Overcoming stigma and shame: Seeking therapy as a Black Woman to improve my life, embrace my true self | Cara Tait-Fanor
A wave of guilt rushes over me before I call to let her know I am only one block away. Kai is definitely loudly calling for me in the background, and not making it any easier for her sister.
I begin to wonder if my weekly therapy sessions are selfish. If it is wrong to leave my two-year-old with her fourteen-year-old sister for my 45-minute sessions. Maybe this is putting too much stress on the family. Maybe I should switch to biweekly. Maybe I shouldnʼt be spending this money, since it is an added expense.
And then I recall life before therapy. The weekends that I did not get out of bed. The panic attacks in the morning before work. The moments of inexplicable sadness I felt in the middle of the night when I cried quietly, not wanting to disturb my husband. And I know that to not take care of myself, to not begin to find ways to do more than endure, or pretend … that is actually the more selfish act.
For as long as I can remember, I was known as cheerful, or friendly, or funny, or any version of a person that provides no reason for conflict. I told jokes, acted silly or confused, anything to make those around me feel at ease.
And then I couldnʼt do it anymore.
I maintained a façade at work. I literally would sit in my car, preparing to smile. I would do it all day, make it into the car, come home, and have nothing left to give. I was a crumbled mess pretending to listen to my child, and trying to muster the energy to hang out with my husband.
But my older daughter and husband knew the truth. Our household operated based on how I felt each morning. I began to see the impact I was having on them both.
I do not have a significant traumatic experience from my past. I have experienced success in my career, and have a husband who loves me and I adore. I have been blessed with two lovely children. I recognized the problem, but it took me another two years, and a new member to our family, for me to do anything about it.
Because of my good fortune, I did not think, initially, that I had the right to sit on anyoneʼs couch and tell them my problems. Although I had supported several friends and family members in finding a therapist and counseling services, and understood the importance of mental health and self-care, when the issue of therapy pertained to me, I was resistant. For years, I chose to put on a pained smile instead of trading it in for what I assumed would be judgement. I would literally play out telling my friends that I was in therapy and picture looks of sympathy, or questions, or confusion. I would let these thoughts wash over me, and let the idea of therapy escape like a fleeting thought. I was everyone’s “care bear” — what my friends called me. Care Bears are not sad. Care Bears are who other people called upon. If I needed help, who would my sister call when she was crying? If I was sad, would that mean any time I made someone feel better, or gave advice, would they be internally judging me?
So often in my life, these internal skits ruled my decision making. The character that I created served me for a long time. Mantras that I told myself so that I could pretend to be in control: Smile and be the funny one who tells jokes, so you don’t have to share anything super personal. Accommodate. Be too nice for anyone to tease you about your weight, or your looks. Calculate what you say and how something needs to be, based on your audience. Switch it up as needed.
All of these rules that no one gave to me, but I lived as my shield every day. If I really am honest … and take the ugly truth for what it is, as long as I was helping other people, it meant that I was better than them. It meant that I had everything together, and everyone else needed me. Feeling needed felt good. Until it didn’t—and I was the one in need. I had become lost to myself.
As I unlocked the door to the apartment, and began the long walk to my fourth-floor apartment, I could hear the lovely, frustrating and rewarding chaos of a toddler and a teenager that both currently have the same relationship to the word “no.” I slowed my pace, not out of reluctance, but to practice a mindfulness breathing exercise.
The door opens before I hit the third floor landing. “Mommy?”
Both children are inquiring with such urgency that I canʼt help but chuckle.
“Iʼm here.” I call up to them. And I truly was there. Present in the moment. Freer because of the tears I’d shed, and the thoughts I just spent 45 minutes sharing.
As a Black woman, even as I write these words, I feel a slight sense of shame or embarrassment. I still tell the kids I have a doctor’s appointment, and I have yet to breach the topic of therapy with my father. Why would I be holding onto a secret that is bringing me such clarity and joy? It’s the lie that on some level, I still hold on to. The “you just need Jesus, ainʼt nobody got time for that therapy” mantra that keeps so many people in dysfunctional life cycles. That somehow seeking help, means that I don’t love my God. I know itʼs a lie, but it still lives and creeps in my skin, and dances as passing invasive thoughts across my brain every Wednesday, before and after my session.
For too long, mental health has been viewed as a non-issue in the Black community. I am proud to be a Black woman, who comes from a lineage of people who have often endured trauma that could have broken us down, but I am also well aware that trauma without healing also leads to generational pain. My family’s relationship to secrets, sadness and anger is inexplicable, because it is just that–not spoken. Not addressed. Polite. But in the corner of every plate of food, family gathering, and gifts, are thinly shielded scabs that remain like new cuts because of politeness.
One element of my Care Bear character was to be the flighty one. To be the hippie. The one who beats to her own drum and does things differently. What people didn’t see is that the drum I beat to, still fell right against the unspoken parameters that I subscribed to, whether I thought I did or not. I truly began to see how they actually conflicted once my teenage daughter began to demonstrate how truly self-actualized, opinionated and open-minded she really is. All of the things that I poured into her, in opposition of my upbringing, began to make me uncomfortable because all of these values that I hold true don’t often show up as polite.
My father loves me deeply. He does any and everything for me. I even know that he knows, because my mother tells him everything. But my father is one of the main people for whom I am a Care Bear. Even as a child, I could see the pain of losing his sister to cancer. I remember walking into dark rooms with my father crying, and would say something to make him smile, or just sit and hug him. If I admit to my father that I am hurting, I’m afraid it would crack open the pain that sits in him as well. I own that pain. I own it in a way that makes no sense. It’s inexplicable, and something that I cannot resolve on my own.
The first session I had with my therapist, she asked me what I wanted to get out of therapy. I had no clear answer. I just knew that I wanted to feel better. Six months later, my answer is not really any clearer than that first day. But I keep going, and I am going to keep going, because pretending is one lie I canʼt tell myself. My family deserves better. I require a life that has real smiles, not practiced with accompanied fake laughter and accompanied by insomnia and tears. I am a work in progress that is proud to embrace both the work and the progress.
Cara Tait-Fanor is from Brooklyn, New York. She is a wife and mother with a passion for education, and forever a writer at heart. She is currently a principal of a NYC public high school.
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