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Lithium Therapist Vena Wilson talks anxiety, internet activism, and Black healing

Aug. 20, 2020
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As the media’s eyes start to wander from the Black Lives Matter movement, my community is left in a similar place to where we started—working to process our grief while deconstructing systems for which we aren’t responsible. Too many loved ones are being forced into martyrdom.

Thousands of us have lived the past few months through keyboards and megaphones, reflecting on our own harrowing experiences with racial violence in an effort to educate our unknowing peers. Yet, while “eye-opening” for others, these testimonies often uncover a lot of hurting we’ve worked to suppress. Like the disregard we’ve felt in spaces meant to uplift us. And the divisions that anti-blackness has created within our own community. So much work still lies ahead of us. 

Curious and exasperated, I spoke with Vena Wilson about how Black people can constructively process this heartache. Wilson, a licensed clinical social worker and practicing therapist, has been working with young people in the Las Vegas area for over ten years now. And as she navigates life as both a Black woman and a mental health professional, I was intrigued by what insight she could offer us. 

Parts of this interview have been abridged or reworded for clarity. 

Lithium Magazine: In an episode of The Honey Bee Podcast, you say that “a person’s innate belief that they are the orchestrators of their own life” can help them overcome traumatic experiences. Since black people’s experiences with racism have always been out of our control, how can we learn to recognize our self-autonomy?

Vena Wilson: In the episode you’re referencing, I wanted people to know that they are not their trauma. Many of the clients I meet are told awful things about who they are as people. The perpetrator imparts upon the survivor that it was their fault they experienced the abuse, while taking zero responsibility for their own actions. Still, in spite of the awful experiences that come from trauma, the survivor is the orchestrator of their own life. They can create positive change and break the generational curse of trauma by seeking therapy and other healthy avenues to facilitate their healing.

As it relates to racism and how it affects individuals, I think the same approach is valid. In spite of the outrageous treatment Black people have undergone, we can seek therapy to discuss and process our experiences, and learn ways to heal. Even more, to have a space to identify all the emotions that come with experiencing racism. With healing comes resilience. And with resilience, we have the energy to continue navigating our lives for our highest and greatest good, while experiencing joy along the way. While this won’t solve racism—I think that’ll require a collective effort—it creates space for people to undergo transformation in their lives.  

Lithium: You also emphasize that it’s important to have a strong base to fall back on—whether that be family or close friends. Yet as we’ve seen for decades, women and our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters are often left out of conversations about anti-Black violence. How can marginalized Black people build healthy support networks when much of their own community is prejudiced against them?

Vena: That’s a great question. Black people can build healthy, supportive networks as we’ve always done—by relying on our ties with our biological family members and fictive kin (those who aren’t related to us by blood yet we consider family), or by cultivating friendships with other Black people with similar experiences to our own. In spite of the racism and oppression that Black people have experienced, we’ve been able to construct these networks throughout history. 

As it relates to the invisibility intersection within gender and sexuality, it’s accurate that the focus is on Black men when racial injustice occurs. I’m uncertain whether the driving force behind this tendency is patriarchy or if it’s due to the disproportionate amount of Black men being killed because of systemic racism and injustice. 

While every Black life is significant, it’s my opinion that if we continue to advocate against violence perpetrated against Black people due to systemic racism, we will be simultaneously advocating for the Black women and Black LGBTQ+ people who are also affected by it. Now more than ever, it’s important for us to move as one.

Lithium: While social media has been an incredible tool in our fight to raise our voices and spread awareness, every day I learn about a new injustice I should be fighting against. And it gets exhausting. Selective activism can often make us feel guilty for not doing more, so how do you suggest balancing social engagement with self-care?

Vena: I’m aware of our society’s climate and mindful of how social media has offered us knowledge about the issues in our country. In general I encourage people to do all things, even things they’re passionate about, in moderation. Being intentional about how much news you take in is important and necessary—it prevents burnout and emotional overwhelm.

It’s an unavoidable truth that many things will inspire us to take action, especially when it comes to dismantling systems that are oppressive. Another unavoidable truth is that none of us can do it all.  

When self-judgment creeps in about advocating for one cause over another, practice self-validation. Acknowledge the fact that you engaged in activism and advocacy in the recent past (if that’s the case). Whether you shared a social media post, participated in peaceful protests, or wrote a letter to your legislators about an issue dear to your heart, you’ve done something meaningful to help. Honor your emotions and experiences by taking a break. There’s nothing wrong with watching a comedy and allowing yourself to laugh. There’s nothing wrong with taking a day off social media. There’s nothing wrong with taking a nap. Do what it takes to avoid depletion.

Lithium: In the Black community, there’s a lot of stigma surrounding conversations about mental health, which is usually tied to toxic religious and cultural norms. How have you seen people successfully normalize therapy and self-care in the context of their lives?  

Vena: I’ve noticed many more discussions highlighting the importance of seeking therapy, which are destigmatizing mental health services. There was a long-held worry that getting therapy to improve one’s mental wellness meant that something was “wrong” with you. But there’s nothing wrong with anyone who wants to discuss and process what they’ve been through. 

Many people worry that they’re “weak” because they can’t get over the trauma they experienced during childhood, and feel subsequent shame that their efforts to push those traumatic memories out of their minds aren’t enough. They can’t understand why their sleep is disrupted, why they fly off the handle in their relationships, or how to stop the bouts of tearfulness that happen out of nowhere. 

Long story short, therapy is a wonderful tool to help with healing. Whether it’s to get support with stressful areas of your life or to discuss traumatic experiences, everyone should consider connecting with a therapist who can support them in sorting through their everyday emotions. 

Lithium: Alongside running Honey Bee Behavioral Health, I know that you have a blog, a podcast, and even a scholarship connecting young people with therapists. What have you been up to at the moment? 

Vena: I’ve been staying busy. In addition to the areas you noted, I’ve returned to college to earn my doctoral degree. Going back to school after getting my Master’s was something I grappled with for a while, yet I felt inspired to return and I’m looking forward to achieving my goal.

By no means was I a scholar growing up. When I was a teenager, I recall being told by a few people, adults included, that I “would not amount to anything.” I’m not the only person who’s gone through this, and if this is the case for you, remember that you can do anything you put your mind to.

Things may be unsettling or chaotic now—perhaps you aren’t making choices that are in alignment with your higher self. But you can turn it around. You can graduate from high school and go on to college or to a trade school, if you choose. You can be an outstanding advocate in your community. You can be a highly acclaimed artist in whatever medium you’re skilled in. 

Surround yourself with people (or a person) who will speak life and positivity over you. Practice visualizing the life that you want so your actions can align with your imagination. Pray.  Remember that you can do it. I know because I’m proof of it.

Lithium: With all that’s going on right now, how are you taking care of yourself?

Vena: I take naps. I schedule time to watch television shows that make me laugh or make me raise an eyebrow. I limit my news intake. I spend time with the people I love. I practice self-validation and being intentional about encouraging myself. I express gratitude for all that I have in my life. I pray. I meditate. I catch myself when I’m thinking negatively and practice improving my mindset. And from time to time, I treat myself to a milkshake.