Unassuming, quiet, and introverted are a few words that come to mind regarding Sonji Tarver. I first met Sonji when she and I worked as case managers and facilitated services for an agency that services the top 2 percent at-risk youth in the state of Louisiana. She and I would often exchange pleasantries, participate in office chatter, discuss difficult cases, or have a lunch date here and there, but I truly didn’t know her. We both parted ways with the company and we hadn’t made contact in years.
Then this past September, my phone rang. Sonji was on the other line, along with my best friend who is her co-worker, and she had a request. She wanted me to host her upcoming Mental Health Gala in her native Winnsboro, LA. Sonji explained that it had been difficult for her to secure a host because of people’s fear of public speaking and she thought of me. Hesitantly, I agreed. She and I met to discuss the gala and plan the program itinerary.
However, a few days after we met, Sonji called again. She informed me that she had been encouraged by a close friend to share her own personal story with mental illness. Sonji stated, “How can I host an event and encourage others to live in their truth and I can’t even live in my own?” I agreed, however, I also acknowledged that would be a brazen move for a family therapist with over 20 years of experience in the mental health field to admit that she too suffered from mental health issues. Several thoughts raced through my head and I shouldered the angst I thought she would’ve had: How will people view her when they find out? Will this negatively affect her career? Will her clients feel she is unequipped to do her job? Because in my mind, it was one thing to be a mental health advocate, but it was another thing to be a clinician who admits to having mental illness. Nonetheless, I stood in solidarity with Sonji and supported her decision.
On Saturday, October 13, 2018, I don’t think any of us in attendance were prepared for Sonji’s personal testimony at the conclusion of her “Hear Me, Help Me…The Mind” gala. With bravery, confidence, and unwavering conviction, Sonji shared her battle with mental illness with a room full of friends, family, colleagues, and some complete strangers.
In listening to Sonji’s story, it became quite evident that she was no stranger to overcoming challenges. Sonji, her mother’s only child, recounts her first bout with mental illness when she was in high school. During this time, her mother was battling cancer and would often have uncontrollable anxiety attacks. Sonji was also involved in an abusive relationship with her high school sweetheart and began experiencing depressive symptoms as a result of her mother’s illness, the abuse, and the absence of her biological father with whom she rarely maintained contact. Sonji recalls, “I felt weird and strange.” She said things really started to worry her when she began having what she described as abnormal premonitions, wherein she feels that she is forewarned and can see events before they occur. It was at this time that Sonji also says she began seeing a “star” or some sort of hoovering/flickering object that she could only see.
These experiences caused Sonji to have insomnia and stay up for days because she was afraid of what she was encountering and fear that nobody would believe her. Sonji never spoke of these instances. Silence would become a way in which Sonji felt she must cope with challenges.
Sonji eventually went on to attend and graduate from Grambling State University in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in Therapeutic Recreation. While there, Sonji was sexually assaulted by a male, an incident that she never reported. He threatened her and told her that if she said anything, he would do it again. Sonji remained silent. She then relocated to Texas and worked as a community-based mental health specialist.
It was in Texas that Sonji was forced to acknowledge her mental illness for the first time. Sonji felt as though she was truly unable to control her thoughts and behavior. Sonji said everything compounded, “I called my co-worker one morning and told her that I no longer wanted to live.” She further stated, “The premonitions, not being able to sleep, my mother fighting cancer, and the assault all just became too much. Plus, I still couldn’t understand why my
father never really wanted a relationship with me.” Sonji’s co-worker ultimately accompanied her to the hospital where she was admitted and released after two days. Sonji spoke of this with no one else. After the release from the hospital the depressive symptoms continued, and anxiety attacks began to occur on a frequent basis.
Things took a turn for the worse in 2004 when Sonji returned from Texas and on her first day back in Louisiana, she was robbed at gunpoint. Her anxiety level then reached an all time high. Sonji developed a phobia of being in public places, isolated herself, and felt helpless. Sonji said, “I just didn’t know what to do. I thought I was going to lose my mind.” But, Sonji remained silent.
That same year, Sonji met her now ex-husband. They would go on to get married and have twins, a boy and a girl. Sonji recounts that the marriage was contentious, and she would often be told by her then husband not to say anything about the things she was experiencing. She said, “He would say, don’t tell people, they will think you’re crazy.” Sonji did as she was told and didn’t say anything.
It was in 2012, as Sonji sat on her front porch, that she said an idea dropped into her spirit again, an idea that she initially conjured up while attending Grambling: to embolden and empower young women — the antithesis of what she was experiencing at that time as a wife and mother silently embattling mental illness. Sonji created Divine Pearls, a non-profit organization that stands for Pure, Elegant, and Responsible Leaders. It was with this venture that Sonji became a voice box for young women and focused on building self-esteem, character, and living with divine purpose. In a short period of time, the organization’s membership increased and gained momentum. Sonji and her girls, as she likes to call them, could often be found committing acts of kindness through the “Sowing Love” initiative wherein services are performed to show appreciation to EMT’s, police officers, and hospital staff.
It was also at this time that Sonji began attending therapy. Although the primary focus was to save her ailing marriage, Sonji found solace in finally speaking out about her issues to somebody else that would hear her and actually listen. She was being affirmed for the first time in her life. Ultimately, her marriage failed, and she and her ex-husband’s divorce finalized in 2018. But that didn’t silence Sonji. Her mouth continues to be a megaphone to tear down the “stigma” of mental illness and her initiatives continue to be a vehicle to promote change. Sonji quips, “The first thing people think is that you’re crazy.” To that point, famed researcher and professor Brene’ Brown at The Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston wrote, “Dehumanizing always starts with language.” And, let’s face it, who wants to be called crazy?
So, to combat that, in late 2018, Sonji began “Green Table Discussions,” a peer-to-peer approach and an ode to national mental health awareness (the nationally recognized color is green) wherein attendees can attend bi-weekly forums and learn about a particular mental health diagnosis from a person living with the diagnosis. Sonji states that these forums serve a purpose, “I want to enlighten people on understanding a diagnosis and to let them know there is a name for what you’re going through.” She further states, “Don’t forget about the mind! Your mental health is just as important as your physical health.”
These statistics depict a grim reality that many people are living in silence and wait until they reach a breaking point to receive help. Ironically, I could not locate sufficient statistical data on clinicians who live with mental illness. Why you may ask? One word — stigma. This is largely due to the reasons why I worried about Sonji coming out about her illness; clinicians don’t report issues out of fear of diminishing their professional credibility.
In fact, there are seven types of stigma that keep people silenced. Sonji experienced self-stigma, a stigma resulting from a person internalizing the stereotypes and prejudices of the public. And I too harbored a stigma as a mental health specialist, a health practitioner stigma. It is a stigma allowing stereotypes and prejudices to negatively affect a patient’s care. I realized that it was therapeutic for Sonji to divulge her personal struggles. Her dialogue has come to catalyze her personal transformation. She is no longer silent, living in fear, or afraid of stigma. Being a clinician living with mental illness can help her movement and show her clients that they are not alone, inferior, or misunderstood. Sonji says, “We are all given special gifts, talents, and abilities. Counselors and therapists are equipped to help and we should be utilized.” Sonji vented her frustrations with some of the misconceptions. “I hate when people say just pray about it.” Although Sonji notes that a strong spiritual vortex can assist, the problem could be much bigger and require professional interventions like therapy, and in some cases medication management. She wants those who are suffering from persistent and chronic symptoms to know it’s not a phase or just a few bad days. It could be mental illness. She offered this scenario, “If you were drowning and a lifeguard came to save you, you’re not going to say, just leave me here…I’m just going to pray and the Lord is coming to get me. No! You’re going to take the help. Trained professionals in mental health should be viewed the same way. We can serve as a life line.”
In October of this year, I will once again stand with Sonji in solidarity as I host her 2019 masquerade-theme gala befittingly titled “Removing the Mask.” This year, however, I will be attending stigma free.