My Therapist is Black*

From http://rorygilbert.com/selecting-a-therapist/

*With thanks and apologies to Young Jeezy

I had my first panic attack when I was 20.

Up till that point, I’d never considered therapy, and had shrugged off the persistent lethargy and darkness that episodically enveloped me. I was an undergraduate psychology major, so I was especially cautious about throwing around labels like ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’ and ‘disorder’. But the panic attack was unmistakeable. The shortness of breath, the pounding heart, the roaring in my ears, the feeling that I was close to death.

I saw my first therapist shortly after that.

Since then, I have seen four different therapists, all in quick succession. These women have seen me through extended depressive episodes, debilitating anxiety, career changes, weddings and marriage, the transition to motherhood, and every other ending and beginning inbetween. My previous 3 therapists were warm, nurturing and brilliant. Without them, I wouldn’t have made the journey I did to my current therapist. I’m not a taciturn client by any stretch of the imagination. (In fact, some therapists might say I talk too much.) I do the work. I journal (I really did, therapists 1 and 2!); I am self-aware (up to a point). But on this current therapist’s couch, I’ve plumbed depths of my psyche I didn’t even know I didn’t even know were there (a little therapy humour for you there). Part of it is because I’m older. Part of it is because I’m a mother and I am less laconic about my mental health than I have been in the past. But there is another, more pertinent reason.

I live in Cape Town, a city whose middle class is overwhelmingly white. It follows, therefore, that the local mental health industry is too. I didn’t experience this as much of a problem. In spite of this, for the first time last year, I sought out and began seeing a black therapist. I found her through a friend to whom I had written a plaintive request for a list of ‘woke’ therapists. I needed someone I could talk to about the specific rigours of parenting a multiracial child, being in an interracial marriage all while living in this suffocatingly white city and its spaces.

I’m not saying I’m ‘fixed’ – I was a psych major remember, so I know that’s not the point. But I am okay with admitting to my depression and my anxiety. I was so okay that when postpartum depression crept up on me and knocked me upside the heart, I was okay with going on medication. And with finally telling my family (and some friends) about it. Her blackness has done something for me that previous therapists couldn’t.  It’s made the therapeutic space authentic and real for me. Without realising it, I had always sort of regarded therapy as a ‘white’ thing, and as another on the list of historically white endeavours that I quietly navigate while keeping parts of myself hidden and safe from the white gaze. Having a black therapist has given me the permission I didn’t know I needed to bring all of me to the couch. And that doesn’t mean talking about race, necessarily. It means being able to surface and admit some of those dark and life-threatening primal feelings I felt when I had that first panic attack.

It means vulnerability. And healing. And, yes, dear, hopeful reader, it might even mean getting ‘fixed’.