Being a Black Man With General Anxiety in a World That Wants Me Dead - Public Goods

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Being a Black Man With General Anxiety in a World That Wants Me Dead

Today, I woke up with a familiar feeling.

black man standing outside a building

My heart was beating abnormally fast. My chest felt heavy, so I did breathing exercises to calm my body down. I felt a little better, but something bad was about to happen. I stretched and exercised while listening to Stevie Wonder. This made me feel better also, but something bad was about to happen.

It’s quarantine and I’m funemployed, so after a shower I decided how to split my time between school work, writing, podcasts and TV. Still, something bad was about to happen. A day goes by with me constantly feeling like something bad was about to happen, but the bad thing never comes.

I now recognize this feeling as generalized anxiety. Around two and half years ago, it got so bad that I sought out help. I told a therapist about my feelings of almost inescapable dread. She validated those feelings and recommended I start medication, as well as change how I talk to myself. I took her advice, starting an on-again, off-again, on-again relationship with SSRIs and their corresponding side effects. And I got better at being curious about how I was feeling, asking myself questions like:

What’s the absolute worst thing that could happen in this moment?

How likely or probable is it that that thing will happen?

If it does, will I still be OK?

The answer was often yes. I’ll be fine if I slip on my shoe string, make an awkward comment to a stranger or get rejected by a literary journal. This method works well enough for run-of-the-mill anxieties. It helps me have less days like today. Unfortunately, this approach is insufficient in addressing racial anxieties.

I remember exactly where I was when I heard the Trayvon Martin verdict. I was leaving the movie theatre after seeing “Fruitvale Station.” I checked my phone and saw in big bold letters, “George Zimmerman Acquitted!” I was angry, hurt and numb simultaneously. As I ruminated on the particulars of the case, including the fact that Trayvon was walking in a subdivision not unlike my mother’s neighborhood in Leeds, AL, a different manifestation of anxiety arose.

“I could be walking home with a hoodie on, get chased down, accosted, and killed with little to no legal consequences.”

No matter the mathematical probabilities, the past and the present have served as validation for this anxiety. It’s true that Black people have been being systematically killed since we got off the boat in 1619. But these days we see it in high definition across the news and social media platforms. When the media is filled with stories and images of Black death, it takes a toll on my mental health and serves as a reminder of all the activities that could get me killed.

This includes but is not limited to:

  • Going for a jog (Ahmaud Arbery)
  • Eating ice cream in my own home (Botham Jean)
  • Hanging out with friends (Rekia Boyd)
  • Missing a turn signal (Sandra Bland)
  • Playing loud music (Jordan Davis)
  • Going to church (Emmanuel 9)

I could go on.

My current therapist is a white man. What I like about him is that he gives me tangible tools and assignments. One of those assignments was to order the “Anxiety and Phobias Workbook” and read the chapter on negative self-talk.

One of the common topics in the book and in our sessions is combating negative cognitions. This exercise consists of taking the fearful thoughts that pop up and juxtaposing them with grounded, more reasonable counter-statements. Some of my own personal examples include:

Negative Self-Talk: I’m not doing enough.
Positive Counterstatement: I am always doing my best. My best is enough for me.

Negative Self-Talk: I’m not as creative as I should be.
Positive Counterstatement: Creativity is a process that I am steadily working toward.

Negative Self-Talk: I am not meeting people’s expectations.
Positive Counterstatement: I create my own expectations every day and try meeting them. They will change, and that’s OK. I will change, and that’s OK.

However, there’s one type of negative self-talk that I can’t seem to muster any meaningful counterstatments for.

Negative Self Talk: The world hates me because I’m Black.
Positive Counterstatement:

Negative Self Talk: A traffic stop could be a death sentence.
Positive Counterstatement:

Negative Self Talk: Progress is a myth meant to make white people feel better.
Positive Counterstatement:

My therapist takes my issues seriously, and I’m sure he’s undergone cultural competency training at some point in his career. I don’t think he or any individual therapist is the problem.

Rather, like every other system in our country, mainstream approaches to therapy assume a certain level of privilege and existential safety that many people just don’t have. It only took one no-knock warrant for Breonna Taylor. One traffic stop for Philando Castile. One ill-fated balcony trip for Martin Luther King Jr. And they were no more.

I’m not a mental health professional, and I can’t speak for all Black people. But I can tell you what I want and need from any non-Black therapists offering their services to Black people.

Validate our trauma as more than a personal issue, but also as a natural result of centuries of systemic racism. Educate yourself on Black history, specifically the history of the city and state in which you live.

Trauma is genetic, and many Blacks folks are metabolizing their struggles, as well as those of their ancestors. Examine your methods and ask yourself if they’re catered to a default (read: White) client. I would urge all therapists, especially in the midst of a COVID-19-driven recession and one of the great uprisings of our time, to consider sacrificing your profits to serve Black people who are cash poor.

Finally, if you aren’t prepared to do all of the above or put forth a valiant effort, be honest with a potential Black client about your ability, or inability, to help them. Refer them to a Black colleague.

For Black people who want Black therapists, hopefully you can find one here and here. For all my Black therapists doing the work and holding space, I hope you’re taking care of yourself as well.

The perception of threat breeds anxiety. But for Black folks living in the United States, our perception is driven by centuries of evidence. Given these conditions, Black folks struggling with anxiety should be normalized and have their condition treated. Instead we’re heralded for our “perseverance” in situations no one should have to endure.

I encourage Black people to seek out help from professionals because no one should have to bear what we’ve gone through alone. But as we enter these spaces of psychological health and healing, we also need this largely white field to be intentional about catering their practices to the specific needs of marginalized communities.

Given the stigma of therapy in Black communities, seeking help is no small feat for most of us. It means we’re ready to do real work. If you’re committed to serving us, we expect you to do the same.

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