By Sukhmani Bal
“I think you should start therapy.”
“I think it would be good for you. Here, see this guy. He loves seeing my patients.” Before I can argue, my psychiatrist writes a number on the back of a business card and hands it to me.
Therapy wasn’t something I wanted to do; I hadn’t had positive experiences in the past. It was only once my boyfriend broke up with me that I called the number on the back of the card. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to have someone to talk to.
A few weeks later, I sit across from a man dressed in black and white. He is a plain man with a small presence. A far cry from my psychiatrist: a Black woman, an immigrant and a force of nature, who wears bright clothing and throws her head back when she laughs.
Therapy begins slowly; I am uncooperative at best. I firmly believe I do not need help, but I keep coming to sessions to fulfill my psychiatrist’s wishes. While I do not dislike this new therapist, I do not quite like him, either.
Am I his only Indian patient? I wonder.
The truth is, I feel that therapy is a space for white people and not somewhere I belong. It will take me a lot of work to make this a safe and comfortable space for me, too.
I don’t want to be some specimen, representative of an entire subcontinent. So, I leave my culture outside of the clinic room. I am an American in sessions; I like American things, make American references and have American problems.
I make no effort to talk about my life as a person of color, and my therapist never asks. I’m not sure how to explain to him that my parents’ wishes for me are steps toward our American Dream. I even translate my relationships; in therapy, my Nani must be referred to as “grandma.”
This experience is not entirely new. I had sought out therapists of color previously but had little luck. “Psychology Today” is filled with a sea of white faces. When I ask my white friends what therapy feels like for them, they say it feels like coming home. It does not feel like home to me.
What is home to the child of immigrants? To a girl who spent her school breaks shuttling across oceans, spending sweltering summers in Punjab. Therapy does not feel like my Nani’s house or my Masi’s house or our village in Talanian, places whose inhabitants laughed and quarreled on worn wicker chairs. No, therapy feels like a small room with blue chairs and a plain man.
My identity as a South Asian woman has always been altered in medical spaces. Even my name is abbreviated. My full name, Sukhmani, translates to peace of mind. In Punjabi, my name is soft and fragrant; it is borne from our scripture and is sung in our hymns. But “Suk,” between the teeth of white doctors, tastes metallic. If my name, the first and most fundamental aspect of my being, has to contort itself in the clinic room, how can I ever feel fully embraced?
As the conversation surrounding race in America advanced in the last year, I couldn’t stop thinking about how many white doctors I had seen who made me feel as if the wounds were my fault: The snide comments in the ER, the ignorant statements in sessions and the insistence that I must say India when asked where I’m from.
Then, I finally realized that as much as they simultaneously centered and erased my culture — so had I, with my therapist. The reason I focused on being American in therapy is because, in my mind, America had been synonymous with white. But amongst my Black and brown siblings is the real America. After this realization, all the colorful pieces of me that I left out of therapy came sharply into focus.
My therapist would often joke that if I wanted easy therapy then I should go down the hall. The therapy itself is brief, an hour a week. All of the hours surrounding it are when the work is put in. I know “easy therapy” was meant as a joke, but I thought about it often. Was I consistently showing up? Was I committed to my recovery? I knew, from then on, I needed to commit to sharing all the aspects of my identity.
Bipolar disorder, despite what the name implies, actually has four unique states. There is the euphoric mania, the productive hypomanias, the crushing depression and the mixed state.
When I was younger, I saw a YouTube video where a man put a goldfish on a hot skillet. The fish launched itself back and forth, burning on both sides until it died. That is what a mixed state is like. That is how I feel one day while driving, after not sleeping for three days — my body whirs and clicks and begs for movement.
My phone rings, buzzing loudly in the center console. It is my therapist returning my call. I pick up and tell him about my insomnia, hallucinations and this electric hum. He listens and reassures me.
“Let’s get you feeling better,” he says as I begin to cry.
In the past, the providers that I relied on for my care had left me wanting, not returning calls, rescheduling sessions; they had made me feel like a burden rather than a human being in crisis. I had carried those memories with me when I called my therapist that morning. I had not expected him to care.
As we’ve continued to work together, I’ve come to see therapy like a compass, the center from which I can chart my course. Each week, we venture forward toward a better self. All of the bits and pieces of me that are scattered across continents can finally settle into place.
I look forward to therapy now. Because this pandemic-era session takes place on Zoom, there is no longer a “performance” — how can there be when he meets me in my home, hair askew, a cat meowing loudly into the microphone?
My therapist is not a plain man at all; in fact, he’s quite funny. We find out we’re both from San Francisco, and he tells me he used to be a writer. I get nervous when I share my essays with him — fragile, imperfect things. I am embarrassed that I ever doubted him, upset with the time I wasted with my stubbornness.
I have learned that it is not the passing of time that we notice, though it has now been two years. It is all the markers that come with it. There has been gentle, inevitable progress in therapy that can only be likened to the rising sun’s quiet spill over the horizon.
Before therapy, I had long retreated from the world, lost in my books and journals. But now, I have found myself intensely alive, whole in a way I never imagined.
This post was originally published to browngirlmagazine.com. It has been edited and republished with permission.
Sukhmani Bal, MPH, serves as Director of Community Outreach at the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Cross-Cultural Student Emotional Wellness, a Harvard Medical School Affiliate. She can be reached on Twitter @realSukhmaniB
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