Therapy While Black – Part I – The Stuff That Keeps Us From Going

“Who wants to go broke paying for a fake friend?”

Molly from the HBO series Insecure

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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.

dark brown tears

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…”

 

*

kirz art

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

Joy is an Act of Resistance

“Joy is an act of resistance”

-Toi Derricotte

The day to day of military school can truly suck. From 2005-2009, I attended the US Merchant Marine Academy. A common refrain heard around campus was that USMMA (also known as Kings Point) was a “good place to be from, but a terrible place to be.”

In high school I dreamed of attending NYU. I got the New York part, but a federal service academy dedicated to training future officers and mariners is just a tad different than the West Village liberal arts school.

I was never a “natural” at Kings Point: Terrible long distance runner.  Would rather read a book than be a drill instructor. By the time I graduated, I was one of three black women in the entire school (Kings Point usually had between 900-1,000 students at a time). 

To say I did not fit in would be a grand understatement. 

The technical courses were kicked my ass and I questioned my intelligence for the first time in years, me who always relied on being “smart” as my main identity. My hair was damaged from chlorine and running, I was 3,000 miles away from home, and my desire to engage in intellectual discussions with classmates often went unfulfilled. 

To keep from sinking deeper into the depression that always seemed to hover around the edges, I started to intently orient my mind to focus on the happy. 

Joy = purple pants with white horses on them. And goal post arms.
Joy = purple pants with white horses on them. And goal post arms.

I’d be walking in formation and think back to a sardonic and hilarious joke from my younger sister. I’d recycle cinematic scenes from Amelie or Freaks and Geeks or another movie that made my heart smile. I’d study the pale pink blossoms of the trees leading to the library. When I was in drowning swimming class, I’d pretend that Maya Angelou was on the sidelines of the pool cheering me on with a hearty fist shake. 

It was a little crazy and sometimes really forced, but it worked most of the time. I am not making light of the real ramifications of depression or chemical imbalances, these things are very real and I know such”positive thinking” directives will not remedy every mental distress.

Still, I cannot underestimate the power of this method and how much it saved me during my Kings Point years. 

I was truly learning to protect my joy. 

Once I graduated, I would employ this tactic many times, but I started to really question this method. Was it naive of me to focus on being happy when there was SO MUCH oppression operating in the world? Did such a focus lower my intellectual cache? These thoughts were always in the periphery at Kings Point, but I needed my happy inner moments so deeply back then that I was usually able to push them aside and focus on the joyful aspects of my life. 

…I have often wished that Jefferson had not used that phrase, “the pursuit of happiness”, as the third right—although I understand in the first draft was “life, liberty and the pursuit of property.” Of course, I would have been one of those properties one had the right to pursue, so I suppose happiness is an ethical improvement over a life devoted to the acquisition of land; acquisition of resources; acquisition of slaves. Still, I would rather he had written life, liberty and the pursuit of meaningfulness or integrity or truth.

I know that happiness has been the real, if covert, goal of your labors here. I know that it informs your choice of companions, the profession you will enter, but I urge you, please don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough. Of course, you deserve it. But if that is all you have in mind—happiness—I want to suggest to you that personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it is a trivial one. It’s looking good instead of doing good.

-Toni Morrison

dark skinned woman with purple tights in dress with magazine screenprints on it. she has long braided extensions and light purple lipstick, raising arms in a goal post style with a red background.
Joy = purple tights and a $10 dress from downtown LA

Some years ago, I had only read the bolded lines of Toni Morrison’s commencement speech (is that the large curse of the Internet age? To only track in excerpts and sound-bitey quotes without looking at what else is there?), and I thought the Grand Dame herself was reiterating the superficiality of choosing to go after happiness.

Was I hiding from a life of “real work” by making giving full attention to my inner joy? I started to regard happiness as extremely suspect (weren’t people suffering all around the world)? I grew very resentful of happy people, thinking that they must be dumb or mired in a dream world. When a friend said she was reading Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman (Mr. Happy, basically) I gave her a mini-lecture about the shallowness of such a pursuit (I cringe at this now.)

Meanwhile, I was sad as fuck. A lot. Swimming in my mind were all those unacknowledged pains from years ago, work stress, and my own desire to live a, dare I say it, happy life.

I had to ask myself some questions. Like, what was this life of shelving my happiness because there was the reality of human suffering doing? Was my emotional turmoil and commitment to sadness eradicating police brutality and the evils of capitalism? Did it feel good in my body to be so resistant to joy and talk the same old depressing shit with my closest friends? 

Um, no.

I feel like this year has been an exercise in trusting myself. Some small spark of guidance during my Kings Point years led me toward that practice of gratitude and dwelling on the good, beautiful, and uplifting. Instead of protecting and growing my joy,  the past couple of years has sometimes seen me in quite the opposite pursuit, screaming MINE, MINE, MINE; cradling my misery like the shrunken down Daffy Duck in the Ali Baba Looney Toons episode.

This is not the way I want to live.

We live in a culture that is deathly afraid of pleasure and fun. We worship pain and suffering in our religion, in our fitness and dietary pursuits, in the ways we choose to go after goals. On occasion,  we pretend we like pleasure, what with our jumbo sized plates at Chili’s, the rapid-fire social media feeds, and the ubiquitous worship of  celebrity culture. 

I really don’t think 99% of that shit is truly pleasurable a majority of the time. I see it as reactionary and a shallow attempt of true joy. I see it as acquisition and contest and being told what we should want. I see it as ignorance and devaluation of our bodies and this earth.

My pleasure sometimes feels trivial in this chaotic world, I suspect that this is something I must mature out of.  

While I truly agree with Toi Derricotte’s pronouncement which starts this blog post, I know that sometimes my happiness is kinda silly. I cannot pretend my joy always has some heavy, higher purpose and social justice connection. It does a lot of times (self-care and acceptance for black women is still too rare) but sometimes this girl really just wants to have fun. 

I used to really want some “authority” to tell me my happiness was okay. That I could be intellectual and still have a Happy List I consult when I was down, that it was not immature to believe in living an effervescent life. Now I know the authority I was waiting for is myself.

I give myself permission to live a life committed to joy.

I give myself permission to wed my pleasure with deep meaning.

Here’s to being in joy. Here’s to protecting our joy. Here’s to creating more joy in this world.

Onward,

Hannah