by CarmenLeah Ascencio
This is the first installment in CarmenLeah’s new, monthly column about QTPoC wellness and healing.
When I was 12 years old I was diagnosed with asthma because of a series of hyperventilation episodes I had in school. I wasn’t sure what triggered the episodes, yet asthma was the most common explanation for any type of breathing problems in my predominantly Black and Latinx urban neighborhood. I was given an asthma pump and every time I felt my breathing become shallow I took it. My only sense of relief was the high I got from the medication. It was not until I was 17 and having multiple hyperventilation episodes, accompanied by uncontrollable crying, tightness in my chest, pacing and anxious repetitive thoughts that I started to wonder if maybe I didn’t have asthma. These episodes persisted through college, yet the idea that I had anxiety and panic attacks was still not evident to me. I had seen what depression and anxiety looked like, as I grew up in a community where a lot of people were dealing with the emotional and psychological consequences of having survived violence and/or abuse. Since I was not a survivor, I did not think I could possibly have these kinds of symptoms. I finally understood that I didn’t have asthma, but couldn’t think of any more reasonable explanation for my panic than “something is wrong with me.” And still, with this deep sense of “something is wrong with me,” I would not seek therapy.
Deciding to try therapy is not always an easy decision, especially for QTPOC. As a queer working-class Puerto Rican, I was contending with many misconceptions and realities that prevented me from even trying therapy.
My resistance to the idea of therapy pertained to the following:
- The belief that therapy is for white people. I believed that only middle and upper class white folk had the time and privilege of indulging in the self-conceived problems of their mind, while poor and working class folks of color were busy dealing with the problems of our bills and bodies. I had learned that you worked hard. You didn’t complain if you had food and shelter. And you made it. Resilience was in our history and culture. We knew how to laugh and make do with little material resources. We did not waste time talking about our problems with a stranger. That would be weird, fruitless and white.
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- The belief that therapy is only for people with “real” problems. I grew up in a community of resilient women of color who experienced violence and abuse. Many of them were in therapy, but in my mind, their problems merited this attention and they remained steadfast in spite of their pasts. I thought that if you had not experienced trauma, that therapy was self-indulgent.
- The belief that talking through problems is a Western European practice that does not address my body, spirit or cultural perspectives. If something was wrong with me, maybe it had to do with my ancestors or my soul. Maybe it lived in my DNA. Maybe it had to do with my astrological chart. How would talking address these possible issues? And how could I find healing through a practice that was not founded in my cultural view?
- Most therapists are white. Truth. And I wanted to share my most personal feelings and thoughts with a queer black or brown woman whom I would not have to explain history, context, culture, or sexual orientation to. I did not want to be a teacher in therapy that was supposed to help me.
- Being vulnerable felt really, really scary. Anytime I shared with others from a place of vulnerability, I felt like I was going to throw up. I didn’t like that feeling.
- Generally, one needs insurance or money to go to therapy. I would have to prioritize therapy in my very limited budget in order to make my insurance co-pay (I had the privilege of insurance).
Some of my considerations were correct and some of them were erroneous. Regardless, I had not tried therapy myself so I could not say whether or not it might be useful. Many of my considerations lived in my head, where I was stuck in anxious obsessive thinking.
After some time, my anxiety became normal to me and I learned various ways to manage it. I was ok, but certainly not calm or happy. Years later, after working with survivors of violence and abuse in various non-profit organizations, I decided to study clinical social work so that I could better support survivors of trauma. It was not until I was training to be a trauma therapist myself, that I decided to try therapy. At the time I rationalized that I had to go to therapy if I were going to be a therapist myself so I would know what being a client was like.
After a few sessions with my therapist I told her that I should stop seeing her because I didn’t have problems serious enough to be worthy or interesting enough for her time. My therapist highlighted that my concern was about her needs rather than my own needs. This led to a revelatory conversation about the role I played as a caretaker in my relationships. I decided to stick with therapy, as one option among many, even while I still struggled with my existing considerations. The considerations that lived in my head were not freeing me from anxiety, so I chose to try something new in spite of the many valid (and not valid) reasons I had to avoid it.
Caring for myself eventually included committing to therapy, which led to beneficial changes in the ways I related to my own needs. Even with the bourgie straight white therapist I worked with, I got something out of it. Therapy is not the only, or always the best, option for people dealing with persistent distress. Yet it can be an option to help get us out of our heads so we can sort through our mind stuff and get what we need.
That said, as a queer person of color, how do you even pick a therapist if you want to try therapy? In my next column, I will provide guidance on the different types of therapy (there are so many!), what therapy can and cannot do for you, and how to pick a therapist, especially if you are dealing with the impact of having experienced trauma, such as violence and/or abuse.
In the mean time, if you have thought about getting therapy, ask yourself, “What are the considerations that keep me from trying therapy?” Also ask, “Is listening to these considerations helping or hindering me from having my needs met?” and “Do I have an alternative to try?” Ultimately, the question I always return to with myself and my clients is, “And how’s that working for you?” If the answer is, “It ain’t working,” then maybe it’s time to try something new.
CarmenLeah Ascencio a public health social worker, community theatre facilitator, trauma-sensitive yoga instructor, educator and proud Boricua 2nd generation queer femme. She is currently the director of Get Free, a Black Girl Dangerous program, and is the creator of Freedom Labor Love, a consultancy business that helps organizations and schools be trauma informed, emotionally healthy and inspired social change environments. CarmenLeah facilitates BGD Get Free workshops at organizations and schools. To find out about booking CarmenLeah, go here.
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