Rising Through Resilience: Montrella Cowan of Affinity Health Affairs On The Five Things You Can Do To Become More Resilient

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

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Get connected and stay connected. During a world pandemic, more of us are probably more careful about social distancing. So, it’s important to be mindful about forming connections that create well-being. Take a walk with a friend. Make a meal with your family and eat dinner together. Call a friend and laugh!

In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Montrella Cowan, MSW, LICSW.

Montrella Cowan is the founder of Affinity Health Affairs, LLC. She is a holistic (mind-body-spirit) talk therapist and relationship coach, trusted for her high-quality service, knowledge, personal care, and passion to help people have healthy relationships and families. Montrella earned a Bachelor degree in Interdisciplinary Studies and Social Work from Catholic University and a Master degree of Social Work from Howard University. Montrella is from Brooklyn, New York and currently resides in Washington, DC.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?

My life has been a journey that has taken me through the mindset of victim to victor! At the tender age of 14, I was raped. In my 20’s, I entered an abusive relationship that I eventually left, thank God. My mother was also addicted to crack cocaine and she sometimes was simply not available as I grew up. Because of my experiences, at a certain time in my life, I often wondered: “why me?” However, as I began to truly heal, I discovered resilience. I learned how to move from despair to hope.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

As a Black woman, I’ve had my share of discrimination in the workplace. As a mental health therapist, I always like to say that healing is an “inside-out” journey. Through the wisdom I’ve gained on my journey, I’ve learned workplace problems were often related to how I thought about myself.

Before I became my boss, I worked at a job that I was excited about and highly qualified for. I truly liked the job. Unfortunately, the supervisor was a micro-manager. She questioned nearly all of my decisions, too. I can still distinctly remember when she set me up for failure: she gave me two tasks to perform at the same time and one task had to be completed with her. When she called me in to question me about my work, I realized — she’s not on my team!

I told her: “you know, this is about trust. I’m not going to convince you to trust me. I did what I was supposed to do.” Needless to say, I resigned.

My point is that sometimes we overstay our welcome. We don’t recognize God is speaking to us and has a space carved out just for us. We might not be able to see that there’s something better. If we resist and overstay our welcome, we can get stuck in a place we don’t want to be in. It’s not a good feeling to have options. So, first, I learned that sometimes you have to make hard decisions.

I also learned that resilience is a practice. I learned to make decisions by exercising my decision-making muscle — for myself and the whole. A free tip: if you’re upset at a job, you’re probably not being a good team player. If you’re antagonistic towards the goals set by your work environment, it’s time to go.

Finally, I learned that you have to have a vision. Where do you want to be? What do you want to have? If I wasn’t clear that I wanted independence of financial freedom, I’d still be limited and not growing. I’d be pretty stuck and miserable. Having a vision is important. It’s the address you should always put in your inner-GPS.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Affinity Health Affairs is unique because we provide a holistic and practical approach. By holistic, we mean we consider our clients from a mind, body, spirit perspective. A lot of therapy practices today shun or shame people for religious beliefs and their choices, for instance. At Affinity Health Affairs, you can be who you are. Whatever your values, we honor them — spiritual, religious, or cultural. This is so important because people lose faith after trauma. They lose faith in themselves, family, relationships, helping professionals, and God. Affinity Health Affairs helps people restore their faith in love, life, and happiness.

We don’t focus on using a lot of theory. You can’t really use it in a way that makes actual sense to people. We like to provide practical tools — tools that are just like an umbrella people can use to fend off the rain as they navigate life.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My mom, Veronica Ross, is the person I’m most grateful for. She helped me get to where I am. She was so smart. In fact, she attended Prospect High School in the Bronx and was offered a college scholarship. Before her dream was realized, she got pregnant at 16. All of this happened in the 1980s when crack cocaine flooded a lot of Black communities. My mom became addicted and experienced a tough, 30-year battle. She finally beat her addiction before she died from heart failure in 2018.

Many people might be angry with a parent who wasn’t fully available because of substance abuse. But when my mom wasn’t available because of her addiction, I missed her. I loved her and wanted her with me.

I’ve forgiven my mom.

Without her example, I might not be who I am. For instance, I’m drug and alcohol-free. But also, my mom was smart, strong, and always helping people. Later on in life, she even told me she always wanted to be a social worker!

My mom was a trailblazer and a powerful example for her grandchildren and my 3 siblings. Mom led by example and she overcame a lot. As I become more present with who she is, I find I’m more like her. I’m so thankful she gave me life and showed me that resilience is possible.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Resilience is the ability to adapt in the face of adversity, trauma, hardships, or stress. Challenges and stressors that enter people’s lives can be expected or unexpected, and they can last for a short or long time. Resilience is also about your capacity to grow when faced with challenges, no matter how long the challenges might last. It’s also important to know that resilience isn’t necessarily a character trait that you have (or don’t have). Anybody can develop resiliency with practice!

It might be a surprise to learn that resilient people are able to thrive because they are connected to people or resources that can help them. Luckily, when it comes to resilience, a little bit goes a long way. When we connect with people and rely on resources to help us, the investment doesn’t have to be all that grand. A mentor’s pat on the back or a word of encouragement from a teacher or spouse can help us strengthen our resilience muscles.

That’s why the American Psychological Association names “connection” as one of the four components of resilience, along with wellness, healthy thinking, and finding meaning. Resilient people join groups and build relationships, take care of their body and mind, and seek out opportunities to experience areas in life that feel meaningful to them.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

Aretha Franklin.

The new Aretha Franklin movie, “Respect,” directed by Liesl Tommy, is a great film because it shares the story of a woman who overcame so many adversities, but still served as a beacon of hope and a reminder that it’s possible to live your best life.

Aretha was raped at the tender age of 14. Plus, she had addictions (which makes sense because of her traumas). Aretha had a lot of life experiences that should have kept her quiet or hiding behind her shame. And even though it’s true that she was silent for a little while because of her experiences, she was still able to find her voice and use her God-given talents.

Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?

As an African American woman born in the United States, society said that I was Black and should stay in the back! But guess what? Here I am! It would seem that so many odds were against me at an early age. I’ve been a victim of rape, my mother was addicted to drugs for 30 plus years, and my family was trapped in unhealthy generational struggles. My setbacks, as significant as they were, helped me to commit to breaking the cycle of abuse and incarceration in my family. Sometimes, people tell young women that being teenage mom is impossible, too. But I’m a living witness that it can be a powerful motivator. I used it to create a different life for me and my children.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

Getting pregnant as a teen.

I was raped by the father of my daughter, and for a while, I never had an opportunity to deal with the trauma. I felt very alone and ashamed. It was truly one of the most scary experiences in my life. I was so inexperienced. I can remember feeling terrified and wondering where the baby would come from when it was born. On top of that, I thought I betrayed my earthly father and heavenly father. And so, there was just a lot of shame.

When my daughter China was born, she was my revival. She inspired my hope. I resolved to live for myself and someone else. She inspired me to take my life back to create better opportunities for her. Yes, I was traumatized. But China was a true blessing and helped me to “level up.”

Did you have any experiences growing up that contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?

There are three.

The first experience that contributed to building my resiliency was reading. I’m an avid reader (I get it from my mom). When I read testimony from people like Maya Angelou in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and Malcolm X in his autobiography, I found strength. I saw that resilience was possible. And I gained knowledge that helped me understand that I didn’t have to be ashamed.

The second experience that helped was honoring and practicing my faith. Believing in the unseen helped me to foster resiliency.

And finally, my children. Once I gave birth and became a mom, I moved from the concerns of 15-year-old girl to the responsibilities of middle adulthood. I started focusing on doing the work I had to do to establish a legacy for myself and my children. I knew life wasn’t just about me.

Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.

Step 1: Get connected and stay connected.

During a world pandemic, more of us are probably more careful about social distancing. So, it’s important to be mindful about forming connections that create well-being. Take a walk with a friend. Make a meal with your family and eat dinner together. Call a friend and laugh!

Step 2: Take care of your body.

Physical activity has a ton of benefits, so take advantage of them! Running, walking, cycling, and swimming can keep your body in good shape. People should be sure to listen to their bodies, too. So if you have a lingering or new injury, don’t be afraid to take quality time out to rest.

Step 3: Take care of your mind.

People tend to forget about mental health, or sometimes they might not think it’s that important at all until there’s a crisis. A tip: try to be preventative. Find a good self-care routine and stick to it!

Step 4: Find, remember, and celebrate purpose and meaning.

Every person is unique and has a different answer to the question: what matters most in my life? What makes me smile? Or feel joyful? What types of activities and relationships bring a sense of satisfaction? Bring those elements into your life, and you’ll be sure to add to your capacity for resilience.

Step 5: Rinse and repeat!

Practice makes perfect. Resilience is about growth when people are faced with challenges. It’s a process and the benefits (and victory) become more apparent over time.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I’d love to inspire a healthy relationship movement! That’s the reason I created the “Healthy Love Academy.” The family is the first institution, and if that’s dysfunctional, people can experience serious problems. As a mental health expert, I have witnessed the effects of unaddressed mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. Those issues seep into relationships and show up as emotional, physical, and spiritual abuse.

I want to help people get out of toxic relationships. Trauma bonds are often at the center of unhealthy relationships. As people heal and get better, they can learn tools that help them experience happier, healthier, more fulfilling relationships. The power of a healthy love movement is that it can begin with the first generation, right now. As people begin to make changes in the present, what they’ve learned can be passed down to future generations so that families and individuals can know that the “new norm” for relationships of all kinds includes health, love, and harmony.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-)

Oprah, because of her sphere of influence. During the global pandemic, lots of people feel isolated. Tragically, according to the World Health Organization, we’ve reached 3 million COVID-related deaths. People need hope and inspiration!

Oprah’s sphere of influence can give people the information and education they need, too. There are mental health professionals who are doing the work, every day, to help people with mental health challenges.

Oprah and I would get the word out: you are not alone. Stop suffering in silence! Culturally competent and expert help is here and available. There are so many resources that can help you overcome any mental health challenge you may be facing.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow Affinity Health Affairs on Instagram: @affinity411. We’re on Facebook, as well: https://www.facebook.com/maffinity411/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

TEDx Speaker, Media Journalist, Board Certified Wellness Coach, Best-Selling Author & Cancer Survivor