My Therapist Says I’m Not Paranoid, I’m Being Gaslit

Illustration: Kate Dehler

If my therapist had a catchphrase, it would be, “Okay, let’s reframe!” Change the story you tell yourself, she always advises. Talk to yourself as if you’re a close friend.

If I had a catchphrase, it would be, “But, I’m the problem!”

Personal blame and guilt have been my default settings for a very long time. Presented with a bad situation, I will always find a way to make everything my fault. My therapist often presents me with an alternative — what if the problem isn’t me? What if I stopped internalizing, and started externalizing?

Given the federal, state, and local governments’ failure to responsibly address the Covid-19 pandemic, I’m right to be worried.

For months now, one of my recurring self-criticisms is around leaving the house. I’m nervous when people walk too close to me on the sidewalk. Passing a jogger without a mask feels deadly. I don’t like venturing too far from my neighborhood. During the onset of stay-at-home orders in the Washington, D.C., region, I spent hours worrying about the movements of my younger siblings who live in D.C. suburbs. I still worry. My sister lives in a group house, and my brother is deemed an essential worker. When I agonize about their safety and my own, I tell myself I’m “overthinking.” I call myself paranoid.

When I profess to my therapist that I’ve become paranoid, she asks “why did you pathologize yourself?” She says I’m not experiencing paranoia — a condition of unwarranted distrust or suspicion — I’m being cautious. And given the federal, state, and local governments’ failure to responsibly address the Covid-19 pandemic, I’m right to be worried. These failures to control Covid-19 are disproportionately impacting Black communities like my own. Black Americans are experiencing the highest death tolls from the virus.

For a few months, my partner calculated the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in the Washington, D.C., metro region for a local news outlet. She cried every day. On a daily basis we wondered if someone we knew or someone we love would be next. We’ve been lucky so far, we haven’t had a loved one die of complications from the virus, but with Covid-19 cases rapidly increasing, that could be our reality soon. I’m not overreacting, the risks are real.

My therapist helps me interrogate why, in any given situation, I’m likely to blame my anxieties on myself first. The harm and trauma that I’ve experienced throughout my life is the likely reason. I am survivor of child abuse. A common behavior amongst survivors is to blame themselves. In The Body Keeps The Score, psychiatrist and author Bessel Van Der Kolk writes, “After 40 years of doing this work I still regularly hear myself saying, ‘That’s unbelievable,’ when patients tell me about their childhoods. They often are as incredulous as I am — how could parents inflict such torture and terror on their own child? Part of them continues to insist that they must have made the experience up or that they are exaggerating. All of them are ashamed about what happened to them, and they blame themselves — on some level they firmly believe that these terrible things were done to them because they are terrible people.”

I have the tendency to view myself as a “terrible” person, to think I am exaggerating a problem, that leads me to say things like “I’m overreacting,” “I’m overthinking,” or “I’m oversensitive.” In therapy we often talk about how society at large only reinforces this behavior, with people from marginalized communities so often viewed as to blame for their circumstances. I have multiple identities that are subject to oppression — I’m Black, disabled, queer, and non-binary. I was assigned female at birth and socialized as a woman for much of my life. I am still viewed as a woman by transphobic people and those only educated in archaic understandings of gender. This means, throughout my upbringing and into the present, I have been repeatedly told that my body is wrong. That it’s less than. That, of course, I’m to blame.

So how do you prevent yourself from replicating the harms you’ve experienced within yourself? It starts by shifting the blame. It also takes practice.

I put my skills from therapy into practice recently, when I learned my workplace’s data on gender lumped non-binary identities with women, or in their terms “females.” I admit, I did have a flash of, “maybe I’m just being sensitive.” But instead of reprimanding myself, I reached out to my employer’s Human Resources team as well as my manager to share why this was wrong. I explained that it invalidated my identity, and that it hurt.

I recognized that my workplace’s meager attempt at inclusivity was the failure. Not me. Just like the government’s response to Covid-19 is a failure. My fear of the virus is not. It’s a simple but effective switch. Ask yourself: What if I weren’t the problem? What if it’s society?

Tahirah is a storyteller. You can read their work in The Rumpus, Black Youth Project, Autostraddle, Electric Literature and more.

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