The first therapist’s office was situated in an affluent part of Washington, D.C., overlooking the Potomac River. The office, outfitted with leather chairs and finely polished oak desks, was nice but uncomfortable, making me feel small.
I had recently been laid off and knew that this feeling of drowning was not just from being out of work or a loss of direction that commonly comes with being in one’s 20s. This was the same numb and distant feeling that had rattled around in me since I was 18 — the first bout of what I now know to be major depression, the years since sometimes crawling by while other times they were a rocket.
We don’t do therapy
In the black community, we are taught from early ages that we don’t do therapy. We pray and attend church and God will get rid of our problems. Even if God doesn’t get rid of our problems and we still suffer, we are following in a long tradition of suffering like our ancestors before us. While I am fortunate that my own family did not hold that belief, it is the reigning belief of the community at large. We get that message from our relatives, friends, comedians, TV shows and movies.
I was a young black woman, unemployed, needing help with my mental health. Any of these things would have been difficult, but the combination was beyond description, beyond my comprehension. I was raised in a household with a strong matriarch. My grandmother, a community activist and volunteer, worked tirelessly for children and senior citizens. My mother, a woman with more than 20 years employed with the federal government, was a volunteer in her own right. This was not supposed to be me. I was not supposed to need help with the act of coping.
Sitting in this well-appointed office, I pushed past the awkwardness of not knowing what to say — somewhere between the microaggressions this “professional” threw at me about being a “responsible adult and getting a job to pay my bills,” I knew she didn’t hear me. This was one of those nightmares where you are screaming at the top of your lungs, but in reality, you aren’t making a sound. Something was being lost in translation here.
This was not working; this wasn’t going to work. My jaw felt tight, my throat dry and my ears popped like I’d been in a underground subway car for the last hour. I fought back hot tears and even hotter anger. I left feeling worse, feeling like I couldn’t be helped. My mother, whose employee assistance program benefits afforded me five sessions with a therapist reminded me gently that there was help out there, it just wouldn’t come from her.
I wish I could say I was empowered to stop at nothing to save my own health — to find someone who had the words to make getting out of bed in the morning something other than a small miracle. I wish I believed then that someone could help me slay the shame this disease built in my chest, but that’s not my story.
Unable to recount my first adult therapy experience to the wonderful EAP folks by phone, I sighed and said, “I don’t feel it’s a fit.” I barely mustered the courage to attend a second therapy session with a different therapist.
I was 15 minutes late for the session with that next therapist, scared and unsure and not willing to trust again blindly that someone could help me slay the dragon or hear my silent screaming from outside of this nightmare. I was guarded. Part of me hoped that she would not see me late. Instead this woman welcomed me into her comfortable office on the second floor of a brownstone, much closer to the ground than the high tower I sat in before. The wall started to come down.
I felt comfortable and heard and over the course of my four additional sessions, I was able to not only get a depression diagnosis, but skills to help me cope and ideas on how to build a support system. Although I do now have some insurance, I am still considered underinsured and my providers can only guarantee a slot with a therapist if it’s an emergency situation where a patient is a danger to themselves or others or is actively considering suicide.
While I still believe this to be unacceptable and my heart breaks for other people living at the margins who are not able to get any services, I am thankful each day for the employee assistance program, which saved me from having to wait until my own depression developed into a life-or-death situation.
Coping after the diagnosis
The years since my diagnosis have not been a fairy tale, but I am able to handle my depression without medicine, although I strongly believe that medicine can be a useful and lifesaving tool in a deep and wide toolbox of solutions for depression and other mental illness.
One part of my toolbox has been finding the voices of other women who live with depression. I highly recommend Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting by Terrie M. Williams, which has helped me tremendously. In reading it, I felt like I was listening to an older sister or aunt who has been through the same things that I have.
I have also learned to trust the people who have shown up and helped me do the heavy lifting. I have a host of friends and family in my circle who ask questions, spend time, listen and remind me that I am not alone.
I am aware that stigma hurts and kills just as much as depression does. Difficulty finding and funding therapy and treatment keep a lot of women —and most especially women and girls of color — from coming out of the other side of this. I share my story in the hope that it can be a life preserver, a hand up from the wreckage and a reassurance that while depression may always be a beast that lives in you, you are not powerless to beat it back.