I knew I could turn to put me in a place of peace and to take what I had troubling on the mind off of my mind if you will. Gardening is the one thing that kept me sane, that kept me motivated. But more importantly, I can honestly say that gardening saved my life. When my dad had his massive stroke, once again, it rocked my world, and I had to be that same caregiver to my daddy that I was to my mom in 2007.

One day, while cleaning my dad up, changing his diaper and bed linen, my vision became very blurry.  I didn't even notice at the time, but I was having a stroke while I was changing my dad's diaper - I was having a stroke! I just kept saying to myself, I don't feel right. I felt a numbness in my face and blurriness in my eyes. But while changing him, I just knew that I was having a stroke while caring for my dad. I don't talk about that much. I don't even like to mention it because it still seems surreal. My pressure was extremely high - too high. Both numbers were beyond in the triple digits.

 

RJ:

 

Do you often feel supported by others around you, like family, friends, or members of your community?

 

GS:

 

During my time of coping with my mother and father's passing, my support came in the form of good friends. I have my best friend, which we've been friends for many years. And a few other people that were very, very supportive during that time. And it's so crazy because I would put on a smiley face every day and face the world, and they had no idea that I was dying and hurting inside. No one ever knew that I would go to work, and I would smile, but as the day comes to an end and night approaches, I felt as if the curtains were drawing in, and I would lay in that bed and cry. I was deeply depressed, contemplated suicide on several occasions, you know? Mental illness is real.

And I think we as Black men, we don't talk about it because when you mention the word mental illness, people feel that you're crazy - they think that your ass is just downright crazy, but necessarily not so. And it took me a while to even grasp that concept. And you have to admit that you have a problem. So, realizing that I had a mental illness issue, I had to be straight up and real with myself.

 I kind of distance myself from some of my friends and suppressed my feelings until I concluded what this was. And I had to take it for what it was, but more importantly, I had to take control of what was going on inside of me. I went to the doctor and, he did some tests and concluded that I was suffering from PTSD. So, he put me on medicine, which made me lethargic. I felt very loopy and kind of weird - not my regular self. So, again, I started gardening as a form of healing. No psychiatrist, no doctor, and no friend could prepare me for the feeling that gardening gave to me. It made me happy, and my heart race with excitement, knowing that I could put something in the ground and watch it come out of the earth. But more importantly, it is life coming out of the land. Watching these plants come out of the ground gave me life – gave me light, and it made me the person I am today.

 

RJ:

 

It's like you say, you're planting a seed in the ground; we must wait because the process does not happen overnight. It must cultivate. I like that.

 

GS:

 

Wait patiently, right?

 

RJ:

 

Absolutely. 

 

GS:

 

And that's what I did. I waited patiently. As with my own life, I waited patiently until this storm passed by, and eventually, it did. Not to say that it isn't going to revisit sometimes, but at the same time, it has made me stronger. Every day is not a good day, but it's much more manageable now.

 

RJ:


After experiencing a stroke and dealing with mental illness, talk about other ways; besides gardening, you've maintained your health and peace. 

 GS:

 

I decided to change my entire eating habits. First, I started as a vegetarian. Then, after a few months of being vegetarian, I decided to go vegan. And after I went vegan, that changed my whole playing field because my blood pressure went back to normal and changed my entire life in the importance of having some form of balance. Veganism did it for me. You know, it just gave me such structure and helped me to get rid of most of the toxins that were inside of my body, through meditation, through yoga, and through working out. I believe that is the cure we all can use in our lives.

 

RJ:

 

What are your hopes and dreams for the future? And tell me how you are working towards fulfilling these goals?

 

GS:

 

I want all men to recognize when they are dealing with stress-related issues and not be afraid to talk about how they feel and how it relates to what is bothering them. I want them to permit themselves to be open about different kinds of conversations. That is my hope for the future.

 

RJ:

 

What advice do you have for men who have a mental illness but feel reluctant to get help?

 

GS:

 

 Brothers, you're not crazy, and you're not alone. When I used to hear the word mental illness or mental health, the first thing that comes to my mind when I was younger is that you are crazy, but you are not crazy. Some things affect us in different ways. In my case, I had to find that balance and find something that brings me the most joy. I allowed myself to grow and learn from that. Also, surround yourself around positive people that will influence you, uplift, encourage, and keep you steadfast. I can't express this enough, but mental illness is real. You must be true to yourself and admit that you have the problem, and get the help you need.

 

 RJ:

 

We are vastly approaching the end of the year. What is your, what I like to call, end of the year resolutions?

 

GS:

 

To stay healthy, to stay strong, mentally, physically, but more importantly, to let people know that you do not have to run around trying to find something that's always been there all along. And I think that's one of the problems with a lot of us. You know, we're running from pillar to post, not knowing that the secret of joy lies within. And I think a lot of times we miss that opportunity and it's essential to spend time with yourself. Sometimes when you can't go any other place, go inside yourself – with the good, the bad, and the ugly, go inside of yourself and learn about you. The more you learn about yourself, the more you learn how to treat people, and the better you know how to treat yourself.

 

RJ:

 

Yes, I think that is very important. Well, we have approached the end of our conversation.  I want to thank you for unselfishly giving me this time and being transparent about your life, expressing your feelings about the effects of mental illness, and advice on living a healthy lifestyle.

 

GS:

 

I love being able to talk freely, unabashedly about any topics that might be bothering not only myself but people in my community. Also, I think it is vital to have one good friend, if not several, that you can talk to with a certain level of open-mindedness who will understand you, supporting you no matter what. Unconditional love is a good thing. It's a very, very important thing.

 

RJ:

 

I believe we can all agree to that!

 

GS:

 

Thank you for giving me this platform.

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