For Black people who avoid mental health treatment for reasons other than our “culture” or fear of malpractice
This isn’t about why we shouldn’t treat anxiety affected by racial trauma. This is about how sometimes it’s not the sick who need treating.
Content Warning: rape, mental health
“… mad methodology resists rote positivism and deﬁes the cult of objectivity; it listens for ghosts, madpeople, outcasts, and disembodied voices that trespass, like stowaways, in modernity; it perceives the expressive potential in the so-called rants and raves of madpeople; it is poised to ﬁnd message within messiness and philosophy within ‘pathology’; and it respects the peculiar vantage points of those who are askew.” — La Marr Jurelle Bruce, “Mad Is a Place; or, the Slave Ship Tows the Ship of Fools”
I did not sleep again last night. These days, it’s not uncommon that as soon as I close my eyes, every thought becomes a landmine, and only too late do I ask myself, “Why did I take that step?” And now I have to pick up the pieces to my blown-apart body. And now every stride toward each mutilated phantom limb risks setting off another bomb. And now every sound outside my window is fifteen times too large and way too bright.
And now it is way too hot, so I throw off my comforters in the middle of the night, in the middle of February, in the middle of New York. The thermostat says 67 degrees. This flame is engulfing me, and only me.
I have self-diagnosed myself with anxiety. I fit all the symptoms. I have had two panic attacks in the past year. I keep telling myself to go to a therapist and I keep watching myself through my mother’s eyes, a child ignoring my own best advice. I know I will not take anything a doctor prescribes for this. I know that what consumes me cannot be fixed, can only be destroyed, and I know that no therapist can destroy it—even if they would, and they almost certainly wouldn’t.
My boyfriend says his Black therapist has changed his life, and I believe him. I am happy for him. I am a huge proponent of therapy, and when I have gone in the past, it helped me too. And I really do plan on going back again someday. Just not for this.
This is my cross to bear. And by that I mean the nails have already been hammered through my palms. By that I mean Jesus was the only one to come back to life after a crucifixion, and I don’t even believe that.
There is an unrelenting narrative that Black people have a problem acknowledging mental illness. I usually say that this story is incomplete without noting the years of abuse we have withstood and still undergo at the hands of medical fields. Our wariness to entrust doctors with the brains of our children is not a pathology, but a logical response to historical and present-day trauma, albeit a sometimes detrimental one.
But what if even this isn’t the full story? What if, on occasion, it’s just that we don’t believe there to be a treatment for witnessing a genocide that has not yet ceased? There is no common dialogue around Ongoing Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is no cure for inescapable anti-Blackness, and any solution that makes me less ready to catch ablaze would only continue to have hellfire slow cook me instead.
I am a Black boy who has seen Black friends die, Black family members stuffed in cages, my Black grandmother beaten, and my Black body raped. I am a Black boy who has seen these brutalities replay themselves over and over again on the news, on the internet when I turn off the TV, and on the stroll home through my rapidly gentrifying neighborhood when I shut off my phone.
I am a Black boy from a lineage of Black people who have never stopped seeing these cruelties for 400 years. And in the dreams that I often cannot access because my anxiety keeps me awake, I cannot avoid them either. I see them, and even if I wanted to screen them from my view, how then could I ever know where to move to stop them from devouring me?
This isn’t an essay about why Black people shouldn’t treat anxiety affected by racial trauma. This is about how sometimes it’s not the sick who need treating. Sometimes, it’s the “sane.”
Sometimes, it’s those who are able to walk around as if they have not just seen a ghost, even when they are staring straight through a boy who has been made a wraith. Sometimes, it’s the comfortable, the healthy, the happy who can only remain so if they ignore that I am still in the process of exploding. I don’t want to become one of them. I could never make it if I tried.
Sometimes, not all the time, Black folks avoiding mental health remedies is neither due to pathology nor reasonable fear, just a rejection of what needs rejecting. What if, in our necessary work to highlight very real mental health issues in our community, we gave this reality the same room to breathe that we ask for others? Could we get more of our Black parents and pastors and selves to recognize when we truly need help if we also committed to recognizing the truth that some things aren’t meant to be helped?
When I go back to therapy, and I will, it will be for other reasons. Perhaps it might help me direct these embers, but I do not plan to inform of their existence. In nearly every jurisdiction, there is an exception for psychotherapist-patient privilege when the patient is dangerous. This here flame will not be extinguished, and it is bound for arson.
If I must be engulfed, let it be by righteous rage. Let it bury me whole. Let it burn down every building surrounding me, and everything beyond that too. Let it leave nothing but soil in its wake. Let my body be a seed to plant part of a new world. I think I would give it up for that, is that crazy?
They say that every mammal lives for about a billion heartbeats, and I am sure I have already wasted twice what I was supposed to at 26 worrying about how many I have left. I worry about everything. I worry that no one will read this. I worry that someone might misread everything I have written and believe I have malicious intents toward those with mental health struggles. I worry that everyone will read this and nothing will change. I worry that everything will change except the thing I want to change most. I worry that a pill or therapy might change everything other than anti-Blackness, too. And I’m not really sure there is anything else at the root of this anxiety, so why bother trying to get rid of it?
I am high and watching Westworld, and now I can’t tell if I am a human or a robot. And now I can’t tell if I am living or dying. And the girl from Raising Hope asks Bernard if the situation they are in is one in which the glass is half-full or half-empty. “We’re engineers,” he says, “the glass has been manufactured to the wrong specifications.”
Perhaps I am both living and dying, healthy and ill, a human and a robot like one of the tortured Westworld characters. Perhaps that is all this glass can hold, violent binaries and irreconcilable dualities. Sometimes, it seems I cannot do anything other than pray to a god I do not believe in to shatter it—not even sleep. But that is only because it seems everyone would have me believe the problem is that I want to try and break it.