If there’s one word to describe Hollywood “It Girl” Tiffany Haddish, it’s positive. Her infectiously “up” vibe renders A-list actors, talk show hosts, and audiences of all stripes defenseless.
In fact, it seems Haddish, 37, has laughed her way to the top. After breaking out at the box office with last year’s Girls Trip, she stars opposite her friend and mentor Kevin Hart in Night School, which hit theaters in September. She shares the small screen with Tracy Morgan in the witty, gritty TBS series The Last OG, renewed for a second season. Her first Showtime standup comedy special, She Ready, earned rave reviews. She hosted the MTV Movie & TV Awards in June. And her 2017 memoir, The Last Black Unicorn, is a headline-making bestseller.
But don’t mistake this famously funny lady for an overnight success. She built a career over 2 decades of performing at family bar mitzvahs and touring comedy clubs. What makes her triumph -- and her buoyant attitude -- all the more remarkable is how she overcame a traumatic childhood, followed by a rocky young adulthood.
“As a little kid, I was happy-go-lucky, but later, for a long time, I kept to myself because I was afraid,” Haddish says now. “Then I saw that movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and he tries to make everybody laugh. I was like, ‘Hmm, let me see if I can make people laugh.’ In order to do that, you have to have some kind of positivity.”
As a teenager, she made a conscious choice to chase happiness. “People who focus on the negative all the time? You don’t bounce back from nothin’, because your focus is on the bad stuff. There’s no resilience in negativity; it’s just more pain. If I focus on positive thoughts and attitudes, then it’s least likely I’ll fail,” says Haddish.
She credits this smiling determination, coupled with a fierce work ethic and years of therapy, with becoming the breakout star -- and the healthy, confident woman -- she is today.
History of Abuse
Haddish is reflective on -- and generously forgiving of -- her parents, who left her with some emotional scars.
Abandoned by her father when she was 3, Haddish was raised in poverty in South Central Los Angeles by her mother, who was involved in a terrible car accident when Haddish was 9. The accident left her mom with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Once she returned home, this previously loving parent routinely physically and emotionally abused both Haddish and her younger half-siblings.
Uncontrolled and even violent outbursts can happen after someone has a TBI. According to one study posted by the National Institutes of Health, “aggression is one of the most common consequences” of TBI, and it may be “verbal and/or physical” in nature.
“I had so much hate for my mother,” Haddish admits. “But the only reason I had so much hatred for her is because I love her so much. She’s the first person I ever loved. And then for her to hurt me ... but after going to counseling and learning about brain injuries and trauma to the head, that helped me to see it’s not necessarily her fault.”
The mistreatment went on for years. When Haddish was 12, the state intervened; she and her siblings entered foster care, and her mother was placed in an institution. Separated, the kids bounced around from home to home until her grandmother gained custody when Haddish was 15. Then, at 18, she found herself homeless after her grandmother announced she was an adult now -- and on her own. Haddish lived off and on in her Geo Metro, working odd jobs and dreaming of launching a comedy career.
“I was definitely broken,” she says of her younger self. “Just not destroyed. I made a lot of bad choices and mistakes.” These likely include numerous romantic disasters, as well as a short-lived run as a pimp to a single, willing call girl, detailed in her book with self-deprecating humor: “I was pretty negative from time to time, because, you know, I’m a human! But I learned from those experiences.”
When asked whether or not she sought professional help to work through her past pains, Haddish doesn’t hedge: “Girl, yes! Years, years, years of therapy! I remember I once sat down with a therapist who told me something about myself, and I said, ‘Uh, no!’ A year later, I was like, ‘Huh. She was right.’ I went to therapy in my early 20s and again through my mid-20s. I stopped when I got married. Then I went back into therapy at the end of my marriage. Now, I go every month. If I’m not home, I Skype with my therapist.”
Haddish is divorced, and she’d rather not talk about her ex, thank you very much. But she does offer this practical advice to couples who are stuck in unhappy unions: Be like her favorite film and Get Out. But on therapy? She’ll happily wax on: “If I’ve got some emotions I need to unload, or I’m feeling despair? Anybody who asks me, I’ll tell ’em in a minute that, shoot: I need a session!”
The comedian then gets serious with a message for her fellow African-Americans. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), this group is 20% more likely to have mental health issues such as depression and anxiety due to social and economic factors. Yet despite this troubling fact, only 15% seek help from a psychologist or psychiatrist, compared with 40% of their white counterparts.
“From my experience, the black community thinks [therapy is] going to hurt you, or they’ll do experiments on you, or whatever ... the black community is afraid,” Haddish says. “I’m always like: ‘Hey. You can go to a counselor and just talk. They’re not allowed to touch your body or nothin’ like that! Just have a conversation.' "
Besides, she argues, it’s discreet. “You know when you try to talk to your friends? And your friends spread your business and make it 10 times worse? Sometimes you just need to break up your emotional thoughts. By going, you have that safe place to talk about things in your head you’re trying to figure out -- and you can figure them out. And move on! Life is easier to deal with because you’re not holding onto all that, you know?”
And let’s not forget about frenemies. “Sometimes it’s just a place to cry, or have someone tell you it’s gonna be OK,” says Haddish. “You can’t always do that with your family because they can be haters! Or messed up in the mind! Or, you can’t cry in front of your friends, ’cuz they gonna think you weak! But counselors, who I pay all this money to? Oh, they goin’ to get these tears today!”
Righting Old Wrongs
Now that Haddish is in demand, she rightly earns the big bucks -- and she’s using her financial gain for good.
She bought her mother an apartment. “My mama’s doing way better now,” she says. “I got her out of the institution. She’s going to the best psychologists, gets the best nutrition. I got her exercising three or four times a week. The [extra] weight and her diabetes have gone away. I’m just elevating her existence. And giving to her what I know she would have given to me had she not been hurt.”
Overcoming old emotional wounds can be vital in improving mental and physical health in adults who’ve had adverse childhood experiences (ACE), says James Garbarino, PhD, who works with juvenile offenders with histories of childhood trauma.
Long-term studies show that adults with high ACE scores -- meaning, people who report neglect, abandonment, or emotional and physical abuse as kids -- are more likely to have depression, anxiety, heart and blood vessel problems, cancer, and high blood pressure decades later. (Haddish fits this bill; last year, she learned she had high blood pressure -- now controlled under a doctor’s care.)
But regular exercise, meditation, therapy, and emotional healing can ease these problems. “One of the keys is to get to the point when [those with high ACE scores] can transcend negativity, often with a mother who’s abandoned or abused them, and get to a place of reconciliation,” says Garbarino, the Maude C. Clarke Chair in Humanistic Psychology at Loyola University Chicago. “That’s part of [Haddish’s] success story.”
The research backs this up, he says, suggesting those who work through old emotional wounds do better physically and mentally in the long run. “Otherwise, it sits there like a lump of coal in your soul for the rest of your life.”
Both Haddish and her mother are enjoying the benefits of their renewed relationship. “Now, my mama tells me she’s proud of me,” Haddish says. “She calls and says, ‘Make sure you take your vitamin C!’ She’s trying to do motherly things. It’s really cute. And she’s learning about my life ... my sister showed her Girls Trip, and she was like, ‘Who taught Tiffany how to do that?' "
Haddish laughs at the thought with pleasure.
The Greatest Love
Haddish has also had to learn how to embrace her self-worth. She innately understood how to do this professionally, demanding headlining gigs and bigger paychecks from comedy clubs and her agents as her name blew up.
Now, she does it physically, too, by taking care of herself.
“I cut down on alcohol,” she says. “I drink a gallon of water, try to eat at least one dark green vegetable, and take my vitamin every day,” she says. “Plus, I exercise [daily] for like 10 minutes. I do planks, leg kicks, imaginary jump-rope -- anything to get my heart pumping. And I love to dance. Sometimes I’ll dance for 20 minutes instead.”
Still, “the gluten-free thing will never happen,” she says, laughing, although she admits to taking occasional Pilates classes using Groupon coupons. (She scored a spokeswoman role with the company after writing in her memoir about her love for Groupon’s deals.)
But success can tucker a girl out. “I miss sleeping,” she says. “I could sleep 12 hours a day! Now, I wake up early, 4 or 5 a.m., work till late at night, then come home to do it all over again. But for me, work is fun, so it doesn’t feel like hard work. I’m doing the thing I love most.”
Mental Health Gap
Haddish credits years of therapy for overcoming a traumatic youth -- even if, according to NAMI, most African-Americans call a pastor or primary care doctor before a psychiatrist.
William Lawson, MD, PhD, associate dean for health disparities at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas, explains this discrepancy in care.
“Stigma exists in all communities, not just the African-American community, over mental health issues. But there’s fear that comes with diagnosis” among this group, Lawson says. The U.S. has a history of medically experimenting on the black community. Also, “African-Americans with psychosis are more likely to end up in the correctional system,” he says, rather than a mental health facility.
Lack of access
“We know early intervention works. If we intervene early, we have better long-term health outcomes,” Lawson says of mental health disorders. “While primary care physicians do incredible jobs, many of them don’t have the mental health training to properly refer patients -- and providers simply aren’t there” in predominantly black neighborhoods.
“African-Americans are less likely to have private insurance,” Lawson says. And “psychiatrists often do not provide affordable services or reimbursement rates.” According to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, insurance among non-elderly African-Americans varies widely between the states, approaching 50% in Mississippi and 52% in the District of Columbia.
For resources and links for your community, Lawson suggests visiting NAMI’s website at nami.org. Or contact the Association of Black Psychologists, Black Psychiatrists of America, Inc., the American Public Health Association, or the National Medical Association.
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