Ryan and the Talking Doctor

"I'm going to see my talking doctor this afternoon," Ryan shared with confidence. "Well, we'd better get you home so you're not late," I replied as we walked home from my house. At 15, I was Ryan's babysitter. A good kid, Ryan was known to throw the occasional temper tantrum. If I refused to allow him to eat popsicles before dinner or if I insisted that he tidy up his room before bedtime, I would prepare for a Ryan meltdown. An only child, Ryan enjoyed coming over to our home to interact with my older brothers and our dog. Distracted by the testosterone in the room and our family pet, Ryan never had tantrums on these excursions. Frankly, the tantrums he threw in his home never bothered me much. I always ignored him until he calmed down, and he always did. Like depriving a fire of oxygen, a child throwing an unacknowledged tantrum eventually settles down. Once home, Ryan asked his mother if he could get a treat before his "talking doctor" appointment. Like any paid helper, I pretended that I was invisible as his mom fumbled in her purse to pay me for my time.  Without prompting, his mom casually explained (albeit, unnecessarily) that the talking doctor was his psychiatrist. "He's having a tough time with the divorce," she continued matter-of-factly. Ryan was 7 years old, Caucasian with platinum blonde hair, piercing blue eyes, and he already had a talking doctor. 


Looking back, I now recognize that Ryan had other behavioral signs that suggest he had a mental health issue or learning disability, possibly dyslexia. At seven, Ryan was not interested in learning to read. As my mother had done with us as young as four and five, whenever I read to Ryan, I sat him on my lap or between my legs on the floor and used his finger to point to the words in the book. My hope was that the repetitive reading of the same book each time I watched him would help him learn the Dr. Seuss phrases. Instead, Ryan would fidget and insist on jumping down to play with his toys while I read to him. With generations of teachers in my DNA, my goal was to help his mother teach him how to read. Ryan moved away before I could complete my literary mission. He was also on prescription medication that I now believe may have been for attention deficit disorder. Or, he may have been on the "autism spectrum," a phrase that was not known or used in the early 80's. As I walked home, I remember wondering what Ryan discussed with his "talking doctor." 

Ryan's tale was my first experience with child psychology or psychotherapy. Years later, and married with children, a new neighbor casually shared with me that one of her children was bipolar as was the mistress and one of the children residing in the clubhouse sized home across from hers. Like Ryan, both neighbors were members of the majority culture, and unashamed to acknowledge their contribution to the field of psychotherapy and pharmaceutical science

This was new territory for me.  I was unaccustomed to people discussing mental health issues so openly. That's just not what black people did. Growing up, I knew there were people in our family who "weren't quite right" or were described as mentally "off," by relatives. But this was whispered in hushed tones and not discussed as matter-of-factly or casually as Ryan's mother or my new neighbor had offered.  Every family has the aunt/uncle who gets "over served" at family functions and challenges unsuspecting adults to a duel or tells too much of the family business.  Alcohol fueled behavior can be explained away and attributed to the beverage of choice. However, because mental illness can be masked with make-up and achievements, many family members often don't know if someone has a mental health issue.  It simply was not discussed in the black community.

Studies have shown that in most black families, mental health issues get hidden in the closet.  Black people are comfortable discussing hypertension ("pressure"), diabetes ("sugar"), heart disease, cancer, arthritis ("Arthur"), thyroid conditions, bunions, and a host of other "personal" health issues and ailments.  However, there are two topics that black people avoid discussing:  Obesity and mental health issues. 

These same black people will explain a morbidly obese condition on a family trait of being "big boned" seemingly ignoring the poor food choices often made by the obese family member. True, genetics, thyroid conditions and steroid usage contribute to girth; however, lifestyle choices are also a factor.  Similarly, the topic of mental health is shrouded in a veil of privacy, secrecy and shame. Oddly, it's ok to discuss Uncle Joe's prostate cancer, but mention Aunt Frances' depression and you've entered private territory.

In reality, most of us will suffer some type of brain chemical imbalance at some point in our lives. For many, the imbalance is temporary and often triggered by a life altering event: Death, divorce, job loss, health crisis, post-partum depression, tragedy, mid-life moments, etc. However, for some, the condition is chronic. The serotonin and dopamine levels just aren't in sync for some people. Whatever the cause, at some point, the brain may need a "talking doctor" or a legally prescribed chemical pick me up to right its course. If you haven't experienced the need for either yet, "just keep living," as my dad would often say. Oftentimes, if something is not discussed, when you see something, you may not fully understand what you're seeing.

I was 19 or 20 when I understood that there was a sexual component to being gay or lesbian. During my teen journey, there was no Internet or Google so I never saw imagery of LGBTQ life.  I know, shocking right? Similarly, as a college co-ed, colloquialisms often confused me.  When a friend said, "Stay up, JC." I asked, "Why?  Are you coming back?  I have to study." He had to explain that stay up meant the equivalent of, 'It's all good' or 'See you later.'  Who knew?  On the same campus, an older classmate once commented, "If you were white, you'd be blonde," and I replied: "Yes, the women in my family have naturally reddish brown hair, and in the summer, the sun highlights our hair making it even lighter.  When I was a child, people thought my mom colored my hair.  Who colors a child's hair?" He stared at me, laughed and shook his head.  It was years later when I realized that he was making a dig, implying that if I were white, I'd be a "blonde-blonde." I was book smart and lacked colloquial common sense. Similarly, if we don't equip children with the words and tools to proactively manage their mental health issues and feelings, they will be ill-equipped to ask for help. They may be feeling something is not right but lack the ability to describe it because it was never discussed or explained to them.

In the six book Black Diamond Series, one of the character's parents has a mental health issue that is being addressed with psychotherapy and medication, another character has a parent who is a psychiatrist, one of the characters is a lesbian, and another character struggles with abandonment issues. My goal was to create characters with texture and create a framework for readers to discuss mental health issues in a safe, fictionalized environment.  The young adult substance abuse and suicide rate would decline if avenues existed for children and teens to discuss their mental health without fear or shame complete with "talking doctors" and legal, medically prescribed drugs to help with chemical imbalances.   As I reminded a friend during a tough time in her life, the billion dollar pharmaceutical industry has billions of customers, and you will not be the first nor the last to avail yourself of its vast resources. 

Like 7 year old Ryan, his mom and my neighbor, those with mental health issues should not be ashamed to seek help or talk about their condition.  The majority culture has adopted the hip hop culture, tanning, and jazz.  Perhaps this is one trait that the black community should unashamedly borrow from the majority culture.  For children, a "talking doctor" visit should be a required part of every school physical.  And for adults, having a "talking doctor" should become the new status bag of choice and not the elephant stuffed in the closet.