According to films and TV, therapists are a bunch of murderous, socially inept oddballs who charge the clients £600 an hour for the pleasure of lying on a couch being judged, give them terrible advice and then start inappropriate romantic relationships with them.
Whilst I’m sure there are some really bad therapists out there as with any profession, most of us have been given a deeply inaccurate view of what therapy is actually for, what it’s like, and how helpful it can be. I’d describe therapy as the best thing I’ve ever done for myself, but more on that later.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past few years, you’ll have read about at least one prominent black public figure (mostly men) coming forward to talk about their mental health issues such as Kanye West, Stormzy and most recently David Harewood.
We know that there is a stigma in the black community around discussing mental health, that we’re more likely to wait to seek treatment until things are really bad, and that there is an ongoing problem with the quality of treatment black people receive in all areas of medicine.
What we rarely discuss, is what therapy is actually like.
I started working with a therapist a year and a half ago. It took me a long time to work up the courage to go, but in my experience therapy has a domino effect; one person in your circle starts, everyone sees how much they’re getting out of it and one by one their friends start to go.
I’d known for a long time I needed therapy. Deaths in the family, pretty extreme instances of racism, bad relationships and a number of traumatic experiences were really weighing on me and I wanted to feel free of all of that. I was in essence “trying to find me” underneath all of the layers of baggage, other people’s and my own.
My doctor sat me down with a checklist of questions and sent me to a referral centre, who asked me the same set of questions. They referred me for CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), and three months later I sat down with the person who was to be my therapist… who asked me the exact same set of questions. I knew immediately that this wasn’t what I needed – a set of strategies for coping. I wanted to understand myself dammit!
So I decided to pay for psychotherapy, which at just over £200 a month was a big decision.
My first thought was that I had to find a black woman. I was worried about telling a white male therapist about all of the racism and misogyny I’d experienced and them either not believing me or not knowing how to handle it. On reflection it might well have been fine, but I’m glad I made that decision because my (incredible) therapist has a wealth of additional cultural knowledge and understanding that wasn’t part of her psychotherapy training.
We began with a free 30-minute consultation to explain the process and to give me a chance to ask questions. Just as I’d known CBT wasn’t for me, I knew this was exactly what I needed.
There is no couch. I don’t live in England anymore so we do weekly sessions on Skype. The sessions last 50 minutes, and no matter what I bring to the session to discuss my therapist expertly “packs me back up” before the end so that I’m ok for the rest of the week.
I used to think I could find a way to get around doing this work. That I didn’t have time. Unfortunately, there’s no book or work of art that has the same impact as sitting in front of a trained professional and telling them the truth about yourself.
It’s hard work. You can’t show up to therapy and avoid your issues, which is what many of us spend a lot of time doing. At first it’s scary, opening up to a stranger. Their job is to listen to what you’re really saying, which is often very different from the words that come out of your mouth. Then, after a while, you learn how to understand what’s really going on with you (and with the people interacting with you), which feels like a superpower.
The difference it’s made to my life is radical.
I’d describe myself now as generally pretty happy and relaxed, when a few years ago I’d have mostly described myself as mostly pretty stressed out. My understanding of myself and my past has brought me a growing feeling of peace. My relationships with people and with work have significantly improved. I’m about to move to Barcelona, a long term dream I never thought I’d realise. Oh, and my income has doubled and my eczema has disappeared after 20 years.
I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in years a few weeks ago who said “you’re really different. You’re Amelia 2.0” I’d have to agree.
If I could make one suggestion, it’s not to wait until things get really bad before you go and see someone. I firmly believe we could all benefit from therapy, especially those who claim they don’t need it or those who are too afraid to start, and that the world would be a much better place full of happier people if more of us had a deeper understanding of ourselves.
Amelia Ideh is Head of Communications at Tiata Fahodzi and Fevered Sleep, an advisor for the PRS for Music Foundation, and artist mentor and communications tutor at The Roundhouse and Serious UK. Amelia is also a Clore Cultural Leadership fellow, a former trustee of The Place and a writer for publications such as The Dancing Times.