Trap Therapist Founder, Dylesia Barner, LCSW, a Portsmouth, VA native who is now an Alabama and Tennessee Licensed Clinical Social Worker is our last featured therapist for the week! Dylesia has a Bachelor of Science in Communication from Old Dominion University and a Master of Social Work from Norfolk State University. Read more about her below!
- Tell me more about what you do professionally? (license(s), specialties, target populations, certifications, etc.)
I am licensed as a Clinical Social Worker. My clients are diverse, although I have a passion for working with victims of spiritual abuse. Because it’s an underdeveloped area of practice and isn’t widely discussed or easily noticed by those enduring it, clients often enter therapy under the guise of issues such as anxiety, depression, or the need to engage in self-discovery. After probing, I am able to recognize that their presenting issues manifest as a result of exposure to performance-based religious systems. They are relieved to be able to externalize what they’ve been feeling by naming it and finding out that it’s far more normal than they imagined. This particularly benefits minority clients who often rely on religion as a source of strength, resiliency, and hope and are more prone to internalize challenging experiences with it.
- Where were you born and raised?
Portsmouth, VA. More specifically, Downtown. I spent the majority of my life in Ida Barbour, Swanson Homes, and Westbury (a renovated Ida Barbour after they tore the original one down). All those neighborhoods are on the same few streets and are run by Portsmouth Redevelopment and Housing Authority (PRHA). One time, we were in between homes and lived with my aunt, her boyfriend, and two children in Jeffry Wilson, another project within the PRHA system. We also stayed in an apartment-style boarding house on Elm Ave. when I was really young, and when I was first born, we stayed in a neighborhood called Madison Village.
- What were you like growing up?
Precocious, curious, free-spirited, and independent. I stayed in trouble for getting in “grown folks conversations” and preferred reading books to going outside. I hated the way kids smelled after they came in from playing, so that deterred me from doing it much. I also didn’t ask for a lot of help (or permission), which has stuck with me, haha. In fact, I love this one story my mom tells about me from when I was a toddler – she couldn’t find me one morning and frantically searched the house for me. I was sitting on top of the refrigerator eating from a box of cereal. I guess I was hungry when I woke up…so I went downstairs, pushed a chair from the kitchen table up to the fridge, and climbed my way to what I wanted. Typical Dylesia. I was also very intelligent, so I was in gifted classes, had the highest SOL scores in my school, and was the school’s Top Accelerated Reader.
- What was growing up like?
We didn’t have much money, but we always ate well. My mom would home cook meals every night and when I was in elementary school, she’d pack our lunch and put endearing notes inside the lunchbox for us to read. I remember one time asking a kid at school who was selling candy for a student organization if he would take food stamps (that’s back when we had the actual bills) and he laughed in my face. I also remember my mom walking me and my little brother to an out of zone school each morning, while pushing our baby sister in a stroller. She was big on us not being of the projects even though we lived in them, so she did what she could to make sure we didn’t intermingle too much. She minded her business, so even though a lot went on in our neighborhood, people didn’t bother us. That didn’t always translate to school though. Other girls tried to bully and threaten to fight/jump me, but it never worked because I didn’t care and wasn’t scared. I’ve always been so unbothered. And of course that made them even madder. I was the “I heard such and such gone beat me up today so let me grease my face in case there’s a fight” girl and my mom was the “lemme go up to this school and tell the principal what’s about to happen before this girl get herself hurt ‘cause she don’t care about nothing” mom. Balance, haha. She grew up in the projects too – in Lincoln Park – and was always in fights, and she wanted to make sure our lives looked different. She is not afraid of anyone though and will tell anybody how she feels at any time. It’s hilarious! So, even though she tried to protect me from my own fearlessness, ironically, I got it from her.
- What generational curses were present in your family that you had to break to get where you are today?
My dad is over twenty years older than my mom, but I lived with mom, so I was more exposed to the generational curses in her family than his. His family is mostly educated and financially stable, so when I’d spend holidays with them, I’d get lectured about school. In my mom’s family, I was a first generational college student. So, educational attainment.
Also addiction. Both of my parents drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes a lot when I grew up. My dad still loves his black and milds, haha. My mom quit everything cold turkey back when I was in high school though. I also have a maternal uncle who struggled with heroin addiction, and some maternal and paternal family members who are still on hard drugs. My mom also drank a lot of coffee and I noticed that and told myself I’d never drink it, so to this day I never have. Not that coffee’s a bad thing, I just remember making the promise to myself and sort of feeling like if I broke it, I’d become addicted to it and then there’d be something else, and something else, and something else.
I’d also say independent woman syndrome. My mom has suffered a lot of loss in her life, so she preached to us that we didn’t need anyone and I grew up struggling to decide whether love was weakness. Luckily, her lessons taught me to be super particular about who I connect myself to, so I’ve managed to attach myself to people who are worth depending on instead of internalizing the message to mean that I shouldn’t trust or connect to anyone.
I’m sure there are others, but those are what immediately come to mind.
- What are three things from your upbringing that inspired you to become a psychotherapist and an entrepreneur?
From ages 15-18 for me, we were in a cult of Christianity. We didn’t enter knowing it was that, but progressively, encouragement, gifts, and spiritual support turned into unreasonable spiritual expectations, including strict church attendance schedules, oppressive life instructions, and unmeetable giving goals. I wasn’t allowed to go to college out of state, wasn’t allowed to study fields like psychology, and wasn’t allowed to visit friends’ homes. I witnessed other parishioners work hard for job promotions only to ask the apostle if they could take it and be told “no.” We also couldn’t go to the movies and couldn’t date people outside of the ministry unless they were willing to become members. Regular demon expelling services were held for those of us who bent or broke rules, and those of us who did were “sat down,” meaning we couldn’t serve in auxiliary groups such as the choir. Experiencing, observing, and even inviting others to be a part of this left me wanting to get healthy vengeance, so here I am, living a life dedicated to making sure others are spiritually, mentally, and emotionally whole.
Other incidents that inspired me to enter the field of social work and eventually become a psychotherapist include finding out that social workers don’t take kids and issue food stamps. Growing up in the hood, those were the people we blamed for that. A class I took in undergrad to fill an interdisciplinary studies requirement taught me otherwise and peaked my interest enough for me to explore all the opportunities available for social workers. All I knew before that class and my subsequent research was that when I was in elementary school, my aunt called social services on my mom and lied to them, saying my siblings and I were dirty, hungry, and roamed the streets at night. And that the people who showed up to interview us and do home inspections after that false report were called social workers. And I didn’t like them because they made my mom cry. But that was before the law that only people with degrees in social work can refer to themselves as social workers was passed, so I’m assuming imposters we’re giving us a bad rep long before my family’s negative encounter.
Owning a business was something my mom always wanted to do and told us we should do. So that and her parenting style, which included her sharing her opinion, but not forcing us to honor it are two factors that inspired me to become an entrepreneur. She modeled to us that it was okay to question authority figures, because at the end of the day, they were no more than just people like us. Imaginably, that made a lot of jobs morally difficult for me, because I was often subjected to authoritarian leaders who I could discern were that way because they weren’t as bright as me or other staff. I hated being managed by people who weren’t capable of adding to my knowledge base in life or the field, and I despised being told what to do by those people – people who were usually wrong, but had the power to force me to do what they said even if it wasn’t best practice. I couldn’t stand having my voice, intelligence, or creativity stifled, so – for the sake of sanity – I had to start my own business.
- How does your practice reflect who you are as a clinician and the changes you would like to see like in your area of specialization?
My practice emphasizes the importance of holistic health, because I’d like to see others become better at juggling and thriving in all areas of life. I’m big on self-care and boundary setting, because I value total wellness and know I can’t achieve it without structure, so I’m the clinician who teaches the self-care wheel, regardless of the presenting problem and helps my clients muster up enough voice to say no and enough courage to decide and do what’s best for them. I think most problems result from unhealthy decision-making, which ultimately results from dishonoring self, which is ultimately a self-care issue. This specifically relates to spiritual abuse victims, because they are tricked into thinking they’re following God, only to realize they’re actually following man, which eventually causes them to lose themselves. I help those people find healing, personality, and balls, which is what I want everyone to have, haha.
- How does being from an urban, low-income area define you? How does it define your approach to treatment?
It makes me blunt. I don’t beat around the bush. I’m honest with my clients and I challenge them. I’m referred to as “a homework therapist,” because 9 sessions out of ten, I’m inspired to assign work in between the next session. I think I do that because of where I’m from too. Getting out of the hood required a plan and a commitment to working that plan, I didn’t just talk my way out of it. And I don’t believe clients can just talk their way into solutions. I definitely approach treatment like I’m helping my clients mine their way out of a hole, because that’s what I’ve had to do at so many junctures in my life. I’m also cool. I don’t easily get shocked, I use humor and code-switching to build rapport, and I’m always looking for a way to clown them, because it makes the hard work a little bit easier. I have both young and old clients and I’ve found that regardless of their age, they want to be comfortable, and me being lighthearted helps.
- Who was your role model growing up and why?
When I think of a role model, I think of someone who’s going where I want to go, and honestly, I’ve never really found anyone like that…but anyone who’s unique will struggle to find a perfect role model, I think. That said, I’ve admired specific qualities that certain people have, and I’ve also vowed to develop opposite traits of others. I think the average person who grew up in the projects had sort of a reverse role model mindset. Life was rich with examples of who I didn’t want to be, so I just did the opposite of what I saw those people do and eventually became my own role model.
- What do you believe is the most common reason people from “the trap” stay stuck?
It’s tough to blame it on one specific factor, but I think lack of exposure has a lot to do with it. People who leave don’t want to come back and give back, for various reasons, and because of that, people who are in it don’t know how to get out. So, essentially the trap functions like a deserted island. I think we who have managed to swim our way to other lands have a responsibility to at least try and rescue somebody else, but I also think we have to wait until the opportune time to do so, because if not, we could get sucked back in. I also think we have to decide what rescuing someone else will look like for us, because for one person it may be starting a scholarship fund for underprivileged youth, for someone else, it may be volunteering for an adult education program. The point is, we have to do what we can and not let other people make us feel bad for whatever that ends up being.
- Can you think of a “turning point” in your life that made you who you are today versus who you stereotypically should have become? What was it? And what personal decisions did you have to make to honor the grace it offered you?
Though college certainly transformed my life, I think my “turning point” dates back further than college, because even if I wouldn’t have gone, let’s be real, I wasn’t raised to be stereotypical. I think my “turning point” pre-dates me, because it happened whenever my mom decided that she wanted her children to live a better life than she did. To that end, I think my unborn children’s turning point was whenever my husband and I decided we wanted our children to live a better life than we did. I can be philosophical though, so I’ll digress, haha. I know for sure one of my turning points was when my little brother died at age 21. My little sister and I always say when he passed, his grind split three ways and intensified ours and my mom’s. He would always call me “Doc” and would hype me up anytime I needed encouragement to start a new venture, so I’m committed to living my best life since he can’t anymore. Even though I’m quite positive Heaven is lit!
- What support and/or resources did you use to change the trajectory of your life?
Public assistance, haha. I thank God we were on food stamps when I was a child, because that made it even easier for me to walk my happy behind down to social services and apply for them when I was a broke college student (and even once as an adult)…and I’d absolutely do it again if I had to. Creating a life of my own was hard, but I refused to go backwards and knew I had to do things the average person wouldn’t in order to. This rang particularly true when I moved from Portsmouth to Atlanta. I drove eight hours to get there and had $20 in my pocket. And even when I got kicked out of the apartment I was living in, I was so determined not to go back home that I contemplated a homeless shelter, but thank God, someone offered me a temporary place to stay. Whatever above the law that has to be done to make your dream work must be done.
- What is the most significant professional accomplishment you’ve made to date?
When I was fresh out of graduate school, I applied to a private practice residency program, because I knew I eventually wanted to own my own private practice. I didn’t get in the first time, so I tried again the following year and did! It was an amazing experience to be trained by a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who had been in private practice for over a decade. She had a wealth of knowledge to share and so did the other residents. That program is the main reason I’m as clinically skilled as I am today and I’m eternally grateful.
- If you had to sum your childhood up by picking five nostalgia-inducing people, places, or things (can include songs, television shows, movies, etc.), who/where/what would you pick and why?
So many things! The Simpsons, Judge Joe Brown, and Big Brother are all shows my mom, brother, sister, and I would watch together. Also, Reading Rainbow and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood are throw backs. Flight jackets (now referred to as “bombers” thanks to cultural appropriation), DCs (our name for Air Force Ones), and bamboo hoop earrings. Whenever I see clothes lines behind house, I’m like “oh that’s hood!” Haha. Harry Potter takes me back too, because I’d spend hours at a time in my room reading those books. And plastic on furniture, because my mom’s mom had it on hers. My Mommie Helen’s (dad’s mom) house itself also brings back a lot of memories.
- What is something you still do that can be explained by where you were born/raised?
Use words like “Yeed!” and “jank,” or my favorite expression that I don’t say intentionally “You know what I’m sayin’?,” although it comes out like “uknowimsayin” which is where the Portsmouth shows itself. I also know what to get off brand and what not to, which is something I had to teach my husband because he will go to the store and get alllll name brand stuff, and I’m like “oh nah!” He grew up in Portsmouth too, but maybe he ain’t go to the store with his mom? For instance, you shouldn’t get off brand dish detergent because it won’t sud, but then again, you can use washing powder as dish detergent if you’re in dire need. You can definitely fry better chicken in store brand vegetable oil than in that expensive Crisco stuff. You can also go to 7-Eleven and grab a handful of napkins if you’re out of toilet paper, haha. These are all things my mom taught me. She knew how to hustle and could feed 4 people full meals for like 3 days with just a dub!
To keep up with Dylesia, follow her on Instagram at @dylesiabarner. To learn more about Trap Therapist or Existence, Consciousness, Bliss, follow @traptherapist and @ecb_nashville on Instagram, respectively. You can also visit the following websites: www.dylesiabarner.com, www.traptherapist.com, www.ecb-nashville.org.