“Wha dem guh say?”: What Therapy Is Really Like
It doesn’t seem to matter what kind of brown you are, “what will people think?” is a mindset that has transcended oceans, thousands of miles across continents, and generations. It is a subconscious fear that has been so deeply ingrained in my mindset as a young Indo-Guyanese woman, even as a first-generation Canadian-born-and-raised professional I think twice about choices I make in how I carry myself in my community. The culture I come from that supports this mindset made seeking therapy seem like a ludicrous idea.
“Wha dem guh say?”
How could I tell a complete stranger the deep, dark thoughts running through my mind? What would people think of my parents if they heard I go to therapy? What would they think of me?
As young people of diaspora with hyphenated identities, we are children of immigrants who have internalized the notion of saving face. This conditioning has us believing that anything that can be a cause of embarrassment, judgement or disrespect within our community should be kept under lock and key, confined within the four walls of our household.
As young women, we are especially scrutinized in our families and in our communities: it is unspoken, but we have a reputation to uphold on our parents’ behalf. We learn to be silent and swallow any shame we may feel, without realizing just how harmful this can be to our mental health.
Many of us grew up in households where we were never taught what mental health is, instead hearing in passing the perceptions that perpetuates cultural stigma. This lack of education combined with a learned inability to communicate our feelings results in holding us back from considering therapy as a viable support and resource.
It takes unlearning such beliefs, and unlearning the guilt that comes with it.
We are not broken or ungrateful. We are not unworthy of a solution to experiences that seems trivial compared to that of our parents’. Seeking professional support is not a betrayal to our parents, either.
Nothing needs to be profoundly wrong or detrimental to seek help when we feel we are struggling. In fact, a confidential space free of judgement can be the form of release you need.
Therapy can be transformational, and we are absolutely deserving of using this tool and reaping the benefits of this form of true self-care. When we are our best selves we pass that along to others: our families, our partners, our friends, our communities.
I consciously began taking care of my mental health in 2018 through therapy sessions, and committed myself to a year and a half of treatment to great effect. I went into therapy so afraid that my effort and energy would be wasted, and instead it was rewarded.
I didn’t know what to expect in therapy. When I made the decision to put my life back in my hands, and free myself from the cycles I found myself in from depression and a generalized anxiety disorder, I likened it to going to a doctor’s appointment. This was just another aspect of my health that needed attention.
My therapist was a kind, young woman with dark hair and brown skin like mine. I felt immediately comforted by her brown face, her youth, her ethnic name. These all told me in silent ways that I would be understood by this woman, and the experiences shaped by my culture would not need to be explained sheepishly.
It took time and effort, but I’m not at all the anxious, panicky person I once was. Anxiety and overwhelm I feel nowadays is a lot more manageable (even if it feels really unpleasant), and my physical symptoms aren’t as severe as they used to be. Even in this pandemic, mentally I’ve been doing so much better than I ever thought possible.
If you’re new to therapy and not quite sure what to expect, here are some starting points to talk with your therapist about:
What do you hope to get out of therapy sessions?
Many of us have not been taught what mental health really is, and may have very limited perceptions of what professional help can do for us.
I came into therapy with a very open mind, having already done some research. I was completely willing to do whatever needed to be done to stop my physical symptoms and learn why it felt like an anxiety disorder had so much power over me.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, a type of therapy that is structured and goal-oriented, sounded like the best fit for me from what I read online, and I chose to see a therapist that specializes in that area.
Understand that professional help can also serve to better guide you to solutions that fit your needs (such as counselling, medication from a doctor, and provide clarity as well as direction. Seeing a therapist is a great place to start if you are unsure of exactly what you need.
Remember: therapy is not scary
I remember how intimidating the thought of seeking professional help was, and what I thought it meant to be a person desperate for relief.
Use your initial session to ask your questions about what therapy is, what it can do for you, and any fears or doubts you may have. Understand that any shame or guilt you may feel comes from how we have been conditioned. Therapy is simply a viable solution to an issue we want to resolve.
Therapy can be a transformational tool
Therapy gave me a treatment plan that turned to learning real self-care practices to care for my mental health even when therapy ends. In addition to talk therapy, these included practices such as:
Grounding techniques for when a panic attack happens
Recognizing feelings of overwhelm and how they lead to anxious spirals
Keeping a journal to recognize patterns
Self-esteem exercises to change my thought patterns
Making physical exercise part of my treatment
Exploring my gut health and how food affects my anxiety
Apps like What’s Up? to use for grounding and tracking my feelings as anxiety attacks happen
I was that person who believed I could fix this on my own and I tried everything under the sun. It only made me feel more hopeless when things weren’t getting better, and made me truly believe for a time that I was “beyond help” because nothing I did was working.
The quality of your life is in your hands, and there is no amount of cultural stigma that can hold you back from neglecting this fact of life. Getting professional help was the game-changing key to putting my life back in my hands and in my control, not anxiety. Life is the greatest journey you will ever go on. Why make it harder for yourself?