The first day of my clinical training class—after rounds of orientation, introductions and shared lunches—we are asked to draw genograms depicting our family histories. Among this group of seven other trainee clinicians and two supervisors, the group feels big enough that I need not offer too many details about the tapestry of my lineage. Small enough that the little I do offer will be held safely, a precious peek into my particular corner of the experiences that have drawn me towards training in psychotherapy. There are allotted symbols to depict various types of relationships; a single solid line for harmonious; a dotted line for strained, three zig zags with a double line for enmeshment and abuse. More symbols for various mental illnesses and conditions. Mapping these out is how we will highlight genetic predispositions and know the trails we can follow towards diagnosis.
We are each given an A3 sheet of paper, some markers, and released to our offices to prepare our genograms. I place my sheet on the floor. I do not know yet that before any attempts at healing another, I will come face-to-face with the generational traumas that have been lying within my bones. Running over and into me from my beloved great grandmother where my genogram begins. I draw the prescribed circles and blocks for each of her children. Insert crosses for those who have transcended beyond this life, ages for those who are living. Below their children—my grandparents—are my uncles and aunts. My parents are at the centre. Below still, lay my brothers and I. As I draw the lines, single tears begin to slip when I connect my solid lines to my late grandmother and uncle’s crosses, and go on to note the miscarriages, the battles with alcoholism and depression, the extended separations born of a South African history in which migrant labour is a means for survival.
Later, the patients and families I see come with their own genograms too. Report the psychological distress living inside of them, while I quietly draw their genograms and only later hold them up before them. A representation of the many stories and illnesses that have travelled along their own family lines, and finally called out for help when they could no longer manage.
The last day at my childhood church—after many years of youth camps, prayer groups and participation in outreach programmes—I meet with my pastor at the end of the service to tell her I am leaving. It has taken years for me to gather the courage to abandon what I have known here, all I have known myself to be as a young woman. But beyond even this is a deeper conviction; this space where I was taught about love, and kindness, and grace to come wholly as I am, has for a long time also felt foreign. For this is also the space where my extended battle with the depression that has coiled itself around my soul has not been welcome. Plenty of life has happened here. I, at times, still find myself reaching for the words to fully articulate the alienation of lying on the floor in my darkened dorm room. Begging God to make the feelings go away. Only to gather my teetering seams long enough to attend another youth service on Sunday.
The church that raised me came with a genogram too. Its own sets of stories and long-standing interpretations of scripture that position mental illness as a personal defect or spiritual disorder; as evidence of sin and generational curses, at times even an indicator of lapses in faith or obedience to God. This while honing a culture in which leaders and pastors—the people entrusted to offer guidance and support through suffering—hold the authority to speak over a condition I now know they do not fully understand. I was a student of Psychology, but therapy was discouraged because the Bible had to remain the trail by which my footsteps were ordered. I learned to refuse visits to the psychiatrist because I knew the Great Physician. Took one-verse doses of scripture “to be anxious for nothing” because “weeping may stay for the night, but dancing comes in the morning.” Except the weeping stayed for many nights at a time, and by morning the only dance I knew was the fight to lift myself out of bed and maybe crack open a window.
An on-going cycle where the crushing weight of the depression would be further laden by the shame of buckling beneath it. I was afraid of what would happen once I left this church, but I was more afraid of what would happen if I stayed. Because there are stories inside of me too, and I did not want them to die with me when the prayers alone were no longer enough.
Years later, I slipped into another bout of depression. I was no longer just the trainee clinician drawing genograms and prescribing psychotherapy and consultations with psychiatrists. Nor was I just the depressed girl who left the church when she could no longer grit her teeth and pray it all away. I was now curled up on my own therapist’s couch counting up the 15 depressive episodes I could remember, while lamenting how the darkness had worn me out. She had kind eyes and a gentleness about her; allowed the silence to linger in the air between us after she’d asked who knew and carried me through the previous episodes. I did not answer her then, I instead segued into musings about the disproportionately higher rates of depression in Black communities, the allotted strength of Black women, and the dangers of faith as a primary healer within a society bridled by injustice and violence. Questions my training and the church had not been able to answer. She humoured me, knowing I was testing her, making her uncomfortable for being a white therapist treating a Black woman. And then I dared her to show up. Settled in only when she met me where I was at. Because the conversations—the questions about psychotherapy and faith—they were worth having, they were part of the healing. For me, and then for the other Black women who live inside of me.
There deepened my work to reconcile the multitude of identities and experiences coursing through my veins. There is plenty of truth in what Psychology calls mental illness and what Christianity may term spiritual disorder. Yet having walked intimately with the teachings of both, deeply immersed in their conceptions of human suffering, I now know that there was always a third space. One that specifically demanded their communion with my presence here as a Black body. Psychology and Christianity are structured to be kind. To bring healing in their systemic understanding of illness and dis-ease. But their respective histories—which can neither be denied nor dismissed—have played a lethal hand in the oppression of my foremothers and -fathers. I could argue how they still do. But for now, I am concerned with the third space.
There may be truth still, in present understandings of genetic predispositions and generational curses. The first being their inherent assertions that our stories of illness and dis-ease do not rest in the individual alone. I attest to this because when it really came down to it, it was not psychotherapy that healed me. Nor was it the church that fixed me. Only that a different kind of recovery made space for me when I did too; when the medicine bag I drew from no longer consisted of either Psychology or Christianity as primary gatekeepers to my healing. Because my experiences and stories were never mine alone. I stayed in psychotherapy as long as I needed to, accepted the silent prayers of the older women near and dear to me. But I mostly leaned into the softness of a community of Black women who covered me through my process. Allowed myself to be fully cradled in our intentional acts of re-membering and witnessing; in the vast realities of those who came before us and the myriad of ways those realities were poured over and into us. All to say: This is hard. You are fighting sadness with all your might, within a society that was not designed with you in mind. And that, is not okay. Of course you will struggle. Of course, we all do. It is no failure of ours to break under the pressures of a space that is not kind. But we can create that kindness for ourselves.
I wonder: if my grandmother knew as she braided heirlooms into my hair while we listened and told tales I do not recall, that I would one day question these spaces sworn to heal me only to reconnect to her practices not written about in books? I wonder too: how differently might we begin to heal if all the containers that house us, reached for a greater form of healing that is rooted—truly—in community and social justice? What I do know, however, is that a genogram marked by survival was not the only heirloom passed down to me. I may raise my fist and bare my teeth when harm is threatened, but when I rest in gentleness, abundance, pleasure and joy, these heirlooms begin to dance with me too. Acknowledging that beyond any genetic predisposition or generational curse, wellness was always my birthright.