She was smoking marijuana before puberty. By the time she entered young adulthood she had graduated to PCP. And all of this while hearing voices in her head telling her to kill herself. It’s a good thing she quieted those voices. “I was not supposed to die. I had an assignment.”
The assignment for Rhonda Johnson, aka Mary Rhonda, was activism. When the smoke cleared and the voices quieted, Johnson knew that she wanted to help others overcome their troubles with addiction and mental health challenges. She will get her chance in May.
Johnson was born in Washington, DC. Her family resided in Southwest for a long stretch of time before moving to Prince George’s County. Before she crossed county lines, Johnson had “demons” telling her to harm herself. “I was hearing voices as a little girl. My parents knew about it. My mother wanted me to go to talk to somebody about it, but my dad said no. As African-Americans in Southwest, we would have probably been sent to St. Elizabeths [Washington’s only public psychiatric hospital at the time], and the stigma would have followed me all my life.”
Instead, Johnson’s parents bought her a life-size doll named Suzy to talk to. It helped for a time. But then she discovered herbal relief. While hanging out with older kids, she started smoking marijuana. She was just eight years old. “The older kids saw that I was mature enough to handle weed. Once I was able to buy my own weed, I would sneak to smoke it and it would calm the voices down.”
In the mid-1980s, the Go-Go scene was hot in DC. Hundreds of young people gathered in smoky, crowded venues drawn by their love for the percussion-heavy music. The dancing was hyped and sexualized and the drugs were plentiful. Johnson graduated from marijuana to PCP, called Love Boat in the Go-Go scene. “We were doing ‘boat’ at the Go-Go like it was nothing. It was accepted there.”
Then she was introduced to crack. “Crack came in and changed the dynamics. It took us all to another level. My mother didn’t play that, so I sneaked around. That’s where the closet part of me came in. You have to show face and not let anyone know that you’re getting high.”
Licensed cosmetologist. Wife and mother of three. PTA mom. Johnson’s life was split into two. She would conduct business and be there for her family during the day. At night she would get high. Her parents died within a year of each other in the early 2000s, which left her devastated. She was heavy into drug use and still unaware that she had a mental health condition.
In 2010, now 46 years old, Johnson found herself at Washington Hospital Center’s psychiatric ward. It was her sixth visit to a psych ward. It was there that a therapist finally explained to her that she had a co-occurring disorder. Johnson suffered from addiction as well as depression. “In all these years no one had explained that to me.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a co-occurring disorder is when a person “experiences a mental illness and a substance use disorder simultaneously.” It is a condition that affects 7.9 million people in the United States. Local experts explain that people can rationalize drug use by saying they need it for something such as to focus or to sleep. In reality, they resort to drug use because they are unable to manage their emotions.
DC Walk 4 ReCovery
Johnson is fulfilling her “assignment” in a big way. Adrienne Lightfoot, her friend, describes her as sympathetic and energetic. “There are so many arms and legs in recovery. She has her hands in a lot of pockets with mental health and recovery and AA and taking medications. I love her. I’m so proud of her.”
Johnson is turning her struggles into advocacy. She is organizing her first awareness walk for recovery on Saturday, May 12, on the National Mall. “The walk is to bring awareness, hope and education to co-occurring disorders. A lot of people don’t know about co-occurring disorders, and in order to get help you have to deal with both at the same time. We are also bringing awareness to bullying, domestic violence, emotional, sexual, and mental abuse and how all of it affects mental health.”
Candace Y.A. Montague is the health reporter for Capital Community News.