Growing up in a black Pentecostal church in South Jersey, I was told that Jesus was the answer for everything. God was supposed to be my solid rock and fortress for whenever I faced trials and tribulations. Pentecostalism is a “charismatic renewal” movement within Christianity that emphasizes a direct and personal relationship with God, and its adherents usually can recount experiences of falling unconscious after hearing a powerful speech or speaking in tongues, a sacred language that that is believed to be only comprehended by God.
I learned these lessons, which were incorporated into ecstatic hymnals and riveting sermons, from an early age; my grandfather is a bishop of the church that I frequented so my mother has been taking me to Sunday services since I was born. My faith in God was absolute; I trusted He had the answers for everything.
But then, when I was 20, my stepfather died, and my world collapsed. God no longer seemed omnipotent, and I was lost. My stepfather was a military veteran, university professor, and clinical psychologist. He grew up in a Southern Baptist household but in comparison to the rest of my family, he seemed a lot more moderate with his beliefs, until the end of his life when he became devout by praying with my grandfather for the sake of his soul. He stood at an impressive 6’6” and had a broad, disarming smile, and inimitable wit. My mother had been unlucky in love for years and she thought that she met her dream man, one who welcomed her company as well as her two daughters. In fact, there were times when he did feel like a dream. If I close my eyes, I can still hear his sweet voice telling awkward 13-year-old me that I was beautiful and that I was going to be somebody someday. Sometimes when I walk past his former office inside of our home, I can picture him being able to recite lines from Shakespeare at the drop of a hat.
In 2008, when I was 16, he became almost a shadow of himself. He had degenerative frontal temporal lobe dementia and everything began to fall apart. Soon he could recognize me by face but very rarely did he call me by name. He could not pick up the right utensils when eating or even go to the bathroom. I would put up a strong face in front of my mother but when I returned to my bedroom, I would cry so hard that I thought that I was going to collapse onto my floor.
In the middle of the night, with trembling lips and sweaty hands, I would pray to God to please give my family the strength to endure it all. Suffering is a huge component of Christianity. In fact, we are told to consider everything to be OK when we suffer, for like gold, our souls are refined through the fire and inevitably we will come out good as new. I thought I needed to just toughen up and stop being weak. Whenever I went to Bible study and my colleagues would lay hands on me, I would cry, but I could not convey to them the pain that I was suffering. But they knew. They prayed for me and I even had a bishop tell me that he saw a vision of me standing in front of a mirror with all of my skin peeling off my body as if I was wasting away.
But this is good, I thought. I need to suffer. I’m being refined. I’m going to come out good as new sooner or later. Maybe this whole process is lasting longer than I thought because I’m not learning some sort of lesson that God is trying to teach me. When I prayed about it, I did feel a peace that overwhelmed me and settled my anxiety. But I still detested the fluctuating moods that drifted from one extreme to the other. It felt as if as soon as I rose to my feet again after kneeling down in prayer, I could have easily plummeted right back to the ground in anguish. At first, I trained myself to think that this sensation meant that my dependence on God was getting stronger and that was a good thing. After all, if I didn’t have a relationship with God, then I couldn’t call myself a true Pentecostal. But then my prayers started to grow stagnant. I expected to wake up one morning and the grieving would be over, and then I’d testify to my community about how no one could have delivered me but God. I embodied powerlessness because that’s what I thought I needed for God to work through me.
I needed therapy, but I resisted. And the biggest reason why I held back from going to a therapist as I was dealing with my stepfather’s illness and ultimately his death was because I was afraid of being a sinner. I didn’t want God to think that I was not trusting in his omnipotence.
In African-American culture, therapy is often a stigmatized route to mental recovery, and even more so in the intersection between black culture and the Christian community. We are supposed to rely on God to help us and we should not place too much power or trust in humans and their man-made strategies on how to remedy our psychological pain. Black people are communal people. If we have issues, we go to elders who then give us sage advice on how to go about handling them.
To my surprise, it was my mother who suggested that I go to therapy a few months before my stepfather passed. She had been researching for days leading up to one of my breaks from college and made my first appointment. My mother is one of the most religious people I know and I still look to her for counsel. She encouraged me that I would be fine, and that she would sit alongside me if I authorized it. Along the way, my mother told me that I needed to get well and that there were parishioners in our own church who suffered from psychological and physical distress, yet refused to seek help. My first thought was, If she thinks it’s OK, then it must be OK.
So there I was at my first session. At first I sat and fidgeted on a comfy sofa while obsessively looking at the clock. But soon, I felt like weights were being taken off of my heart. I finally had someone to talk to about my feeling of weakness without the fear of being embarrassed. I realized that it was OK to admit out loud that I’m weak, I’m tired, I’m hurt, and some days, I am not happy. As an African-American woman studying at an Ivy League university, I felt like I had to put on a face that I was perfect all the time, or else I was not meant to be at such a prestigious institution — especially within a space that was never originally meant for people like me. Whenever I went home, my family members reminded me how much of a blessing it was. I was supposed to just to suck it up.
I saw the therapist a few times before and after my stepfather’s death in 2012. She recognized that I needed to restructure my thought process, and none of her methods deviated from or challenged what I knew to be true within the tenets of my religion. The guilt of being disobedient to God gradually faded. There is a time to pray and there is a time to act. My soul did not have to be at odds with either of the two and I wish that others like myself would recognize that when they cry for help. Too often, as religious-minded people, we do not focus on our duality, which is our spirit and body. I had to find a way to realign them so that I felt peace in my head and in my bones.
I’ve never told this story before, not to my church and especially not to family members. I was scared to talk about it. I imagine that I’m going to have a lot of explaining to do, but I cannot deny how I feel. I can get continuous sleep now, my body doesn’t hurt, and best of all, I feel strong enough to write about all of this. Now, I have evolved into what it means to be a Pentecostal because I do feel renewed. I can talk to God, as I love both of us without feeling like one party needs to be neglected in order for the other to flourish.
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