I live in Baltimore, a city with a population that’s over 60 percent African American. My neighborhood is less than three miles from the largest mosque in the city. That’s my community. So when I first opened my practice, I decided my clinical focus would be on clients who were mirrors of myself—African American women, perhaps a Muslim immigrant or two. I thought the only men I’d see would come in for couples therapy. I never planned to see white clients.
Over time, however, women from surrounding communities began coming to my office, expanding my vision of the clients I thought I’d serve. It began with a few hat-wearing Jewish women from a nearby orthodox community, who came in to see me after they learned that, as a Muslim, I understood what it means to “wear” your religion on your head.
Okay, I said to myself at this point, my practice will be devoted to women and couples. And most of the couples will still be black, since I’m committed to strengthening black love.
Then Abby and Jeremy showed up, turning even this expanded vision on its head.
By most American standards, Abby was a pretty woman—blonde, petite, dressed in leggings and a mid-thigh top. Beneath her faint smile, I caught a glimpse of her heavy heart. In contrast, her husband, Jeremy, had an unmistakable tough-guy strut. Carrying himself like a football player ready to pounce, he exuded an anger that seemed to permeate every inch of space in my waiting room. I wondered how I could help them, and why they’d traveled through two wealthy white counties to land at my door.
“I’m not here for me,” Jeremy announced the minute they sat down in my office. “I’m here for her. She’s the one who found you online, and she needs to fight this. I need her to fight this thing.” The “thing” was multiple symptoms of PTSD, which had started after they’d been mugged while walking home from a night of dancing by several youths whom they assumed to be Latino. Their physical injuries had healed, but Abby was struggling with alternating states of extreme anxiety and depression, loss of appetite followed by episodes of binge eating and chain-smoking—as well as incontinence, for which her doctors had found no medical explanation.
Jeremy, feeling utterly powerless over the forces that had taken over his wife, had convinced her to be hospitalized. But she was retraumatized by negligent hospital staff, which worsened her symptoms and deepened the already growing ravine between them. Jeremy was desperate to help his wife live again: to find joy in the things she used to, to take care of herself, and ultimately to be sexually intimate with him again, so they could continue trying to start a family. Although Abby said she wanted those things too, she seemed entirely unconvinced that she could get there. Her symptoms were compounded by a history of depression, multiple sexual assaults in her teens and 20s, and alcohol abuse. As we began meeting twice a week, she knew that the road ahead of us wouldn’t be easy.
In one of our early sessions, Abby clutched a box of tissues while she described how humiliated she felt about the symptoms that so often overwhelmed her, especially her incontinence. On the nights when she and Jeremy tried to make love like they used to, she’d often soak the sheets in urine. Jeremy had even started sleeping in a separate bed. “I feel like a child,” she cried, shaking. “I have no control over myself. We’ve been trying to have a baby for years, but this is making it impossible.”
My response surprised her. “Of course you’re wetting the bed,” I told her. “It makes perfect sense: you’ve been violated, and now you’re fighting back by marking your territory. You’re claiming your space, just like Misty might do,” Misty being her beloved German shepherd.
Abby smiled at this. “I’d never thought of it like that,” she said.
I went on to explain how her body was perfectly designed to keep her safe from predators, just like every animal in the woods, where she loved to hike and walk her dogs. “The challenge is,” I told her, “that your primitive brain can’t differentiate between a real or imagined danger. So you now have to redirect it.” To help her do that, we engaged in a series of mind–body techniques, including movement, drawing, writing, and guided imagery exercises, in which she “spoke” to her body and sought guidance from her wise inner guide.
Within two weeks, the incontinence had ceased and Jeremy had returned to the bed. The next time he dropped off Abby for her session, he greeted me warmly in the waiting room, pleased that they’d been able to resume some semblance of intimacy. As soon as we were alone, however, Abby expressed concerns about being able to match Jeremy’s sexual desire as well as her fear that she’d never be able to conceive.
It took several months of intense work in therapy for Abby to work through the trauma of the attack, and safely explore the issues from her past it had intertwined with. As she continued to make progress and find avenues for self-compassion and self-care, she experienced more ease with Jeremy in their marriage—and in the bedroom. A year later, in fact, Abby brought in a sonogram picture—she was pregnant with their first child!
The more she healed and embraced motherhood, the more luminous her joy in life became. But as her spirit grew lighter, Jeremy’s inner turmoil began to emerge. I was alarmed to hear Abby describe increasingly frequent episodes in which he’d experience intense road rage, argue with coworkers, and swear at strangers on the street, especially those he perceived as “different.” Despite Abby’s concerns for his physical and mental well-being, Jeremy refused to seek any therapy for himself. “I’m out here trying to take care of our family,” he’d tell her. “I don’t have time for any of that.”
He sought solace instead in the fear-based talk-radio shows that he listened to on his commute from the suburbs to the city, where he worked in sales. And that year, when Trump was elected, the inflammatory rhetoric he heard around immigrants only validated and fueled Jeremy’s anger. While Abby, a devout Catholic, worked to forgive their attackers, Jeremy began to hate them—and all Spanish-speaking people—with ever more fervor. Eventually, his hate spread to all the “others” in his shrinking world—including women, African Americans, and Muslims.
Abby and I had never discussed my headscarf, or my faith, or even the chocolate hue of my skin, but I sensed her discomfort in sharing her concerns about Jeremy’s views with me, a member of so many of the groups he hated. At the same time, I continued to receive emails from Jeremy, expressing gratitude for all I’d done to help his wife, especially when they found out she was pregnant with their second child.
Our sessions halted when their son was born, but a year later Abby reached out to me to schedule a couples session. As their family had grown, so had Abby’s distress about Jeremy’s hate-filled views. Increasingly, she worried about the lessons of intolerance he was passing on to their children. And she’d stopped feeling attracted him. Even though I represented so much of what triggered Jeremy’s fears and fury, he told her that I was the only therapist he’d agree to see.
The morning they were scheduled to come in, I did something I often do when I expect a session to be challenging—I prayed for guidance. “Ya Allah, Ya Sami (The One God, The One Who Hears). Please guide me to be the therapist who listens with the ear of my heart. May I not be swayed by any of the words from his mouth, but that I may listen more deeply to the song of his sorrow.” Despite my fear of all Jeremy represented in our society, the peacebuilder in me was excited about the possibilities for the work that lie ahead.
Indeed, I knew that I’d be tested by Jeremy—and he did not disappoint. While waiting for his wife to use the bathroom, he commented on his disdain for Colin Kaepernick “mixing politics up with football.” I closed my eyes, and when I brought my awareness to Jeremy’s heart, I was surprised by a sense of deep loneliness I felt rising out of him like a vapor. Knowing I could work with loneliness, I decided to leave the complex relationship between black men and the police out of the dialogue between us for now. Focus on the loneliness, Sabrina, I told myself. That’s where the healing starts.
During our session, as Abby expressed her concerns about his feelings of anger, I guided him to open up about his feelings of loneliness. In turn, Abby opened her heart to hearing more about the pain he felt around her refusal to be sexually intimate with him and about his feelings of helplessness at not having been able to protect her the night of the attack. “I’m not a monster,” he told her after a while. “I can’t handle the thought that you don’t love me anymore. I’ll do anything to change that.”
Our sessions were a generous helping of Imago therapy, sprinkled with a bit of IFS and mind–body medicine. But for me, the secret ingredient was the quiet moments that I took to seek guidance from the teachings of my Sufi Master. During our third session (which I consider the most crucial, make-or-break session for my couples), I noticed Jeremy clutching his head.
“Four years after the attack, I still have headaches,” he explained.
“Where do you feel the pain?” I asked.
“All over, especially the top,” he said.
“What does it feel like?”
“Frozen,” he responded immediately.
“Like brain-freeze frozen?”
“Yes, that’s exactly how it feels.”
“When does it stop?” I wanted to know.
“Never,” he said. “Not for one moment.”
I turned to Abby, who had tears in her eyes. “I had no idea that you were in so much pain all the time,” she told him.
“Abby,” I asked her, “if you experienced constant pain like that, how do you think you’d react?”
“I think I’d be angry and hard to be around,” she responded.
I turned to Jeremy. “What do you need?”
“I need a break from the stress and anger,” he said. “I know my being an asshole all day isn’t helping Abby.”
I asked Abby to look into Jeremy’s eyes, to see if she could find the man she’d once fallen in love with, the man who’d committed his life to protecting her. From there, I wondered if she could express empathy for his sense of powerlessness and isolation.
For my part, watching Jeremy with his head buried in his wife’s hair as they hugged, allowed me the opportunity to peer into the soul of someone whom I could’ve easily dismissed as a soulless perpetuator of racist ideas. But I knew I was being asked to look more deeply at him—and at myself, the little black girl from the Bronx—to embody all that my professional and spiritual training had taught me about the healing power of love.
“Jeremy, we’ve never talked about it, but I cover my head for many reasons,” I told him. “One of them is to keep the energy contained—the heat doesn’t escape. Have you ever considered covering your head?”
“You mean like wearing a hat?” he asked.
“That’s certainly an option,” I told him.
To my utter amazement, Jeremy came to our next session with a kufi on his head, the traditional head gear of Muslim men across the globe, worn especially for communal prayer. I wasn’t sure if he had any idea what he was wearing, but a new light shone in his eyes as he greeted me at the door. He was brighter, vibrantly alive! Abby had a lightness in her step too.
“How do you feel today?” I asked him.
“Better,” he said. “I feel like she’s starting to love me again.” Abby smiled and nodded. “And the pain doesn’t bother me as much,” he added, patting his colorful kufi.
At that moment, I felt my heart expand and one of the many boundaries that separate me from “others” recede. I knew I’d stepped into another dimension as a guide for the countless Jeremys of the world who needed to be seen as fragile human beings. I welcomed the challenge to stretch beyond my comfort zone. In the midst of this inner awakening, I simply smiled, complimented Jeremy on his new “hat,” and invited this couple I’d grown so fond of to sit down so we could get to work.
Sabrina N’Diaye, PhD, LCSW-C, is an integrative psychotherapist, storyteller, and peacebuilder, based in Baltimore, MD. Her first book is Big Mama Speaks: Love Lessons from a Harlem River Swan.