“Who wants to go broke paying for a fake friend?”
Molly from the HBO series Insecure
In 1999, when I was in seventh grade, I would occasionally visit the counseling trailer during break.
That year, I was active in student government, won the lip sync with Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, and easily made the honor roll each semester. I even had a steady group of friends. I’d lie to them that I was going to math tutoring and talk with a softly smiling white woman for twenty minutes about how lonely I felt. It was usually the typical sophomoric litany of teenage issues (disconnection, changing roles, lack of romantic attraction), but these issues were earnestly felt (as are all things without the buffer of adult conformity to squelch them).
The woman had strawberry blonde hair and her office smelled of something sweet and artificial. I always left feeling lighter, less adrift.
After two visits, the counselor had some news,
“Hannah, while I really enjoy our conversations, to continue to see me I’m going to need you to get this permission slip signed.”
My heart descended into my stomach and stayed there. For awhile, I could compartmentalize this sort of therapy. Now it was real as the white paper that sat in my lap.
I took the slip home and asked a family member to sign it while they were on the phone half-hoping their telephonic conversation would distract from reading the finer details. I left the room and waited. Five minutes later, when I heard my name being yelled over the phone along with words like “weak”, “thinks she’s white”, “instead of confiding in her family…” I knew I would never be visiting Ms. Smiling White Woman’s office again. I shamefully collected the unsigned paper, crumpled it into a ball and threw it in the trash.
I didn’t try therapy for another ten years.
When my friend Monique, another black woman, casually told her black friend she was seeing a therapist, her friend clutched the desk in extreme alarm and looked from side to side as if what Monique had dispelled was that she was dabbling in bestiality, “GIRL”, she stage-whispered, “ARE YOU OKAY?!”
There have been numerous articles about why black people don’t go to therapy. Maybe it’s because the warranted distrust of the medical community. Or because your family tells you to pray harder. Maybe it’s the general thought of “my life isn’t THAT fucked up” and only whiny, upper-middle class white people have the luxury of getting mental help. In America, especially in Trumpian America, there are “pre-existing conditions” to consider and the outrageous costs of health care.
The external pressures are many and daunting. I’m surprised black people go to therapy at all.
Then, there are the barriers that occur inside.
One of the words I have dragged around my entire life is weak.
Weak for needing help.
Weak for asking for help.
Weak because emotional wellness is a “white people” thing.
Even when I finally accessed a level of inner courage and honesty and started seeing a therapist this word would dance around my sessions, catching me off-guard and a warm shame would rise to my face. Did I really need to be sitting on this couch? Why couldn’t I just figure it out like the strong women in my family?
Watching the “Real as F-” episode of Insecure made me laugh in recognition. I have been both Molly and Issa around therapy. Suggesting it for others but pretending I have my shit together. Teasing those people who started sentences with “My therapist says…”
Things are getting better. Black people, especially those who have access to a higher education, are seeking help. A part of the de-stigmatization of black people going to therapy comes from people being honest about their personal stories around counseling and therapy.
This is my story. I wish my school system knew that some families, especially working-class, non-white families would not find therapy normal. I wish I grew up in a society where mental and emotional health were prized above glossy appearances of wellness and glamour. I wish I never heard my own flesh and blood deliver a monologue about how weak I was for wanting to see a counselor once a week.
Alas, this is not the case. Therapy is not about seeking a “fake friend” or a panacea for all of life’s ills. Black people do go to therapy. And I cannot change how the world or my culture perceives mental wellness, no matter how much time I spend wishing things were different.
But I sure as fuck can change my own views.
Full disclosure: I have never been formerly diagnosed with a mental illness. I write this not to assure my validity or superiority, but to show that one does not need to be classified as mentally ill to desire emotional and mental health.
Therapy is no magic cure-all for all of life’s issues, but it can greatly assist you in figuring some stuff out. Yes, it’s not for everyone and not every therapist or kind of therapy will be an awesome fit (more on this in Part II).
However, in a world which brutalizes black people in ways both subtle and overt, in a world where families can be settings for immense pain, in an age where we are instructed to acquire likes and followers at the expense of inner peace, seeing the assistance of a mental health professional can be highly healing (and very, very smart) for learning how to be more at peace in the world.
Therapy helped me figure out the words I had been carrying, the negative stories that were spinning, the ways in which I was being a general asshole to others because of my own unworked-out stuff. My therapists guided to me towards the actions that were already inside of me, the things I just needed help de-cluttering.
Therapy made me more compassionate, grounded, and aware. It helped me to forgive and forge healthier, deeper relationships.
And I never solely relied on therapy. I still read books, went to yoga, talked with my sister and friends, and journaled. My inner healing methods were (and remain) diverse and expansive. Yours can too.
Today, I can finally see that I am not weak. If you are thinking of going into therapy but have that word or ones like it rambling around your inner universe, please don’t believe them. Distance yourself from anything that suggests taking care of yourself is foolish or extravagant. You are not weak for seeking help outside of church and family. You are taking action to be well.
***In Part II of Therapy While Black, I discuss the racism that oftentimes exists in therapy and considerations that black people may have to make prior to seeing mental health professionals.
Art: Thomas S. Eliot and Kirz Art