This Mental Health Podcaster Told Me How to Deal with the Death of My Friend
I spoke to comedian Mike Brown about what it means to be a black man in search of therapy.
Images courtesy of Mike Brown.
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
When I ask writer and comedian Mike Brown to offer advice to those fearful of therapy, I hide the fact that I’m actually asking for myself.
“These niggas don’t care about you,” he told me as I gagged on laughter. “If Cardi B can go from an exotic dancer to landing on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, you can speak to a therapist man.”
It’s what I needed to hear.
Two weeks ago—during a combination of showering, eating, and getting dressed—I received a teary phone call telling me that a friend of mine had died by suicide. I remember everything moving a little slower, with everything else mattering a little less.
When I pitched a story about podcasters of color who speak out about mental health, it was with this news on my mind. A part of me wanted to be convinced that the guilt I felt for not rescuing my friend from the edge was important enough to expose. And in the guise of a promotion for Brown’s new podcast You Good?, the comic seemed like the perfect person to give it to me straight.
The 36-year-old Massachusetts born, New York-bred media personality, has been a veteran in dishing out advice. Brown spent a career in the art of the joke; blending humor with the real complexities of culture and mental health. While his professional resume rocks brands like MTV, TBS, SiriusXM, Adult Swim, and E!, it’s his life-resume of anxiety, depression, and mood disorders—and his admittance of it—that gives him the ammo for these conversations.
With a newly released You Good? pod out in the open, Brown is extending that conversation to other comedians and artists alike, which just happened to also include myself.
Here’s that conversation:
VICE: What’s your relationship with mental health?
Mike Brown: Oh man, let’s get into it [laughs]. It’s partly why I do the podcast, so I can openly talk about this shit. My relationship goes like this: Growing up, I had a lot of suicidal thoughts. I once called the cops because I didn’t know there was a hotline. I dial the 911 operator and I’m legit talking to them like, hey I’m down, I’m not about to kill myself, but I need to talk this shit out. Five minutes later, cops come to my door and my dad asks what’s going on? And I tell him I don’t know. I’m no snitch [laughs]. It was a whole thing.
Anyway, I was going to different therapists. I’ve been diagnosed with mixed mood anxiety depression disorder, which basically means I’m really sad and really anxious at times. In 2017, I had a breakdown and checked myself into a hospital. I spent 24 hours there, and it’s one of the best things I ever did because it was the first time I admitted that I had a problem and needed a reset. I ended up with a new outlook on life. At the time, I really felt like I was the only one going through this stuff. Throughout my career, I’d been open about this because we’re a part of the generation who grew up with the internet. We’re the AOL disc generation. So I’m just sharing shit now like, hey, I’m feeling bad, anybody else feel this way? I had a colleague I hadn’t spoken to in five years. He randomly asked for my address, and I’m thinking wedding invitation, but he legit sent me a letter talking about my openness, and how that helped him understand his own struggles. I didn’t realize how taboo it was at the time.
We’ve talked about mental health being a stigma in the black community. Within the black community, why do you think it’s so strong?
To me, it’s the same buzzword bullshit everyone says about toxic masculinity. But personally, especially for black folks, we’re playing defense in this game. You’re living in a land of the free, and you don’t feel free. You leave your house and you feel scared. We aren’t raised the same way, but we live in a country where we’re looked at as the same by people in power who don’t respect us. We know there’s a looming threat. For me, I feel like there’s a loneliness attached to that depending on the world you’re traveling in, which isn’t just race related. Is this person being real with me? Are they only about my art? Do they like me as a person? It’s all of that stuff.
I understand that feeling.
As a former journalist, I know that you do what you do because you give a fuck about what you write about. You’re an artist in your own right. You may not be creating obvious art, but you’re doing these interviews, asking these questions, and presenting it to people in the way that someone heads into the trenches, discovers a thing, and offers it to the world.
Companies and corporations are so big now, and they see people they can pay less who view this for strictly journalism’ sake. They can cut you now, and it doesn’t matter what you wrote or make, it’s about money. When you understand that, it’s an added dimension of... well fuck, what’s my worth as a person? What the fuck am I even doing?
Let me just get this out. I don’t want to lay it all on you, but I lost a friend a few days ago and I haven’t spoken to anyone professionally because it’s hard to do. Was it hard for you as well?
Man, sorry to hear about that, Noel. Well, let me get into some deeper shit then. Before I started working for a job I had for five years, I had a best friend named Michael Muchioki, look him up. On April 4, 2010, he had an engagement party in New Jersey. They were together for five years. He was the first homie to pop the question and do the adulting thing. The night he came home, he got carjacked in front of his house, and he along with his fiancé was murdered by three teenagers.
Sorry that happened.
I appreciate that. But I’m telling you this in the same way you told me you lost your friend. It’s a life changer. When I lost Mike, my world went upside down. I was fucked because he was the one guy in my life who I could say, this shit or that shit is nuts, and you can’t say that to everyone. Everyone won’t just laugh with you and tell you it’s going to be OK, or that we’re going to be alright. When he passed, it took me a while to find myself. And now, there are two worlds for me, before Mike and after Mike. That became a marker, but what I also took from that is that life is so precious. I’m going to enjoy every moment of this shit for my friend who isn’t here. It’s OK to miss him. It’s OK to mourn. I’m never going to stop mourning either. That’s OK. I don’t have to stop to keep on living. I can’t let that ruin what I have going on in my life because if he was here, he wouldn’t want that.
My comedian (colleague) Kevin Barnett died last week, and we weren’t close. But he was a class above me. We were both comedians, but we would talk about non-comedy shit. Being in New York, being Jamaican... just real life shit. The way he broke the business was brilliant and helped me made huge strides. When he died, I was hurt, but I knew how to process that mourning because of Mike. I grew up knowing a lot of these people, from bigger names like Michelle Wolf and The Lucas Brothers, but also to others who are all fucking broke. We’re all hurting in some way. And it transports me back to losing Mike, and now I’m just like, if you guys need to talk, I know what this feeling is, man [laughs]. I have years in the game of losing a best friend. We can talk about some shit if you’re good.
My own biased assumption in seeing a therapist, provided they were white, is that they wouldn’t get the societal bullshit and inferiority complex that comes from being black. On top of this issue.
With people of color, we’re faced with mortality all the time. If a straight white dude is like... man, I lost a best friend, I feel for them. I get it. But that doesn’t come with the addition of a Terry Crews being like, yeah, but I heard this white dude from the Polo team did some shit, so I walked around looking for a white dude to murder [laughs]. He doesn’t have those messages to deal with. Cops are already killing us left and right and on top of that, we can’t wear a hoodie on the way to our grandmother's house. What the fuck? Sometimes, we’re just happy to be alive man. That added awareness to the stress we have to deal with is unreal. Black folks have been saying that America’s been fucked for years, and then Obama comes in, and white folks are like, it’s cool now. Meanwhile, we’re singing the same song. Trump gets into office, and everyone’s surprised? Black people are like, we’ve been saying this thing forever. It’s constant.
What’s been your own experience with therapy then?
In grade school, I went to therapy to speak with someone because I had issues with expressing myself. I used to get frustrated. But I will say that race does play a significant part in who your therapist is because for me, they were all white people. I would try to explain things to them, and they could never quite get it. They were operating under a different base reality than me. There’s no proper way to explain what it means to be black. It’s too much to understand without experience. They’ll look, nod, and try to break it down and give you the best advice they can, but it’s still good to have someone that's neutral. If they don’t get it, that’s cool. It is what it is. Race is important, but the other side is having someone who isn’t tied to your world to speak with. I think it can be good to just have someone who's not tied to your world.
What value did it bring compared to before?
When I was growing up, I had suicidal thoughts. I wasn’t telling people and there wasn’t an outlet to have those conversations. I wrote something for Tonic about an audition and how it felt to have suicidal urges. After that, I had comics hitting me up like yo, that was brave, I respect that. I was honest about my shit, and it became a quest to de-stigmatize the conversation among my peers. We don’t always know what that conversation sounds like when someone actually cares. Every person I speak to is a person I care about, or learn to care about. I don’t want to get a soundbite, for me it’s about everyone speaking their truth and if there’s a disagreement, we can have a conversation. Let’s not be afraid of that conversation.
What advice do you have for black folks out there that are too fearful of talking to a therapist about all there personal issues?
These niggas don’t care about you, man. That’s the first thing to realize. They don’t give a fuck about you man. That’s what it is. Just go get your help and make sure you’re good. I don’t know if it’s because of a social media generation concerned with self-images, but it’s like fuck the stigma. Fuck all that. If you need help, go get it. Hypothetically, if you didn’t have money to pay your rent, you’d need to find the money to pay it and figure it out. You can’t be out here scared to ask for help or a job because you’re concerned with image. Get a fucking job, and go do what you need to fucking do because this is about you. Forget all the noise around stigma. Are you good? That’s the only question that matters.
You were close with your friend that passed away right?
For me, the shit that hit me the hardest was how my definition of friends changed. I started looking at people with the idea that sure, we’re friendly, but we’re not friends because you’re not showing up when I need you to show up. That’s cool. We’re so quick today to say, yeah that’s my friend… putting everyone on the same level. And when that energy isn’t returned, you feel like there’s something wrong with you. No, you just chose to put everyone on the same level of closeness. That’s not to say one is better than the other, but appreciate the relationships that are strongest. Don’t worry about the thoughts of those beyond that. If they’re your friends, they’ll want you to get better. That’s you getting therapy, hitting a blunt of weed, whatever. I’m sorry that you're dealing with that, and working on top of it.
It’s a good distraction, honestly.
Yeah, but even through this conversation, and hopefully through life, you’ll learn how to process all this shit and live for your friend. You’ve got to make sure you’re the best Noel that you can be. No one else is invested in you from your perspective. You’re the only one with a first person view. When it comes to stigmas, it’s hard for me to not say, fuck that shit. As people, you know how much shit black people had to put up with and do. If America can manage a black president, you can see a therapist. Come on, If Cardi B. can dance in a club, and land on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, you can speak to a therapist. If Post Malone can do a song called White Iverson, denounce himself from hip-hop, and still make great music to the point where we’re like man, I don’t fuck with him, but his music ain’t bad… then you can see a therapist, man [laughs].
What sort of impact do you hope your You Good? podcast has on listeners?
I remember I got bookings to go speak at a wealthy private school in New York. I'm talking to them, and it was such a weird thing because I'm in this room with these books and kids, there's two black kids in there… some of the white kids aren't paying attention, and I deviated from the script and told them that they didn't know how great they had it. I didn't want to be judgmental, but I didn't know why I was there right then. It legit looked like the Xavier school of the Gifted. Some saw it as entertainment, but as I'm talking about being open about depression, I noticed that other kids were really watching but they couldn't reveal that they were watching. From there, I understood what I want to do. Don't pattern your life after me because I'm flawed like everyone else. But I'm here to say that whatever you think about me, remember that I'm flawed, and I'm OK with that. I'm just trying to do best to fix my flaws. That's what I want to put out there more than anything. We're all a fucking mess, but let's try to make that the least messy we can be.
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