I paid $100 per session, and my therapist ended each one exactly at the 45-minute mark. “Our time is now up,” she’d say, often in the thick of a revelatory conversation, and then curtly exit the Zoom call. She was just setting boundaries and being professional, I often explained to myself.
Despite the nerves those 45 minutes induced in me, I always looked forward to them. “Chrissy” and I weren’t very similar, but I trusted her. She was white, married, and just one year older than me. She curled and serum’ed her hair and wore expensive-looking jewelry to every online session. None of these were the reasons I trusted her, but her physical differences allowed me the distance to confess all my dark thoughts to her and her diamond earrings through the confessional screen of my laptop. We could talk about everything.
Or so I thought.
My therapist often told me that I dallied in too much “black and white thinking,” suggesting that it might be the precursor to my extreme mood swings. Over two years of seeing her, I also started to worry about some of my rash decisions, such as ghosting a friend after receiving one text interpreted as unkind. Still, I had zero doubts that it was the right decision to leave Chrissy, when I did.
I knew it the first time she made me feel uncomfortable in my skin, and the second time, when her white fragility kept her from taking responsibility for it.
Things had always been pretty steady with Chrissy. When a friend’s referral led me to her for a consultation session, I felt the same immediate draw I’ve felt with every friend and partner who I’ve grown to love. “Looking for a good therapist is like going on a bunch of blind dates,” I’d tell my friends.
But all my relationships started morphing last summer, in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests and the difficult conversations that ensued.
I had several close friends, but for the first time, I realized that I didn’t feel comfortable talking about my Asianness, or race in general, with any of them. I felt like I was seeing many of them for the first time — and they all seemed like strangers.
When I turned my microscope to Chrissy, I was similarly unsettled.
The breaking point began like any other session. I had prepared a few moments from the previous weekend I wanted to discuss, mostly about my trip to the Austrian alps to attend the wedding of my German partner’s friend. I knew going into it that this trip would be emotionally difficult. The crowd was guaranteed to be mostly white Europeans, leaving me as one of a handful of people of color.
The bride had arranged for an open bar, and by midnight, the floor was wet with dark beer puddles. I sat at a table with my partner, surrounded by strangers, and waited for the socially acceptable hour to retreat to bed.
“So, where are you from?” A voice beckoned me from my impatient fidgeting.
“Berlin,” I answered, as that is the city I now identify with.
“No, where are you really from?”
“I’m from New York.”
It was a practiced response, and I was glad I had it at the ready. My nightmare scenario was coming true, and a mix of social anxiety and shame had begun to creep up with the first question, paralyzing me.
I have no linear memory of the rest of the night, but I know it consisted of a barrage of ever-more shameful questions, pressing me to practice my German in front of my partner, and when I refused to do that, to practice my English (to a native German, it was probably implausible that I, an Asian-American, would speak fluent English) , and then even more questions about my experience with a “multicultural relationship.”
I’m relieved that some of the symptoms of trauma are memory fog, because my dignity deserves more than to live side-by-side with that memory.
When I finished telling my therapist the entire story, she had just one question for me.
“Why didn’t you stand up for yourself?”
I was dumbfounded. The person I trusted the most in the world was implying that the whole thing had persisted as a result of my own inaction. I was too attached to Chrissy to defend myself in that moment, too faithful in her neutrality. She went on to recommend “depersonalizing other people’s behavior,” and “confronting the person” the next time I found myself in a similar situation.
In that moment, my therapist’s words stung more than my original aggressor’s. I mulled on it for days, wracked by self-blame and confusion. I had been re-traumatized, by the person I trusted the most.
I knew I was the victim here, but if I loved my therapist, if I disagreed with her assessment, would I also be undoing every single revelation she’d helped me reach? I fell deep into my black-and-white thinking.
Most of all, I felt heavy with the responsibility of proving why racism was not simply a matter of negative interpretation. It exists. I experience it. I do not deserve its assaults.
It took me a long time to internalize this simple humanity for myself.
I confronted my therapist about it at the next session, explaining how her questions had perpetuated a burden that belonged to her and other white people. She apologized – for being human, not racist – and then acknowledged that she had never brought up the topic of race in any of our sessions over the last two years. And you know what? She never brought it up in any session after that, until my last day with her months later, when I decided to stop seeing her.
I thought about Chrissy earlier this year, when FKA Twigs shared her story of abuse during her relationship with Shia LaBeouf in an interview with Gayle King.
“Why didn’t you leave?”
That question again. I wish I had had Twigs’ courage when she said:
"I think we have to stop asking that question. The question should really be to the abuser: 'Why are you holding someone hostage with abuse?' People say it can't have been that bad, because else you would've left. But it's like, no, it's because it was that bad, I couldn't leave."
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