Dear California, 

This month marks our 10 year anniversary, where I quit my job, packed my bags, and my mother and I drove across the country (from Georgia to California) to start my work in mental health. Inspired by the power of the consumer movement and hopeful because of the funding of the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA), I stop everything to start anew.  

Kelechi Ubozoh in 2012 looking out in front of the San Francisco Bay.

After a traumatic psychiatric hospitalization at 13 where I was told I was broken and would never recover, I spent years hiding behind a mask of happiness and tried to make everyone feel comfortable. As a journalist, it was easy to get lost in other people’s lives, to feel deeply connected to them, but truly isolated. Overtime, the mask started chipping, and after experiencing sexual violence followed by a suicide attempt, and the scariest involuntary hospitalization of all time, I knew something had to change. Thank goodness for my friends, my family, my mother in particular, and the radical mental health professionals who believed I could heal. I never knew that recovery was possible (and everyone defines recovery differently), but for me it wasn’t that I would never have a tough time again, it was that I would have tools and support for how to do it differently, for how to live through the pain.

So, in April of 2012, I arrived in the sparkling Bay Area to live with my cousin and her partner who joyfully welcomed me to their home. I was armed with the energy, excitement, and naïveté of a 20 something year old, a journalism degree, and traumatic systemic experiences in the mental health system that called me to want real change.

Kelechi Ubozoh

My first job interview at PEERS, a consumer run non-profit in Oakland, I was asked about my ‘lived experience’. The language took a bit to get used to ( I also thought a consumer was someone who purchased items). Part of me was excited and the other part of me was shocked. Was someone really asking me about my mental health struggles in a job interview? And these experiences, that I had been told to hide all my life, were considered a strength?

There is power in healing through narrative. There is power in healing through community.

It took me a year to tell someone my full recovery story, my amazing co-worker, because I still had to unlearn so much shame and stigma from what others labeled me. Thankfully, I learned directly from Dr. Patrick Corrigan about stigma on a MHSA funded stigma reduction project and I went on to tell my story and train others how to tell their stories to be part of calls to action and real change in the mental health system.

I hear, ‘Nothing about us, without us,’ the famous mantra meaning that people experiencing mental health conditions or disabilities are ready and able to make decisions about their care and should be at all the tables where policies and practices that impact their lives are being discussed and determined. I learned about releasing shame as a Black woman with mental health experiences from my former co-workers and colleagues  who are no longer with us like Harry Caldwell and Joe Anderson from Black Men Speak. I can still hear Harry singing and telling me stories across our shared cubicle. I remember laughing at Joe when he convinced me to proofread a grant application, again. I listen and absorb, I’m not ready for a stage, but I sit around greatness.  

And just like any relationship it hasn’t been easy. When I first arrived, I didn’t understand how many different ways I could offend someone by being direct. I didn’t understand some of the coded language and felt tongue tied a lot. (I also did not understand all the ways in which you could recycle). I eventually embraced my brand of ‘aggressive friendliness’, because that’s who I am. California, you have watched me grow through heartaches, broken engagements, broken friendships, and evolve through my workplace experiences, like a phoenix.

We’ve made progress and finally had peer certification passed. Though looking back on these 10 years, I realize we are still fighting the same fight about involuntary treatment that returns again and again (though with better marketing and packaging).

We’ve lost movement leaders like DeWitt Buckingham, Linford Gayle, Janet King, Jay Mahler, Tina Wooten and more. This reminds me to give people their flowers while they are still here.

Kelechi Ubozoh

One day I’ll use my story on a national platform to have a real and open conversation about Black people and suicide to interrupt the silence and shame. One day I’ll speak directly to the state legislature about the harms of forced treatment, and advocate for peer certification. One day I’ll join a collective movement and co-edit a book with a dear friend LD Green about the horrors people face in psychiatric institutions and the need for radical mental health care for us and by us. One day I’ll perform my poetry on stage and become a curator. One day I’ll work for myself, and build something new. And one day, this year, I’ll marry my soulmate who I am grateful to have found in this lifetime.

But 10 years ago, I was just trying to figure out my place in the world and my purpose. I answered a call without having a perfectly thought out plan, but a deep knowing that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, even though I had no idea what would happen next. I listened to my intuition. And there is beauty in that. There is beauty in remembering that. 

With Love and Gratitude,

Kelechi Ubozoh

Ps. Thanks for all the avocados…



One response

  1. Yours is a powerful and touching story. I am so glad I’ve been able to witness all that you have done and become during your time in California. Thank you for sharing your part of this important movement. I am so grateful you are here!

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