The Danger In Not Confronting Microagressions

I underestimated the toll it could take on my mental health

From as far back as I can remember, I have always been conscious of being black and gay. I grew up in a town that is 98 percent white, 2 percent black, and relatively intolerant to difference. I have dealt with all kinds of racism and homophobia — from subtle to overt — for my entire life. But the resilience I’ve built up over the years to deal with this was truly tested when I entered the mental health care system last fall.

I was 18, one month into my sophomore year of college in Philadelphia, when I had a nervous breakdown. I threw away my phone, deleted my social media accounts, and tried to run away from everything. I had been suffering from depression since high school, but I didn’t recognize my experience as such at the time. I thought about committing suicide, but I didn’t go through with it — instead I decided to admit myself into a psychiatric hospital in Baltimore.

Being black and gay in a world in which those identities are marginalized was a key element of this breakdown, but I soon found that my struggles were only amplified when I sought treatment, because I was uncomfortable talking about my reality with the almost entirely white (and, to my knowledge, heterosexual) doctors, therapists, and others who were supposedly in positions of support. I figured they wouldn’t be able to understand this experience, and some had even expressed resistance to it, so I didn’t bring up my race or sexual orientation in regards to my mental health at all during my initial treatment.

I only stayed in the psychiatric hospital for a week, after which I was sent to the hospital’s day program for two more weeks. Day hospital is like school, except the students talk way more than the teachers, and everybody is discussing thoughts and feelings instead of math and science. The program was also just like my school in that I was the only person of color there.

Although day hospital was supposedly a place for healing, I was confronted with the same problem there that I had been dealing with in primarily white spaces all my life: It didn’t take long before I began experiencing racist microaggressions.

To clarify what I mean by that, here are a few examples. Once, in high school, I was called to the administrative office, where I was asked if I was sure I was black. They were entering my data into some new system and didn’t believe that the ethnicity my parents had submitted — “African-American” — was true. I have no idea why they questioned this. Another time, a girl I went to high school with said her white boyfriend had “n----r lips,” then turned to me and added, “not like you.” Everyone at the lunch table laughed. I said nothing, desperate to avoid confrontation. Yet another time, the guys in my gym class held a vote in the locker room to determine who was the “gayest” kid in our class. I was in the locker room when I was voted second place.

The day hospital was not too different from high school in this respect. Once, a white female patient told an awful story about a crime that had been committed against her. After she finished, she looked at me and said, “I’m sorry to say he was a black man.” The criminal’s race had absolutely no relevance to the story. Another time, an attendee told me that the staff was proud of me for “seeking help for my mental health at such a young age and staying off the street.” I’m from rural Pennsylvania. The hardest things hitting those streets are horseshoes.

I handled these microaggressions, as well as the many, many others I experienced in day hospital, the same way I always had in high school: I tried to avoid the problem. When people dealing with the same illnesses as me shared their personal stories, the other patients were happy to help and console them. I was thankful to hear about their experiences and wanted to share my own. But as I told my stories to the group, I realized I was editing them to remove any mention of my race or sexuality, and that I outright refused to share anecdotes that involved me being the victim of racism or homophobia — even though these factors are inextricably intertwined with my experiences and issues. In day hospital, “avoiding the problem” proved not to be a helpful coping mechanism but a hindrance to my treatment.

Even though I knew that telling these painful stories, about some of my most difficult times, would be the best way to deal with and grow from my experiences, I couldn’t. I didn’t feel comfortable talking about my race or my sexuality with people who had so clearly demonstrated they didn’t understand, and possibly even resented or hated, these facets of my identity. Would they even respond to what I said, I wondered, or brush it off and come up with their own theories that allow them to ignore their own racism and homophobia?

Those two weeks in day hospital felt like an eternity. I couldn’t drop out because my mom had already paid for the treatment, and mental health care costs a lot of money. I couldn’t talk to an adult or “tell on” anyone like in school. Plus, these patients were going through the same incredibly difficult stuff that I was — maybe even worse. How could I call out someone who’d just had a nervous breakdown at lunch?

Soon after I left day hospital, I went back to my college in Philadelphia for the spring semester. I found a therapist in the city — someone who also identifies as gay and who regularly asks me about my experiences with racism and homophobia. I finally felt comfortable opening up to someone, although my willingness to share had less to do with our specific relationship and more to do with pure exhaustion. I was tired of editing my words. I was tired of avoiding controversy. I was tired of not talking about it.

And it turns out that talking about it paid off. When I finally opened up about the effects that racism and homophobia have had on my mental health, my therapist actually listened. It was an unbelievable relief.

It’s been a few months now, and I’ve been talking about these issues ever since. I’ve learned that, just as I will have to deal with racism for the rest of my life, depression and anxiety are not problems that can be “fixed.” Mental illness is something that I’ll always have, to some extent. I’m glad I finally feel able to talk about how these realities intersect in my life and get the help I need. I just wish it hadn’t taken so long.

I have also learned how to confront microaggressions head on by being more upfront about my feelings. I used to think that staying quiet and avoiding confrontation allowed me to avoid the consequences of speaking up, like being ostracized or seen as too sensitive. But keeping it all to myself only left me a mess inside, and it certainly didn’t teach others why their actions were wrong. I know I will continue to face microaggressions in the future, like when I enter the workforce — a place where talking back can sometimes have negative consequences (especially for people of color). But at least I now feel more prepared to deal with it, and to help others do the same.

If you or someone you know is struggling with their emotional health, visit Half of Us for resources and ways to get help.

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