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
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.
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”.
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.
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.
Art: Thomas S. Eliot and Kirz Art