That’s Not What We Do
Before my breakdown there was a running joke whenever I felt particularly loopy or bogged down at school. We have health insurance you know, you can go to a psychiatrist if you need to. It was an option that both of us knew I would not take. You had to have a lot of time and privilege on your hands to need a therapist. In short, it’s a rich white people thing.
So, when I had a mental breakdown four years ago my mom took me by the hand and told me something insanely simple and insanely complicated. She told me I could go to the doctor if I wanted, but that was where they got us. That was not what we did.
Both my parents are college professors and agnostics. This was not a conversation lead by too much faith or too little education. I had not grown up with an aversion to medical care. I loved going to the dentist. I got regular physicals and eye check ups. My mom got regular mammograms. We took medicines when we needed them. Christian Scientists we were not.Therapy was just not a necessity and mental checkups were discussions you had with your family.
It wasn’t until I trapped myself in my childhood room trying to avoid thinking about knives that I realized, maybe there’s something to that whole therapy thing. Maybe talking to someone before I got to the point where I couldn’t look at a drawer of cutlery without mentally freaking out might have stopped me from getting there in the first place.
But even while thinking that I still immediately understood what my mother meant. Psychiatry was a type of patient submission that differed from every other type of medical care. Psychiatry was the reason that women with “hysteria” had to endure electro shock therapy. Psychiatry was the reason black mothers are still told their children don’t have autism because it‘s thought of as a disorder only white children got. Too much trust in medicine causes the Tuskegee Study, leads to unwanted sterilization, leads to agent orange. Psychiatry was a space where women and black people were test subjects, not patients.
In that moment my mother relayed to me something I already knew and still know now, four years later. Being black and being female meant knowing that white male psychologists will often never truly understand what’s happening in your head better than you do. Not only that, but they were educated by a system that is predisposed to using and harming the some most important aspects of my identity. What she was telling me was that this was a time where systems of healing were not made for me. Teeth cleanings and pap smears were safe, but the fourth floor of the hospital was still off limits unless truly necessary.
So instead of checking myself into the psych ward, I got a summer poetry internship. And when at home, I channeled all of my energy into a newly developed obsession with Korean pop culture. I watched hours of Korean soap operas, learned all of the exhaustively long list of current kpop bands, song names, and even lyrics in English and Hangul. I followed every kpop and kdrama centered blog tumblr had to offer.
I researched all of the sponsored English teaching positions there. I watched videos and listened to podcast made by expats. I still was afraid to walk into my own kitchen most of the times, afraid of myself and my own mind. But I created an asylum in Seoul and I went there through my computer screen every night, falling asleep reading subtitles and marveling at immaculate complexions and noses.I researched all of the sponsored English teaching positions there. I watched videos and listened to podcast made by expats. I was still afraid to walk into my own kitchen most of the times, afraid of myself and my own mind. But I created an asylum in Seoul and I went there through my computer screen every night, falling asleep reading subtitles and marveling at immaculate complexions and noses.By fall I moved back to my college apartment and started classes again. No one except my mom and a couple of my closest friends knew anything had been out of the ordinary. And they thought my new little k-pop obsession was cute and quirky.
Still of course, I wonder, what could have been. If I had gone to the doctor, would I still be on medication? What would I have been diagnosed with? Would the healing process still be happening now? Or would it all have been over faster, would the transition have been more complete? Will I eventually end up right back in that head space one day, some leftover fragment of illness bursting into life, leaving me immobile on a couch?
That summer was a nightmare for me and my mom who watched over me, who reminded me what sanity was in the moments I forgot how to find it. But that summer ended. It ended without drugs. It ended without a single trip to a sterile room or a single warm handshake with a doctor. It ended without overnight stays in hospital beds or the smell of antiseptic. It ended without suicide watches. It ended devoid of all the things she was trying to protect me from.
I still watch Kdramas now, but only when I’m depressed. I’ve realized that reality, whether its one where I’m ill or one where my society is ill, is something you need to sometimes escape in order to survive. The brain is not like a leg or an arm. It can’t just be placed in a splint or a cast. And psychiatry is not yet color or gender blind. But the brain is still a part of the body, a part that can break, a part that needs time and space for healing, just like an arm. How do I know which is worse: A proven history of oppression through medicine, or my own proven mental health issues? Both sides seem like potential minefields. As a Black person I know better than to call the cops at the first sign of trouble. But does that mean also having to stop myself from calling the doctor?
In an article about the terrorist attack in Charleston, Hanif Abdurraqib wrote something that sums up the answer I have found to all of these questions. “to be a Black woman in America is, in a way, to feel like you will survive until you decide to stop surviving.”