Therapy While Black – Part II – The Stuff To Consider Before Going

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The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.

At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house. What are you doing in my yard?

It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.

I am so sorry, so, so sorry.

 

Claudia Rankine, Citizen

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Black people are more likely to experience anxiety and depression in their lifetime but much less likely to seek or receive help than their white counterparts.

I grew up about twenty-five minutes away from Disneyland. I could usually count on two hands the number of black kids in my schools.

And yet.

Whenever I am starting therapy, I request a black female therapist first and then a woman-of-color therapist. Due to my oreo-alternative-black-lady status, this may seem surprising. I (thankfully) have never had an encounter like the one Rankine so skillfully details in Citizen. But, I have experienced my fair share of casual ordinary racism in therapy: There was the white therapist who did this weird ShaNaeNae head toss and finger-snap thing when I told her about being afraid to show anger as a black woman. And the therapist during my last year at the Merchant Marine Academy who flashed me a quizzical glance when I told her of the racist, sexist comments my classmates made.

My friend (a black man) says every time he brings up racism his therapist ignores his input and wants to instead focus on “what is real” versus “what isn’t”.

Le sigh.

White supremacy has very long tentacles and therapy is no exception.

I wish it was better for us out there. I really do.

And so, I forever seek out therapists who look like me. Which isn’t easy. Black and brown people do not dominate mental health professions and getting to work with a black therapist is harder in smaller cities.  To be sure, there are other considerations beside race that one may have to make. Perhaps you really want someone who is queer or you are a dude who really wants to talk another dude. Perhaps you want someone invested in more unconventional approaches to healing. For me, racism and sexism have salient effects on my mental/emotional health. I cannot see a therapist who does not understand this.

Let me be straight–I’ve had uncomfortable interactions with black therapists too—the one who would eat her entire lunch during the session (and not like a granola bar, woman would be heating up rice pilaf and roasted chicken chewing away) or the one who consistently brought up the fact that I was Nigerian even when the point of discussion didn’t warrant the inclusion.

Indeed, there are non-black therapists well-versed and empathetic around oppression, even those oppressions they don’t have to experience directly. The important thing to remember is that you get to choose.

I had the most amazing black woman therapist once. She was spiritual, but not necessarily religious. She was extremely knowledgeable about the effects of trauma and somatic (body-centered) forms of therapy, thoughtful, and had a collection of flower essences she sold in a little wooden cabinet. When I mentioned the casual racism I experienced at work or in the city, she didn’t balk or try to “reason” with me.

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I have not always had a Dream Therapist. One may have to settle sometimes, decide that dealing with your anxiety or depression is more worth than waiting out the perfect person. I’ve definitely done this once and it was not the end of the world. Word to the wise: 2-3 visits is the MAX time you should give to a therapist when you’re ascertaining whether you want to work with them. If you aren’t feeling it by then, put on your best fuck-boy airs and cut it off. On to the next.

I saw my Dream Therapist though the Coast Guard EAP program, which gives active duty and selected reserve members a specific allowance of mental health counseling appointments each year. When my allowance ran out, we continued our work outside the program. I know I am mighty lucky to have been afforded this opportunity—most people don’t have full health insurance that also covers therapy. (And about a third of therapists don’t accept insurance). Sometimes when I see the hourly rates for therapy my eyes bug out in that cartoony-flashing manner.

Some friends who are in therapy and not attached to school or work insurance meet with therapists on a sliding scale. There are mental health professionals who will do this, but sometimes you have to ask. Some friends save money by seeing their therapists every other week or once a month. Some colleges and universities offer low price sessions to locals. Some friends have invested in free 12-Step groups like Adult Children of Alcoholic/Dysfunctional Families which meet in cities around the nation or other affordable online programs which primarily work through phone/Skype sessions. Some choose to work with life coaches instead of traditional therapy.

So, before going to therapy, ask yourself some questions: What would the ideal therapy relationship look like for you? Who would you feel most comfortable working with? How possible will this be considering the demographics of where you live? Looking at the resources you have access to and your economic reality, what can you take part in? Are you wanting to heal from trauma or would you better benefit from working with a life coach around a specific issue?

You’re the only one who can answer these questions. But, please don’t feel afraid to research and come up with what makes your wellness journey possible. You deserve it.

 

Other Resources:

therapyforblackgirls.com

http://www.ebony.com/life/black-mental-health-resources

Art: Thomas S. Eliot and Kirz Art

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.

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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…”

 

*

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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