Therapy in the Time of the Apocalypse

How long will it take for you to see yourself?

This is what I think about while studying to be a licensed therapist. I’ve been a practicing lawyer for two decades and began my journey into therapy because I thought I could still help people. As a lawyer, I have already been trained to be an active listener, to be high functioning in trauma and conflict. Now as a therapist, I’ve learned to be present in a different way. When I slow it all down, I create a special space where I try my best to hold onto the needs of another person, share in our humanity, and have genuine compassion. I believe we all can heal. Not in a yoga pants, green juice, kind of 10-day cleansing way, but in an apocalyptical way.

Apocalypse is a word borrowed from the Greek apokálypsis, which means “uncovering, disclosure, revelation.” Uncovering oneself can feel like an apocalypse. I often think of this while grieving the state of our nation. But I’m here for it. Uncovering begins the healing process. The alternative is to perpetually cope without healing.

I began this journey into therapy, because I was in a season of life where I was stuck. My father died suddenly, and I was surrounded by people telling me, “He’s in a better place.” This left me feeling faithless: Why grieve at all? My unexpressed grief began seeping out in harmful ways including oversleeping, overeating, and overdrinking. Work with my criminal clients became my designated area for pain. Compassion became compassion fatigue, where I noticed I was viewing client calls with dread instead of my usual curiosity. The work I did with my law nonprofit, REDEEMED, lacked full support and increasingly limited resources. I was burned out. This left me susceptible to trauma, especially in the type of law I practice, carrying the pain of others through the criminal justice process. Once, early in the pandemic, I was emotionally shattered after viewing bloody crime scene photos in preparation for a case. Someone had been shot and killed, others injured. They hit me differently than with other similar cases, and this moment stole my last bit of my compassion.

Uncovering oneself can feel like an apocalypse.

My clinical training mentor, Christopher Nahumck, once said that when we’re suffering, “The conditions are right to encounter the presence of God.” And if I’d rephrase that for everybody, I’d say that in our suffering is an opportunity—as terrible as that may sound for the hurting. The conditions are right to lead to an apocalypse for our good; “good” being our ability to be fully present in our right now, in whatever way we choose. For me, it would become answering these questions: How can I be present to myself and to those around me, and how can I live as my true self in joy or pain? None of us is exempt from the ebbs and flows, the cycles, the rhythm, of all things in nature. But in that season, I couldn’t have cared less about meaning.

Compassion fatigue is different than burnout. Burnout happens when our needs consistently exceed our available resources—our money, time, reliable support. When that begins to happen, we make up the difference with our bodies. But we are a limited resource too.

Compassion fatigue at work results from the cumulative emotional, psychological, and physical effects of repeated exposure to pain, distress, or injustice. For myself, this spilled over into my personal life, which was already assaulted by images of violence to Black bodies and in serving church communities where religious services were more like low-key political rallies and group therapy than not. I became numb. I’d hear my kid bump into the wall in another room, or hear them crying, and I would take longer than I should to check and see if everything was okay. If my loving mother complained of a body ache, I’d ask, “Are you telling me this for a reason?” I couldn’t see myself.

I was sorry.

I am a Black woman in America and a Christian. My understanding of grief and my role in it was subconscious and not addressed in healthy ways. I was an intersection of my cultures, which to me meant paralyzing grief was for the weak and fatigue was not an option.

I believed that grief had a timeline and that, as a mother and Black woman, I needed to stay strong for those around me even if my responses were poor. And as a Christian, when my father died, I believed that I needed to be secure in the celebratory nature of death. But then, my last client file came, full of red splatter, and it pushed me over the edge. I was falling apart.

Compassion fatigue is different than burnout.

In the Black community I belong to, we try to heal in ways that lead us to cope, which is very different than healing. Black women blow my mind with the way we encourage each other with affirmations and phrases like, “Keep your head up, queen,” and “Keep your head held high, no matter the trial.” These words help us get through even the most devastating losses. It’s an exercise in self-love and self-respect, and also leaves us perpetually coping, costing our health, and can relegate us to patterns of self-sabotage.

We don’t often wallow in grief without feeling guilty. As it’s been said across social media, “Nobody’s got time for that!” These words, said in a spirit of affirmation, mean that we continue to be high functioning in unresolved pain, with grief being a privileged activity. We consider healing work, like therapy, to be a sign of weakness and failure or a drain on resources—it can be. But mental health care is health care, and therapy pushes us beyond coping; further than the podcast we listen to or the inspirational quotes that come right on time—but a sacred space designed specifically for us and our specific needs.

The conditions are right to lead to an apocalypse for our good

During that season of too many lives lost, I became crowded by some friendships. I could no longer hold the troubles and sadness of others, so my frustration turned to anger in the form of passive aggression. Anger is often the easiest emotion to access and blame is its bedfellow. Neither is a pleasant place to be with those we care about. Anger erases more than we know, including our ability to see ourselves, and certainly erases our ability to see the other person.

I needed distance and support, and at the time, I was courageous enough to ask only for distance. But doing so made me feel like an a-hole. And I should say, a lot of people feel like a-holes when they ask for what they need. I don’t call this essential distance “boundaries,” as popular as that is, but “needs.”

The common denominator in all my cultures, including my unhyphenated Americanness is respect. People can hide anger, fake kindness, but respect demands more; respect for the opinions and experiences of others. Respectfulness is the opposite of being an a-hole and includes recognizing our triggers, which might save us from honoring an offense with a response we’ll later regret, even if it feels amazing in the moment. Some well-placed word bombs can feel wonderful. But for this pleasure, I paid with negative self-talk. Most of us don’t realize how horrible we are to ourselves, inside ourselves. Therapy is a space to bring those quiet negative thoughts into the open where someone can hold up an honest window and reflect back what you actually think and what you are saying to yourself.

The common denominator in all my cultures is respect

But I didn’t have that yet. Instead, I was accusing myself: Had I become the a-hole? I didn’t want to be an a-hole to get my needs met.

I would find a nonjudgmental space to wrestle with myself, to see a truer self, and have my experiences validated, behaviors changed. A place that allowed me to consider and weigh multiple parts of my cultures and identities.

Being born and raised in America means that my culture includes the dominant culture, which has historically been centered around whiteness—or, in its own view, blind to my different experience in this country as a Black person. “I don’t see color,” one of the therapists told me. This phrase is not unfamiliar to me in church communities or with my therapy or law clients. Usually, I’ll just respond, “Okay,” because I don’t want to always be a teacher. But when I needed a therapist to see me and help me with my trauma responses in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Sandra Bland and Atatiana Jefferson and daily living as a Black woman, I needed a therapist who was already educated on my kind of pain and more.

And now, as I do my clinical training as a therapist, when I hear that phrase about colorblindness, I’ll say to clients, “Okay. Now, imagine you’re walking through an all-Black neighborhood and all of the neighbors are on their front lawn having a barbecue. Do you notice they’re Black? No? Okay. Then, imagine yourself walking into a new Sunday church that you’ve passed by before during service and have heard your favorite church songs bellowing out of the front doors. Imagine you missed that it was a Korean church, welcome to all, and you walk inside, experience ‘the Presence.’ Would you also notice yourself …or that everyone else there is Korean?” This is not a judgment or self-serving to me as a therapist. To create an honest space to begin the hard work of healing, we have to bring the subconscious forward—a step toward honest self-reflection—and become aware of how self interacts with the world around us. My life as a Black woman isn’t the only way my self interacts.

My cultures include life as an American, a Black woman, a Christian, a lawyer, a mother, and more. Each culture has its own rules—spoken and unspoken—and some hurt.

As a Christian, I have been part of church communities where the appearance and feeling of family can be true and beautiful, as are the religious principles of forgiveness and prayer. Prayer is a powerful meditation, and forgiveness, when approached as a process and not a just a proclamation, is liberating.

But many church cultures, including mine, can fail when they ask victims to “forgive” without also asking for responsibility and accountability from perpetrators. It’s usual that perpetrators, when confronted, if they acknowledge their behavior at all, will say some version of this self-serving statement: “God’s forgiven me, so why can’t you!” Or, “Why can’t you forgive as Jesus wants you to?” I call these holy gaslighting.

I see forgiveness as a process. Without a process, the body’s scars will seek healing with or without your conscious participation, often becoming shame in the body, anxiety, depression, overspending.

So how long will it take for you to see yourself? The answer is the same as what any good therapist would tell you: “It’ll take as long as it takes. No one can know.”

We can choose to be better to ourselves (and to each other). It gets better than this.

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