Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.” — Zadie Smith, White Teeth
Most nights for five months, I listened to these words on a continuous loop tape that played in my sleep: “You can see beyond the walls, Gary.” The image I held in my dreams was of the opening of a cave at Bandeliere National Monument in Mew Mexico. Paul and I had seen it while hiking there a couple years earlier. High on the face of a cliff, the cave was out of reach. I wanted to climb to it, but could not. It was elusive. I could not imagine what it was like inside.
When I told Dr. Juliette Martin-Thomas about my fascination with this cave opening, she used it to address the reason I had come to her for therapy. I wanted to get a hand with getting through the last weeks of my doctoral program and to start the process of seeing myself as a licensed psychologist. The trouble was that I could see myself most clearly as a raised poor, white, working, gay man. The thought of getting my doctorate in months was increasingly feeling like fraud.
Juliette made the tape for me and asked that I listen to it as I dozed off each night for a week or two. Instead, I listened to her every night, all night, for months. The impenetrable walls of my various identities did not slip away or part readily, but I started to get a picture of what might be beyond them. I certainly owe Juliette a debt of gratitude for my career. Sometimes, I suspect that her work might have saved my life.
Around the very same time, I had secured a psychology internship at Sinai Samaritan Hospital. There I got to work with several excellent supervisors, each with their own talents and perspectives. Dr. Ingrid Hicks was on my team for one rotation, and I learned from her some first hand skills in assessing the impact of systemic and institutional oppression on individuals and families. I also witnessed her perspective be more frequently challenged in group supervision settings, and I wondered why. Actually, I knew why. I believe she did, too.
While I was doing a geriatrics rotation, I got to work with Quincy Tharps, RN, who I believe to be a bit of a miracle worker. Confidentiality prevents my writing about the specifics of her work, but I insist that I saw her have people do things they had not been able to do in years by simply extending her hand.
Dr. Sheri Johnson entered my life at Sinai as well. Fresh from Brown, Boston, and Harvard, Sheri came to us with a zest for learning and an openness one might not expect with her educational pedigree. But Sheri embraced our co-workers and me, positioning our work steadily in the direction of public health and social justice.
It was later Sheri who introduced me to Kimberly Goins, LPC, who I eventually got to supervise in a SAMHSA grant addressing the mental health needs of black gay and bisexual men with HIV. Kimberly brought perspective, directness, connection, and passion to the work. People died on our watch. They got lost. They disappeared. But still she persisted.
When the history of mental health in Milwaukee is written, these women of distinction — Juliette, Ingrid, Quincy, Sheri, and Kimberly — must be included. Five straight black women elected to connect with, befriend, and assist this white gay guy when he needed them. They knew.
The only way we’ll get freedom for ourselves is to identify ourselves with every oppressed people in the world.” — Malcolm X