One last deep breath.
It was all I had as I admitted my client from the virtual waiting room in my teletherapy platform.
He was a Black man.
In previous sessions, we’d established some semblance of safety. We’d worked through the trauma of Ahmaud Arbery’s lynching, Breonna Taylor’s murder, and the impact of watching protestors for Black lives being painted as “looters” and “thugs” by the media, rather than legitimizing the justified rage that was being displayed in real-time.
And now this.
A video released of George Floyd – a father of five, an oldest sibling, a son calling out for his dead mother even as he knew the light was dimming on his own life – being mercilessly pinned down, his neck under the knee of a white police officer. It was the epitome of a Jim Crow-era lynching. It was white supremacy in action, power unmitigated, stoic in the face of countless cries begging for it to examine itself in that moment to see what it was doing.
And one of the most painful things I have ever born witness to.
I watched the entire video.
I watched so that I could be prepared for what could happen to me.
And as I watched, I wept from some deep place inside of me. It was like my current self, my inner child, and my future self were holding hands, attempting to soothe ourselves but not finding any ground on which to steady ourselves. Something was lost forever, irreparably damaged, never to be unseen or unheard.
My clients felt it too.
“I’m tired of being outraged.”
“I can’t take another hit like this.”
“I’m losing hope that this will ever change.”
“I can’t stop crying.”
“I don’t know if I’m going to make it to my next birthday.”
“My life doesn’t matter.”
They weren’t sleeping. They weren’t eating. They were getting sick because their immune systems were compromised from the stress. They couldn’t concentrate. All they wanted to do was find safety and peace.
Anxiety and depression diagnoses have significantly increased in Black people over the last year, particularly following the murder of George Floyd. Mental health professionals are becoming more familiar with the concept of racial trauma and have used it to understand the unique impact these events have on Black mental health and wellness.
It is racial trauma that embodies the definition of how systemic, institutionalized, interpersonal, and internalized anti-Black racism impacts the bodies, minds, and souls of Black folx.
Racial trauma is the physical and psychological symptoms that people of color often experience after being exposed, directly or vicariously, to stressful experiences of racism and discrimination. This type of trauma is differentiated from the more commonly known Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder because it is trauma that has no true beginning or end. It places context around our waning capacities. It makes sense of our suffering. It creates meaning of the madness.
I’ve heard evidence of racial trauma in the therapy room as well as in the trainings, consultations, mentoring, and conversations I have in the organizations I serve.
The overwhelming grief.
The psychological pain manifesting in physical ways.
The lack of safety.
The loss of sleep.
The sense of betrayal from white people, from politicians, from church ministers, from workplaces and school systems all bent on denying the trauma.
The impact of being dehumanized.
And the confusion associated with the constant gaslighting, not just the gaslighting that occurs in conversation or in the sanitization of incidents as reported by the media about the brutal policing of Black bodies. It’s also the environmental gaslighting: where norms around work, tasks, and time must be maintained even though there is a real genocide happening to people who look like you.
I know that over the past year, I have not been able to show up as my best self as a therapist because I bear the wounds of racial trauma as well.
To be active in my own healing so I can be present to my clients and engage in healthy ways with the many other roles I have in my personal life, I wake early in the morning and read, journal, pray and set intentions for the day, and I go for runs in my very white neighborhood.
All of these are acts of healing, spiritual connection and protest. All have been needed as I encounter the onslaught of injustices to our community.
Part of my healing also includes showing up for my clients and our community in the most authentic ways possible. That includes naming the impact of racial trauma and the white supremacy that sustains it within me, inside the therapy room, and outside of it in conversation, on my social media platform and in my speaking engagements.
Now that we’ve marked the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, my hope is for us to know a few things.
First, racial trauma is real.
Next, Black mental health matters.
And this: Therapy is a crucial intervention in helping Black people break generational cycles, speak ourselves and our experiences into existence, and become equipped to be the healthiest versions of ourselves for our families and our communities.
We are all ancestors in training for future generations of our people. We must become now the legacy we wish to leave.
Dr. Archandria Owens is a licensed psychologist and racial equity consultant. She is also the founder and curator of Healing Black Narratives on Instagram.
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