I knew at the age of 16 that life wasn’t going to be easy as a teenage, single parent. Somehow between the late nights and early days, I was able to walk across that stage and receive my high school degree. That was just one of many obstacles that I battled through.
My son was non-verbal until he was 5 years old. On some days, all he did was scream and violently beat his head against the wall. It took years of fighting with doctors, teachers and other professionals to finally get some answers to his behaviors. My son has autism, which is a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as unique strengths and differences. There was nothing I could do, but be the best mother I could be.
Life kept handing me one stressful situation after another. Miscarriages, a failed marriage ending in divorce, having to work as a stripper because I could only get someone to watch my son at night because they couldn’t deal with him during the day. One day I couldn’t take it any more. I gave away everything I owned, so the children and I could move back home.
“You just need to pray about it.”
The stress and the pressure that was my life was too much to bare. I could barely make it out of bed. There were days that I just...cried. I tried to keep it together, but I couldn’t. I drank more than I should have. I wasn’t living; I was just surviving.
I confided in my mother about being completely overwhelmed with life. I needed some help. I suggested therapy to help me cope. She was totally against it. “Don’t you go telling them people what happens in this house. What goes on in this house stays in this house. They are going to blame me anyways. They always blame the mother. Plus, you need to pray about it,” said Mom.
It would be weeks of replaying that conversation (over and over again in my head) before I would pick up the phone and call your office. I had to force myself not to turn the car around, and go back home several times. I made myself sit in your waiting area against my words of my mother and my faith.
Why am I telling you this? I wanted you to know that I was hanging on by a thread. You were my last hope. I didn’t know what else to do, so I turned to a therapist. The drinking, crying and feeling helpless could have been signs of depression. You were supposed to help me. You didn’t.
I told you about me, my struggles and how I was feeling inside. You sat there in your expensive clothing, your perfectly decorated office, and smiled at me the entire time. When I finished being open, vulnerable and raw, you said words that would haunt me to this day.
“You seem like a STRONG BLACK WOMAN, and found ways to cope. I’m proud of you. Please come back if you feel like life is too much to handle.”
“You invalidated and ignored my pain, allowing me to nearly drown in my own sorrow because you didn’t care.”
Why didn’t you hear me? Why didn’t you acknowledge the internal battle between me, my culture and my faith that I had to overcome? Why didn’t you see all of me? Why did you ignore the tears that streamed down my cheeks? Why didn’t you know that I had had enough of being “strong?”
Perhaps, you believed the stereotype that black women are strong and conditioned to handle stress better than a white women like yourself. Maybe you accepted the belief that this is my lot in life. I’m destined to struggle and somehow, make things work out. That’s what you see on television, usually solved by the end of a sitcom’s episode, or a movie: the strong, single black mom making it all work out in the end.
I’m not strong because I want to be, or because I’m trained to be. I’m strong because I have to be. You invalidated and ignored my pain, allowing me to nearly drown in my own sorrow because you didn’t care enough to know me.
On Saturday, August 5th, I’ll be speaking at the APA (American Psychological Association) Convention in Washington, DC on the topic of Decolonization and Microaggressions in Therapy. Not only will I share my story, but I will be able to share stories from other women.
No, you didn’t save me. Maybe I can help save someone else from just being “A Strong Black Woman,” and coping with it themselves.