“My therapist was saying,” is a phrase that just rolls off of my tongue nowadays. It used to feel like taking a tampon out of your purse at the dinner table before excusing yourself to the restroom. Everyone knows it’s a thing you may need at some point, but people don’t really want to know when or why you need it. The response to my openness as a southern black woman who regularly sees a therapist was once met with rapid blinks of surprise, and sips from drinks as the person looked away. However, as of late people in my circle are more interested in my experience seeing a therapist, because they want to see one themselves, but don’t know what to expect.
Maybe it’s the dumpster fire that is our country right now, or social media creating (some) safe spaces for people to be vocal and transparent, but some of us are now more open to seeking help than previous generations of black people. The trouble is that the stigma associated with mental healthcare is so pervasive in our community that we can’t rely on our parents, or friends to tell us how and what to expect when seeking help for mental health issues. Moreover, there are actual systemic barriers to access to mental health services within the African-American community. Most of us simply don’t have the knowledge or the experience to share, which is made worse by the fact that African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population. Cut to me writing this.
I would love to tell you that my decision to see a therapist was a slow one, made so by the enduring stigma of mental healthcare in the black community. Somewhere between slavery and now we adopted the belief that we are supposed to be strong enough to overcome mental and emotional strife because those are “white people’s problems.” I would love to say that my southern Christian background made me feel guilty for seeking help when I should’ve been able to pray the despair away, and just have faith that healing would come. Good Christians aren’t supposed to acknowledge that end of the spectrum of human emotion. Even those who consider themselves more spiritual than religious, have created a toxic culture of optimism that tells you to just ignore those bad feelings and think positively, then you’ll be cured. It would be really cool to tell you that every message telling me to be strong, faithful, and positive, slowed me down from seeking help. Yeah, well I didn’t care about any of that shit.
The truth is the depth of my depression far outweighed any concern that I had for anyone else’s opinions of what I needed. I felt like Tyga that one year at New York Fashion Week. Why am I
here? No one wants me here. What am I even doing with my career? You get the point. The blessing of my emotional rock bottom is that I truly ran out of just enough eff’s to give that
I became free from other people’s judgments. So, the decision to seek professional help was not slow. It was urgent, but I didn’t know what the experience would entail. A year later,
and I am now more equipped to share what I’ve learned. This is about to get really intimate, so get cozy, and unclench for God’s sake.
They don’t have to look like you. My therapist is a white woman. Un-clutch those pearls. I was committed to finding a black woman therapist. If television has taught us anything, it’s that black women possess all of the world’s wisdom, and are destined to be our guides (Touched by an Angel, Insecure, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Broad City, anything Oprah does, I could do this all day, but you get the point). However, the hunt for a black woman who accepted my insurance, and who was reasonably close by created a huge barrier, also known as an excuse. So how’d I end up here? I started having thoughts like, would it really be so bad if I just wasn’t around anymore? Those thoughts started to persist until I couldn’t get out of my bed for two days, not even for work. When I got back to the office, my work bestie, knowing that something was off, pulled me aside, put her therapist’s business card in my hand, and said, “Call her, please.” To be fair, there was a certain level of trust there, because my work bestie is a woman of color, so I figured this was a white woman I could trust. And thus far, she has been.
You have to be committed to the process. I just assumed that if I went to therapy, after a few months, I’d never get depressed again. False! Life does not stop happening to you because you’re in therapy. Sadness, disappointment, rejection, all those “negative” or “bad” things do not cease simply because you’ve taken this step. The difference between experiencing very low lows with a therapist and without one is that I now know what I’m feeling in that moment won’t last forever. I have more tools, strategies, and awareness to cope, and I have a person to go to if I get overwhelmed and can’t push through on my own. Lately, I’ve even started taking notes and journaling before and after my sessions to make sure I cover what I need to discuss from one week to the next. Sometimes I take notes during the session. I learned that I have to commit, and be intentional in showing up for myself in real ways every day so that I am not shattered every time life happens. Your therapist can only do so much to help you, so you have to learn what the work is and commit to doing it independent of them. You also have to continue to do the work even when you feel great. Journaling, meditating, therapy, etc. have a cumulative effect, so you can’t stop doing them just because things are looking up.
You have to communicate with your therapist about your therapist. There have been sessions where I have felt completely overwhelmed by what we’ve discussed and the work I need to do. The unpacking and the unlearning itself can get heavy. Sometimes I have felt I wasn’t getting anything from the session. Other times I have felt like things were moving too fast, and I have wanted to take a break. These are all things I have had to tell my doctor to make sure I am getting the most out of my experience. I learned that I can’t be shy about my needs with anyone, least of all my therapist. Trial and error apply here too. For example, I tried online therapy, and I hated it. In fact, I hated the therapist. A good therapist shouldn’t tell you what to do, or judge you, or criticize you. They are there to help you build awareness and learn tools to cope. That’s why it’s better to confide in them than your friends who can’t help but to judge and impose the effects of their trauma onto you. Your first experience with therapy may not be the right one for you, but keep trying until you find the right fit. If you tried on a pair of shoes that didn’t fit, you wouldn’t resolve to just walk barefoot. Same principal here.
How does it feel? People have asked what the relationship with your therapist should feel like. I think it varies depending on who you are, and what your diagnosis is. Here’s how I describe mine. Have you ever been drunk in a bathroom at a club, and met a really nice girl who helped you zip your dress back up, or helped you remove toilet paper that was stuck to your shoe, or told you there was lipstick on your teeth? Just a random stranger who helped you along when you weren’t fully yourself? That’s what my doctor is. If life is a bathroom and depression is drunk me, my therapist is a slightly more sober stranger who helps me gather my things and go back into the world. It’s not always sifting through childhood trauma and digging up the past. It’s mostly about finding practical ways to manage stress.
Change gon come. Perhaps the biggest, most unexpected change in the past year of seeing my therapist has been my personal relationships. I’ve had to become more protective of myself, and create more boundaries within long-standing friendships, and even some family members. Because I am changing, the way I interact with others is changing as well. Sometimes that makes me feel guilty, but mostly it gives me a huge sense of relief and agency over my own life. I’ve learned that it’s okay to make myself a priority.
Therapy will be different for everyone, but the key to a beneficial experience is to learn your needs and stay the course. Healing takes time, effort, and commitment. This is the self-care no one really talks about, because it’s not glamorous or fun, yet this has been one of the best years of my life because I finally feel like I’m thriving even when life happens.