“So, what do you want to talk about today?” the thin Asian woman across from me asks. She asks this twice a week because I see her twice a week. Twice a week, I sit on a gray sofa with red accent pillows and talk for 50 minutes. She listens, often interjects and asks questions.
If you didn’t know who we were or where we were, you would think we were two friends meeting for coffee, except one friend did all the talking and the other just interjected and listened and asked questions.
I’ve been going to therapy off and on since I was diagnosed with a mood disorder in 2004. “Mood disorder” isn’t as scary as bipolar 2 disorder. It sounds almost pleasant, sometimes a bit difficult but just a mood. Happy or sad. Mood. Disorder.
Therapy helps. I’ve always analogized that being on medication is like moving from a bad house to a better house. Therapy teaches you to turn left for the kitchen instead of right. It shows you where the park is. It gives you permission to play there. Medication and therapy are both necessary for people, like me, moody and disordered. When both aren’t possible, I choose medication.
Being able, as a black woman in America, to open up about my experiences as an immigrant, as a black person, as a woman, has been a tightrope of negotiation. Most therapists don’t fit into the categories that I occupy. The only thing I know for sure is that I can’t see a white male therapist (or anyone who looks visibly younger than I am. I’m not supposed to know personal things about my therapist, but if I know that I was a full adult when they were born ... it’s a no for me).
There is nothing about my experience that white men can relate to or help me with. With them, I feel like I’m being judged. That the yellow pad on which they constantly scribble is filled with stereotypes confirmed or, worse, nothing. I would be as invisible to them as I am at any other time in my black-woman-ass life.
I once hit the jackpot and found a black female therapist whose parents emigrated from the Caribbean. She was a unicorn. We had shorthand, so I didn’t have to stop and explain much; if I said, “Girl … ,” she would “Mm-hmm” and give me that sound that only black girls recognize and understand, even if it means 100 different things.
I only saw her for three months. I went to Nigeria for a few weeks, and when I returned, she had fallen physically ill and had to close her practice. After her, it would be three years before I even tried to look for another therapist.
I realized that my anxiety and depression needed more than little pills that were constantly being refilled; it needed a conversation. It needed a place for the worry and doubt to go. It needed to exist somewhere outside of my own brain. I needed someone to hear me and tell me what was real and what my brain was lying to me about regarding who I was or what I was capable of.
My therapist is tall and thin with straight black hair that swings when she walks. She is polite and offers me water as though she’s meeting me for the first time, every time. She doesn’t take notes. She sits and she listens. And she engages me in conversation. She has an opinion and she shares it. She’s not the kind who allows you to lay back and let loose with words while she sits silently, allowing you to talk to yourself. Thank God. If I wanted to talk to myself, I would and do.
I’ve released the self-consciousness that came with wondering whether or not she understood me as a black woman. If there is confusion, I pause and I explain. But besides that, knowing other details about the person who helps me navigate the twists and turns of my brain matters less than what I need that person for; and what I need to feel comfortable enough in their presence to let them help me negotiate the neighborhood of my mental health.
Though I am open with my health publicly, my family doesn’t discuss it. I’ve gone to the “doctor,” which is true but inaccurate. They just are not comfortable with this “mood disorder.” They want me to treat it and they want it to go away. This is typical of most African parents. When they aren’t asking you if you have prayed it away, they are suggesting church so someone else can “pray it away.”
If I thought that prayer or church would “cure” me, I would spend the rest of my life in supplication, making the sign of the cross and bowing in front of white Jesus begging for a healing. Instead, I go to a doctor.
It is a medical condition. Period. And honestly, black people with or without an illness in this country could use a safe space to vent and deal with the turmoil and trauma that comes with being black in America.
Like I do, twice a week.