Nine months ago tonight, I was lying wide awake with disbelief and pain so visceral that I couldn’t breathe.
It’s been hell.
I have fought tooth and nail to get here. I have spent thousands of dollars on therapy, plus medication, and innumerable hours in the upside down trying to figure out how I could have loved and trusted someone so cruel, vapid, and deceitful.
And I’m here. I am surviving yet again.
I understand now that he was a pathetic excuse for a human, let alone a man, and I very, very narrowly dodged a bullet.
There are scars though. I am now a woman with trust issues and baggage that I have to wrestle to fit into my overhead bin before, on, and after dates. But I am doing it.
I am trying to give seemingly kind and authentic men the benefit of the doubt … and there is a simultaneous, niggling fear that crawls over my skin. I cannot help but remember that same grace for another man is what bit me in ass.
I hope I will not always be in protective mode or that I will at least learn where the line is but it’s proving to be a prickly thing to embrace. So far.
And to her, I only have one thought left …
Good luck, hun.
Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive
I had a profoundly affecting experience yesterday that I cannot shake. There’s nothing to be done but feel it and wait for the intensity to subside. It feels so heavy and disappointing and sad, but there’s also some deep love and light woven in.
I spent most of yesterday at the DC jail. I was invited by a good friend to attend an event where the residents were presenting the group project pitches they had been working on for the past eight weeks. The topic? Curbing gun violence in this city. There were 14 groups and all of us guests, about 60 or 70 of us, were randomly assigned a group number and we traveled around to each of the 14 tables. We listened to their pitches, reviewed their presentation materials, and asked questions. Think science fair in a gym only, instead of scrawny and adorable middle schoolers, these students are all ages, shapes, and sizes in bright orange jumpsuits.
The experience itself was awesome. Truly. My cheeks hurt so much from smiling hours after I had passed back out through security and found my way to my car, where all of my electronics and everything except my photo ID were waiting for me. I have never gone through so much security and it was kind of intense for a first-timer. Listening to the residents though was thought-provoking, inspiring, enlightening, and humbling. From teenagers to old men, I was able to look into the eyes of each man as he shared his piece of the presentation and I was struck by how little we, as humans, ever bother to look beyond a label. Whether it is liberal or republican, disabled or athlete, CEO or felon, we rarely put the time, effort, or grace into having a simple conversation with those whose labels flash “other” in our minds like an alarm. I was interested to observe that while not everyone was nervous, most were visibly anxious and there were a lot of shaky voices and hands from men that are probably used to being quite intimidating. It was so humanizing to listen to these phenomenal, practical, uniquely informed ideas on how to effect change in violent crime and youth involvement in this city. When would you ever get to have conversations like that?! I could have done it all day. I wanted to just keep learning and soaking in all the ideas and wondering how, who, and where these ideas might get funding or get off the ground in a tangible way. There were folks from all over the city in attendance, including the White House, and I saw a lot of people taking notes and swapping business cards. I genuinely hope that something, anything, comes of the rich and innovative ideas we heard yesterday.
Despite how moving all of that was, it was not even close to the most impactful part of the day. Before things got started, guests were just milling about, reading the one-pagers we had been given for each of the project groups. There was a brief overview, a picture of the residents who worked on each project, and a list of their names. A few pages in, one name jumped out at me. Let’s call him Bryant Morris — common enough name but one man in the picture on that page looked too much like a Bryant Morris from my past. A student that I knew at the first high school where I was a counselor. For a moment, I thought, “that cannot be my Bryant Morris.” I looked around the gymnasium where probably 50 men in electric orange jumpsuits were scattered. It took less than a second for me to see him. I swear to you, I nearly hit my knees. Disbelief and sadness took my breath away and I almost believed he locked eyes with me from all the way across that gym — even though we were wearing masks and probably haven’t seen each other in 10 years. I had to keep looking away because I didn’t want to believe it. He was SO much bigger than I remember. Full sleeves of tattoos covering arms that looked more like tree trunks. But those eyes? Those eyes were the same as the ones on the baby face of a boy who is inextricably and heartbreakingly linked to one of the worst days of my life.
In 2008, two of my former students were in a car accident one night. They had just graduated the year before and one was my counseling aide and sat in my office every single day with her insanely infectious smile. The accident was bad enough that they needed to fly them to Maryland Shock Trauma. Except the helicopter crashed and killed everyone on board, except one. My aide was killed as were the two flight crew and the local EMT who had boarded to assist during transport. After so, so many surgeries, the surviving student lost her leg and had a lot of scars, both physical and emotional, but she survived.
The crash upended our community. The morning after, when the news broke, we knew two of our students were involved but we didn’t know who. I had seniors that year and my entire caseload of 262 faces went through my mind. I created my first ever Facebook account just to monitor how my kids were doing. It was an unfathomable tragedy and no one was okay. I wasn’t okay. I didn’t know who that first morning but I didn’t want it to be any of the faces I kept seeing in my mind.
I never dreamed they were alumni. I certainly never dreamed it was those two girls, my girls. In another giant fuck you, the EMT who perished was the mother of Bryant Morris, one of our football stars and a universally popular young man with students and staff.
He was out of school for nearly two weeks and when he returned he wasn’t the smiling, fun-loving, always joking kid that he was. Sure, he was still a standout athlete and I was there in the stands when he won the state titles that year in football, indoor, and outdoor track. He just lost his sparkle for a long time. He was (is) the sweetest boy. It makes my chest ache so deeply to remember those days right after the crash — the sickening sadness and profound sense of shock and loss — but also the weeks after when one student was still in the hospital facing a steep uphill battle, everyone else was dead, and Bryant was the one we all watched. It wasn’t really fair. It just seemed like, if we could get him to be okay, we would all be okay too.
There have been so many tragedies since then. So many students lost. So much trauma. So many things I wish I didn’t have to live through, that they didn’t have to live through. At some point, I feel like I became numb to anything new. A few years ago, one of my students, an Honors and AP student, shot another of my boys in the head. Two lives were lost forever that afternoon. I suppose I peripherally felt shock and sadness but, honestly? I felt nothing. It was just one more awful thing in a never-ending string of awful things in the lives of the students I serve.
I learned through all of those awful things the myriad ways that different people experience them, process them, and move forward at whatever pace they can. By graduation Bryant seemed to be doing fine. He got his full scholarship for football and, as the NCAA Coordinator for the entire district, I was there on signing day with tears of joy in my eyes. It felt like a win for all of us.
The last time I saw him, I’m not sure how many years ago exactly but at least 7 or 8, it was on my street. I was driving toward Howard University and Bryant was on a bicycle. The last I knew, he was out west at college where he got his scholarship so it was wild seeing him here, but he told me that he had just transferred to Howard and was the starting corner. He seemed really proud and happy and settled. We talked for a while in the street and then he put his hand on my driver’s side door with the window open and I pulled him up the big hill toward Howard on his bike, smiling as big as ever. The next time I saw him was yesterday, in an orange jumpsuit, in prison.
My group yesterday, of course, was assigned to start at his group’s table and I was not ready. I wasn’t processing fast enough. I wanted to find a quiet corner and have a good, selfish cry before I found some freaking strength. I wasn’t even sure if he would remember me, let alone recognize me with my mask on. It seemed like he was intentionally avoiding eye contact with me when he did his part of the presentation though and, when I heard his voice, there was no way I could deny that the man in front of me was that same sweet boy. It broke my fucking heart into a thousand pieces. After the presentation, he picked up a stack of their flyers to pass out to my group and he started with me. He looked me straight in the eye and I said, “Thank you, Bryant. Do you remember me?” He called me by name and said, “Of course I remember you. I don’t know why or how you are here today, but thank you for coming. Can I talk to you later?”
And so I went around to all the other tables to listen and found him after. I asked if I could give him a hug … and then I gave him about six. We could only chat for a few minutes before we were shuffled to the next building but it was enough to know he’s still that boy, with the same heart, the same bouyancy, the same drive. He told me he’s been in for 24 months now and thinks he’ll be out in eight more. He’s gotten his LLC while inside and is pursuing entrepreneurship so he can “do things the right way” when he gets out. We talked about his offense(s), why the money on the street was too good, and how he just got caught up. He asked what I do now and, when I told him, he said, “Do you all hire felons?” It sobered me up real quick and all the joy I was feeling from reconnecting with an old student in those brief moments evaporated with a big smack of reality. I gave him my email and my same old Pittsburgh number, to which he said with a classic Bryant smile, “Of course. Same as always.”
Then I came home last night and had myself a little breakdown. First I’ve cried in what feels like months but, oof, the floodgates broke wide open. There are kids that you know are never going to fully escape their circumstances. And it is not just the ones that you know are in gangs, or come to school with a gunshot wound, or already wear an ankle bracelet. There are also kids who are barely getting through or that could be doing more than passing but they hate school and, whatever the case, they aren’t going to continue school after high school, if they even graduate. You know those kids aren’t going to make it, despite everyone’s best efforts to help them onto a viable pathway. But then there are other kids that you know, with every fiber of your being, are going to be something. Bryant Morris was one of the latter. Ten years ago, I would have bet you 1000:1 that he would be well on his way to CEO of something by now.
I don’t understand why life is this way. The injustice of the cards you are dealt and all that. I just do not and cannot understand it. There are so many days and circumstances that make it feel like a fucking setup.
Like Pac says, you’ve got to keep your head up. And I would say to that, maybe tomorrow. Today, I’m deep in my feelings and thinking about a boy who already lost everything when he was 15. I have known him for literally half of his life and I cannot help but feel like maybe we didn’t try hard enough to make sure that sweet, funny, beautiful boy was really and truly okay.
I need to do some research over the next eight months to figure out how to actually help now.
I have approximately zero interest in writing these days but folks keep visiting so I suppose I should force myself, just to keep the proverbial juices flowing. That’s what we do, right? Us creative types? We force ourselves to do and move and experience and express in the ever-waning hope that, when we push beyond the present block, everything will eventually feel like it fits again and in a way that makes sense. My mind is still overflowing with rivers and streams of thoughts that cascade over the cliffs, plummeting to depths of which I can never see the bottom. It’s just that the babbling has all become a bit like white noise, sometimes too close and too loud but mostly relegated to the background of my somewhat less sleepless nights as of late.
The novelty of medication has worn off. It is still working, in a sense, of course. Last week, I experienced my first twinge of regret that I could not feel as much. After initiating a second follow-up request over three weeks, I learned that I did not even move beyond an initial phone interview for a job a really wanted; a dream job, honestly. I’ve learned not to let myself dream too much or get very invested or have any expectations when it comes to jobs. After more than 100 (200?) applications, barely more than a handful of interviews, and only two second interviews in more than two years of applying, the job search has become as futile and damaging to my self worth as dating. The chances of landing one where you aren’t settling or sacrificing part of your soul are about the same, in my experience.
Anyway, in all those many, many applications and thoughtful cover letters, there have been less than ten that I have been truly excited about. This was not only one of those elusive few but very easily the top one. There could not be more than a dozen people in the entire country who are more uniquely qualified for the role and probably none in my city, and yet, I did not even get to the second round. I have a hunch that sits like a rock in my stomach that it’s because I felt a bit too comfortable during the phone screening with a woman who knows and admires all of the same phenoms in DC education that I do and shares my often firy inability to accept inequity or injustice in any form, especially when it comes to students and representation (or former lovers masquerading as good guys). When she asked a direct question about my current manager though, I almost certainly did not respond in the most artful or calculated way I could have. I should have. I am just not built that way. Even when I try, there is no way that whomever I am speaking to doesn’t know what I think — I am too expressive, too honest, too radically candid, too comfortable being exactly who I am. I’ve worked so hard to find my voice; I cannot bear to whisper now. If that wasn’t it, then it has to be some nepotistic, DC-billionaires’-club kind of thing because I should have been a lock. For as much as my self confidence and self worth have taken a walloping over the past year or so, I have zero hestation in saying or believing that last bold statement.
It could also be because I made too much of an issue about how their organization is mostly white (men) and it isn’t representative of the population they purport to serve so, as a white woman, I may have effectively torpedoed my own candidacy. I am trying to convince myself that was the reason because I am okay with that one. I suppose we shall see when the person they do hire is finally named.
That said, I found out and I just did not feel a damned thing. I was theoretically disappointed, obviously. I still am. But I did not feel it. I haven’t even told but one other person and that’s only because this person was actually thoughtful enough to send a message to check in on me this weekend. That night though, I was thinking about how that was my last iron in the proverbial fire and, with my ridiculously horrible manager coming back from maternity leave next week, I should have felt pretty fucking hopeless. I cognitively knew this but I couldn’t feel one way or the other about it.
And that felt really … weird.
I shit you not, I looked up the movie “Beaches” on YouTube, just to find the part where Bette Midler’s character learns about her best friend dying, scenes from their childhood flash, all while Bette is belting “Wind Beneath My Wings,” in the background. I just wanted to cry. I wanted to feel. More than that, I wanted to wallow and sulk. So I summoned Bette and I did! It was weirdly comforting to know that I haven’t become a complete automaton.
This morning, in our last team meeting before my inept and insecure wench of a boss returns, the icebreaker opener was, “What was in your high school locker?” My teammates all shared about the decorations they had in theirs: a shrine to Tupac with fake flower garlands, a daily journal pad that one of them wrote in throughout every day with the two friends who shared hers, the dance outfits and ballet slippers stuffed into the bottom of another instead of books, pictures of 80s and 90s hip-hop and pop stars, make-up and perfume and all kinds of girly shit.
I wanted to go first because I knew mine was going to fall flat but they were all too excited to share and their energy was contagious so I just sat back and smiled and laughed with them until my cheeks hurt, until they forced me to go at the end. I said that I honestly didn’t think I ever had anything in my locker, if I even used it. I remember sharing one in the intermediate high (9th & 10th grade) with another girl but I can’t remember a single thing about it except that it was kind of near my cousin, Amy’s, and she was kind of popular and not very nice to me.
I didn’t share that last part because, honestly, no one wants or needs to know that I was a shadow in school, from elementary through half of college. I had some friends but my cousin, Shawn, was my best friend and he drove me to and from school every day. We were farm kids and we didn’t really give a shit about the groups that weren’t ours or people that we weren’t friends with. We didn’t have the same friends and that was okay with both of us. We had each other, mostly. I was not social and I got picked on in pretty much every grade I can remember. On the bus in elementary school, in class in junior high, the boy behind me used to spit on my back and in my hair in homeroom in high school, prank calls at my house that seemed to never stop, etc. I was really shy and quiet and smart. I was objectively cute but I think people thought I was stuck up … or an easy target … both?
I just don’t have many fond memories of school at all, and trying to think about my locker this morning was almost comical. Like, of all the many, many insignficant things that take up room in my cavernous memory, my locker is not one of them.
The funny thing is though, I have a recurring dream about high school that revolves around my locker. I have no idea why but on a fairly regular basis, I dream that I am in my high school, which was a huge campus (1200 kids for just the 11th & 12th grades), and I am at my locker and no one is around because I am late for class. My locker was in one of the buildings farthest from the main entrance and I can picture the hallway, the smell, the light through the walls of windows on either side, and I can almost remember the exact locker in a certain row. But I can never remember the combination in the dream or, if it’s already open when I’m there, I can never find the notebook I need. I am panicking because I can’t find my class schedule and cell phones/smart phones didn’t exist then to look it up. I always take the same set of stairs, there are always people going down while I’m going up, and I am always trying to get to one of three classes, Biology, Calc, and something else. But I can never remember which one I have at that time because I don’t know what day it is and, in the dream, I haven’t gone to class in so long that if I do make it to the right one, I am definitely late, my desk is the only empty one, and the teacher and the entire class stop talking and watch me walk to my desk. Sometimes it’s because I’m in the wrong class for that day and sometimes the teacher makes some snide comment about how it’s nice of me to show up. The irony is, I never missed a g/God damned day of high school, not even for senior skip day. I don’t even know if there was one — I was that cool.
I find it difficult to believe that we are already strolling the back nine of May. Social media, tv ads, and the slightly obnoxious, passably heart-felt yet decidedly canned, agency-wide emails from HR repeatedly tell all of us that May is #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth. While presumably well-intentioned, it always feels like someone is just checking another “xyz history month” box when I read these things and I cannot help but roll my eyes. It isn’t that I don’t think mental health is important; I unequivocally do. It’s simply that I know personally how profoundly difficult it is to actually get quality mental help, and I have yet to see a single ad or corporate email that even remotely hints at the reality. They make it sound as if it is as simple as calling a number or creating yet another login and password combo. It isn’t.
The real need for awareness in May, and every other month, is that if you wait until you actually, acutely need mental help in this country before you seek it – you are going to be in an alternate universe of hurt, frustration, stress, and anxiety. The very search for quality mental help is a catalyst for a personal mental health crisis and, if you are poor or intellectually limited, the risk is exponentially compounded. The smart choice is to seek it when you feel fine because, when you already feel awful, the search just might be the thing that kills you.
There are some articles about this mental help desert, sure. Some of them are even from reputable publications and seem well-researched. A few authors even indicate that they themselves have had trouble navigating the mental help landscape before getting what they needed. But you know what all of the articles I have read also have? Ads for bull shit “services” like BetterHelp. (Yes, that link goes to one of many Reddit threads about the greedy underbelly of the site because I refuse to be responsible for driving any more traffic to their website)
I will try not to get overly ranty here but, over the past seven months, I have experienced the nightmare of seeking mental help in America first hand. In 2017 when I started writing here on WordPress, I never intended this blog to be more than a personal journal and I did not care about having followers. But, the same atom bomb that dropped on my life in late October and that forced me to seek mental help is the very same destruction that has also brought more than 1700 views from hundreds of people to the posts I’ve written here in the months since. I feel strange about that often because, yes, as a typically private person, it is a whole other level of vulnerability to have people reading your thoughts and words, particularly while you try to process the most personally painful thing you’ve ever lived through. And, yes, I recognize that I directly drove a lot of those folks to a couple of the most raw posts from October and December, but it doesn’t change how it feels to me. I lived it. I’m still living it. You’re just reading about it.
At least once a week though, usually when I feel like perhaps the proverbial inkwell has permanently run dry or, more frequently, I hesitate because of the ridiculous notion that my regular readers will be thinking, “oh mylanta, could she just move on from that asshole already?!,” I hear these lines from Ani DiFranco:
After all, it’s my journal — I should write what I want. And my pain (and healing) just might help someone else through their day. So, in the hope that it can normalize the experience for another human, or maybe help a single person who is hurting navigate the cosmic irony of this mental health -v- mental help reality, then so be it. Here’s my journey through the battle with them both.
I’ve worked with teenagers in some form of counseling role for nearly twenty years, mostly academic but nothing happens in isolation, and there likely isn’t anything that I have not experienced with and through my students and their families or communities, or myself, over the past two decades. When someone was in crisis or had recurring issues that I could not address, I could give their parent or guardian a general list of services kind of like this one for the District of Columbia, but I could never recommend a certain practice or practitioner. It was deemed unethical. I also didn’t really know a good practitioner that I could refer them to if I was allowed. This was incredibly unhelpful to my families, especially the low-income families and communities within which I have always worked. I gave out so many physical papers with a list of resources in the early years and, later, an email with the same information. After a few weeks or whenever I spoke to that child or guardian again, I was disappointed and frustrated 100% of the time. I cannot recall a single time that any of my students ever started outside therapy. I’d hear the common refrains of “the waiting lists were all six weeks long; he’s suicidal now,” or “they don’t take our insurance,” or “the shelter doesn’t have any beds right now.” Naively, it took a long time for me to realize that these were not just excuses. It was and is the reality of mental help in the United States, especially urban areas.
At the end of October, my world shattered. When I opened my computer to write about a person I loved suddenly moving away, I discovered by accident that this man I had been seeing for over three years was getting married to a woman I never met. He admitted that he had been lying to me when I confronted him, but that is where everything ended. I have not heard from him since and I still have as many questions now as I did then, and then some. I did my part to warn her but, when I learned that the other woman actually went throughwith marrying him, I kind of lost my shit. I’ve always considered myself a great judge of character, with a keen sense of empathy and the ability to read people — how could I have gotten this one so wrong? And for so long? It made me question everything I thought I knew.
It was too much for my brain and my heart to process and I became a shell of a person, begging a g/God I don’t believe in to let me please not wake up the next day. I can’t say anything more than that here because I’m trying desperately not to pick off the scabs that have finally started forming over the past few weeks.
Within a few days of that happening, I knew I needed help. I was already having a really stressful time with work and, you know, the existential dread from two years of living through a pandemic plus four years of previously unfathomable vitriol and hate spewed from a cretin who was, inexplicably, the elected leader of the free world. It seemed like I had been angry and overwhelmed for years. But at the end of October, on top of all that, I also lost my person, the person I talked to about everything and the person with whom I experienced the good things in this life. It pushed me over some invisible precipice and it felt like I had lost control … over every part of my life. I simply did not have the capacity to get myself through a day. I didn’t trust my own thoughts or opinions on anything. Reality seemed like a mirage. I rarely slept before this happened but now I also could not physically eat for weeks. I was so confused and angry and sad that I couldn’t even determine what emotion I was feeling at any moment, let alone articulate it to anyone. I was in a constant state of disbelief and nothing seemed real. I don’t even remember most of that interminable time period; I just wasn’t really there. Read through those November through January posts, you get the idea. It was a night that never ended. The daylight never broke, even for a moment.
In the days right after it happened, I was Googling all kinds of things when I couldn’t sleep at night. Relationships, betrayal, narcissism, emotional trauma, being the other woman but not knowing it, whatever. I was trying to do what I’ve done through many other hard situations in my life — cope by gaining knowledge and information, trying to normalize the experience, and gluing myself back together on my own. I wanted to move on as quickly as possible. I kept seeing and hearing ads for therapy sites. Every podcast I’ve ever listened to (which is a lot!), has advertised BetterHelp or TalkSpace at some point. One night, I was on a website poking around, reading reviews, and learned about a site that BetterHelp (BH) recommends, called Relationship Hero. I thought the price of BH and the others were absurd and this one seemed to specialize in all things relationships, it was all virtual, and you could buy minutes rather than locking yourself in to a set number of sessions at $300+ per month. I signed up and got matched with a therapist within a day. Let’s call her Candy; she was terribly sweet.
I initially bought 30 minutes with Candy and my first video session was scheduled for the next night after work. I decided to Uber home because I wanted to be sure I got there in plenty of time to prepare. I was anxious and sad and feeling reluctant but was also hungry, exhausted, weak, and scared shitless by not knowing how to move through the day anymore. As luck would have it, there was a protest at the go-go corner on Florida Ave that evening and I sat in the Uber for a good half hour before I even noticed that we weren’t moving. I was that out of it in those early days. I got out and started walking but knew I wouldn’t make it. So I met this sweet, diminutive, compassionate therapist through my tiny phone screen, while I was walking and wearing my headphones, with go-go music and someone yelling through a megaphone in the background. It took me 20 minutes to tell her what had happened in the days before and, by the time I walked in my front door, the time was nearly up. She gave me a relationship styles questionnaire to take before our next session and, honestly, when I hung up, it just felt kind of freeing to have told anyone what had happened.
I should mention that Relationship Hero seems to specialize in “getting your man back” or some other ridiculousness. I made it clear to Candy from the beginning that I had zero interest in that. I met her less than a week after it happened and she couldn’t believe I had already thrown out anything in my home that reminded me of him. Why wouldn’t I? Jesus. What woman would want him back, or want him period? That much was clear to me from the moment I discovered his betrayal, despite the fact that I have trouble believing it happened at all, even now. I met with Candy a few times, once a week, until I went to my brother’s for Thanksgiving. I hadn’t been planning to go away but that was the weekend of the impending wedding and I had to get the fuck away from here. I did not trust myself to stay here — I’d either end up dead or I would drive out there and destroy it. I was drinking so much in those early weeks that either or both could have happened and I might not have had a clue.
The wedding happened, I survived the weekend, although I do not remember much of it beyond the sad and worried looks from my family, and I realized that Candy wasn’t going to cut it. She was kind and demure and very young. She listened and responded better than the words on these virtual pages, but she did not challenge me or help me process the how and why and what now; all the questions I really wanted answered. She kind of made things worse in some ways by feeding me this narrative that I had something he wanted. Why? That’s not at all helpful to me moving on and, honestly, who cares now what I gave him. He took way more from me. My 400 minute “package” eventually ran out and I didn’t buy more.
Throughout the early part of winter, I don’t remember much. I read back through posts from November and December and January and they sound familiar but I also feel like those things happened to someone else. I feel detached when I read those words now. Not because they feel like someone else wrote them, I know I did, but because it’s too painful to ruminate on those thoughts and memories. I felt so alone. I still feel alone.
In early February, after countless failed attempts to find a therapist that was accepting new patients through my health insurance, I sucked it up and used one of my podcast sponsored discount codes and bought a month of BH, at $380 a month. Not much per week compared to paying out of pocket but for me, for my demoralizing experience with it over the next three months, it was an absolute waste of money and precious, precious time. I caution anyone to read the Reddit threads for testimonies from both clients and therapists about that site before signing up.
The first therapist I was matched on BH with was a man called Ben. He had a PhD and decades of experience. You have to complete an intro form so the therapist knows what you’re coming to them for so he already knew that my purpose was two-fold: I was hoping to process a painful heartbreak and unbelievable betrayal, and I wanted help working through some recurring anxiety about eventually losing my parents and being alone. He honed in on the latter. He asked me if I knew that emotions are reactions to thoughts. I said yes. He asked if I understood how thoughts work. I said yes, that I have a degree in molecular biology and I understand basic brain chemistry. Then he told me that thoughts are magical and my emotions are just reactions to thoughts that do not exist. He badgered me into enduring a torturous few minutes of guided mindfulness during which I felt like I might be experiencing a panic attack. I wanted to cry but didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. He said he recognized resistance in me and did not think we would be a good fit. I agreed. I couldn’t even form a sentence, I was in such a state of confusion about how a trained therapist could completely disregard and discount my lived experience. I just nodded and kept digging my fingernails into my palm to keep from crying.
I requested a new therapist and when given the option, I requested that it not be a man. I hadn’t thought it mattered but hearing this magical thought lunacy come from the mouth of a black man was pretty triggering, especially given that a black man is exactly who had been lying to me for years, purposely distorting my reality. So I requested a woman.
It took a couple of days to get a new match. I matched with a woman who, like Ben, sent an initial canned message but then never had time on her schedule that was outside of my work hours. For two weeks. She said I could find her off of the BH platform and make an appointment at her regular practice but — I had already paid $380 for the month.
So I requested another therapist. Waited another couple of days. Matched with a woman, Dr. Jennifer Weekes, who had decades of experience dealing with all kinds of trauma. I had to wait more than a week for her first available appointment. I was tired of telling “the story” by this point so I briefly summarized it for her and then sent her the link to my blog. She said it was helpful to learn about my thought patterns. At our next session, after she had read some posts here, she was floored by the level of deception and intentional destruction I had experienced. She articulated things in a way that made me feel like someone finally understood what I was experiencing. She was bold and confident and knowledgeable, and I felt like I was in good hands. My month of BH was up but she seemed promising, so I renewed for another month at full price.
We worked well together through five sessions total and I was starting to feel like progress through this nightmare might be possible. One night, we talked through an assignment on forgiveness she had given me right before I went on a solo vacation at the end of February, how it completely derailed me and, essentially, ruined that time away I had taken for myself. We agreed that change was hard for me and surprises are counterproductive — that she would lead me toward things in the future rather than springing them on me. She applauded me for finally showing emotion in that session and said it indicated progress. Twodays later, while I was in the midst of my management class on Saturday morning, she sent an abrupt message saying I would need to request another therapist. Again. She said she sustained an injury and had to scale back, but it was as if the entire last conversation we had just had about prepping me for changes had never happened. In REAL therapy, when a therapeutic relationship must end for any number of reasons, the therapist is obligated to help you transition to a new one or at least give you a professional referral. Not on BH, apparently.
I requested, matched with, and then re-requested four more therapists through BH. Each time waiting a few days to be matched, receiving a canned welcome message, and then waiting a week or more for their first available appointment. And ALL of them were Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW). Now listen, I am not saying there there aren’t some highly skilled, well trained, social workers out there. In my vast experience as a school counselor though, the social workers that I have worked with both in schools and in communities are not equipped or trained to help me through this personal crisis. During this time, of course, I had to renew my subscription yet again but what else was I going to do? It felt like I was stuck but I didn’t want to give up; the thought of making the choice to terminate the potential for “help” and go back to unsuccessfully trudging through alone seemed insane and, frankly, like too much responsibility. As long as I was doing something, expensive and fruitless as it had been so far, I was able to cling to some modicum of control over my plight. That was probably just the magical fucking thoughts though, right?
Eventually I matched with another sweet, young therapist, also an LCSW, and I had three or four sessions with her. I don’t even remember her name now. By this point, I refused to rehash the story and sent her to the blog before our first meeting instead, asking her to read about what happened in October, as well as the Receipts, and the posts about my previous therapist experience. I liked her a lot and although I never quite made it through a whole session without crying and feeling hopeless, I tried so hard to work on the things she suggested. I did the worksheets she prescribed. I wrote out attempts to “reframe negative thinking,” practiced mindfulness techniques even though I couldn’t ever quite get my mind to settle, and was honest with her when things just didn’t work. But I eventually requested a new therapist because it started to feel like she was just reading from a Counseling 101 manual and had no idea how to recognize nuance in patients. I felt like I was back in grad school, acting out a case study where your fellow classmates allow whomever is playing the therapist to wrap things up in a neat little bow. This wasn’t that; it’s my actual, real, messy life. She didn’t seem capable of suggesting anything that wasn’t in her small toolbox and, as kind as she was, I genuinely do not think she had the experience to understand why this situation had completely blown up my life. She also only had 30 minute appointments and couldn’t figure out how to use the BH platform on her side to get them to be 45 or 60 mins. We spent part of my therapy time talking about this. Why?
She suggested from our first meeting that I consider trying medication but, as a social worker, could not help me with that or refer me. Told me to call my insurance and tell them I was just looking for medication management. HAH! Another thing that is nowhere near that simple. I did go on my insurance website, searched for psychiatrists and medication management, just as I had already searched for therapists several times before, and called SEVEN different offices in just one day — all of which said on the UnitedHealth Care Choice website they were accepting new patients. None actually were and more than one turned out to be larger, national, telehealth services, so calling them was like calling Verizon or some other huge corporation’s customer support. After a zillion automated menus, you couldn’t even remember the name of the doctor you were calling about but it didn’t matter because, when you finally talked to a live human, they told you that no one in your area was accepting new patients anyway. They could put you on the waiting list but could not tell you when it might move and that it would likely be at least six weeks, probably more. On some of the websites, you had to create an account before you could search, only to be told the same thing about the waiting list. And THEN, you couldn’t even delete your account. So yet another company just has all your data and never even attempted to provide you with a service.
I called one of the doctors’ numbers that was actually a large, national service called Amwell during work one day (because of course the hours of most places are regular business hours) and, miraculously, the lovely woman who answered was able to help! She created an account for me over the phone, sent me a text with a link to download the app and, although I had to wait three weeks for an 8am video appointment, it was that simple! And for only a $10 copay. Three weeks go by while I keep seeing the nice BH therapist, she asks me every week if I have made any progress on the medication, every week I tell her that yes, remember I told you last week that I have that appointment at the beginning of April? The Amwell appointment rolls around, I log in 15 minutes ahead of time as required, complete the virtual emergency paperwork, and a pop up takes over my screen saying that the provider “I” have selected is not licensed in my state!?! Apparently the girl had searched in Washington State instead of Washington, DC but at no other point in those three weeks I was waiting did this app tell me where this practitioner was licensed or really anything about them. Oh, AND they charged me $40 for a no-show fee!!!
I called to file a complaint, they refunded my money after a few days, and kindly apologized but also rationalized how easy it would have been for the girl to make that simple mistake. Sure — I get that. I am a rational person who can empathize. However, it has already been five months of utter hell where I am legitimately trying to make it through the day without losing my sanity. I am trying so hard to get some help, and failing at every turn.
I did the rematching thing on BH twice more, again paired with LCSW’s that had no availability or horrible reviews on other websites, and I eventually just deleted the BH app with two full weeks left on my third month contract. So, more than $1K over three months … for what, exactly? There were other frustrating things with BH like a terrible platform, tech glitches that the therapist(s) couldn’t fix or didn’t know how to address, and the fact that when you’re in those weeks of downtime waiting for an appointment, they tout their “webinars” and unlimited messaging with your new-therapist-you’ve-yet-to-meet as part of the “full service” you are paying for. They credited me one free week after this happened so many times and I had written about it to customer service but, ultimately, it was such a headache that I couldn’t stand it anymore.
I started wondering if I actually now needed help processing this futile search for mental “help” rather than the underlying and still very present trauma that brought me to the search in the first place.
Again, I reached out to my health insurance. I called and talked to a woman from Texas with a friendly demeanor and a thick accent, explained what I was looking for, that I had searched the United HealthCare website with multiple filters but still could not find a licensed therapist or psychiatrist that was both taking new patients and NOT a social worker. She is very friendly, sympathetic to the run-around I have been getting, and makes it sound like she has struck gold when she asks whether I want the list she has found emailed or texted to me. I’m doing all of this calling from my phone so I ask her to text them to me. She stays on the phone while they start to come through. We hang up after my phone starts buzzing, she wished me well, and I feel hopeful after talking with her. There are 19 texts in all. But, of course, I quickly notice that I already called every single fucking one of these places and, yes, MOST of them are just social workers.
I go back to the Amwell app and request another psychiatrist, this time for DC. I have to wait two weeks for another 8am appointment, this time on a Sunday morning.
I finally confide in a dear friend from grad school, from back in 2003-2006. She has also been a school counselor since we graduated but just became a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) in Pennsylvania. We are the kind of friends who do not ever need to catch up; things just don’t change, regardless of how long it’s been. In the 16 years since I moved to DC, we’ve maybe seen each other three or four times total, but we keep in touch through texts, usually during Steelers games and mutual frustration. I don’t know why I hadn’t reached out to her about what I had been going through except that I don’t think she even knew John existed and, frankly, I had been so surprised, confused, and disppointed by how my close friends had shown up for me over the past six months (like, not really at all?But, also, what were they supposed to do? And who could blame them?) … I just didn’t want to bother anyone else with it, I guess. But one night, I sent her the blog, asked if she would be free to talk sometime about what happened, and admitted that I had been having a really tough time. She read the entire blog, start to finish, within a couple days. We set a date for a call about a week later, talked for maybe an hour, and it felt like home.
She listened and asked questions like a real friend but also like a clinician. She didn’t just tell me what I wanted to hear and I needed that. She even asked if I thought I was really ready to work through what happened or if I needed to just feel for a while longer. I am still not sure what that answer is but I am far too stubborn to sit and wallow. I refuse to let my emotional stability be defined by the wreckage left by a man who didn’t care enough about me to protect me … from him. I need to feel like I am moving on and, for the first time in my life, I was very sure that I was not going to make it through alone. Talking with my friend made me feel like there has to be a positive therapeutic relationship out there and it really could help me; I just had to find it. It gave me a shot in the arm to keep trying.
I start Googling shit like “why is it so hard to find a good therapist?” and talking to a couple of new friends from my management cohort about who they see in DC. I get one referral and write an email to that practice. Eventually I also get to Psychology Today‘s Find a Therapist page. The filters are minimal and not terribly helpful for someone who has been searching for so bloody long already. Most therapists listed there do not take insurance but will provide you with a statement for out-of-network insurance claims which, of course, United HealthCare does not honor for mental health. That would be far too healthy and helpful. However, I really like how you can read a lot about the person/practice’s philosophy, approach, experience, etc. I spent hours reading these things and made a short list of nine. I wrote an email that basically summarized the emotional trauma I experienced, the ongoing anxiety I have felt for a couple years, and now the frustrating journey to find help. I copied and pasted it into the email field for all nine, except a couple that don’t allow you to send an actual message, just a request for a return call. I got one return email from the referral my friend had made and one return email from a woman with a PhD, called Tessa Wimberley, who offers free 20 minute consultations to see if you are a good mutual fit. I’ve still never heard back from the other eight, many weeks later.
I met with Tessa for a 20 minute video call while I was hiding in a phone room at work one afternoon. It was probably more like 30 minutes. She listened and asked questions that my friend had asked. She seemed to really understand and articulate that there are a lot of layers to not just what happened and how I found out, but also the underlying junk of why it has taken me completely psychologically out. I think maybe there was too much that came before it and all that scar tissue was finally ripped all the way open. I think my mind and my body just refused to heal itself again this time. I kept it together pretty well during our brief call — partially because I was at work, partially due to having talked about the same shit so many times with so many different therapists that it was like numbly reading a teleprompter by that point, and partially because she was soothing and empathetic but also curious and realistic. At the end of our call, she asked if I had any questions before we decided if we wanted to work together and I found myself desperately choking back tears when I asked her simply, “Do you think you can help me?” She said that she couldn’t promise that to anyone but that she felt like she had the experience and understanding to try. Her naturally flowing empathy and that sliver of honesty was good enough for me.
In late April, I finally met virtually with the Amwell psychiatrist. It was pretty cold and clinical, and reading his summary treatment notes were kind of hurtful. Not because they aren’t accurate or because they were a surprise, but because it is a strange realization to know that you are now a person in the world with a diagnosis. To be decribed as appropriately dressed with appropriate eye contact and “grossly intact” cognition, but dysthymic, and now labeled with major depression and generalized anxiety and, also now, 50mg of a tiny blue pill every night was just kind of … sobering.
I had a follow-up scheduled for two weeks later but, because I was geographically out of town that evening, I again got the not-licensed pop up and again had to pay the no show fee and again wait for another appointment the next week and again call to complain to request a refund. The Amwell platform isn’t great, but it’s the best option I have through my current health insurance.
I have met with Tessa maybe four times now, at nearly $200 per session out-of-pocket, but so far it has been well worth it. We talk about a lot of things that have nothing to do with him though sometimes it still comes up because, well, what he did has profoundly changed how I feel about myself, others, and how I interpret the world around me. I still miss my friend. I miss that sense of comfort and effortless belonging, and I worry that I will never be able to trust it with someone else. I barely trust it now with my friends, I cannot imagine letting another man in. Maybe that will fade, maybe it won’t. I am still angry that he could have been so intentionally cruel for so long, and I am enraged that he gets to live his life without really suffering any of the repurcussions. I am not terribly invested in meeting anyone right now. I feel both lonely and alone, but don’t want to give anyone the power to hurt me again. I don’t know how you trust someone not to after what I’ve experienced. Could you?
The medication too has been having an effect. For the first couple of weeks, nothing changed. By week three, I started to think maybe it was psychosomatic but, I wasn’t feeling as irritable. I didn’t have any of the negative side effects the shrink warned me about, or any side effects at all, except for the dreams. I went from almost never sleeping (for years), let alone remembering my dreams, to having such vivid dreams about real people and places that I wake up in the mornings and truly wonder if they happened. Aside from one where my dad and I were rescuing a zebra rolling down a hill onto a country road and one about a peacock sleeping on my living room floor, they have all been otherwise very mundane but incredibly real. None have been about John though I still think about him most times when I crawl into my bed or enter my building or make certain recipes or hear or see anything golf related. Jesus, I fucking hate golf.
I cannot say that I miss him, John; it makes me ill to even remember him let alone see a likeness of him (like Eversen in the latest season of The Circle! Though Eversen is an objectively more attractive version, and I’m not just being salty). Seriously though, I really miss having that person with whom I felt so freely connected. After this long, it’s hard to recognize that person as the man I now know him to be. I only care about the one who wasn’t real, the one who shared so much with me, and that’s still hard for me to accept but it’s now hard for me to even see that version; I only see the cruel one. It’s kind of like grieving someone who died; that version of him did, right? I miss having someone to talk about life with and hear their perspective and share all the good things with, and that’s proving to be even harder to find now than it was four years ago. But it is what it is.
My jaw doesn’t hurt from clenching as much; though when I am stressed at or about work, that is still there. And it’s not that I never feel sad or angry; I do. Often. I also feel happy and I still experience joy. I don’t feel numb like some people experience. I just don’t trust the good things. And unfortunately, with very few exceptions, I still don’t really miss my friends or have any more desire to hang out with their children and dogs and the suburbs than I did before. I still go out, I still do things, forced or otherwise, just with different people now than before. I need to shed things that don’t fit anymore.
It is really diffcult to explain how things feel now. On medication. I can’t articulate it. Weird isn’t descriptive enough but there’s definitely an odd conscious awareness that you feel differently. Maybe it’s what some would call normal but I genuinely can’t remember how normal felt at this point so, I’m not sure that’s accurate for me. It isn’t entirely comfortable either and I really don’t know how to describe that part.
One of my friends analogized it really well and I’ll try to paraphrase – before it felt like I was speeding down the highway and the slightest turn of the wheel could send me careening way off course, swerving back in, or potentially even crashing. With medication, I can control the wheel better, and maybe sometimes the speed too. I think that’s an apt analogy. And I would add that the blinding road rage, for me, is mostly gone.
I have had this post sitting in draft mode for weeks because I have not wanted to put in the time and effort required to remember the long, harrowing, awful experience of seeking and repeatedly failing to find mental help. But I also hate that May has become this month where it is so easy for companies and media and celebs and random ordinary people to share a post about the importance of #MentalHealth, but hardly anyone talks about how hard it is to actually get #MentalHelp in this country. I like that mental health is becoming less stigmatized but where is the mental help? I went through a really, really dark period from late fall through early spring. There are whole weeks that I do not remember. I took four days off work in two weeks because I just did not want to go. Prior to, I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve taken off work in 20 years.
My Christmas cactus even bloomed again in mid-April because, surprise, surprise, I learned that you can trick one into blooming in the spring if you give it 10-14 hours of darkness daily during the winter. That is how much time I spent in my house, with the shades down, not sleeping but a lot of time in bed, overthinking, feeling stuck, sad, angry, watching shadows cross the ceiling, and definitely not living.
I do not know why it isn’t easier to actually get mental help. I know there are a shortage of clinicians due to the increased demand from COVID, Trump, BLM, Ukraine, mass shootings, partisan politics, allofthethings….. but that just is not acceptable. I am blessed to be able to afford nearly $200 a week to talk with someone who is starting to help me work through some things that have maybe been latent and compounded for a long time. I wish I had searched and put in the work to find this long ago. As it was, it took months, dozens of phone calls, at least a dozen therapists, and so much mental and emotional frustration … when I had nothing left in the tank to begin with.
I told my therapist last week that although I am not sure I have made a lot of progress yet, I finally feel a glimmer of hope that it is possible; that the hard work could be worth it. I joked with her that the saying in romcoms about “you understand why it never worked with anyone else” is finally something I understand. At least, I hope that’s true. I felt that way about the person who did this to me, who shattered my trust and obliterated my sense of self, so I have some reluctance to fully embrace that this therapeutic relationship will not also hurt me. But at least I have a little hope starting to glow again.
I wish I knew how to make it easier for everyone who is struggling to get the mental help they need. Not just medication, but also the therapeutic help. There are so many people in this world dealing with far worse than the aftermath of a lying, heartless, snake of a man, and it makes me angry on their behalf to know the frustration and continued pain they are going to have to push through in order to actually get help. And even then, will those who need it most be able to afford it?
Why is therapy so expensive? How can one person’s time be worth so much for an hour? It seems counter to the very idea of helping those who need it. Mental “help” … are we sure about that? We are not getting it right in this country. I am sure of that.
Remember that song from back in the early oughts from Augustana? You forgot that was a band, didn’t you? I imagine people of a certain age would remember their hit “Boston,” but this one came to mind tonight. I’m positive I discovered this band through a mix cd someone made me in college, though I couldn’t tell you who or when or why. I was absently scrolling Instagram tonight, as one does, and another college friend shared this poem that hooked my heart and squeezed really hard.
I’m not sure I have anything to say that isn’t articulated or implied or remembered herein. Poetry, like painting and sculpture, is whatever it evokes in you. This one speaks volumes to me.
Tonight on my walk home from work, I noticed these petunias curiously growing out of a crack in the cement, presumably by happenstance. I feel like there’s a ripe allegory here, but the words aren’t coming to me.