“I go to therapy for one hour a week, every week. Sometimes I can afford it, and sometimes I can’t — and I still go. Better to go to therapy and rack up the miles on my credit card than not.” Sana Javeri Kadri, founder of Diaspora Co., has been spreading the gospel of therapy for several years now. This past June, she sat on a panel at The Wing with one of our clinicians called “Career and Ambition in the Southeast Asian Community.” Though it wasn’t the pivotal subject of the panel, Sana touched on how her culture, family, and queerness have affected her mental health journey, and I was captivated by her storytelling.

Given how much she gravitated towards the topic of mental health, I was excited to continue the discussion and #TalkTherapy more in-depth with her. A few months after meeting at The Wing, Sana invited me over to her colorful place in Oakland on a hot summer day — our conversation fueled by table fans and homemade peach soda.

Sana grew up in Mumbai, and moved to the United States in 2012 for college, earning a degree in visual arts and food studies from Pomona College. Throughout the course of her undergraduate experience, she became intimately familiar with the differences between the food system in India where there are deep ties to food culture, and the American food system where people are relatively disconnected from their food sources.

Flash forward a few years, “I was working in food marketing, and I recognized that there was this big need for direct trade spices. You can find out where your peach comes from or where your tomato comes from, but when it comes to spices there’s no traceability. So I founded Diaspora Co. in 2017, a direct trade spice company focused on heirloom varieties, helping to put money, equity and power into the hands of Indian farmers.”

Starting a company, coming out as queer with a long-term partner, and settling into a new culture as an adult, all pushed Sana to address her mental health in a more intentional way, especially since her culture and family didn’t always embrace the topic when she was young. “Now that I come to think about it,” she remarked, “a lot of Americans didn’t grow up knowing how to talk about it either. I think it transcends culture, this lack of discussion about our mental health.”

So in college when she was able to identify and specifically address her mental health issues, it was transformational. “I realized that a lot of my patterns of behavior actually had words for them — like disordered eating. It’s different from an eating disorder, but still very problematic eating patterns that should be addressed. I went through a whole program for it my senior year of college, while also managing my anxiety, and depression. Constantly being in therapy initially felt like a huge expense, but a year into it I realized it kept me alive and keeps me being my best self, so it’s something I’m going to do every single week.”

Sana continues to hold this mindset, and has seen the value of therapy through some of the most difficult phases of her life — namely, coming out.

“I would tell my family other stories of friends who had come out almost to test them, but I never liked the reaction I got, and decided I didn’t want to go through that. On the other hand, I didn’t think I could ever love a woman if I couldn’t take her home since my family is such a deep part of who I am. Therapy was a way for me to process the fact that I couldn’t share the biggest part of myself with my country, not even just my family. For me, coming out really felt like I was deleted from a culture that defined me, a trauma that nobody is equipped for — and one that I needed therapy to get through.”

“When I came out to my parents, it was not great. I needed therapy the most after the fact — to have a place to process conversations I was having that were difficult and triggering for me, situations I didn’t know how to navigate, and that were causing me to spiral into self-destructive behavior.”

Sana felt that these self-destructive behaviors created drama in her life, but it took her awhile to realize she had some control over them. That led us into an interesting cultural discussion about boundaries.

“What I know about boundaries is mostly the lack of them. Growing up in a South Asian home, your grandparents have as much say in your life as your parents as your second cousins. The concept of privacy doesn’t exist. I applied this close familial and boundary-less environment to other parts of my life, which created deep closeness, and deep problems.”

“If somebody asked for something from me, I would always oblige. It’s something that women — and especially women of color — struggle with a lot. In my Indian experience, nobody has boundaries but that way it’s reciprocal. We’re all pushing each other’s boundaries constantly so it sort of works. When I moved to the US where other people had boundaries and I wasn’t enforcing any of my own, it created very unequal relationships and made me realize how many areas of my life were affected by my lack of boundaries.”

“For example, when I was younger, my family would share unsolicited comments about my weight — and felt very invested in my size and my eating, a lot of my disordered eating came from needing some control over my food and body in a way that couldn’t be taken from me. Even once I accepted by body and learned to love it, I didn’t have the boundary to say, ‘Actually, I don’t need this feedback from you.’ After lots of emotional work both in and out of therapy, I was able to enforce boundaries and it has changed my relationships for the better, but mostly my relationship to my body and food feels like it’s been really set free.”

All of this boundary work was done with her most recent therapist, who she reached out to at the cusp of starting Diaspora Co.

“I think that’s when I recognized that I had something I really wanted to focus on and needed to get my life together. All of my friends were as hopeless, and as queer, and messy as I was, and that’s when therapy seemed like a good option. I called five therapists I found with a quick Google search — I distinctly remember typing in ‘LGBTQ therapy POC only’ and my current therapist was the first one to call me back.”

“In college I had shopped around with a few, but in this case I had looked for specific LGBTQ therapists and I was only willing to talk to folks who either had a partner who was a POC or were a POC. I had some sensitivity, and knew that identity was an important factor for me, as a baby gay looking for guidance on how to navigate the world, a straight person would have truly gotten me nowhere.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to finding a therapist, Sana’s experience is the exception, not the norm. As someone who had been in therapy before, she knew what she was looking for in a clinician, whereas many people seeking out care for the first time don’t know what their preferences are for a therapist — modality, personality, style, demographic, etc.

Research has shown that a strong client-therapist relationship leads to better clinical outcomes. With this in mind, we developed an evidence-based matching process at Two Chairs that includes an in-person consult, and considers clients’ needs, goals, and preferences to find them the best fit for care.

Once Sana started therapy with this new therapist, she was pushed outside of her comfort zone with role-playing and boundary work. The first year was a lot about gaining self-awareness.

“My life used to feel really dramatic. I thought things just ‘happened’ to me, but through therapy I realized I was calling it into my life. Our initial year of work together was about being able to see how my choices affected outcomes. In my second year of therapy, I noticed a pattern of creating ‘demons’ in my life — ideas, insecurities, and negative thoughts of mine that I was projecting onto other people. It was affecting everything from my housemate situation, to work relationships, to romantic relationships. Focusing on what I could do to change was really impactful.”

No matter how many tools or coping mechanisms Sana has gained from therapy, the reality is that being an entrepreneur is stressful. I asked Sana how she practices self-care amidst the chaos of running a company.

“For a long time, I felt very strongly that work and my productivity should come above mental health, and the society we live in really normalizes that. It took me a long time to be okay with this, but now if I want to spend twenty minutes daydreaming between things, take a lunch break and cook, or go on a short walk, that’s fine.”

“It’s been a process of getting to know myself really well. When have I ever not gotten work done in my whole life? Never. I’ve never cheated myself out of accomplishing something. So by that formula, if I need a break and I’m foggy, stressed, or anxious, I need to trust myself and my own work ethic to know what my body needs. It’s hard! And feels very adult!”

“More than anything, though, understanding the root of my anxiety is so important. Often that’s just a damn email that I’ve been avoiding for three weeks and should probably just reply to.”

Sana is open and honest about what it’s like living with mental health issues — recognizing that she’s always growing, and that there will be peaks and valleys. No matter what, though, she makes it to the therapy room.

“Therapy is absolutely a privilege, and I’m so lucky to have access to it, and the financial resources to know that even if I can’t afford it this month, I’ll find the money and pay it off the next. I mean, I didn’t have healthcare until last month, my partner and I cook all of our meals at home, we’ve gotten every piece of furniture in this apartment for free, and as an early stage founder and a grad student, we’re so lucky to have support from family as a safety net when we need it. So whilst therapy is my single biggest expense after rent, I also recognize how lucky I am to be able to have it, and how many folks in my position don’t have that access or those resources.”

The level of dedication Sana has for her therapy practice is admirable. It has been an invaluable tool for her as she navigates societal, familial, and personal challenges, but everyone’s mental health toolkit is unique. Through sharing her story with us, Sana is shedding light on the incredible growth that can take place when you prioritize your mental wellbeing.

If you would like to share about your own mental health experience, I’d love to #TalkTherapy with you. You can email me at [email protected].

If you or someone you know is experiencing an emergency or crisis and needs immediate help, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Additional resources can be found here.