Comedian Brian Copeland Fighting for Happiness

Farai Chideya talks candidly with author and comedian Brian Copeland about his struggles with depression and identity, which led to his suicide attempt in 1999. Copeland opens up on his fight to live a happy life.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Today, we start a month-long series on mental health. Some people call being healthy having your mind right. When do you know that it's not, and that you or someone you know needs help? How can you get that help? How does race factor into the whole equation?

In a few minutes, we'll speak with two experts in the mental-health field, but right now, we have author and comedian Brian Copeland. His stage production, "Not a Genuine Black Man," became the longest-running one-man show in San Francisco's history. Now he's headed for Broadway and working with HBO on a national TV series.

But as his book of the same name will tell you, Brian has faced down his demons and lived to tell the tale, even laugh about it. Brian, thanks for coming back on.

Mr. BRIAN COPELAND (Comedian; Star, "Not a Genuine Black Man"): Oh, it's a pleasure to be with you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So you turned your life into a stage play and a book, and a lot of "Not a Genuine Black Man" focuses on your childhood. Just give us a sense of what kind of pressure your family was under.

Mr. COPELAND: Well, what the gist of it is that in 1972, we moved to San Leandro, California, which borders Oakland, at a time when San Leandro was 99.99 percent white and considered by fair housing advocates to be one of the most racist suburbs in America. And Oakland, next door, was half black.

San Leandro was very inhospitable to black people. It was a town that was built on white flight from the big cities to the suburb. And so growing up here, we you know, dealt with all kinds of grief and harassment, and my mother had to fight eviction, and these types of things.

Then later on, I ended up having to deal with, really, racism from both sides, from white people, as well as from black people who claimed that I was not really black because of the music I listened to or the way that I speak or some intangible delineation that people make in terms of how you're supposed to behave based upon the color of your skin.

CHIDEYA: Well, Brian, you know, you went on to basically go about your life and kind of sublimate this incredible pressure. But at some point, it all broke for you. What happened then?

Mr. COPELAND: Well, what happened was - I should back up and say that at the time that I wrote "Not a Genuine Black Man," the book and the play, I decided that in order for it to be real and to be true and to be what I wanted it to be, I'd have to be completely naked. And that being the case, I knew that I would have to talk about the darkest moment in my life, which was a very severe period of depression I went through in 1999.

I had - I didn't realize it at the time, but apparently I had suffered depression since childhood, from all of the, you know, strangers driving down the street yelling the N-word, not being included because I was the only black kid and being different. And I'd spent a lot of time isolating and by myself.

And I got to this point in 1999 where it was 20 years after I'd lost my mother, and she was, along with my grandmother, the two guiding lights in my life. And something happened that I since found out talking to other people, that when you lose a parent at a relatively young age, when you hit the age that the -when you hit the age that you lost your parent and you realize I'm their age, or I'm, you know, going to out live them now, there's something psychological that happens.

Some people go through a mid-life crisis. Other people go into depression. I went into deep, deep depression as a result of it and as a result of the upbringing.

So it culminated - again, I didn't realize what it was, but now looking back at it, it was all the classic symptoms. I didn't enjoy anything anymore. Hobbies and things that I liked, I didn't like anymore. I spent more and more time by myself. I was low on energy. I had trouble, you know, even getting out of bed in the morning.

And finally, it culminated one night with me going into the garage of my house and letting the top down on my sports car and starting the motor. And had a neighbor not heard the music playing - I had a CD playing in the stereo - and had a neighbor not heard it and thought that that was kind of odd and, you know, called the police to come and investigate, I wouldn't be here.

CHIDEYA: We're going to actually ask you to stay with us over a short break, but just very quickly, what was the first thing you thought when you knew that you were going to live and not die?

Mr. COPELAND: I - you know, I was disoriented, really, and I wasn't sure that I was alive. The first thing I thought was - the first thing, and I write this in the book, and it's funny, but it's the truth. The first - I was out, and the first thing that I see when I open my eyes is a white police officer.

Now, again, I spent my life being hassled by white cops. And the first thing I thought was, do you mean to tell me after everything I've been through, that St. Peter is a white cop? That was the first thing that went through my mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Oh, my gosh. Well, that is a clear sign of your sense of humor. Brian, just stay with us. We won't keep you too much longer. Brian Copeland is the author of the book and creator of the production "Not a Genuine Black Man."

And next on NEWS & NOTES, if you or someone you love is struggling with depression or mental illness, where do you turn? We've got two medical experts with a long history of promoting mental health. Plus, we read from your letters.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES. This month, we are focusing on the critical issue of mental health. We're also speaking with Brian Copeland, the author of the book and creator of the production "Not a Genuine Black Man."

Brian, we were just talking about your suicide attempt, how after a childhood of really dealing with some of the worst of racial tensions in America, abusive racial tensions by your neighbors and dealing with your mother's death, you reached a point where you tried to commit suicide.

And what I would ask you just finally is how has - how did you transform from someone who was at that point in your life to someone who now has had so much success in your work? What was it that allowed you to heal?

Mr. COPELAND: Well, I think telling the story has been a real big part of it, and I'll tell you the amazing thing about this entire process is that most people who go through depression are dealing with three things.

First of all, there is the fact that you think that you're all alone. You think that nobody else in the world is going through what you're going through. Nobody else in the world deals with it, that there's something wrong with you, and that you don't tell people about it because you feel like you've got a great big scarlet D, you know, that you're wearing on your chest.

And what's interesting is that once I started doing the play and once the book came out, I started to hear from people, people who I knew for years and had no idea that they struggled with it and had been on antidepressants and had been suicidal and had, you know, had just struggled to get through the day - I mean, people who I looked at thought, you know, had it all together.

It was just amazing to me. I got one woman, I'll never forget this. One night I was doing the play, and there was an attorney in the audience. You know, it was a Friday night. She'd come straight from her office, dressed in a business suit, a woman you look at, she's got it all together. And she says to me after the show, she says I think about killing myself every single day of my life, and I never told anybody about it because I thought they'd lock me up, and now I'm going to go and seek some help.

So that's been a really important part of this whole process. and the other thing, too, is that colleges and universities are assigning the book as required reading, and a lot of is because of the depression aspect because so many students suffer from it.

CHIDEYA: Well Brian, thank you so much. We really appreciate you sharing your story and coming on again. Thanks.

Brian Copeland is the author of the book and creator of the production "Not a Genuine Black Man."

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