Close this search box.
Dr. Terrence Z. Johnson tells about his bout with COVID-19, after successfully dodging it for 2 years, and how it shifted his perspective and journey to self-care. While back at home resting in Jackson, Miss., from Gallatin, Tenn., Johnson defines self-care and why it's just as important for Black men. “Living a long life can seem like a fantasy or dream for a Black man,” he writes. Photo by Terrence Z. Johnson

A Black Man’s Journey to Self-Care: Self-Awareness Requires Discipline

I look at the clock on the oven. It’s 9:44 a.m. Just one more minute until I can see the results. I pace the floor to keep from staring at the time before reluctantly looking down at the test on the kitchen table. It’s positive. 

I have COVID-19.

I glance down at the test trip again, yet again still positive. I walk back to the couch and get under the covers. I will be here for a while.

“Time slows down when you are not bound to your to-do list,” Terrence Z. Johnson writes. “You are alone with yourself: The thoughts, fears, and concerns you avoid.” Photo by Terrence Z. Johnson

Slow Down: Create Space for Life

The pandemic forced most of us to live in isolation or separation from people. The world stopped, and we had to face ourselves. Although we have returned to “normal,” life is still different. 

I avoided COVID-19 for two years, but caught it this year after I came home to attend our family reunion. My symptoms made me miserable, but I’m grateful they weren’t severe. One consistent feeling I had was exhaustion. My energy levels kept dropping and forced me to lie down. Lying down or being idle makes me feel lazy and unproductive. Yet, doing nothing can be refreshing.

Time to rest is often seen as a luxury. Most people cannot afford to pause for a moment. It can appear impossible to breathe while having responsibilities, commitments and obligations—a heaviness that does not subside. 

For the last two years, I have been in constant transition. In August 2020, I left Jackson in search of a fresh start. Establishing yourself in a new place can be frightening. When life seems unpredictable, it is vital to have non-negotiables for yourself. One activity I do is nature walks. No matter what life brings, spending time outside settles my mind and helps me ground myself. 

Whenever I visited home, I was in a rush—a rush to see people, a rush to leave, a rush to finish something. COVID made me take the break I so desperately needed. Time slows down when you are not bound to your to-do list. You are alone with yourself: the thoughts, fears, and concerns you avoid. 

Life is a series of memories and images frozen in time with people, places and things attached to them. Ironically, being sick gave me time to reflect on life and what is essential. Spending quality time with family is priceless. You underestimate the value of connection until you spend time alone. 

As life changes, you must add aspects to your life to balance these new additions. Yet, change requires energy and balance has been a struggle for me. The magic formula of work-life balance continues to dodge me. I want to create more space for life that encourages and empowers my work.

‘Investing In My Future Longevity’

A year ago, my father passed away, and coming home now has an empty space. I witnessed him experience several years of severe health issues. I was there through each hospital visit, complication and recovery. I have spent the last year struggling to find meaning in his death. I’m still searching for the lesson that I am supposed to learn from losing him and how to apply it to my life.

I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve decided that I want to live a long life. That has not always been the case, especially for Black men.

Pictured is Dr. Terrence Z. Johnson as a baby in the arms of his late father, Zebedee Johnson. Photo by Terrence Z. Johnson

My generation invests in bettering ourselves more than our fathers, yet we have room for improvement. They lived in a world vastly different from ours. We may never understand the load they carried from a cultural standpoint—a life of survival. Living a long life can seem like a fantasy or dream for a Black man. Our lives can end randomly without notice or cause, depending on the environment. My Dad died at 65, a few weeks before his birthday. Ironically, that is the average life expectancy for Black men. 

On both sides of my family, there is heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other issues. Taking care of myself now is investing in my future longevity. I have witnessed the everyday pain of my Dad—his daily struggle to live. Most do not understand our inner pain because we carry it in silence. Many time, we simply don’t have the language to verbalize what is going on with us. Living by the phrase,” I’m gonna die from something anyway, I might as well enjoy life.”

In a recent interview, actor Sterling K. Brown spoke about his father. He suffered from diabetes for years and refused to go to the doctor. When he finally went for a check-up, he had a heart attack the same day and died. Everyone believes life will go on forever. Taking care of yourself does not guarantee a long life, but you can have a better quality of life if you do.

On Aug. 20, 2022, Sterling K. Brown stopped by “Sway In The Morning” to talk about his new movie “Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.” He also talked about his father passing away at age 45 and Black men and health care (clip starts at 1:59-4:00). Courtesy Sway’s Universe, YouTube

Taking care of yourself is not a one-time event. It requires discipline to take care of yourself. Managing life can cause stress which is why I continuously monitor myself. I am a recovering workaholic who has had an emergency appendectomy, sciatica flare-ups, and recently, neuropathy because of stress. 

The key is to be proactive and not reactive. Start to identify when something feels wrong. Even if you cannot afford it, there are resources that will allow you to at least get checked out.

Being healthy can be expensive and more difficult due to the lack of healthy options. The key is identifying what you can do with what you have. What can you eliminate that is harmful to you? What can you do, or where can you go to destress? Can you speak to people who can assist you or hold you accountable? These are the conversations that we don’t normally have.

People typically visualize women doing a spa day when they think about self-care. However, for men, we tend to play sports, work out or hang out with friends. These can be beneficial, but self-reflection is also necessary. Self-awareness is critical because you gain the ability to identify the changes that can improve your life. When you invest in yourself, you avoid paying for issues that will cost more in the future.

You may not see the value now, but trust me, you will thank yourself later. More people depend on you than you know. We all have to make sure to do what we must to live.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an opinion for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and sources fact-checking the included information to We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints. 

Can you support the Mississippi Free Press?

The Mississippi Free Press is a nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) focused on telling stories that center all Mississippians.

With your gift, we can do even more important stories like this one.