My sophomore year of college was one of the most stressful times of my life. I had a nightmare of a breakup and developed severe and chronic respiratory issues; meanwhile I was in school full-time and working two jobs. I felt like I was constantly carrying a bag of bricks on my back. I lost 20 pounds that year, and not intentionally. I didn’t stop going to my classes, but any time I wasn’t studying or at work I was either crying or sleeping. On top of all that I felt horribly guilty for being unhappy, because I had the privilege of living in a safe and beautiful university environment.
At first I tried talking to my friends and family about how I was feeling, but they quickly grew frustrated with my endless distress, and the fact that none of their advice or admonishments seemed to help, so I stopped mentioning my sadness to anyone, and withdrew deeper into the dark hole in my heart.
I tried a bunch of things that people had told me would help: exercise, meditation, prayer, self-help books, herbal supplements, etc. Nothing worked. The only relief I got was sleep, because at least when I was unconscious I didn’t have to feel anything.
When I woke up one winter day to find that I’d slept for 14 hours, through an entire day of classes, I realized things had gotten really bad. Desperate, I talked to my RA about my situation. He recommended I contact the school’s counseling center.
Now, I was raised by a father who believed that therapy was only for people with “serious issues” (e.g., a personality disorder, or getting over major trauma and abuse). He, like many African American men of his generation, stigmatized mental-health care for a variety of reasons (summed up well in this interview on NPR). He grew up in the segregated American South, in a society that saw black people as mentally inferior, so the pressure was high to present himself as competent, strong, and lacking problems. He taught me to be resilient, at all costs, in the face of adversity. Mental illness, to him, was a character flaw—a sign of weakness. When I mentioned my stress and sadness to him, he told me I was “oversensitive” and that my issues were “luxury problems.” He encouraged me to increase my church attendance, count my blessings, and toughen up.
So when my RA suggested I talk to a therapist, I told him that I wasn’t “crazy,” I was just “experiencing a temporary human setback,” and I didn’t appreciate his pathologizing my situation, which was just stress, not “depression.” He quietly wrote the number of the counseling center on a Post-it, stuck it on my desk, and left the room.
I spent the next hour staring at the number, weighing the pros and cons of therapy. Finally, it dawned on me that prayer and “sucking it up” were obviously not working for me, and that this was the only option left. I heard these words in my head: This pain can stop now, just call—and I did.
I started to feel a little better as soon as I’d made the appointment. I had made a decision to do something for myself that went against everything I had ever been taught. It was one of the first “adult” decisions that I’d made on my own terms, and I was proud of myself for making it. This was my first step toward feeling like myself again.
When I arrived at the counseling center, I was super nervous. I glanced around the room, and when I noticed a girl from my French class, I almost ran out. But then my name was called and I was walked to the therapist’s office. The first thing I look at in any room is the bookshelves, and I noticed that hers held books on feminism and on diversity in higher education, which gave me some confidence. Then the therapist just asked, “How are you feeling?” And for the first time I felt like I didn’t have to answer with my usual “Fine, thanks,” but instead could tell someone what was REALLY going on.
The rest of her questions were similarly simple, open-ended, nonjudgmental: “How does that make you feel?” “What makes you feel supported?” “What would feeling better look and feel like for you?” These were things I hadn’t even asked myself, and answering them in that office put me in touch with thoughts and feelings I’d been bottling up for a year. Unlike friends and family tend to do, she didn’t respond with advice or reprimands, but just acknowledged my experiences with compassion. Instead of trying to solve my problems, she listened to me. It was incredibly empowering.
It has been a decade since I met my first therapist at the campus center. I’m sad to say that I don’t even remember her name today. She armed me with the tools I needed to set stronger boundaries in my relationships, develop healthy ways of coping with stress, and shift my negative thought patterns to more positive ones.
I still go to therapy today. Not because it hasn’t “worked”—but because it works so well for me that I just keep gaining more wisdom and strength from it, and I don’t want to give that up. I look forward to my weekly appointment, that one hour when I get to explore my thoughts, feelings, and struggles with someone caring and nonjudgmental and totally separate from the rest of my life, who knows my story and is rooting for my success, happiness, and health.