Talk Back

Why I Chose a Person of Color for My Therapist


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“So what do you want to talk about today?” The thin Asian woman across from me asks me twice a week. My therapist is soft-spoken and polite. She 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.  She has an opinion and she shares it. She’s not the kind that 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.

Twice a week, I sit on grey sofa with red accent pillows and we talk about anything and everything for 50 minutes.  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 it was just a mood. Happy or sad. Mood. Disorder. Rather than the more frightening hypomania and depression.

Therapy helps. My introduction into mental health was swift, that I barely had time to worry about stigma or what Black people did or did not do. I needed to stay alive and medication and therapy allowed that.  Not to say that I didn’t hold any shame but shame didn’t serve me. Shame would have killed me; medication and doctors saved me.

I’ve always analogized that being on medication is like moving from a bad house to a better one.  Therapy teaches you to turn left for the kitchen instead of right; helps you correct harmful coping mechanisms developed over the years.  Medication and therapy are both necessary for me, moody and disordered.

Being a Nigerian immigrant and Black woman in America has been a tight rope of negotiation. Most therapists don’t fit into the categories that I occupy.  With them, I feel like I’m being judged. That the yellow pad that they constantly scribble on is filled with stereotypes confirmed, or worse, nothing. I would be invisible to White male therapists as I am any other time during this Black woman life.  A few years ago, I discovered a unicorn:  a Black female therapist whose parents immigrated from the Caribbean. We had shorthand so I didn’t have to stop and explain much. I would throw her a  “Girl… ” She would, catch and return:  “No he didn’t.“ We spoke in Black Girl and it was amazing. I saw her for 3 months before I left to Nigeria for a few weeks.  When I returned, she had fallen ill and had to close her practice. It took me 3 years before I even looked for another; relying solely on medication during that time.

When I returned from Nigeria in October, I realized that my anxiety and depression needed more than little pills that were constantly being refilled; it needed a conversation. The experience had left me shaken and disoriented and I needed to exist somewhere outside of my own head. I needed someone to hear me and tell me what was real and when my brain lying to me.

Though I am open with my health publicly, my family doesn’t always discuss it. I tell them, “I have a doctor’s appointment,” which is true but inaccurate. They just are not comfortable with this “mood disorder” yet.  They want me to treat it and they want it to go away. Even with this, I am lucky, my family acknowledges my condition and they do their best to notice any changes they see that may cause alarm. They give me the space to do what I need to do to stay well. Most Africans would refuse the conversation. When I was in Nigeria, the number of people who suggested I “pray it away” was unending.  Trust, if I thought that prayer or church would “cure” me, I would spend the rest of my life in supplication, sign of the cross, bowing in front of White Jesus begging for a healing. Instead, I go to a doctor because 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.

So I stopped looking for the “perfect match” and narrowed down my search: Female, person of color.  Whatever incarnation that took was fine. Who my therapist is matters less than what I need her for.

Bassey Ikpi is a writer, television host,  mental health advocate and lazy perfectionist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @basseyworld

JET wants you to Talk Back. Want to make your voice heard? Submit your commentary, TV show recap, poem, or essay HERE.  Read all the rules so you know how it works.