Content note: This article contains references to incest, childhood sexual abuse, and suicidal ideation.
Admitting you need therapy can be hard. Finding a therapist can be very tough. Finding a good culturally competent therapist can be downright daunting.
I was first put into therapy when I was ten years old. My mother, who has borderline personality disorder, was able to hide her condition under the guise of portraying herself as the archetypal struggling single mother with the troublesome child. Mind you, I was only troublesome to her, particularly when I dared have thoughts that were different from hers. I was labeled defiant when I wanted to exert any form of independence considered normal for a child my age.
The therapist was an older, slightly balding white man. I didn’t like him, and I refused to talk to him. At that age, I felt there was no one I could trust — and with my mother sitting not even five feet away, on the other side of the door, I knew anything I told him would be relayed directly to her. There would be swift consequences. And, of course, I had already learned the art of repression. So, I spent the time playing video games as he tried to pull information from me. I gave him nothing.
I was in and out of therapy until I graduated from high school.
A year after graduating from college, I decided I would move back to my home state. My sole purpose was to work on my relationship with my mother. Still unaware that borderline personality was a thing, I thought that the problems in our relationship were mutual.
After a particularly volatile battle with my mother, I sunk into a two-month long depression. At one point, I wrote in journal after journal about every aspect of the abuse. I called my mother’s sister when I realized I’d been crying for weeks. I had stopped eating and was hoping to die.
My aunt took me to the hospital. The admitting nurse read through some my journals. She read out loud one instance of my mother’s sexual abuse. As I sat there embarrassed and filled with shame, my aunt started laughing. When the nurse said, with more than a little edge in her voice, “That’s not funny,” I knew for the first time in my life I was safe.
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I was hospitalized for a month. Part of my stay involved taking part in daily group therapy sessions, including one for survivors of sexual abuse. Even though I can tell you that I was repeatedly sexually assaulted by my mother, I did not understand why I was in the group for survivors. When the group leader asked me what I’d written in my journals, I asked her, “What are you talking about?”
That is how damaging long-term trauma can be.
Even though the nurse and staff were great and were gently trying to help me address my problems, the therapist who was assigned to me had a different agenda.
She always wore a dark green leather coat and carried a very expensive large handbag. She was a large, intimidating white woman from New York, had the accent to match, and always talked about her trips overseas. Her size was particularly triggering for me. When I spoke, she was disinterested and would often yawn.
After I’d been going on for awhile, she’d raise her hand to stop me and say, “Well, this is what you need to do…” I never remembered what she said, because I knew she wasn’t listening to me. I was disassociating.
This therapist kept pushing me to have a family meeting, which is how I knew she was utterly incompetent. No reputable therapist would have a patient meet and try to reconcile with a family of perpetrators and enablers who were unrepentant and lacked empathy. This woman was pushing me to have a sit-down with the woman who had raped me and the people who supported her.
I finally agreed because I thought it was what I was supposed to do. When I saw my “family” walking up to the building, I had a panic attack. I started to cry, shake, and feel nauseous. I couldn’t breathe — a normal response for someone having to face the person who had assaulted her.
Although the nurses and staff were supportive and said, “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to,” my therapist stepped in and said it was what I needed to do.
The meeting went as I had expected. I stared at the floor as the therapist, my mother, and other family members talked about how sensitive I was — or rather, that I was too sensitive and needed to toughen up because the world is a harsh place.
The only person who said anything remotely in my defense was my grandfather. After several moments of silence, the therapist had asked him his thoughts. He said, “If I hadn’t let her [my grandmother] hold onto them so tight, she [meaning me] wouldn’t be here. Maybe they’d be married and with children of their own. That’s what children are supposed to do. But she holds on too tight.”
This therapist’s unspoken instruction was to repress, repress, repress, which I did until I was 35. Then I got the courage to get a restraining order against my mother.
It wasn’t until 12 years later, and after I had gotten the restraining order, that I finally did therapy again. It was with another white woman, who first explained to me what borderline personally disorder and narcissistic personality disorder were.
My world opened up. I finally I had a name for what my mother was. I read book after book and felt as though someone had put a camera on my life and written down what they’d seen. I knew that I definitely wasn’t the problem. I felt validated.
And then my therapist broke trust. When, after a few sessions, I commented that my grandparents had been married for almost sixty years, and that my parents had divorced when I was six, she said, “I’m really surprised. Usually black people don’t get married, and the fathers usually don’t stay to raise the children.”
I drew back at her words. Everyone I had known in the neighborhood and in the church I grew up in was married. My mother was the only who was divorced.
That was the end of therapy for awhile.
I didn’t go back into therapy until after a so-called human being raped me, and I was flooded with major flashbacks. The two nurses who did the rape kit were both young African-American women. Thinking back, that was a bit of a turning point for me. Up until that point, I had received very little nurturing from anyone, let alone Black women. Sexual abuse coupled with internalized racism was a dangerous cocktail for me.
These two sistahs took care of me during one of the most vulnerable times of my life. I also started listening to a Black atheist podcast where, for the first time, I heard African-Americans not only talking about mental health issues and child abuse, but also actively discussing how to break the cycles of abuse within their own relationships.
I had my first therapy session not even a week after the rape. When I saw the woman was white, I was somewhat concerned, but I was so deep in the trauma that I couldn’t process it. After four or five weeks had passed, she suggested I set some goals for therapy. I don’t remember everything I said, but I do remember saying, “I want be able to receive therapy from an older Black woman and not be triggered.” It was the first time I’d voiced the fact that I was always triggered by larger, older Black women. Older Black women formidable in size reminded of me of being a small child dominated by my mother.
The therapist looked at me and said, “That’s a good goal. As you get older, you need to be able to look in the mirror and not see your mother. You need to learn to see you and not be triggered by people who look like you.”
After almost two years together, she helped me find an older Black female therapist. Based on our sessions, she recommended that I find someone who had extensive experience working with people with trauma, and she thought EMDR would be helpful. I went though my insurance carrier and printed out the names of about a dozen or so people. She went through and helped me narrow it down to three. Over a two-month period, I transitioned to my new therapist.
I don’t do regular sessions anymore because I’ve sort of graduated from that level of intensive treatment, but I’m proud to say that when I do have a session, I’m able to comfortably and genially receive hugs from this new therapist — someone who is slightly younger than my mother, but with a similar build. I never would have been able to do that initially.
Which brings me to my suggestions for finding your own therapist. When finding a therapist, make sure to ask yourself the following three questions.
1. Does the therapist believe me and validate my experiences?
If a therapist doesn’t believe you, that therapist is not on your side and will not be able to help you. If a therapist negates your feelings or your experiences — or tries to get you to meet with people who have perpetrated trauma against you and remain unrepentant — that therapist is not for you.
A therapist should be your advocate. A good therapist supports you and knows how to appropriately challenge ingrained negative self-perceptions in gentle, thoughtful, and effective ways.
2. Have I considered my trauma when selecting a therapist?
If your primary abuser was female, consider a male therapist. If, like me, you’re triggered by a particular ethnic group, even if it’s your own, consider a culturally competent therapist of a different race or ethnicity. When you’re ready, that person can help you work specifically through that trigger. If an older therapist reminds of your abuser, then find someone who is younger.
3. Have I asked all the questions I need to?
Ask about the therapist’s credentials. Ask about the therapist’s techniques. If religion is important to you, ask about that. Try out a session or two before deciding whether this is a person you trust. If you’ve been with a therapist for a number of years, and it is no longer serving you, find the strength to move on and let go.
Therapy can be life-changing, but you have to take time to find the right person. Taking the time is time well spent.
[Headline image: The photograph features a Black person with curly hair, a gold necklace, and a gray sleeveless top looking downward with a sad expression on their face. In the foreground is a lighter skinned person looking at the first person with their back to the camera. The foreground is blurred and the background is white.]