HIV Self-Care & Mental Health

Checking In
As part of your HIV self-care, take steps to address your mental health
by George M. Johnson

I finally went to see a therapist.

For Black folks, mental health isn’t always something preached around the Sunday evening dinner table. As a race that has always been oppressed in this country, the mental capacity to endure pain has traumatized us generationally, to the point of adaptation in our genetic makeup as a means of survival. However, one’s Blackness can’t outweigh the importance of checking in with their own mental health, and seeking the right professional help if need be.

I worked at an HIV organization for the past two years, which housed supportive services including mental health treatment. Over those years, I had become really good friends with the head clinician, an older Black woman who, from time to time, would allow me to peek my head in and ask a few questions before returning back to work. It was about the middle of June, when I was dealing with a few issues at the same time, when I finally decided that enough was enough and that I would seek the help of an expert.

It was a Thursday afternoon, and we had just finished the mandatory lunch hour. The clinician happened to have a cancellation and I knew that the universe was giving me the perfect opportunity to handle my mental state that I left aside for far too long. We engaged in some small talk before I finally told her that I had been dealing with anxiety, like, really bad, over the past few weeks and wasn’t quite sure as to how I should process it. I explained that I had for a long time been leery about talking to a therapist, because I always correlated mental health with mental illness, something I never wanted to be thought of as having.

She closed the door, and my first real session began. Some background info: I am HIV-positive for almost seven years now. This was something that was once hidden, but I now publicly and openly talk about in every space and venue where my voice is allowed. I’ve written fifty-plus articles on the subject, been a part of several campaigns, and even plan on taking a bigger role in fighting the epidemic in the coming months. Outside the virus, I am a public figure. I do activism work around intersectional Blackness, specifically targeted around the rights of the LGBTQIA community. I am also most known for my journalism, as I’ve written on a range of topics for several major publications. I also help mentor queer black males who attend HBCUs and raise scholarship money on their behalf. All in a day’s work, but I digress.

Throw all of that in a bag and some days are just overwhelmingly heavy as hell. To the point that all I could do was stay in bed, while on social media pretending that everything was going okay. Hypervisibility is a double-edged sword as it is necessary for my work, yet can be detrimental to my self-care. The goal of my work is to get the message across to as many people as possible about a topic that I am writing on. However, that opens you up to an audience of comments that can be filled with attacks, which at some point does affect the psyche.

The conversation with the clinician was eye-opening, as, for the first time ever, I really interrogated how past trauma and experiences manifest themselves as an adult, must be dealt with. I reflected on the fact that I never blinked once after diagnosis nor grieved, and that it’s okay for me to sometimes be upset that I have to take a pill every day and watch my health so closely. Most importantly I realized that I was not built to have to deal with all of my problems on my own, and that having an outlet is necessary to release trauma from the body in order to allow good energy in. I find myself at times staying bottled up. Letting all of the things that I am dealing with build a wall, that at times I don’t allow to be penetrated. That wall then creating a block on allowing me to be as vulnerable as I need to be, thus stopping me from building intimate relationships, with others and myself.

Mental health is not something to be played at. I like to think that I am strong enough but sometimes, the wounds are too deep and we need someone to help patch us up. Mental health issues are nothing to be ashamed of, yet many of us go years without it, only doing more damage to ourselves in various areas of our life. It is important that when we look into ourselves, that we are properly processing the blows of society, rather than letting them build up until we succumb under the weight.

I will definitely be back in the near future to keep working on my mental health. Sometimes the life that needs saving is your own. It’s okay to have someone help you along the way.

George M. Johnson is a black queer journalist and activist. He has written for Ebony, TheGrio, JET, Teen Vogue, Huffington Post, Black Youth Project, and several HIV publications. Follow him on Twitter @iamgmjohnson.