OK, so, look: I am not a mental-health professional yet. I am, however, starting my journey toward becoming a therapist next spring and am developing an ultradope mental-health nonprofit to address the unique mental-wellness needs of black folks. I am but a humble, grits-loving chile who loves some therapy, writes about mental health, and loves to teach and talk about feelings and aha moments and dreams and growth. Being open about my struggles and sharing both the ugly and the excellent helps me purge and process my s—t.
I understand my limits as a nonprofessional. I took the Mental Health First Aid course in April and am taking the trainer's course in December so that I can help other people recognize various mental and emotional issues and disorders and can feel comfortable assisting folks in distress or de-escalating a potential crisis. Until I can crank dat licensure, I shall tell anyone who'll listen how great a tool therapy can be for helping you get your mind right.
When everything first went bad back in the summer of 2014, a hella patient Nice White Lady helped me get up from the mud and get excited about being black and wonderful out here in these streets rather than ending it all with a bedsheet around my neck, as I had once considered down in Panama. It is largely because of those 10 months I spent fidgeting, rambling and weeping on that couch that I am here today to demolish chicken and gummy worms by the pound.
Here are some things to keep in mind as you start your fantastic voyage down the yellow brick road to see the Wiz for a new outlook on life:
1. Starting therapy or counseling is a big deal.
Celebrate this. Congratulations on taking this step toward getting (or keeping) your mental and emotional wellness on track. Per the National Institute of Mental Health, roughly 43 million Americans suffer from some type of diagnosable mental illness, with about 10 million of those facing “serious functional impairment due to a mental illness, such as a psychotic or serious mood or anxiety disorder,” so you are far from alone in this fight.
Whether because of economic barriers, logistical woes, fear, stigmas or willful ignorance, many of us never get the care we need. Peeling off the flesh-toned Band-Aids and letting your skeletons and weak spots hang out can be terrifying. Being honest with yourself in front of someone else can be terrifying. But like booty play, it may be a tad uncomfortable before the ecstasy happens. Stick with it. This is major.
2. Appreciate the journey.
I’m a planner and a professional list-maker. I walked into my first session sweaty-palmed and carrying my journal with carefully curated questions. The last one, underlined and highlighted, was, “Given what you’ve heard today, how many sessions is this going to take?” I wanted a clear action plan, a manual and a target end date.
I quickly learned that there was, sadly, no secret code that my Nice White Lady would perhaps feed me in pieces over the course of X number of sessions that I’d have to decipher, at which point I’d be able to zoom past Olmec’s gates, into the temple, past the dungeon and through the secret room to unlock all the doors hiding the Secret to an Unmessed-Up Life or something, like the happy white kids used to do on Legends of the Hidden Temple. Didn’t work like that.
3. You don't know this person.
Do not worry about being judged by your chosen mental-health professional. You probably will not encounter this person in your daily life. Assuming that you’re working with an impartial professional, you will not have to worry about him or her gossiping about you down at the church house or flinging holy water on you as he or she recoils in horror in line at Piggly Wiggly. None of that happens in therapy. This ain't Sunday dinner with Meemaw and your judgy and newly devout deacon-ass uncle—the reformed serial baby-maker and legendary hometown coochie bandit. Whole different thing.
Your counselor-psychiatrist-psychologist is there to listen, to guide you to important realizations, to help you develop the skills to cope and make it through the day, work through rough patches or everyday drama, and make sense of your life. This person is not employed to preach at you, talk at you or talk down to you. This is a professional, who is supposed to be unbiased, open-minded and easy to talk to. And although this person is there to work through intimate things with you …
4. Your therapist is not there to be your best friend or tell you everything you want to hear.
Given the intimate nature of the client-therapist relationship and the private things you’ll share with your therapist, bonding and developing a warm rapport are natural. Sure, be friendly, cuss like hell and relate over hot comb horror stories. But avoiding a distracting level of personal involvement will help prevent conflicts and confusion about the nature (and limits) of your relationship. Your therapist is providing a service, not working to be the Pam to your Gina.
5. Expect some awkwardness in the first session(s).
Essentially, you’re sitting down with a stranger and enlisting him or her to help you sort through the contents of your barrel o’ baggage. Figuring out the client-counselor dynamic and building rapport is a journey in itself. Being nervous is fine. During your first session, your therapist will spend some (or the entire) time getting familiar with your specific situation and needs. It’s a getting-to-know-you session, if you will.
It’s impossible to cover every woe in one sitting. You might sit down on the couch and cry for an hour. Or you may take the scenic route to vulnerability and spend a few sessions in silence. You might uncork and ramble for the entire session (I did). Open-mindedness helps. No two experiences will be the same.
6. It’s OK to want a therapist who shares your race, gender, religious situation or sexual orientation.
When starting this journey, we all want someone who is professionally and culturally competent who can speak to us and our particular issues with ease. Given the infinite number of intersectional identities and experiences that lead folks to a therapist, it is not uncommon to have a muy eager, well-trained therapist who can’t properly engage with your cultural background, gender identity, socioeconomic level, etc. Or a competent counselor who has some stigmas of his or her own to work through and who may unknowingly pathologize you or discount or misread your struggles because he or she is not sensitive to how racism affects your blackety-black ass.
A therapist who shares your racial or cultural background may easily relate to, for example, mental-health issues related to race, systemic issues, discrimination and so forth. Pero remember: A shared identity does not guarantee competency.
7. Therapists and counselors are not infallible.
Therapists are just like the rest of us: They may have their own unconscious biases, anxieties, privileges and cultural baggage to work through. They may seem like superheroes, but they are human. Double-booking, anyone?
8. Selecting a therapist and building a relationship with one is a bit like dating.
Except the therapist lets you do all the talking, on purpose. And you pay every time. It could take five minutes or a few sessions for you to know whether this person is a match for you and where you are in life right now. Patience, grasshopper. There is much to consider.
The therapist's style, personality, theories, level of training, experience, etc., must mesh with your personality, needs and expectations (if you have any). Over time, as you feel more comfortable, you dive deeper into that barrel o’ baggage together and attempt to clean that bitch out. Or at least bring some order to the clutter within. It’s a process. It’s a situationship. It’s complicated.
9. It’s OK to ditch your therapist.
It’s nothing personal. Don't feel bad if, after a few sessions (or one), you realize that this relationship is not a match or doesn't quiiiite feel right, even if you can't quite explain it. I waited a little too long with a Latina counselor because I appreciated that she cursed like I did, and I liked the casual vibe. But I ultimately felt as if I were talking to a homegirl in her office on her lunch break, not that I was making progress with my barrel o’ baggage. I knew two sessions in that it wasn’t a match, but I waited six sessions to bow out because I hoped that we would find our groove and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings or be rude. Never again. #IceCold.
Alexander Hardy is an Afro-Panamanian writer, foodie and teacher who divides his time between plotting meals; running his blog, the Colored Boy; and slinging words across internet land on sites like Gawker, Saint Heron and Very Smart Brothas, where he works as a senior writer. Follow him on Twitter.