I saw my first therapist when I was twenty-six years old and no one knew about that visit but my therapist and my husband.
At the time, I was completely nervous, mostly because I had no idea what to expect from it. I was a Black mother of two, born into a family who didn’t believe in therapy at all. At one point, I remember sitting in my car and being tempted to turn back and go home. I felt like I was doing the wrong thing—like I was betraying someone by reaching out for help. But then I realized that if I’d left, I would have only been betraying myself.
Something had clearly brought me to that therapist’s office. A little voice inside my head told me to book an appointment, to try it out, and to see if it would help me heal so that I could become the best version of myself possible, so I took the plunge. I stepped out of my car, walked into the building, and drew in a deep breath.
And when I walked into the therapist’s office, surprisingly, I felt at ease with her. Our first session was simple—not too deep yet—but when it was over, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to sit there in that safe space, where I could unleash every worry, every anxiety, every fear, and every trauma I’d endured. I knew I would return to her very soon and I couldn’t wait for that day to arrive.
When I left, I remember feeling a sense of relief and like several weights had fallen off my shoulders. I started thinking about all of the people who could feel the same if they sought therapy too. Then I started wondering why I had become so nervous, and why seeking therapy had felt like such a forbidden thing to me in the first place.
Several months into therapy, I realized that it felt forbidden to me because there had been a societal stigma surrounding a person as myself. The world was always screaming at me to be a “strong woman” who could handle anything life threw at her. As a mother, the world expects us to handle everything and to never complain or gripe about it. As mothers, we are supposed to be proud and powerful and if we make a single mistake, we are shamed for it. We are told to accept whatever card we’re given, move on, and get over it. With that stigma engraved in me, I felt I had to be perfect in everything I did—that I had to take on everyone else’s burdens and abandon my own. But in doing so, I was left empty and stripped. My self-worth had declined, my mental health had deteriorated, I was beyond stressed, and I was lost. I had no idea who I was anymore. It was like my identity had vanished. Which begged the question: If I was helping to take care of everyone else’s problems, who was helping me take care of mine?
I grew up with a lot of anxiety (which I didn’t know until speaking with a therapist) and as a child and teenager, my family would often chalk it up to being too emotional, or they’d tell me to let things go. But there are instances where a person cannot let things go. Things like losses, assaults, bullying, and even tragedies.
And this is why in my thriller novel, The Perfect Ruin, you will see how not seeking therapy (or at least not continuing it once you’ve started to uncover the root of your issues) can be detrimental. My character Ivy Hill was distraught by a tragedy that ripped her family away from her and, as such, was sent to therapy at a young age. But there were certain things she could not let go of due to the tragedy and she wanted to place blame on someone but never could because she didn’t know who was responsible. However, when she’s older she finds out the name of the responsible party and it’s a woman named Lola Maxwell. Lola’s life seems perfect to Ivy from the inside out and she wants to destroy it. Instead of accepting the situation, healing, and allowing herself to continue growing as a person (with the help of her therapist), Ivy makes it her mission to seek revenge on Lola in her own conniving ways. Eventually, with all of her plotting and festering, Ivy’s revenge-plot morphs into a hatred that simmers and in turn, changes Ivy’s life forever…and not for the better.
Of course, I know this is fiction, but I believe seeing characters go through situations like what Ivy went through is important in fictional stories, but even more so in thrillers and crime fiction. When a person doesn’t get the help they need while at their worst, they cannot become their best.
A lot of people sought therapy during the pandemic because they needed someone to talk to, or vent to, or simply to lean on while at their lowest. And even now, therapy continues for many of us. My relationship with my therapist grew even more so during the year 2020 and I am forever indebted to her and I often wonder why I hadn’t reached out to her sooner than I did at twenty-six.
Perhaps it’s because a lot of people used to think if you needed any kind of mental therapy, you needed to be institutionalized. In a way, there is a form of rehabilitation to therapy, but rehab shouldn’t be deemed such a terrifying word in regard to the safety and care of our minds. That is a toxic mentality that I’m glad is changing, especially during these times. I’m glad that it’s being normalized for us to ask for help when we need it instead of pretending life is perfect until, eventually, you’re having a mental breakdown.
A lot of us read crime fiction and we have a sense of thinking that something in this particular genre could happen to us. If you think about it, a lot of what characters say and do (especially the antagonists) stems from trauma. And, oh man, don’t get me started on that haunting T-word.
Trauma is real. A lot of people won’t even realize they’re carrying a trauma until the truth is shoved right in their faces. I’ve discovered a lot of my own traumas through reading crime and thriller novels, and even fiction in general. The characters I have grown to love have gone through similar situations to my own. At one point, I thought what I was experiencing was normal, but it turns out it wasn’t normal at all.
If a person does not heal from their traumas, things can turn very ugly. Most times that ugliness is buried within us and shifts into misery, or it’s passed onto someone we love, which can result in even more of that dreaded T-word (and because misery loves company.) For my character Ivy, her unhealed trauma turned ugly. But perhaps it wouldn’t have if she’d taken her mental health seriously.
And, yes, I may weave issues like this into my novels, but mental health is something I don’t take lightly and hope to see more of the effects of it in the books I read.
I believe the more we can shed a light on mental health in our books and in what we watch, the more we can normalize seeking the help we need, not just for ourselves, but for the many generations to come.