Okay Fine. I'll Get A Therapist
Behind the Book: Scenes from a writing residency
I’m currently 4 days into a 10 day writing residency that I’ve been looking forward to for the better part of a year. This is not my first time here (in fact, I finished my book proposal for So You Want To Talk About Race here and the idea for MEDIOCRE came to me the last time I was here) but this is the longest I’ve been able to stay. It’s a truly wonderful place and I’m so privileged to be able to be here.
Like so many others, I haven’t really gotten a lot of time to myself these last two and a half years, and yet I’ve also been incredibly isolated? I mean, my family and I have spent pretty much every single minute of every single day together. It’s the kind of together that can be beautiful and stifling all at once. Always someone to talk to, always a sense of belonging and support, and yet also always noisy, always distracting, always together but only with each other. And then nobody else. No peers, no friends, no community. Writing is a very solitary practice and it has always suited me as an introvert. I didn’t know you could get too much solitude in your work until this pandemic. To know that you could get both too much solitude and not nearly enough solitude at the very same time? That’s wild.
Don’t get me wrong. There is absolutely nobody in the world I’d rather go through these past three years with than my partner and kids. My kids are amazing and basically my whole heart. They are funny and challenging, and watching how much they’ve grown and changed these last few years has been a gift (and also, you know, a kind of toss-you-upside-down-until-you-puke rollercoaster). My partner Gabriel is my best friend in the world and we literally never fight? We just really like hanging out together more than doing just about anything else even though it’s pretty much all we’ve done for over two years now. But we are individual beings who need our own individual lives. Gabriel gets to go into the radio station at least once a week so he at least gets to see coworkers, and my son is in school in person now, but me? I’m still living peak pandemic aloneness.
Part of the problem is living in the Seattle area. There are like, five other Black writers here. And I live in the suburbs. Nobody wants to come to the suburbs. In the past I would make the drive further south to a coffee shop or restaurant to get some time with people, and then I had work events across the country that gave me more regular interactions with peers outside of the Seattle area. But we’re still trying to be pretty covid safe here so I’m not out in public group settings much and most of my speaking work as moved online.
All of this is a lot to complain about for someone who has had the immense privilege of financial stability, supportive family, and meaningful work throughout one of the most devastating periods socio-economic we’ve seen in our lifetime. But people need people. And when you are a Black woman who spends every day writing about the violence of white patriarchy, you really need people.
This writing residency has pretty much exactly what I need. Solitude during the day to write, and gathering each evening with the other women writers in the residency for community. I showed up here very eager to get to work. And things, well…..haven’t gone as planned.
I realized from the very first gathering that I have no idea how to be around people anymore. I know that it’s something we joke about, “ha ha I’m so awkward now! What even is small talk?” But y’all. It’s bad. Sitting in a room with strangers I realized that I couldn’t handle even five seconds of awkward silence. I had to fill every bit of silence with words. Just talk, talk, talk.
I don’t even remember what I said. It was likely gibberish.
The entire time I was talking I also shouting in my head at myself, “STOP OMG WHAT ARE YOU DOING WHY ARE YOU TELLING PEOPLE THIS IT’S SO WEIRD WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?” Which probably didn’t make whatever I was saying any more interesting or relevant.
And yet I couldn’t stop. I talked so much my jaw actually hurt at the end of the night.
I also discovered my first full day here that going from taking care of a family every second of every day for two and a half years to just having to take care of yourself is not the immediate relief I thought it would be. It’s panic inducing.
To be fair to myself, my kids have struggled with mental health issues through this pandemic and there was a good period of time where I couldn’t safely leave home for more than a day or two. But we’ve put a lot of work into health and healing this past year and things are much more stable at home. And after this important family work, not only do I absolutely need some time to focus on myself and my writing work, but my family could probably also use a break from my anxiety-induced over-enthusiastic caregiving. My partner likes to say that worry is my love language and he used to say that before the pandemic….
So I spent the entire first day here just texting everyone repeatedly to make sure everyone was okay. I spent a lot of time making up nightmare scenarios of what could go wrong and it would be all because I went away for ten days. It didn’t seem to help much to know that I have a more than competent partner happily holding things down at home, a loving mom living in her little house literally ten feet away, and that I’m still only a few hours from home should I need to get back.
The world was going to fall apart because I dared to take some time to prioritize myself and my work.
After a day of quiet panic it was time to gather with the other writers again. I set off through the woods determined to do better. I was going to talk less and listen more. I was going to ask questions, and then follow-up questions. I was going to be cool.
Reader, I was not cool.
I talked even more the second night. It was awful.
I called my partner later that evening to talk about how embarrassed I was. He was surprised because, while we do really like to talk to each other at home, we are also very good at sitting in silence. In the eight years he’s known me, he’s never known me to fill up every single bit of space in a room with my words. I’m actually really good (when I’m not being a total weirdo at a writing residency) at creating conversation and drawing people out of their shells. It’s part of what makes me a great interviewer and conversation partner for events. But…..I don’t know. Stick me in the woods with the solitude and connection I’ve been asking for for three years and it will break me I guess.
I didn’t really sleep that night. I was too worried about my family, my plants, the state of the world. I woke up late after a fitful night and immediately checked up on everyone. My son was, by this point, very annoyed with my constant badgering.
After another half day or so of pacing and worrying I finally decided to do the only useful thing I was really capable of in the moment.
I started googling therapists.
I love therapy, I believe in therapy. But I haven’t had a therapist in at least five years, even though I’ve really, really needed one. Being a Black queer woman in Seattle has always made the search for a therapist who can understand what I’m talking about very necessary and really difficult. But now, adding in that I’m a public figure who regularly has to deal with pretty gross invasions of privacy, it has made it even harder for me to take that leap and reach out to some people who might be able to help me.
But as I was freaking out in this idyllic little cabin during the residency that was supposed to bring me peace, I realized that I just can’t do this anymore. I’m not only annoying absolutely everyone around me, but I’m making myself miserable because I really don’t have the tools that I need right now to deal with my anxiety and trauma.
Less than a decade ago I quit my job in marketing to write full time. It turned my world upside down in ways that I couldn’t imagine. It took a good three years or so to adjust to the change: to being a public figure and published author. To losing the privacy I’d always taken for granted. To spending every day deeply engaged in traumatizing documentation of white supremacy - while also raising a teenager and a little boy. Then I fell in love with my partner. Then we were swatted and had to leave our home for our safety. Then we were in a pandemic. Then in June of 2020 the interest in my work grew exponentially fast and I was overwhelmed with work and even more invasions of privacy. Then the house that we had moved to for our safety burned down. Then my son who had moved away for college got covid. Then my younger son started to really suffer from the impacts of pandemic isolation (exacerbated I’m sure by the fire and our unstable housing situation in the months after the fire). And then my mom almost died. Oh, and we’re planning a wedding for this summer and have a book due a few months after that. And the world is also entering what seems to be a new phase of socio-political shittiness.
It’s a lot. And I really need to stop pretending like I’m handling it okay. Because I’m not.
Somehow, even just emailing a therapist to see if they had any availability helped. Just the acknowledgement to myself that this is real and worth my time and attention helped calm me. I mean, I’m still a mess, but less so.
The last few evening gatherings have been better. I’m still talking a lot but more thoughtfully, and others are getting their own words in. It’s actual conversation! I am not leaving feeling like a tornado that just slammed through the room wreaking havoc.
Now to the actual writing! This is writing. This counts, right?
But I also started some important work on my book that I’ve been putting off. Not a lot, but some. Even just this little bit has helped me realize that no, I really haven’t forgotten how to write a book. It’s still there in me and I’ll get done what needs to get done. I always get done what needs to get done in the end. But I am absolutely going to need to get help if I’m going to do this in a way that doesn’t sacrifice my wellbeing.
So I hope to get some good writing done during this residency, but if all I get is a call back from a therapist, it will be all worth it.
Thank you for reading. If you liked this newsletter and want to support my work, please consider subscribing here:
Ijeoma Oluo: Behind the Book is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.