Overcoming Mental Illness in African American Community – Dallas Frisco Family Photographer – Me Ra Koh
In 2012, Jajuan Winesberry made one of the hardest and bravest decisions he ever faced in his life. Giving his wife a hug goodbye, mixed with vulnerability and assurance, he voluntarily checked himself into a hospital’s psychiatric ward as a step toward acknowledging and overcoming his mental illness.
Before the photo shoot, we did a handful of calls about his story.
Jajuan graduated from high school as Senior Class President. He got his college degree from University of Washington and went on to play semi-pro basketball. His future was full of endless possibilities. In the midst of so much success and momentum, he started experiencing episodes, mental battles that didn’t make any sense at the time. Being a man of faith and discipline, he pushed forward, believing for the best. He married Misty, and they started a new exciting chapter of life together. But Jajuan’s episodes became more extreme, even manic. Just before his 33rd birthday, Jajuan was diagnosed bipolar. His whole world changed overnight.
He and his wife flew to Dallas from Tacoma, WA for his Rising Phoenix Experience. Jajuan knew this was the next step in his journey to finishing his book, Hiding in Plain Sight. A brave book. A book that is both raw and powerful, a story of overcoming mental illness in the African American community.
Going Back to 2012
During Jajuan’s Rising Phoenix Experience, I asked him if we could go back to that place in 2012. I felt my hands tremble as I held the camera knowing I was asking Jajuan for a lot. We’ve known each other since he was a little boy. We grew up in the same neighborhood, and Jajuan spent countless days at our home playing with my younger brothers. Back then, he hadn’t grown into the 6’8″ gentle giant he is today. I knew I was asking him for something vulnerable. I’m so thankful he trusted me.
I’ll never forget him saying “Just because my disability isn’t seen doesn’t make it less disruptive.”
The Mind: Light and Shadows
We talked about how to visually show the struggle of what he has overcome and continues to daily overcome in his mind.
Halfway through his photo shoot, Jajuan was sitting on a stool.
“For these next shots, can we go back to that day you checked yourself in to the psychiatric ward in 2012?” I asked. I remember feeling a deep peace in the studio, a safety that held us all. “Remembering how your brain felt, how your mind was being bombarded with such extreme thoughts, can you hold your heard and go back to that place of vulnerability?”
Jajuan looked at his wife and then at me with the same kind eyes I’ve known since he was a little boy. He nodded yes. Then tilting his head back, closing his eyes, he held his head. And his heart went back to 2012.
I sat down on the floor and shot up on him because I wanted to capture how strong Jajuan is physically–the juxtaposition of his physical strength and mental illness living simultaneously within him. He played semi-pro basketball. When he walks in the front door, he has to duck because of how tall he is. His biceps are defined from his consistent workout regiment.
People are Often Surprised by His Story
He told me how people are often surprised by his story and ask him how he can have a mental illness being so strong. Such an honest question. Bringing awareness is one of the reasons Jajuan wants to share his story. And that is why he was so vulnerable for this portrait; for himself, for his wife and two daughters, for all those who will read his book and hear him speak.
He gave us a window into what his pain on the inside feels like when his mind is racing between light and shadows.
We both felt this moment drop in the studio. I put down my camera to wipe the tears from my eyes. He looked at me and nodded. We didn’t just take a portrait, together we created and captured a visual gift that will give to so many who are in pain, fighting to overcome mental illness in the African American community. They will see the raw emotion on Jajuan’s face and instantly know they are not alone.
I am Resilient
In his senior year of high school, Jajuan practiced every day for basketball team tryouts. He was confident he’d make the team because he’d been on the team every other year. But when he didn’t make the cut, when he experienced politics for the first time firsthand, he didn’t let the disappointment swallow him. Instead, Jajuan ran for senior class president and won.
This is one of his most powerful, early memories of choosing to rise above.
“No one told me I couldn’t. I wasn’t looking for permission because I had capabilities and skills. And I wasn’t going to get stuck in the disappointment and setback of not making the basketball team. I asked myself, what else can I give? What else do I have to offer? My platform of resilience was formed early on. I’m not sure where that strength and resilience came from, but I’ve tapped into it again and again the last thirty years.”
Daily Discipline: Key to Overcoming Mental Illness
The second attribute that has risen up from the ashes is his daily discipline. Every part of his day-to-day life must be intentional to continually overcome the mental illness. His diet, exercise regiment, medications, sleep schedule, time management, every moving piece is fine tuned so he can show up for Misty and their two little girls.
Perseverance and Clarity
These two words embody Jajuan’s whole story. “They are my mantra. Tied to a component of faith when I don’t see where the road will go. I have a choice to linger in what life could have been if I didn’t have a mental illness. Or I can choose to be happy with the life I’m creating, the impact and glimmer of hope my story can have on someone. That I can be a beacon of hope to other people.”
The Storm Resolved Her Strength
Before Jajuan’s Rising Phoenix Experience, we also spent time talking about his marriage with Misty. I love what he said about her. “Misty didn’t derive strength from the storm of my mental illness. Her strength was always there. But the storms revealed her resolve to own her strength.”
He remembers their vows. To be together in sickness and in health. When they got married, Jajuan didn’t know he was battling a mental illness. His bipolar diagnosis and severe episodes wouldn’t happen for a couple more years.
Am I supposed to stick with this? Is it worth it?
Jajuan said these were real questions Misty had to ask herself. “My mental illness tested our vows. But she saw redeeming qualities in me that she wouldn’t let go of. Would anyone else, could anyone else, have gone through this with me? I have found the most special gift in her.”
The Gift His Mental Illness Gave Misty
The gift that rises out of so much pain is the most sacred gift of all. I asked Misty what gift Jajuan’s mental illness has given her.
“Purpose,” she said. “In 2012, I didn’t know if he’d even live. I told myself, if he survives this, if we survive this, THIS is our story. And we WILL impact the world”
Jajuan and Misty speak to audiences about their different experiences with overcoming mental illness in the African American community, both in marriage and parenting. Misty’s voice to the support structure of spouses, parents, and close friends is both powerful and moving. She holds nothing back so others know they’re not alone.
“This is the work I want to be doing every day. At my very core, it’s my passion.”
That is something to celebrate!
Misty shared how everything she expected marriage to look like and be like burned to the ground. But what has risen up from the fire has given her purpose in a way she could never imagine.
I LOVE this portrait of them! This is their testimony ten years later! I LOVE how Jajuan is looking at Misty with adoration and admiration. She pushes him out of his box, challenges him to dream beyond the mental illness, and he is so thankful for it.
They are a power team. Their healing and restoration is beautiful, and yet there is so much MORE to come! Joy, purpose and reward is coming in ways they could never imagine! Brian and I know it! We feel it! And we are standing with them for it!
What His Good Friends Say
“Jajuan is an overcomer, extremely humble, and an outstanding father,” said David.
“He is dedicated to the day-to-day and there for his girls. Jajuan takes a role in the family that others take for granted, dedicated to the purpose of fatherhood. He is an unshakeable teacher, present, instilling confidence in others, and loves and supports you.”
Jajuan is Taller Mentally than Physically
His dear friend, Eddy, says that. Wow!
“Jajuan is withstanding fire and not getting burned. His obstacles are nothing compared to what he has already overcome. Jajuan’s greatest strengths are his stability–his belief in something without wavering. His resilience and consistency are two other gifts. Jajuan chooses how he will be and responds to what life throws at him. Jajuan is taller mentally than physically.”
“He is encouraged, loved, and not forgotten. I am proud of him.”
What His Little Girls Say
“When I revealed the wall art to our girls they both jumped around and began dancing with excitement for several minutes as they laid eyes on it for the very first time.
I asked my oldest daughter (6 years old) what her thoughts were and she gave it two thumbs up! “Do you like it?” I asked. Her response “I love it!”
Each day my second born walks by the wall art, she stops and says, “Oh wow, daddy.” She is my sweet and spicy 2 1/2 year old who notices every little detail and is curious about everything.”
When Jajuan and Misty designed his Rising Phoenix Collection, I remember him saying how he wants his girls to see who their daddy is. For them to have a visual representation that he can use to explain what he chooses to overcome every day. We were ALL crying in the studio.
How the Artwork is Impacting Jajuan
“As I look at the wall art everyday I am amazed at what I see. I see someone who has overcome overwhelming obstacles. So much of what I want to share with others is layered in those images. I think of it like an awakening. What was captured, and the story it embodies is looking to be revealed. An awakening of the side of me that is ready to step into my assignment. It is a part of me that I’ve only had glimpses of in the past—but now I boldly embrace this is my story. I want others to know that “Still I Rise.”
Be the First to Know When His Book Launches
CLICK HERE to sign up for Jajuan’s book launch and invite him to speak at your next event! This book is going to bring so much healing, hope and freedom!
You are a Gift
Jajuan, I just put that last photo of you in the post. And I’m sitting here with tears running down my face. You are remarkable. None of us who knew you ever saw this coming, but you chose to acknowledge and share your pain, your limitations, and now there is NOTHING limiting your future. In a culture and society that wants to keep pain in the dark, you and Misty have given your girls freedom to never be ashamed of their trials but to rise up again and again. They will always be your first audience with front row seats. You’re modeling what it means to not live in shame but to take flight. And you will impact so many more audiences in days to come.
May every word in this post honor your healing journey, your resilient marriage that has endured above and beyond, and the friendship we’ve shared for almost forty years. I pray this blog post is a forerunner to your book, preparing the way for readers, audiences and communities to grab hold of the hope you have to share. May you always know that you are surrounded, loved and lifted up both in friendship and prayer. We love you guys so much. Still we rise, dear friend, still we rise.
What is a Rising Phoenix Experience?
This is about you seeing the truth of who you are. When you see your resilience on the wall every day, it transforms you from the inside out. If you are overwhelmed with all the reasons why you shouldn’t invest time or money in yourself, I want you to pause and think of all the obstacles you have overcome in your life whether it’s a weight loss journey, depression, anxiety, cancer, seasons changing with kids leaving the nest, loss of a loved one.
Have you been promoted in your career or pivoted with resilience? The list of how we rise like a phoenix to overcome the odds goes on and on. But so many of us struggle with taking time to acknowledge it.
You Give to Everyone Around You
You’ve most likely given to everyone else. The time has come to give something transformational and lasting to you. Just read the following stories.
Have you achieved a weight goal? Read Jamie’s inspiring story of never going back after significant weight loss.
Maybe you need a deeper healing from childhood trauma. You’ve done the counseling but still struggle to see the truth about who you are. You may relate to Tiffany’s story.
Or maybe you’re turning 40, 50, 60 or 70+ and feel the need to reflect and celebrate who you are and the possibilities of what this next season of life holds?
The first step is to fill out our Phoenix inquiry; CLICK HERE.
Michelle Found Courage to Step Beyond Grief
Meet Michelle. She is definitely someone who has known great courage. At one time, she was an interrogator for the US military in the Middle East. This 5’4 woman knows confidence. But the loss of her mom swallowed that confidence.
There are some seasons in life when we feel unshakeable courage and other seasons that leave us feeling lost. After great loss, it takes great courage to step forward. Maybe you relate to Michelle’s story.
Meet Our Oldest Rising Phoenix
She was in her 80s and never had her makeup and hair done. I’ll never forget the giggles we had over watching Oma that day in the studio. This beautiful 4’9 woman came to the United States with Opa when she was only 23 yrs old and pregnant with her first baby. All they had was $50. Leaving behind family and all that was familiar in the Netherlands, they boarded a cargo boat and set out to make a new life.
Krista, Oma’s granddaughter, had a FIORIA family experience with us last year. When she saw us launch the Rising Phoenix Experience, she thought of her grandma. Oma is the heart of their family and lived eighty plus years as a rising phoenix.
Crystal drove to us from Las Vegas.
A single woman who has always been known for being responsible and quiet, yet there is another side of her that wants to come out. A side that is brave and takes risks—that believes she is worthy of doing something special not just for others but for herself too. A year after her Rising Phoenix Experience, she sent us photos of her traveling solo in Europe! She told us how much her life has changed from seeing who she is every day when she looks at her Phoenix portraits!
What truth do you need to be reminded of daily to unleash your purpose and potential?
Meet Our Youngest Rising Phoenix, a Miracle Photo Shoot!
This is the first time Isabella has ever looked at the camera and smiled. This was a miracle photo shoot.
I’ll never forget my first Discovery Call with Isabella’s mom. She wasn’t sure this was a good idea because Isabella is very sensory sensitive. Photo shoots have never gone well in the past. She felt very hesitant to believe this photo shoot could be a success.
I felt her words on such a deep level. I didn’t want to set them up for disappointment either. But I just knew that there was something so special about this whole thing. I told her, “There are many doubts and fears I can struggle with, but this is something I am confident I can do.” She borrowed that confidence, and we witnessed a miracle photo shoot.
CLICK HERE to see the most miraculous Rising Phoenix portraits!
All these people have something in common, they were ready to …
Rise above the ashes of what other people have said
Rising above their fear and doubts
Embracing their Rising Phoenix within.
Through our Portrait of a Phoenix Experience, they not only did something special for themselves but also received something transformational.
I invite you to experience it too!
The Portrait of a Phoenix Experience includes:
- Signature Phone Calls with You and Loved Ones
- Professional Hair & Makeup
- Wardrobe Consultation & Vision
- Phoenix Photo Shoot with Me Ra Koh (Sony Artisan, Disney Host, and Live with Kelly & Ryan Guest Expert—You’re in good hands. I will pose you, drop shadows and light on you in the most flattering way that radiates your Phoenix Rising.)
- Same Day Cinematic Reveal & Custom Design Session with our In-House Design Specialist
- Beautiful Artwork of Your Rising Phoenix, Custom Designed for the Best Place where it will Speak Truth to You Every Day.
CLICK HERE to fill out the inquiry and begin your Rising Phoenix Experience!
I can’t wait to speak soon!
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