Mental Health Monday #27: Tonja Renée Stidhum on Lion King standom, the joy of creating, and power of a support system

 Tonja Renée Stidhum, full-time Black woman, at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival (photo: Cinema Bun Podcast)

Tonja Renée Stidhum, full-time Black woman, at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival (photo: Cinema Bun Podcast)

Who the hell are you and what are three things that bring you joy?

I am Tonja Renée Stidhum, writer extraordinaire, creator, Disney stan, and Pixar stan. Every time I hear a song from The Lion King, I instantly get joy. Pure joy. Number two would be rice. Rice brings me joy.

Brown rice or white rice?

White rice. I hate brown rice. You have to do too much shit to it.

And then it still tastes like pebbles.

Still. It’s still not white rice. I have my grandmother to thank for that. She always had rice with every meal we had. And the third thing that brings me joy is my tribe, my sisterhood, my tribe of sisters. They’ve been through everything with me. The good and the bad, up and the downs. I used to pray for friends like the ones that I have now. They bring me pure joy.

How would you rate your self-care this week on a scale of 1-10? 1 being total neglect, 10 being above and beyond.

Hmm. That infamous Alex question. I’m gonna say 7. I’m taking away points because I haven’t been eating right. I’ve been eating trash. I haven’t been to the gym this week. If had a fourth thing that brings me joy, it would be the gym because endorphins. I have been productive in a way that’s healthy enough for me but I’ve also been able to enjoy myself. I’ve been able to relax. But fewer points because I haven’t been taking good care of my body as much.

What are you doing well and what do you think you could be doing better or differently?

So what I am doing well is immersing myself in my creative nature, a creative atmosphere. That’s when I’m happiest. When I’m not being creative, I’m really bad. When I had moments of depression, my creativity also suffered. It was a bad cycle. When one suffers, the other suffers. Now that I am fully immersed in writing, the creative, I'm like peak happy at this moment.

What I could be doing better is putting less pressure on myself. When I’m in a moment of rest, I’m always thinking about the next thing I can do. I could just relax and not feel guilty for relaxing because if I do relax, that helps the quality of my work. I’m not about that ‘You sleep, I grind,' okay? (laughs) Sleep is great. Naps are also great. Sleep is great because you get to re-energize and you need it. If you’re working on too little sleep, the quality of your work will suffer. I don’t sleep a lot, but I get some well-rested sleep.

How does hosting a podcast—Cinema Bun, not “cinnamon bun”—and writing like hell across the internet, and bringing your web series, WingChick, to fruition impact your mental health situation?

I would say, especially when I first integrated myself into all these facets of creativity, I felt very overwhelmed by it all. There are still moments when I feel overwhelmed and have to work on prioritizing certain things. It does help that a lot of the writing I do is news-based and deadline-based, so I have to get it out immediately. Other things, when I freelance, I get a bit more time and have more flexibility there. With the podcast, especially recently, we haven’t recorded but are returning because it’s still something I’m very passionate about. I love the podcast. I love talking about movies and the movie industry. The podcast is something that is work, but it’s something I enjoy, so I don’t want to leave it behind just because I’m climbing the ladder. We’re doing well, getting good contacts. As we grow and get more guests, we’ve been able to expand our empire and be press for dope-ass events and festivals like Sundance and SXSW. We’ve been able to get into those rooms and I can’t wait to see how we grow.

With everything that’s going on, with all you’re doing, what does your support system look like? Who can you call when life gets unjiggy and wack?

My mama, first. My mama is my best friend. I love her because she’s so open-minded. She is an older woman and doesn’t understand the generation that I live in right now, but when I explain she’s always open and willing to learn. Especially social media; She doesn’t get it at all. She’s very interested in it and clings to younger people because I think she’s like, ‘Oh, I’m older but I’m always willing to learn,’ which is something I really respect about her. That’s the kind of woman I’d like to be when I get older, because since I’m here, I got the ability to learn. But she knows everything about me. She is my best friend.

If not her, it’s my tribe of sisters that I call The Wolfpack.

I love that! Have you read Women Who Run With The Wolves?

No!

You need to read that. It’s about truly embracing the wild side, your natural state. It’s so funny you call yourselves that.

We came up with that name about a year ago. There’s a WhatsApp group and everything because we’re all over the country. One in Toronto and two friends in the DC area. And I based the friends in WingChick off of them. They’ve been through the trenches with me. I met them when I was already an adult, later in life, but they’ve been through so much with me because I went through so much between the end of my twenties going into my early thirties. And I’ve been through a lot. They’ve been with me when I was trying to, you know, kill myself. They were there for me and lifted me up and kept me lifted.

When stuff like this happens, I’m glad I can turn to them for that. When things are scary. We live in a country where we’re scared for our lives because of how we look and because we’re Black. People are against us and filled with hatred. It’s good to go back into that space of love, pure love, and even as I climb this ladder toward success, that’s scary. Even though this is my dream, it’s still scary as fuck to get there, because the stakes get higher, right? And so they’re always there for me when I’m feeling insecure, when I get that impostor syndrome and am like, “I’m in this room and shouldn’t be here.” They’re like, “Yes, bitch, you should.”

You have a seat at the table.

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Yea, there’s a reason why you’re in this room. They always remind me of that, and I love that. Aside from them, my mom is my biggest cheerleader. When I moved here, when I decided to quit my job and get that one-way ticket, she was my biggest supporter. Everybody was like, “Oh, god! You just quit your job. You don’t even have a job yet. You’re just moving. This is crazy.” And of course she was worried, because I saw her face fall when I told her. I was like, “Mom, I bought this ticket” and I saw it. We’re so close, and I’m over 2000 miles away now. I’ve never not lived in Chicago. Even when I went to college, I was an hour way in DeKalb, Illinois, so I was still pretty close. I’ve never been this far from her, not living. The fact that our bond is still strong—stronger—means a lot. She definitely trolls me now as I get busier and bigger. She’ll say, “Oh, I have to call your assistant.” I’m like, “Mom, I ain’t got no assistant. (laughs) I will, but not yet.”

She’s definitely my backbone and keeps me going forward. She inspires me. The things she sacrificed for my sister and I are unimaginable. And so I do this for her. Everything that I do.

Some of us have different experiences with our parents that are more like, “Okay, my parent’s are not that supportive of this, so I’m doing this for myself,” or if we have kids: “This is all for my kids.” But it’s also important, too, as we’re talking about mental health, that at least a part of that is for you, too.

Absolutely.

Because that’s where you can create some of your own happiness, instead of it being solely on another person. It’s great that your mom is a part of your support system, because so many of us don’t have that. Your parents are your first line of defense when you’re a kid, up until they’re gone, so to have that backing is so cool. With some people I know, their parents are 100% supportive, even if they’re like “Nah, I wish you would do something else, but if you’re happy…”

Exactly, yeah. She doesn’t always agree with me or the choices I make because we’re both people. And I learned as I got older, I look at my mom as a person, separate, rather than just “Oh, she’s my mom.” I’ve definitely grown to appreciate her.

Why are you awesome as hell?

The number one thing I love about myself is my sense of humor. The moment I realized I could make people laugh was peak joy for me. The earliest I can remember was being in class and I busted out a joke and everybody started laughing. I was actually a quieter person growing up. As a kid, I think it was kind of a Beyoncé/Sasha Fierce thing. You know, Beyoncé’s not really that showy, but when she was on stage?

Right. 

So that’s how I was when I was a kid. And as I got older, I came out of that shell. Once I realized I could perform for people, and that I could entertain them, it was like “Holy shit, this is great.” Even with movies, I used to wear out the VHS tapes, to the point where you’d see that white line in the middle of the screen, and basically this is trash now. I used to obviously get my mama and my grandmama mad because I used to watch Disney movies over and over so much that I could perform them, so I know The Lion King forward and backwards, ad libs and all. I could do a one-woman show because I’ve watched it 500,000 times.

Once I realized you could get paid for making movies, because the emotional impact that movies had on me was so powerful. When I first cried in a movie, it was during one of my favorites, E.T. I cried at the end when he was like, “I’ll be right here,” and pointed at his heart. I bawled. I was a kid, but I realized, wow, there are people who write these movies, and make these movies, and direct them. I was like, “Ooh, I wanna have that power.” I wanted to be able to evoke those emotions from someone, and that would be the moment that I make it. And I’ve had those moments, when someone read my script and is like, “Oh, I laughed out loud.” Or “I cried.” And that’s why I do it. That’s why I create. My ability to evoke emotions, especially laughter, which is my favorite emotion, is why I’m awesome."

Hear Tonja on our first Extraordinary Recap for the Season 2 premiere of HBO's Insecure, "Hella Great."