After last year, it is without a doubt that there will be a surge in those seeking the insight and guidance of mental health professionals. After being inside for almost a year, it would perhaps be more peculiar if one did not feel a difference in their mental state.
Amidst the global crisis, I encountered a personal dilemma that acquainted me with unfamiliar ground. So I sought the assistance of a mental health professional provided by my insurance. Here’s an abridged version of my story and what I learned from it.
I awaited my intake in a crowded room, and when my name was called, my eyes met a woman whose preoccupation with looking me up and down precluded a proper salutation. She stared at my outfit and my shoes as we waited for the elevator, and needless to say, I was very uncomfortable before we even began talking. Then it happened. As I was speaking, I looked over at the mental health professional conducting my intake and she looked as if she were asleep. I, being the person I am, confronted her about the behavior, to which she jumped, startled as if awakened from slumber and she said that “she sometimes closes her eyes to listen better.” Understandable, but given my first impression of this person, her behavior just added to the already bad feeling she engendered.
Now, it is unsurprising that this intake poorly matched me with a therapist. The therapist initially came across as very friendly and I enjoyed our sessions. However, I noticed that when it came time to discuss men or romance, she became very dismissive and did not let me speak. She did advise that, and I am not kidding or stretching the truth here, that I SIT IN THE CAFETERIA OF THE MEDICAL SCHOOL to attract men. Mind you, at the time, I was recovering from a very hurtful severance, so sending me into the arms of a man was synonymous with telling an alcoholic to try wine. Additionally, our sessions were consistently filled with the following phrases: “You have got to get over it” and “move on.”
Besides these phrases being dismissive and lacking empathy, they undermined the reason for therapy. Many turn to therapy for assistance and support in “moving on” and “getting over” the hurdles that life throws at us, so these words are not only not helpful and callous, they betray a skill deficiency.
My second match was no better. The therapist took my words personally, spoke to me in a condescending and rude voice, and often put words in my mouth. He was very judgmental which made him unlikeable. I left each session feeling terrible, and when I told him I no longer wanted to continue counseling with him, he went on the defense, blamed the previous counselor, and stated that he noticed a pattern of “withdrawal.” The whole encounter with him was very strange and did I mention, he used profanity during our sessions, forced me to reveal some information before I was ready, and kept repeating the acquired information throughout the session?
I share all of this to underscore the following lessons:
Therapists are people too.
People often make the mistake of believing that therapists are autonomous to human traits that plague us all at one point or another. While therapists are human, this does not discount expectations of professionalism. If you feel the behavior is wrong, or inappropriate, it probably is.
A therapist is wrong for you if they impose their values onto you
I told my second therapist that I referenced and praised celibacy to which he replied “I wouldn’t recommend that, I mean we all have needs.” This type of comment would be inappropriate on a colloquial level because personal decisions are not up for debate. I also do not think, as a man or therapist, he should assume an authorial voice in the black female sexual choice.
While a therapist can surely provide suggestions, your values must remain at the crux of your sessions. Patient values should be respected. This respect is not optional. Additionally, my first therapist refused to accept my strides towards independence; instead, she saw it as her duty to push me into the arms of a man, because those are her values. Also, once she learned my age she said “I think you should start looking.” Another statement that substantiates that though it was my therapy session, she employed the session as a means to implement and enforce her value system.
Never underestimate race as a factor
A therapist who understands the black experience is the best match for any person of African-descent. Do not undermine blackness as a cause for dismissal by some therapists who see “real” problems as only those to which they can relate.
Though a black therapist is a step in the right direction, it is imperative not to take skin color as an indication of a pro-black ideology.
Vulnerability is a gentle state
Many come to therapy in a vulnerable state, but not everyone is worthy, or capable, of implementing the care and empathy that this state demands. Keep this in mind as you encounter a therapist, but also as you go through sessions. Some therapists will build you up to cast you down with callous remarks later. Pathological is not necessarily limited to describing those seeking therapy….
If it feels wrong, it probably is.
YOU determine the topic/area for unpacking
My first therapist attempted to chose what she wanted to discuss, but the patient should be in the driving seat. This is not saying that your counselor cannot ask questions or look into one area for insight into another, but this is to say that if you wish to talk about something, good counselors will not dismiss what you want to discuss in favor of an area of your life they find more intriguing.
Your therapy session is for your enlightenment, not your therapist’s entertainment.
This leads me to my final point. You are your own best therapist.
My experiences have undoubtedly proved traumatic and engendered a notable setback in my healing. With this being said, my experiences have also reinforced my belief in myself. It reminded me that the only person who knows what is best for me is me, and I am my best therapist. From journaling to practicing yoga regularly, to drinking more water and taking the moments before I fall asleep to reflect and meditate, my experiences with therapy have incited me to look deeper within myself to unlock the black power to heal I inherited from my ancestors. I say this not to discourage anyone from seeking external help. I say this to say that who and what you are looking for is inside you.
Therapy must reinforce this truth.
The dearth in germane mental health care for those of the black community is one of the largest stones cast against us as a collective. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wish that there were more mental health professionals like Dr. Francis Cress Wesling, Dr. Amos Wilson, or Dr. Bobby Wright available to help us through the emotional conflicts that arise in an anti-black world. If this were the case, the black mind would be a healthier space more fit to battle the wars waged against us.
What has been your experience with therapy?