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Bobblehaus Finding a therapist as a transracial adoptee

Aug. 19, 2020
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This essay is adapted from an audio story I made as part of a podcast class over the past two months. If it weren’t for the class, I don’t think I’d be in therapy today. I needed a reason to find a therapist beyond myself. For so long I felt alone in this gap between knowing I needed something and taking the steps to make it happen. I wanted to tell this story for myself, for my fellow adoptees, for my friends of color who know what it’s like to be misunderstood. I hoped that by making this my experience public, I could create an opportunity for others to engage with their own relationship with mental health and encourage listeners to move forward wherever they are in their journey. 

I kept telling myself I’d get a therapist. After the new year, after I got through the month, after this next thing was over. The timing never felt right. At 24, with just a year left covered by my parents’ health insurance, I finally decided it was time. I'd recognized feelings of depression, anxiety, and other emotional difficulties over the years since college—so why did it feel scary to actually contact a therapist and schedule that initial appointment?

I realized that if I started therapy, I’d have to tell my parents. Even though I know therapy is a good thing, a part of me didn’t want to be seen as less than perfect. I had internalized the stigma that needing or seeking therapy meant something was wrong with me. 

I called my mom, and it turns out, I had been in therapy before. In the third grade, I’d seen a doctor named Dr. V for six months for oppositional defiance disorder. Dr. V would talk with me and then to my parents. Sometimes she’d talk with all of us together about strategies for getting along. 

I knew that I’d had to go, but I don’t remember any of the details. After six months, Dr. V was transferred and I stopped going to therapy. According to my mom, I was doing better, as in throwing fewer tantrums and being a more obedient child. In my memory, I hated these appointments. I felt like I was in trouble and that these visits were somehow my punishment. One day I deleted Dr. V's phone number from my mom’s Nokia phone, thus, in my mind, solving the problem. 

It’s important to note that my parents are white, and I am not. I was adopted from China at 17 months old. So much of what I want to work through in therapy is intertwined with these parts of my identity. As a person of color with white parents, the burden of explaining myself is inevitable when I share that I am adopted. I wanted to avoid this at all costs with a therapist because so much of my anxiety is about the fear of not being able to have these identities understood. I grew up in Springfield, Missouri and went to college in a small town in Ohio; these suburban and rural spaces are filled predominantly with white people. I put off getting a therapist because I felt like I couldn't share those parts of myself with someone who didn’t look like me. When I moved to New York, I realized I finally had access to therapists of color. 

I wanted to get a professional’s perspective on how identity impacts the therapist-patient relationship. I reached out to Leanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese clinical psychologist based in New York. She affirmed identity’s importance, asserting it comprises “everything that has formed you.”  

According to Dr. Nguyen, it’s only been in the past five to ten years that “there’s been a conscious effort to look into the effects of gender and sexuality and race and how it plays out in the consulting room.” Before that, therapy was a field studied and practiced through the perspective of mostly white men and later white women. Hearing this validated some of my fears about seeking a therapist. 

I didn’t want to pay someone money and then have to explain to them all my identities, only to still not feel fully seen. I asked Dr. Nguyen’s advice for people of color seeking therapy and how white therapists can better support their POC patients. Her response was pessimistic, but she said white therapists need to “question the foundation and the structure within which they work and to acknowledge maybe that they may not know enough, that what they learned in grad school  does not speak to the whole of the human condition.” 

I also called Mikaela, my sister, who like me is a Chinese adoptee, but unlike me has actually been going to therapy for quite some time. Overall, therapy has been a positive experience for them, but it’s been a struggle to find a good therapist and all their therapists so far have been white. 

Mikaela first started seeing a therapist in seventh grade, but initially our parents rejected the idea of therapy. After she expressed suicidal thoughts multiple times, they took her concerns seriously and she’s been in and out of therapy ever since. 

Again, I couldn’t remember any of this. Even though I drove my sister to and from school every day, I never knew she was seeing a therapist, let alone having suicidal thoughts. At the end of our call, Mikaela reflected, “I don't really remember Mom and Dad ever talking about mental health. Really, ever.” I didn’t either.   

After talking to my sister, I realized I had a few more questions for my mom. I asked if she called my sessions with Dr. V “therapy.” She couldn’t remember.

I still wanted to know why I never knew my sister was in therapy when we were in high school together. I asked my mom if there was a subconscious effort to hide it from me. She said it was more about confidentiality: “I figured if she was comfortable talking about it, she would probably have talked to you about it.” 

I didn’t really believe this answer. Why wasn’t mental health an open topic for discussion for our family? Shouldn’t I have known what was going on with my sister? My mom shared, “There were some things that happened with Mikaela that really, really, really scared me. But I wasn't going to burden you with that.” So I asked—if she could do it over, would she have shared more with me? She didn’t have a definitive answer. I wondered—if she had, would I already have a therapist? Would knowing my sister was struggling with suicidal thoughts have led me to consider my mental health more deeply? Would I have felt empowered to talk to someone during college or during the my first serious breakup? I’ve had many points in my life where things felt really bad, but I’d never allowed them to feel bad enough to ask for help.

I thought back to what Dr. Nguyen said about giving yourself permission to search for a therapist who would understand the complexity of my identities, to validate that “my life is important, who I am [and] my issues are worth looking into.” 

I've known this to be true conceptually for a long time, but I wasn’t able to practice it. I was scared to Google Asian-American therapists. What if there weren’t any? What if there were? 

Thankfully, I was able to bypass the research process. My friend Michael (also an Asian-American adoptee) gave me the names of three Asian-American adoptee therapists. Within two hours, I called all three therapists for a consultation and scheduled initial appointments. 

I visited two therapists in Manhattan and had one session over video chat. There’s a certain chemistry you need to feel in accepting a therapist, not unlike dating. I felt safe and comfortable with everyone I talked to but it wasn’t until my last appointment that I felt that click. She had a good couch, and the way she talked with me made me feel like she would push back if I needed it. I also wanted to find someone who would give me homework; I'm looking to make real change, and I need someone who will hold me accountable. 

During the first session, they asked about my childhood, my family, and other important relationships. It felt like a first date where I was doing most of the talking, and the 50 minutes went by quickly. After these appointments, I didn’t feel better or worse, but the experience felt worthwhile. I’ve only had a few appointments, but I already feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders, like someone besides myself is committed to my well-being. 

I still don’t know exactly why it took me so many years to finally get a therapist. Why did I have to make a podcast about it first? Why do I feel this need to turn my journey into something public in order to justify its relevance in my life? I don’t know, exactly, but it’s something I hope to explore in therapy. 

Photo courtesy of @millennialpisces.