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the therapy issue
What used to seem like an admission of defeat became a source of strength.
Credit...Photo illustration by Trevor Davis
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By Ismail Muhammad
In 10th grade, a Jewish kid who had just gained admission to the high school I attended — a magnet school established to combat racial segregation by admitting students from across Los Angeles — showed up in my Japanese class. We were a cadre of Korean, Black and Latino kids who had been drawn to the class by curiosity about Japanese culture, and the sudden presence of a white student in the middle of the semester piqued our interest. In skinny jeans and sleek glasses, he reminded me of Rivers Cuomo; we became fast friends.
So I don’t know why, when he and I were talking about afternoon plans, his casual mention that he was going to therapy irked me so much. Therapy? I’d known him long enough that I grasped the rough details of his family life — two professional parents and a younger sister living about a 20-minute drive north of my own family, on a quiet street in the Miracle Mile district. What did a white kid living that kind of life need with therapy?
Thinking back on that exchange, I’m embarrassed by my presumptuousness, but also surprised at what it seemed to register. Some people definitely needed therapy, I realized, and did not seek it out; like my extended family, many of whom were haunted by drug addiction and the pain of gun violence. But seeking it out in the first place seemed, to me, like a blemish, an admission of defeat.
My aversion to therapy was probably a result of a misunderstanding about what therapy is for. In my mind, it was a crutch for those whose minds and hearts were broken, who had something fundamentally wrong with them. I can’t say how I absorbed these thoughts, but one way or another it was clear to me that someone’s need for therapy was bound up in my perception of their strength and the integrity of their personhood. I admired my parents, a couple of latter-day Horatio Algers who grew up in South Los Angeles and Detroit at the height of the 1960s civil unrest and were witness to some of the most heinous, demoralizing, terrifying violence in this nation’s history. My parents experienced all this and came out on the other side, injured but proud. There was dignity in that, I felt, a quiet strength you exercised by biting your tongue, as hard as you needed to, even if you severed it.
Unfortunately, my inner life didn’t match my parents’ steeliness. I was a moody kid, prone to melancholic jags. My mom loves to clown me about how, at 6 years old, I would put on an old Don McLean LP of hers — the “American Pie” album — and set the needle down on “Vincent,” McLean’s mournful paean to Vincent van Gogh’s volatility. Sitting in a chair next to the record player, I’d play the song over and over and over, listening tearfully. When my favorite TV characters died, I’d mourn them, staying in my feelings for days at a time. When I became a teenager, I spent flat, sunny L.A. days listening to Radiohead, trying to conjure a vibe that felt closer to my baseline emotional state. Culture became a prosthesis, a way to manage and explore my psychology. If I had no idea how to develop an intimate relationship with myself, art was an acceptable way to understand feeling.
By the time I was an adult, this dissonance between how I was and how I wanted to be — or how I thought I should be — weighed on me. Things came to a head in 2015. Mentally and emotionally exhausted after passing my qualifying exams during graduate studies at Cal Berkeley, I returned all my books to the campus library and lay down in bed for a week. I ate Trader Joe’s cookies and binged “Arrested Development” before decamping back home to Los Angeles, where I crawled into bed and ate Ben & Jerry’s while rewatching “Mad Men” for a few weeks more. What at first felt like luxuriating in success started to feel like misery, a desperation I was confused and embarrassed by. Something about the process of studying for the exams had lowered a screen between myself and the world. The obsessive, analytic frame that had been a boon in one part of my life became a burden in every other regard. It was like having a vindictive second head on my shoulder, a bummer party guest whispering clever skepticism into my ear. The anxiety over failure that characterized my year of preparation thickened instead of dissipating.
I returned to Berkeley in the fall, my tongue between my teeth, worried about what admitting my difficulties might mean for academic progress. It turned out that a few of my friends — white women, mostly — had been having similar struggles and begun making use of university-approved therapists. When they told me about how they confided in these strangers, I politely listened, and even contemplated seeking out my own therapist. But I couldn’t quite shake my old reservations. I spent my days sitting in classrooms, reading in the California sun, taking notes in cafes. What did somebody like me need therapy for?
As the fall wore on, though, ballooning distress compelled me to try. When I finally sat down with a handful of therapists, I was put off by what they asked me to explore: my childhood, my parents, my feelings — oh, God. Though I probably intuited that I needed a guide to help me explore my interior life, what I wanted was someone to help me troubleshoot what I interpreted as a malfunctioning brain, not plumb emotional depths that had been heretofore blocked. Eventually I met a therapist who practiced cognitive behavioral therapy, an approach whose orientation toward problem-solving suited me. C.B.T. gave me language and strategies that were comfortable, a tool kit for conquering the knotty thicket of my emotions.
A few months into working with this therapist, I went back home and nervously told my family about my decision and what had precipitated it. I’d learned to register, name and acknowledge my feelings as a way of managing them rather than being overwhelmed. Immediately I recognized the sheer fear I felt in trying to communicate all this to my brother and parents. The crestfallen look on my mother’s face made me regret, briefly, telling them at all. Had she done something wrong as a parent? she asked me. As if I were undergoing treatment for an illness, she wondered how long I’d see my therapist. Sadness sneaked up on me as I tried to describe my emotional life to people who I knew loved me but with whom I communicated through a haze of mutual discomfort.
My family and I, I realized, lacked the habits of thought and feeling that would let us be present for ourselves and one another. My therapist had pulled a sleight of hand, giving me the tools I wanted while knowing full well they would teach me how insufficient my understanding of therapy was, how much more work it would take to explore and understand myself. That haze I noticed was the damage inherent in the version of strength that my parents had modeled for me, and that I imagine their parents had modeled for them. That strength was a survival strategy in a world that had dealt us a thick history of loss; a generational coping mechanism far easier to adopt than self-knowledge, especially when that knowledge might confer heart-stopping grief. I couldn’t go about “fixing” myself any more than I could erase any of that loss. But I could learn to be in the world in a different way — to acknowledge and give voice to grief, and in the process, maybe, encourage my family to do the same.
Ismail Muhammad is a story editor for the magazine. He has written about waves of migration to New York, diversity in publishing and the filmmaker Garrett Bradley. Trevor Davis is an artist, a designer and an arts educator in Brooklyn. He creates mixed-media collages using painting and hand-drawn elements, in work that reflects the Black American memory, family and culture.
A version of this article appears in print on , Page
of the Sunday Magazine
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