Dr. Tubman: The Universe Sent Me a Black Woman Therapist

Photo credit: Neosha Gardner

I sat on the couch of a woman who decorates her office to make it feel like a home outside your own. She has locs dipped in watercolors. She has a favorite lamp that went missing once before our session, and I watched her get mad as a coworker returned it. I’ve watched her laugh and tear up with and for me. At our first meeting, after I emptied out my chest to her, then a stranger, she looked me in my eyes and said, “I see you.”

I met her after a fellow clinician reached out after my social media cry for help.

“I need new coping skills,” I said behind red eyes, devoid of resolution and hope.

“Give me your information. I want to send you to my colleague.”

I had put into the universe that I desired a Black woman therapist. My previous therapist, a white woman, understood the struggle of being the child of an alcoholic but didn’t give me what I needed in regard to being a Black woman navigating existence in America… let alone Trump’s America.

Being given what I needed, when I was falling apart, showed me I was not just yelling prayers at the sky. They actually do get answered.

I sat in her office with a box full of my limbs, toxic religious ideologies, martyrdom ideation, PTSD, suicidal thoughts, and bags that didn’t belong to me but I carried anyway. Growing up in church, we’re taught to take on others’ burdens, confessions, and dark secrets, never being told of the consequences. The heaviness and silence of depression and anxiety were my daily norm.

I began to unpack. Until that moment, unpacking always came with a caveat: I could only unpack to a degree, to a level deemed comfortable for the receiver. Anything outside of that was mine to deal with.

She watched me flip over my box.

First, she gave me a safety plan and instructed me to list what I usually do in a spiral, and a healthy alternative. I struggled to finish it.

I told her I felt guilty that my child wasn’t the first person I thought of when it came to saving my life.

“Ma’am, who told you your daughter had to be the first person?” she warmly chastised.

“Because I wanted to have that type of bond with her. But I know it’s suffocating. That doesn’t belong to her, to worry about me, to feel like I do anything for or because of her. That’s not fair in my eyes, but I’m not sure how to express that properly.” Guilt is more familiar to me than understanding.

She looked at me. “This is your safety plan, and whatever you decide to put here is for you and only you. There is no guilt here. Who told you to feel bad about that? That that made you a bad mother?”

I didn’t have an answer. I never knew that could be an answer. I again took the familiar way out and blamed myself. She lovingly stops me when I haven’t taken a breath in a while.

I have roots hanging from my lips from seeds I was forced to swallow.

Weeks later, once we were down a shed full of boxes with my limbs reattached, I tell her I don’t recognize this new person I’m becoming and it scares me. That I’m terrified of becoming my mother. That I didn’t know I was carrying baggage, and I’m not used to being so light.

I tell her about my complicated views on “family”. I share that I can’t reconcile family with blood in most ways. I ask why my parents, in tandem with hurting each other, also chose to hurt me; the one who didn’t choose to be here.

“What if their only job was to get you here?”

I’m puzzled.

“Go with me. What if their only assignment was to get you here, to this earth at that time, to be who you are and who you’re destined to be… and you were never meant to have a relationship? It’s natural to expect that. They’re Mom and Dad. But sometimes ‘mom and dad’ aren’t who we think they are. Sometimes they come along later as people who enter our lives and fill those gaps. And that’s okay.”

I never knew that was possible. And it made all the sense in the world. I sat in her chair, speechless.

She reminds me to breathe. I can’t say anything.

“You mean I can let go? I can be okay?”

“Let them go, Joi. It’s okay.”

She has given me so many gems, including these quotes:
“My no is my no.”
“Get out of the slave thinking, brown girl.”
“Just breathe… and shut up.”

And I gave this to myself: “Yo, shoutout to me.”

Being a Black woman in therapy is now being normalized. Speaking openly and courageously about our individual and collective struggles is a revolutionary act.

Black women desiring and working toward being well is offensive to some, and I no longer apologize for cherishing my livelihood over family secrets. I am no one’s punching bag, waiting room, or infirmary. I am not a harborer of unnecessary pain, a workhouse for the Black community, or a willing participant in struggle love that never gets past struggle.

In therapy, I speak of my dreams, my vision, being an empath, feeling everything. I completed an exercise that included naming everyone whose baggage I was still carrying. I wrote about my grandmother and feeling like her life, her baggage, is more of a mission for me. I’ve cried and watched her cry. We’ve laughed together and talked shit. I wish I could bottle the purity of our first meeting and give it to every Black woman who doesn’t feel seen.

If it’s any consolation, I see you, sis.

And I’m proud of us.

I will continue to speak on the inside of therapy looking outward. More specifically, a Black woman on the inside of therapy looking out into the world with boxes full of losses and torn relationships asking – daring – to see the other side. It sounds like such a familiar tune that you believe you know where it’s going. But that’s the thing about tales that sound like old hat: they draw you in with new lessons beneath the seams. The familiarity hides the gold.

My story starts off bleak, as most hero’s journeys do. But as the tears dry and the sun hits my face with fresh breath in my lungs, I reach the other side with a woman who looks like me.



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Joi Donaldson

Joi Donaldson is an author/writer, professional photographer and all-around creative. She's an obsessive Hamilton fanatic, curator of good vibes and, through transparency and humor, has learned how to make tough conversations fun.