By Dubravka Kolumbic-Cortese | Correspondent
After walking the walk, if anyone has earned the right to talk the talk, it’s Robert Brooks.
Growing up in Trenton with an absent father and a mother who was in and out of psychiatric hospitals, Brooks and his three younger brothers were often left to fend for themselves. Despite being a bright student and talented athlete, Brooks’ focus became doing what was necessary to provide for himself and his brothers.
“When you have nothing and you have to feed your little brothers, you steal,” he said.
In and out of prison since age 9, he spent most of his life addicted to drugs and unaware that his self-destructive behavior was influenced by his own undiagnosed mental illness, childhood abuse by his mother and traumatic experiences he had long buried deep in his mind. The turning point came during his last incarceration in county jail, when he met with a counselor and realized he kept serving time despite trying to improve his conditions.
“I spent more time in than out of prison,” recalled Brooks, 52. “As soon as I was released, I would start using again. It never dawned on me to ask why I was using or why I kept getting incarcerated because I had normalized both.”
“It was like, look, something’s wrong, and I had to think outside the box,” he said.
Now out of prison for a year and drug-free for six months, Brooks, who calls himself “The Thug Doctor,” is working to destigmatize mental health illnesses and to educate the public, especially those in underserved urban areas, about the signs and symptoms of mental health illnesses and how to get help.
He credits Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton’s addiction recovery program with his sobriety and mental wellness.
“They helped me tremendously and supported me all the way,” Brooks said of the Partners in Recovery program. “They gave me a safe haven, healthy meals and supportive and caring counselors.”
Brooks continues to attend counseling sessions at Catholic Charities and is on the agency’s new Behavioral Health Consumer Advisory Council, which gathers information first-hand from clients to determine the most effective courses of treatment and services. He is also active as both participant and motivator with a new men’s trauma support group.
“Robert’s openness about his trauma history is what helped create the idea of a men’s trauma group,” said Brittani Gaskins-Roberson, program supervisor of Partners in Recovery.
Brooks is often a guest speaker at events such as Urban Mental Health Alliance’s Free Your Mind Conference for urban trauma and addiction, where he was a panelist.
“The more I share, the more I heal,” he said.
Brooks recently published a book about his experience, “Psychology of a Thug: Demystify,” as Malik Ali.
“My mission statement is to change the world view of thugs, and to change the way thugs view themselves,” Brooks said. “If you fear us, how are you going to help us? I want to make it known, some of the things that make us who we are, some of the reasons why we do what we do. Once you understand that, you can help us with the programs and services that we need.”
Brooks remembers feeling stigmatized for his mental health issues during one of his stints in prison. While relaying his story to a therapist at South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, he said he wanted to help others so that they wouldn’t be made to feel the way he did. His therapist thought it was a great idea, but suggested he help himself first. Brooks agreed and began to pen his story. He said writing was a powerful source of therapy.
“I had to process those feelings,” he said.
Brooks said he bears no ill feelings toward his mother, who passed away from breast cancer years ago. He believes his mother, who he now realizes suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, didn’t remember committing the abuse and was herself a victim of mental illness.
“We should be treating mental health like we treat physical health,” he said. “When you’re sick, you go to the doctor. If you have some type of mental problem, or you suspect it, you should check it out. That might be the one thing that’s holding you back, because I know that’s what was holding me back.”
Brooks recently registered for fall 2018 classes at Camden County College. Securing funding for college is not easy with his background and limited funds, but Brooks said he is determined to find a way. He plans to earn a two-year associate’s degree and then transfer to Thomas Edison State University, Trenton, to pursue a bachelor’s degree in addiction counseling.
His tenacity at pursuing his education goals is another example of the resiliency and optimism Brooks has had to rely on to get through the difficult times.
Nonetheless, Brooks admitted he’s questioned God during the difficult times. “The only thing that I could actually come up with,” he said, “was that God allowed me to go through what I went through because he knew that I could do it, come out alright, and be able to help other people.”
“I can’t look back with regret,” he said. “I had to go through those trials to be who I am.”