I started going to therapy because I needed to get out of the clutter of my thoughts and the perceptions of others. Perceptions are distorted even more when you cast in the advent of social media. I started judging my life based on my perceptions of other people’s lives. Why am I not as successful as that person? Why didn’t my article get more likes? Do I have anything of value to offer? I couldn’t get away from it because social media is always on, and makes even the most off-the-grid spaces social.
My full-time job is in social media, so going dark wasn’t always an option.
In moments when l was able to take a break, the everyday, internal, negative noise that comes from just being human was still present. Some of the noises were more pronounced: living as a Black man, a gay man, a hybrid of both. Other negative thoughts had nothing to do with being Black or gay. I had to step outside of myself to better deal with all the negativity.
I needed a safe space outside of my partial identity so I could better navigate through my own thoughts and outside perceptions. Therefore, I decided to see a therapist in hopes of them providing a level of objectivity that I couldn’t find in my friends and family. Unfortunately, I didn’t find a safe space in therapy.
I don’t think I was quite a warm foot into my therapist’s office before she expressed her shock and surprise over my family’s background. Having a present, loving, and contributing dad in my life was the stuff fairytales are made of judging from my therapist’s reaction. Sprinkle in my parent’s 30-plus year marriage, and you have a Disney movie. I wasn’t offended because I’ve gotten used to defending my family’s stability to people–white people. I even grew desensitized to their reactions. But I did not expect to encounter such judgments in therapy.
It took me awhile to realize what was happening because I was on autopilot. It wasn’t until a few sessions in that I concluded my therapist was not the therapist for me. I should’ve known something was up when she opened with a “I don’t know a whole lot about Black men in America, but…”– the equivalent to saying, “Not to sound racist, but…”
I braced myself for the mess of a follow-up. I stopped comprehending after about the fourth or fifth word in, but the Cliff’s Notes version of what she was saying is that Black fathers don’t take care of their families. I was scared of how calm I was the entire time. Looking back on it, I'm not sure if my demeanor was calmness or ambivalence. When I questioned the basis of her claim, she simply responded with data. I thought about throwing the Kleenex box at my therapist.
Instead, I advised her that although data and statistics are needed to help a community’s most at-risk people, others often use those same statistics to defend stereotypes, which is what she was doing. I stressed that the Black community is filled with narratives of single and two-parent households–that both serve as points of reference to stability across family connections and finances. I could tell that my therapist had an "Aha" moment. I remember thinking, “Time all the way the hell out, aren’t 'Aha' moments reserved for the patient in therapy, not the therapist?”
I don’t think of myself as a unicorn, but I grew so accustomed to dispelling misconceptions and flat out stupidity regarding my identity that I damn near forgot that I was the patient in my therapy session. I wasn’t angry or surprised at my therapist, but unconsciously expecting her behavior. Needless to say, I discontinued therapy.
I stopped seeing my therapist because I needed a counselor who had an basic understanding of race as it applies to Black and brown bodies in the United States. So much of my existence is rooted in other people’s problems with my Blackness. I don’t care to villainize my therapist, and I certainly don’t think of her as a racist. But similar to many people, my therapist lives in a bubble of her own world. And the world doesn’t have to concern itself with genuinely understanding Black lives, which in this case, translated into my therapy, or lack their of.
“I know they’re not racist” is not a benchmark for cultural sensitivity or in a lot of cases, basic common sense especially for those who work to help people figure out their lives. The professional job of a therapist is weaved around people and their identities. Just like I needed to step outside of myself to better grasp my thoughts, I needed her to step outside of herself to better understand me.
And because of white privilege, none of this happened.
I don’t have a sudden mistrust for therapists, but what I do trust is that my therapist won’t be the last person I’ll have to challenge stigmas with–she certainly wasn’t the first. My therapist understood why I canceled therapy and apologized. I just hope she learns from our brief exchange and uses it as context to provide future patients of color with a more progressive and enriching experience.
Terrence Chappell surfaced on Chicago’s media scene as UR Chicago Magazine Online’s fashion editor. Since then, he has worked and contributed to various media outlets such as Michigan Ave. Magazine, CS Magazine, and The Men’s Book. Currently, Terrence serves as the editor-at-large for ChicagoPride.com, the city’s largest LGBT entertainment and news website where he writes “Chappell Confidential,” a nightlife and society column. Terrence also heads “Chappell on Community,” the site’s newest editorial monthly series that profiles the LGBT community’s most innovative leaders.