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  1. Narratives

For a black therapist, protests and pandemic make for a heavy load

LaDonna Butler helps others wrestle with their stress, even as she manages her own.

ST. PETERSBURG — Third in line in the 6:55 a.m. drizzle, LaDonna Butler waited for Walmart’s doors to slide open. It was a Friday, and she had put on yoga pants in hopes of a dawn walk — but the house was clean out of breakfast food.

She’d been up for hours as she marshaled a cart with a rattling wheel, plucking store-brand buns, Pillsbury cinnamon rolls, a carton of strawberries. She’d awoken at 4 a.m., her time to write while the house slept. This morning, she thought of George Floyd’s daughter, age 6, 1,000 miles away, who’d been told her daddy died because he couldn’t breathe.

Butler picked up bananas, ground chuck, two 36-packs of eggs.

In that quiet hour thinking about Gianna Floyd, she’d begun drafting a piece for her work as a mental health counselor, on resilience in children exposed to race-based violence. Her first work call would light up her phone before 8, and soon, so would texts and emails bearing the grief and stress of co-workers and clients. Lately, the work never seemed to end — not for a black psychotherapist supporting mostly black clients in the middle of a civil rights reckoning and a health crisis that weighed heavily on black lives.

“I wonder where I can get a ‘Congratulations’ thing,” Butler said to herself in the party aisle, tossing into the cart a glittery tablecloth. She would hear everyone out in due time, but her twins came first today. Their middle school years had fizzled out in the pandemic. She bent down to consider the Bunch O Balloons Party Pump. It would make her day just a little easier — sold.

Within 20 minutes, Butler, 39, was steering her car in the rain toward Childs Park. She parked by her mother’s plumeria tree and ran some eggs up to the house she’d grown up in. SURVIVORS SPEAK, her T-shirt read. She’d been sexually assaulted there when she was 15 and had struggled to find healing in a neighborhood that just didn’t have the resources she needed.

So much in that house, love and pain alike, she thought, pulling away from the white cinder blocks with green trim. She drove past the C&J shop where she used to buy greens for her grandma, past her old bus stop, back toward her family in Lakewood Estates, so she could begin helping others heal.

***

As Butler waved her husband, Ulas, off to work at 7:40, the kids slouched around in pajamas. Kira, days from turning 17, chopped spinach at the counter. Fourteen-year-old Mason and 13-year-old Oren came tumbling down the stairs but got sent right back up. “Brush your teeth!” Butler called. Quinci, Oren’s twin, lingered upstairs. The eldest, Imari, lives in New Orleans.

The kitchen clock ticked down the minutes, until Butler quieted The Clark Sisters’ gospel songs and sat at her Mac. She needed to check on her team at The Well for Life, the wellness space she co-founded in south St. Petersburg, to see how they were holding up — as caregivers, but also as people.

Butler let the group catch up on a Zoom chat while she stood to stir the breakfast meat browning on the stove. For this crew of mostly black women, that meant good-natured venting about how the days were blending together and the news was overwhelming. How they were holding too much and sleeping too little.

“If I wake up at 4 and I’m not resting well, and I see something that Dr. Butler posted an hour before...” one leader said, trailing off. Butler laughed and turned her video on, admitting that she was indeed losing her mind from time to time.

Butler launched The Well a few years ago, when she was finishing her dissertation at Argosy University, coming up on her assault anniversary and thinking about ways to bring her social justice-minded mental health work to her community.

At The Well, she leads a small team, offering group therapy, peer support and one-on-one counseling. They work with teens and meet people in beauty salons — whatever it takes. On top of that, she works full-time as a learning and development facilitator at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, doing mostly big-picture training and supervision.

At home, Kira nestled cinnamon rolls onto a baking sheet, while Mason spread out the sparkly tablecloth. Butler washed dishes and listened as her staff unknotted the details of a new case: A young black girl whose mother feared abuse when she was off with her dad.

There was power, the staffers said, in simply hearing out parents’ fears. A counselor might be the only person to understand a mom’s anxieties about getting child protective services involved. Even with good intentions, Butler said, calling the authorities can introduce the specter of loss — even death.

“Make sure that we take care of ourselves during this time because I’m tired,” she said. She laughed, then leaned close. “Being able to do this work... it reminds us of the power we do have. Amen.”

***

Butler helped start The Well a few years ago to bring mental health assistance to her community. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Opening her email, an MSN headline flashed: National push for sweeping police reforms.

Tired was the baseline lately. Butler had expected a wave of clients when the coronavirus hit, but it was only as the virus lingered, exacting its slow toll on jobs and loved ones, that the need began to materialize.

Then George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis.

People had watched the cell phone video. They had waited for an arrest. They had been thinking about the black birdwatcher in Central Park who’d had the police called on him by a hyperventilating white woman, and worried: What does it mean to be safe? Will I ever be?

White people sought help, too, anxious and paralyzed. Butler saw a nation grieving its epidemic of racism.

At first, she felt stuck. Her anger was old. She was a university-educated small business owner, mother, wife of a minister, niece of a law enforcement officer — and still, she thought, that does not make me safe.

Before she was a therapist, she was a black woman with five black children.

So she tried to let herself feel everything. She talked to other black therapists, aired it all out to the people who’d hear her without judgment. And then she turned to everyone else.

***

Butler sat back down at her computer, this time in her university role, to check in with a group of black, female employees at a local public agency. The screen filled with fluorescent rectangles, glitchy windows into cubicles and homes.

“How are you?” Butler asked. “That’s a loaded question, I know.”

They were getting by, one day at a time. By being more lovey-dovey with family. By making candy apples. By holding onto anger, remembering a relative killed by police.

“I have a black son. He is 16. My son has always looked at least three to five years older than what he actually is. As I’m saying it, my heart’s kind of beating fast,” one of the women said. “I’m not OK. I am not OK.”

“First of all, yes,” Butler said, “We want to hold space for you and your son, because we also feel the weight of loving and working and living in black bodies.”

One woman wondered how she could balance her impartial work self with her desire to march, like her mother did from Selma to Montgomery. Others wondered: If they were vulnerable with their emotions, would they be judged? Reduced to caricatures of militant anger and messy grief?

Butler heard them out, affirmed their humanity, honored their blackness. Those were the tools of her trade. Here, they could talk about code switching and exhaustion without having to explain. She sat with her hand on her chin, nodding, searching for intimacy in a disembodied stream.

“Let me tell you why I love y’all,” Butler said. “It’s your ability to say, ‘I’m mad and I’m gonna stay mad because that’s where I am. ... And I’m still going to go serve these clients... And I still have power over one thing, which is the way I feel, and I refuse to allow anybody to compromise that.’ "

To end the hour, the group made commitments. To lead by example. To remain open. To stop taking on too much. One woman, who said she’d been coping by burying herself in routine, said she wanted to be compassionate as she tried to keep her family safe.

She grew teary, finally letting out her stress.

But the stream cut in and out, freezing her face in blurry stills. Her words came through in stutters. Butler clenched, trying to wait it out. She was watching a moment of breakthrough slip away.

Overloaded, the call dropped, suspending the first floor of the house in quiet. The refrigerator hummed. Murmurs came from the upstairs TV. Butler scrolled her inbox, too quickly to absorb any words. She slumped, sighed. “This is hard.”

***

Within minutes, the house filled with commotion again. Butler’s sister Caprice Edmond knocked, with her 7-year-old son, Jair, in tow. Kira sliced up the frittata she’d made, and the kids piled strawberries onto paper plates. Jair batted pink balloons while Edmond ran through lines for her school board bid. It was clear by now that Butler’s Friday walk was not to be, but by the time she got back from changing, the kids were in swimsuits, pool-bound, and she’d missed her moment to say congratulations.

Thirteen-year-old Oren Butler, left, his 7-year-old cousin, Jair Edmond, and his mother enjoy some fun at the family's home in St. Petersburg earlier this month. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Her mother-in-law emerged from the Florida room, her home since dementia set in a few years ago. Butler took her by the arm and guided her into a chair by the pool. The kids splashed, cannonballed and lobbed water balloons, keeping an eye on Jair as their joy echoed off the pool deck, their braids dripping.

“Anybody know where my phone is?” Butler asked, and once she found it, more callers found her. She put some on hold while she dealt with the stream, lining up training and speakers on topics of trauma and healing.

She needed to write an op-ed for her advocacy work with Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, which pushes for prevention and victim services, rather than incarceration. And she couldn’t forget to pay the bills. And there were still errands to run.

“C’mon, mama, we better go in,” she said, and led her mother-in-law back inside, where somebody had left a wet towel on the floor.

Butler walks her mother-in-law, Glorene Nichols, by the family pool during a busy Friday. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

She scooped a little paper plate of beefaroni, her first meal of the day, and ate it in the driver’s seat on the way to The Well, where she had to pick up checks.

“How is your heart?” Butler asked when people called. As the afternoon wore on, her voice grew thin.

A young client texted, needing desperately to unload. Butler agreed to see her at 6.

A pastor called, seeking her ear about dismantling white supremacy in the church. Butler agreed to lend advice at 8.

At a red light, an admiring therapist called, asking to work with The Well. Butler agreed to meet her at 5.

When the errands were done, she sat parked in her driveway, someone still on speakerphone. She looked through the windshield at her front door, but nodded, listening.

It was nearing 3 p.m. Soon, she was due on a conference call, then those appointments. In a few hours, protesters would march down 22nd Street S, past The Well, past the Creole Cafe with its chalk sign saying I can’t breathe, and she would listen to their chants.

But right now, hanging up and sliding the key out of the ignition, she had 20 minutes.

She asked everyone at home to be quiet.

She cranked the shower knob to hot.

Minutes later, she stepped into her bedroom with its plum walls, put her phone on the charger and pulled the curtains closed.

She let her hair down.

Under the covers, she melted into the cool sheets.

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com

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