Updated: May 5, 2021
Coping with Suffering: Excerpts from the Memoirs of Rev. Betty R. Jones, Ph.D.
Today is December 7, 2019. It is a beautiful Fall day and I am feeling good about the decor in the Church which we have just completed. Tomorrow will be a festive day; a day in which we hand out gifts to the children and to several directors of various children's ministries. I wanted to surprise the director of our liturgical dance ministry because she has gone out of her way to insure that the dancers were always ready for 2nd Sunday worship. 2nd Sunday is dedicated to the children. They sing, read scriptures, pray, dance, and from time to time preach a sermon.
I left the church and instead of heading West to go home, I headed East to attend a birthday get-together for my Godson. It was this journey Eastward that I found myself in a situation that would forever change my life. My car keys were snatched from my hand as I entered the grocery store. Later I would face what appeared to be a shot gun pointed at me as I walked toward my car. As I began demanding my keys, from this 17 year-old who had accosted me, he suddenly pointed a gun at me and said, "get back lady...I said get back!" I said, "just give me my doggone keys." He said once again, "I said get back lady or I will shoot you." I knew that he meant it from the look on his face, so I stopped in my tracks. The car then pulled out of the parking space and circled around the parking lot again still holding on to my keys. There were several cars following the car's every move and would warn me when they were coming back. I knew then, these individuals did not intend to leave the parking lot without my vehicle. As they approached my vehicle, the young man hit my car key to unlock my car; jumped out of the other car with a young lady; ran over to where I was standing yelling, "get away from my car!" My yelling did not stop them! The two jumped in my car and drove away. I was yelling for security but she never showed up until the police came on the scene. It was 4:30 pm and I thought that I would collapse. I could not believe what had just happened! These young people were bold and intentional!
I did not sleep that night. I paced the floor and peered out into the darkened night thinking that they might break into my home. After all, they had keys to my car, my home, and the church that I pastor.
The next day I really felt as though my insides were crushing in on me. I wondered if I was going to make it another day. Thankfully, My grandson had come from Augusta to be with me for a few days. Before he returned to Augusta, we changed door locks and upgraded security on the house. And while it was comforting to have him with me, I knew this time that I could not make it without professional help. I called my primary physician the next day and I was immediately referred to a clinical psychologist.
I was diagnosed with PTSD because of this traumatic experience and other unattended traumatic episodes in my life that included the deaths of my 3 children and my husband. I had been living with the pain of my losses for 30 years prior to sitting on the couch of a mental health professional. Prior to this event, I lost myself in theological education for 10 years, and I taught at a seminary, directed a program, and led a religious organization, and earned a Ph.D., for an additional 20 years. Throughout all of these encounters, I remained resolute about not seeking help for the mental distress that had become a part of my everyday existence because of stigma.
For me, taking care of myself and not collapsing under the weight of mental depression became a constant battle. When I was asked about family I steered away from what would have been my immediate family and talked about my four (two of which we raised) grandchildren and eventually two great grandsons. I could not talk about my children without crying so I always said, "I don't want to talk about them." If their names came up I would cry, but I would not seek help. I was afraid of what people would say about me if I sought help. After all, I had been a Civil Rights Leader. I waved the banner for justice. If I crashed they would say that I could not cope; that I was weak. I did not seek help but I found myself doing irrational things like flying off to Hawaii alone leaving my husband and the housekeeper to care for 5 children. I could not help it. I had to get away!
Like most African American Women who suffer from mental distress; I was closed to the idea of psychological help. Most of the time we are contradictions to the status quo. Some of us will seek religious help, but I did not. Except for the tears, I suffered in silence. There was darkness all around me. From the time my darling daughter died and subsequently my two sons, I was an emotional wreck and I felt as though a soft wind could knock me over. Yet, I would not seek religious or psychological help.
The warnings came, and I knew that I needed professional help when I began to hate my daughter's friends. Whenever I saw them I wanted to run and hide because all they wanted to do was talk about her. I often wondered why God had taken her and not them. I wondered why God left them here to torment me. I was always cordial but deep down inside I was seething! The day my husband suggested relocating, I jumped at the opportunity because I would no longer be tormented. Little did I know that I may have been escaping what appeared to be my tormentors but I could not escape the traumatic losses of my darling sons who would pass away after we relocated. First my youngest son died, and then his brother died 14 months later. I wanted to ask, "Where are you God?"
Admittedly, before we relocated I wore my cover well. In fact, I wore my cover so well, I was often referred to as a modern day female "Job." I was either that, or I was someone who appeared to not have a care in the world. How could I let people know that I was about to "crack!" How could I let others know that I was an accident waiting to happen!
Before I completed my doctoral studies and began teaching, I walked the floor by night and laid on the couch by day with a pillow over my head. Whenever there was an inquiry about me, my husband would always say, "She is stoic!" And then this giant of a man who nurtured me through the pain of losing three children, while caring for our two grandchildren, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the fourth stage. I wondered if this was some cruel joke. He died two months after we received the diagnosis. When he died I had been in the eye of storm death for twelve years.
It was a relentless storm that would not cease until my entire family was uprooted and completely destroyed. Death had become my constant friend but it did not hinder my relationship with God nor my ability to preach, teach, or seek higher education under a cloak of mental depression. My relationship with God was my saving grace. God kept me as I struggled through countless days and endless sleepless nights of mental depression.
My lived experiences of mental depression due to losses and grief spanned several decades, but I suffered throughout this time in silence and without treatment. I did not want the stigma of treatment for mental depression. African American women and stigma related to mental illness have found a long history of negativity. In the 1990s, a public opinion poll showed that 63 percent of African Americans believed that depression was a personal weakness, and only 31 percent believed depression was a health problem.
This was a myth passed down from many generations and has caused a great deal of harm to African American women, including the writer. Beside, stigma, I was locked in a desperate place of aloneness. I felt that there were systems and people waiting to see if I would fall apart. But the tradition of the African American woman was to stay strong, and I resolved not to collapse.
Oftentimes, mental illness in the African American community can be seen as "just the blues" or "just acting crazy" and may cause individuals like myself not to seek professional treatment. "Acting crazy," began during slavery. The slave's fear of being-in-general, according to Earl (1996).
Notably, stigma has been identified as the most significant barrier to seeking mental health services among African Americans but as of this writing, little attention has been given to examining stigma, the beliefs about mental illness that may be associated with stigma, and how these beliefs affect the approach to coping. But stigmas are real, and are arguably the most significant barrier to seeking mental health services among African Americans.
And just when I thought I was in a better place and had come to grips with flying solo, my peace was abruptly interrupted in the form of a carjacking at gunpoint. Thankfully I knew enough to seek help. I was at a place where I did not care what anyone thought. Stigma or no stigma, I needed help! I have been in therapy since January 2020 and one of the markers that has helped me is called "Brainspotting."
Several months into my therapeutic sessions, I was diagnosed with PTSD, not only because of the carjacking at gunpoint, but because of the trauma of losing my entire family to the death angel. It was here that I was introduced to brainspotting. When the therapist first introduced the idea of brainspotting I was not that interested in the exercise. I did not see how it could help me. However, Covid-19 drove us from in-office meetings to virtual meetings. My therapist brought up the idea of brainspotting once again and this time she explained how it had helped individuals in similar situations. This time I said yes to the idea of this type of therapy. I was willing to try anything because I was tired of being afraid of every young African American male that I encountered. I was tired of being afraid to be out in crowds. I was tired of not sleeping in my bed, I was tired of peering out darkened windows at night; and I was tired of crying when African American males were killed at the hand of police officers. The meltdowns had become too frequent and I needed to find my way out of the darkness that entered my space from time to time.
Brainspotting is a novel idea. According to research, this type of therapy, is an advanced brain-body therapy that focuses on identifying, processing, and releasing imbalances, trauma, and residual emotional stress. It is based on the premise that "where you look affects how you feel" and finds that eye positions correlate with unconscious, emotional experiences. It reaches parts of the brain that are not generally accessed through traditional talk therapy approaches. Brainspotting encapsulates traumatic experiences and brings into explicit awareness where it can be processed and healed. As the brainspot is sustained with focused mindful attention, the information in the capsule is released and the body and mind moves toward greater equilibrium. (www.authenticityassociates.com/brainspotting)
My first breakthrough during a brainspotting session occurred during a virtual meeting. My eye position settled on a painting of a strong determined Indian woman which I equated with the strength and determination of my grandmother who was a Mohican Indian. As I focused my attention on the painting, the information in the capsule that was released in my body and mind moved toward greater equilibrium because I was guided by my therapist to describe what I saw. What I saw amazed me because what I began to see was myself in my grandmother, and I began to see in the painting the strength and determination that I had exhibited throughout all of my traumatic experiences.
I began to feel lighter during this session because I wanted to be transformed and I wanted to be healed. This was the first time that I had felt lighthearted since the carjacking at gunpoint and all of the other stored traumatic experiences of my life. Even though my sessions are weekly, I find myself scanning the painting from time to time looking for ways to deal with the deaths of my husband and children as well as the carjacking. I say deal with, because I believe that Grandma Lizzy was forced to deal with death and other forms of suffering on the reservation where she spent her formative years. I, on the other hand, was not forced to deal with the deaths of my husband and children; I simply accepted the fact that they were no longer here with me.
Brainspotting therapy provided a much needed break though! I needed to function as a "whole" person because I had been functioning as fully as any other depressed African American female when faced with trauma. I functioned because African American females have learned how to function while mentally depressed and often in despair. For African American females, living under dark clouds of depression is a way of life. We learn early in life not to rollover and die on the tracks of life. Brainspotting therapy is healing and a way of staying alive! I will continue to stay in therapy until I feel whole again, regardless of stigma.