Of Therapy, Race and Unpaid Labor

About two years ago shit was getting super real and with every passing day it become increasingly apparent that I was in need of some GOOD CLEAN THERAPY.

I was raised by therapists, and my brother is a therapist- I often joke that its the family business and wonder to myself how long it will take me to just give into the familial calling and become a therapist myself.

I will now guide you on a picturesque stroll through therapist-memories past-

  1. I had a childhood therapist analyze my IQ for scholarly aptitude at age 7. This was bogus though because the test was done in English and the time I primarily spoke and understood only Spanish. Bet that douche isn’t bilingual.
  2. During my parent’s divorce, my brother and I endured family therapy with the dreaded Evan- she was the first to suggest we be given chores to help my mom out. Can you even handle the nerve?!?! My job was to set the table. My brother’s job was to take the trash down the hall to the trash chute. One night he decided that rather than walk down the hall a few hundred feet,  he would chuck it off of our eighth floor balcony. The trash bag landed on the balcony of our downstairs neighbors, exploded, and littered their property with our mail. Not exactly an airtight plan right there.
  3. I asked for a therapist my first year of high school- actually just for fun. My mom found me an older lady with cats, who lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She didn’t understand me AT ALL.
  4. I was provided with a therapist after my abortion my second year of high school and I requested a male therapist this time around- who the FUCK can even understand why. I think I was trying to be edgy, and he was as confused as I was.
  5. I got myself a therapist through my college my sophomore year when I started experiencing extreme anxiety- Marge Litchford. Marge was a great therapist but then later went on to hit on me and completely disrespect the patient-therapist code of conduct, opting instead for a complete abuse of power which included (but wasn’t limited to) using facts from my life that I shared in therapy against me in a sick game of Two Truths and a Lie. Playing the game was her idea. So was inviting me out to dinner and suggesting that although she can’t “break the rules,” (presumably because of her occupation as a THERAPIST, our extreme age difference, my status as a former patient of hers…) I should “throw caution to the wind.” These last two comments were completely unprompted by me, and punctuated a bizarre night of personal panic and dissociation.
  6. This last experience seriously soured me on therapy, which is a shame because I really needed help at the time. Smith College provided me with a therapist to process the situation with Marge – just to cover their asses- but they didn’t fire her. In fact, they promoted her, and for the remainder of my college career I would endure public panic attacks any time I saw her on campus.
  7. I don’t feel any sort of guilt here using her actual name and the name of my school. According to Smith’s website, Marge is now available via Google Chat. How nice.
  8. Took a long hiatus from therapy after college.
  9. I decided I needed more therapy sometime during my first year in Portland. Probably because I couldn’t understand why I had moved to Portland- but thats neither here nor there. I started with the therapist my partner at the time was seeing, but she was really nice and gentle, and I need someone to smack me when I try to bullshit my way through things. She clearly wasn’t up for the task.
  10. She suggested I see this other person, who was located a 45 minute drive from my house- which is hard to imagine, considering everything in Portland is within like a five mile radius. Previous therapist assured me that this therapist would “hold my feet to the fire.” But alas, she wasn’t up for the task of my BS either.

So I gave up for a little bit. And during this break once mentioned to my ex that I didn’t understand how everyone in the queer community was always talking about how they were healing. I was like – I’m not healing from anything- IM FINE.

Right.

But the truth is- I wasn’t healing because I was in the depths of denial. And after years of suppressing everything, things started to boil over. At the time that I started realizing it was time to get back to therapy, I was going through a break-up, my father was getting sober and suffering extreme fluctuations in health (he also moved to back to Chile at this time and found out that my step mother— whom he had been married to for over 25 years— was gas-lighting him), I was starting the process of buying a house- which is a total privilege and also very stress inducing, and my body was showing extreme physical manifestations of anxiety- – – I really needed to talk to someone.

I strongly believe in the clarity that can come from processing with someone who is completely uninvolved in your life, but the task of getting into therapy is daunting, and finding the right one can feel like an insurmountable challenge. There should be a Tinder for therapists- just a brief snippet of what they focus on, if they accept insurance, what their sliding scale is if they don’t take insurance, and as cute or calming a picture as they can find. Cause finding a therapist is like dating, if dating involved delving into your most vulnerable shit in one hour increments every single time you go out. And always being the one that pays for dinner.

One weekend I drove out to the coast for a friend’s going away party, and she asked if I could bring one of her friends back to Portland with me. On the 2 hour drive home we talked about all kinds of stuff, one of them being therapy, and she told me that her current therapist had changed her life. I took it as a sign that maybe this could be the therapist for me. She mentioned that her therapist- we shall call her Cindy- also worked with sound healing, which in my head I was like “what the hell is that???” but didn’t press the matter and instead got Cindy’s contact info and thanked my new friend for the lead.

I should note here that I am a no-nonsense East Coaster and when I first moved to Portland was allergic to all talk of: astrology, tarot, woo, crystals, phases of the goddamn moon etc.

+++

The first session went just fine. We got some basics out of the way, and I found that I enjoyed speaking with her. I was right there with her on most of her insights, and her take on things. The first session ends without much fan-fair.

Second session- I wear my hair in braids, which is what I do when its too greasy for decency and I don’t have time or motivation to shower before getting on with my day. I sit down for the session, and she looks at me and with a smile says “Well, don’t you look like your beautiful indigenous self.”

This is the part where the record stops because she is a nice older white lady, and I am young and ornery Latina.

Like in most questionable racist and misogynist moments, I swallow my shock, and carry on. Because, as backwards as this is, I don’t want to question someone and make them feel uncomfortable or on the spot. I don’t want to assume the worst, and clearly she thought she was paying me a compliment. But fucking hell, if I don’t get a stupid ass comment every time I wear my hair in braids.

I work in customer service in Portland Oregon, for crying out loud. Talk about mislead white people trying to be nice by fetishizing you incessantly. I think people get excited when it looks like “Pocahantas” is making their latte.

Here is a snippet of some of the things people have actually said to me during my time in Portland-

Wow your skin is so tan. NO- its not “tan” if its my year round skin color.

Omg you went camping for the first time just 2 years ago? Thats so chola of you! NO- chola isn’t a blanket term for all Latin American people raised in an urban environment. Also- what?

Gracias for my latte! NO- I took your order in English, you are not my friend, my language isn’t just a fun tourist moment for you. ALSO what a privilege to just speak spanish freely as a white person, without ANY THREAT OF DEPORTATION.

You speak Spanish?! No way- can you teach me? NO- will you just quickly teach me coding in exchange? Also- see above. Also, why? Like really- why do you want to know how to speak Spanish? So you can order your burrito in Spanish? Give me a break.

BUT I DIGRESS-

So here is this new nice therapist, saying some super questionable shit to me. But I push on with the session and in my head tell myself I am never coming back.

During the following days I tell everyone about what Cindy said. “O M G can you believe this lady?” “blah blah blah what a terrible person!” And my friends and community members lovingly followed along, ooed and ahhed and agreed and said, “ugh you clearly need to leave. her. in. the. dust!”

And yes- that was a totally bone-headed misguided thing to say. But also, now stay with me here- People Mess Up. That doesn’t make it ok, and its up to PoC on an individual basis to make the choice regarding how much unpaid labor they want to put into the general education of white people. But I knew that there was more going on for me here. Yes, she said something offensive, but also, I was pretty freaked out about taking steps to move towards healing, and trying things that were new to me (like, um, sound healing…) that could be good for my anxiety, my relaxation, and my relationship to therapy. It would have been much easier for me to ditch this therapist and claim that she couldn’t understand me based on her misunderstanding of race and fetishizing- which would be well within my right- than it would have been for me to confront her about the comment and push forth into the unknown, taking potential steps towards some personal healing.

I have done a lot of unpaid emotional labor in my life- both femme and PoC. It exhausts me, it really does. I also have come to understand that some of it is my work in this world. I have found myself countless times in positions of mediation and leadership, starting at age 5; some of those situations have been detrimental to me and have been forced upon me without my consent. Other times that position has helped shape me into who I am, has played off of innate strengths and a deep ability to empathize, and has given me strength. I engage in this labor at work, where I do get paid, and in my social and familial life, where I have needed to develop tools to discern whether or not it is additive or detrimental. I have worked a lot on learning to have boundaries.

At the next session, I sat across from her and said:

“Before we get started, I need to address a comment you made last session.”

I outlined what she had said, how it made me feel, and why it was inappropriate and steeped in white supremacy. She apologized, explained where she was coming from, and didn’t make excuses. She thanked me for helping her understand. We got into a deeper conversation about choosing to be in a therapeutic relationship, and how both parties involved need to make sure its a good fit. She said:

“I understand you have reservations about working with me, and I thank you for telling me about those reservations. I too have my reservations about working with you.”

“What are those reservations?”

“You are very cut off emotionally and I am not totally sure that you are interested in digging deep and making yourself vulnerable to the process.”

WELL DAMN LADY, AREN’T YOU JUST HITTING THE NAIL ON THE HEAD.

We shared our reservations, our honest observations about each other and whether or not the relationship could work; I felt like she was seeing me as clearly as she could.

What I have gained over the past two years of therapy with her has been invaluable and imperative. I had a few sessions of sound healing- and it was weird and not totally my thing, but I am glad I tried it- and worked at unraveling why I go right into my thoughts when an emotion comes up, worked at understanding family of origin relationships that no longer serve me to perpetuate, and got closer to feeling my own personal power and standing more fully in myself.

+++

I am honestly still on the fence a lot of the time regarding how much its the responsibility of PoC to teach white people about the ways in which they perpetuate racism and white supremacy. Even without meaning to or knowing thats what they are doing. Cause, duh, white people- you have access to the internet and BOOKS and a responsibility to be the least shitty iteration of yourself. PoC are also engaging in personal work, and the added work of holding your hand through race 101 (and putting up with white fragility and tears) is really, just honestly, asking too much. And so actually, fuck being on the fence- its NOT the responsibility of ANY PoC to guide you through understanding your racism. Just like it isn’t femme/female identified people’s responsibility to help misogynists (in alllll their iterations) stop speaking over the femmes and female identified people in their lives.

If individuals benefitting from the power of being favored within dominant culture find themselves learning from a member of any marginalized community, they are extremely lucky.

In this situation with the therapist, I did the math in my head of what I stood to lose from making myself extremely vulnerable and helping a white person evolve, vs. what I could possibly gain. I ended up gaining a positive long term relationship with a therapist who helped me a lot. In 90% of cases where I am working to help lift the veil of white supremacy and the patriarchy, I actually gain very little aside from knowing that I am *maybe* keeping someone else in my community from having to do the work for this particular individual. My chance of not being objectified or fetishized in this particular instance has passed, and I missed it.

And this is a VERY cursory explanation of the risk management those of us in marginalized communities asses on a constant basis moving through this world.

I guess my ultimate take away is that my relationship to therapy, especially the white anglo tradition of therapy, has always been a complicated one; its been a relationship that at times has taken more away from me than it has given me. I am back on another hiatus, and as with most other parts of my life, unpaid PoC labor played a role in this most recent leg of my “therapy journey.”

Interacting with each other within the system of white supremacy affords us all with various opportunities: the opportunity to learn, the opportunity to work and teach, the opportunity to assert boundaries, and the chance to feel both enlightened and exhausted. Its up to each of us, my fellow PoC queer femmes with whom I share my particular community, to make the call for ourselves when to engage, and when to keep ourselves safe and for ourselves.

I know the work needs to be done, and that teaching is, and will continue to be, an imperative part of dismantling white supremacy.  But I think its important to understand at what cost it actually comes.

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