How do you know you’re experiencing a Crisis? How does one make peace with the sinking feeling you get when something just isn’t right? For many people, myself included there’s a tendency to send the pain below. Avoidance is so much a part of the human condition that we can see it in the way people fail to address the real and terrible experiences of our collective past, yes y’all, I’m talking about racism (kidding, sort of).
Actually, I’m also talking about mental health.
The first time I went to therapy was in 2013. As a social worker who is a major advocate for seeking mental health support, I know that sounds ridiculous to have waited for so long, but I did.(Whatever, I’m a hypocrite.)
I went to see a Clinical Social Worker because of an incident which did not happen to me, but triggered something real, and deep, and uncomfortable. And after having a few days of cognitive dissonance about the whole experience, I contacted school counseling services. At my appointment, I sat in a lush wooden chair on the top floor of a wooden room, lit by ornate lamps, and covered by books, looking at a scholarly white man who asked me honestly, why are you there. And for a second I had to ask myself the truth: was I there because I was tired of running from myself, or was I just too tired of feeling overwhelmed? Was I sitting there because I couldn’t ignore that sinking feeling of dread and I wanted to put the lid back on? Or did I want to face the dragon and slay that fucker.
So I told him the truth.
And it was the first time in my life that I’d actually recounted all of the little deaths I’ve experienced since I was 8 years old. He listened, he sat back and looked ready to hear me. He said, OK. He didn’t need me to justify myself, or protect anyone, or be silent. And out of that single interaction I was referred to a social worker and later to a psychologist. My psychologist, a wonderful black woman, taught me about leaving room for feelings. She let me legitimately sit in her office and cry for the first 5 weeks of our time together. I couldn’t finish a session without tissues stuffed into my pockets, or covering my face. And each time our hour was up she’s say, “you did well today”. And each time I’d feel a little more prepared for the next meeting, for the next revelation, for more tears and I’d get myself into the elevator, and smile.
I’d sit in the same spot every week and tell my truth; something that feels almost antithetical to the immigrant experience. To tell a stranger things about your life that your family may not know, that you didn’t know made you feel some kind of way is challenging. These things were overwhelming, they were guilt-inducing, they were shameful; until they weren’t. A recent article from attn titled Why the Black Community Has a Fraught Relationship With Therapy came out talking about mental health in the black community and the stigma still perceived. Now mind you I know it’s weird that a white lady wrote a piece about black people and mental health, but, alas, the content is pretty good. Stigma about how folks deal with trauma and stress is very real, and it’s not just the “black community”. There Immigrants of all ethnic backgrounds have cited family stigma as a reason for not seeking professional mental health (Michultka, D., 2009). And like trauma itself the research on trauma is diverse and varied. As one my favorite Feminist Psychologist (Judith Herman) says, trauma is a process.
Herman, J. (1997) defines post-traumatic stress, a diagnosis which may be an expression of trauma in the following ways: hyperarousal or constant vigilance; constriction or feeling of helplessness or as though a part of your person has died; and intrusion or the trauma survivor reliving the experience repeatedly. Van der Kolk (2014) additionally addresses the physiological implications trauma has on a persons’ body in the book The Body Keeps the Score. Van der Kolk (Ibid.) notes something that many people feel but do not articulate, that the past is sometimes felt in the body even after the danger or pain of an experience mentally dissipates. (cue Bag Lady) Herman’s book (1997) Trauma and Recovery discusses recovery as a process which she defines as 1. establishing safety; 2. remembrance and mourning; and 3. reconnecting with ordinary life. While other research conducted by Bonanno, G., & Anderson, Norman B. (2004) in their piece Loss, Trauma, and Human Resilience explore the ways that traumatic or stressful life events can lead to resilience, not recovery. The authors define resilience as a person’s ability to maintain a stable equilibrium. This definition is person centered and person specific, something that can be a challenge for collectively focused people. I believe trauma is a singular experience wrapped in the collective experience, so through the one you impact the many.
The good news is if you are or have been feeling lost, confused, or in pain there are options for support.
Dr. Adia Shani has some helpful advice for folks seeking a therapist, specifically black women in her blog post Finding and Choosing a therapist. There are also a number of hotlines to call. HelathyPlaces has a great list on their website.
And know that you are not alone. There’s that inspirational quote that gets spread around social media all the time talking about silent battles and not knowing, and being kind. That’s some good advice. I would also add that it is important to be gentle with yourself, however you define that. Mental health is a process. As my favorite podsquad noted in a number of mental health episodes, there’s no one way to do it.
As a social worker, as a human with a past, I know that recovery and resilience are rooted in both finding the right fit for you, and seeing it though. “Better”, is relative. I know that finding what works for me has been an ongoing journey, one that I take one day at a time. Because as Ralph Waldo Emerson or Lil Jon said, sometimes it’s the journey not the destination that has the most impact.