Content Warning: mental health illness discrimination A/N: The names* mentioned were changed to protect the individual’s identity.
I paced in front of my parent’s bedroom for what felt like an eternity. My mom was on the floor wrapping Christmas presents, completely unaware that I was about to confront her about the emotional stresses I’d been harboring since childhood, symptoms which had evolved and became what my therapist and I now recognize as moderate to severe anxiety.
“Hey, Mom,” I said, my throat thick with nerves. “Can I talk to you?”
My mom looked up from cutting a red and green Santa-print wrapping paper, her mind obviously busy with the task. “Sure, mija. Que paso?”
I was 20 years old and a college student, home for the holidays. I was the first in my family to attend college; I was a pioneer, but like most pioneers, I was exploring uncharted waters. I was lost and alone and unsure of where I was going, which triggered some deeply-rooted and unchecked anxiety. The anxiety rendered panic attacks, sleeplessness, overstimulated and mind-racing fantasies, a sense of worthlessness and emotional breakdowns I didn’t know how to manage. The pressure weighed over me and it sent me into mental spaces I couldn’t handle.
“Remember when I was little and Dad used to be angry all the time? How the two of you always fought?” I said. “Well, I’ve been having trouble with that. I’ve been remembering it and it’s becoming a problem. So, I started seeing a school therapist.”
My mom stopped cutting through the wrapping paper then, and I witnessed an emotional shift in her expression. I suddenly felt guilty and ashamed for bringing up something so painful, something our family had evolved and healed from together. We knew we’d moved on and that things were better. But here I was, digging it back up.
I had been seeing a woman by the name of Dr. Joy* who had taken what I thought was typical college stress during the brunt of finals and made me realize my stressors were linked to regressing childhood trauma, which fed my anxiety. Apparently, it wasn’t normal to study for finals and suddenly relive a traumatic moment from my childhood. It was a trauma Dr. Joy suggested I confronted my parents about.
I wanted to laugh at Dr. Joy’s suggestion; in fact, I’m pretty sure I did. Confront my parents? I had thought. A cold spike of fear ran down my spine and the familiar roll of nausea gurgled in my stomach.
“I don’t think I can do that. Our family is private,” I told her. “My parents aren’t people who bring up the past. We move forward. Besides, they don’t believe we should talk about our problems with strangers.”
Doesn’t this woman know anything? I thought.
We’re Mexican. If I told my family I was seeing a shrink about our family’s problems, they’d go nuts. They’d tell me I didn’t need one, that they were meant for locos or crazy people, and I wasn’t crazy.
Whether I was crazy or sane wasn’t the question. Something was wrong with me and it had been growing inside me like a sticky tar that coated my brain, my chest, my lungs and my stomach the older I got. It was like I had swallowed a wad of gum and it made an internal mess. In that mess, I knew Dr. Joy was right. Confronting my family was the first step in the path of healing.
There I was, feeling small with my stomach full of Hubba Bubba, about to open a can of worms that, in my mind, could ruin the relationship I had with my mom and even my family.
My mom set down the scissors but stayed quiet. Nervous, I kept talking. I told her how the school’s therapist told me what I was going through needed to be addressed, that my feelings and emotions needed to be confronted.
The next thing I knew, she was crying. We were both crying. We had made an emotional breakthrough, but that didn’t stop my mom from asking, “Why?” That “why” was a million questions packed into one word.
Why was I seeing a therapist? Why was I seeing a therapist when I was healthy? When I had a roof over my head, when my parents were still married, when they sacrificed so much for my success and to pursue my dreams? Why was I shaming her and our family with our past? Why was I sharing this with a complete stranger? At that moment, I understood that my mom felt shame. She wasn’t ashamed of me, but she was ashamed of herself.
My mom’s mentality, I later realized, wasn’t a novelty concept. The Latinx/Hispanic community has always carried a strong stigma against seeking professional help in the mental health community. In fact, it was taboo to discuss mental health illnesses at all. Depression was just another way of saying “lazy” or explaining anxiety as being “over-dramatic.” Because you just have to train your mind to be stronger, right? You either pray it away or just gotta get up and buck up. Just shake it off and get over it. After all, you have it better than your parents’ or grandparents’ generation…right?
Now, at 28 years old, I’m still combating severe anxiety. It only got worse when COVID-19 hit. I tried everything: meditation, art, exercising, journaling, St. John’s Wort tea, yoga, talking to a therapist, but that Hubba Bubba clump was still there and the motivation to do anything, even work, lacked luster.
“I know we’ve discussed this before,” said Jan*, my therapist of two years, “but how do you feel about seeing a psychologist and taking medication?”
I avoided looking Jan in the eye. It wasn’t hard to do behind a computer screen. Despite my parent’s support about seeing a therapist for my severe anxiety, they weren’t exactly pro-medication. In fact, my mom expressed she’d be more comfortable if I didn’t take medication at all. I didn’t blame her. She was afraid of everything that could go wrong: addiction, dependency and the idea of my mind being numb from anything other than drug-induced bliss. But I was tired, and I knew that medication was going to be a big help. If I can take birth control to moderate my hormones, why can’t I take medication to moderate my moods?
“Let’s do it,” I said. The words came out in a rush of air. This was the right thing to do, so why does it feel so wrong?
My admission to seeing a mental health professional and taking medication for my anxiety made my mom the most vulnerable I’ve ever seen her. She felt like a failure, like she was a bad mom, as if everything I had been feeling and going through was her fault. Yes, my parents’ worries and fears were passed down like a proverbial torch that only ignited the anxiety I already had, but she and my dad are not at fault. I now know the origin of my anxieties and trauma, and because I know where it comes from, I now know how to heal it.
We now live in a mental health conscious generation. Over the past 10 years, serious mental health illnesses had risen from four to six percent among Latinx and Hispanic people between ages 18 to 25 and from two to four percent in the 26 to 49 age range between 2008 and 2018.
Discussing mental health illnesses can create embarrassment and shame for Latinx and Hispanic families. Couple the perception with the statistics and it makes sense why my mom felt so strongly against me seeking professional help. However, the ideology results in fewer people seeking and finding information and treatment for mental health issues.
With reports that show over thirty million people filing for unemployment in April of last year, consequently affecting people of color at disproportionate rates, the numbers and the aftermath of the pandemic are only getting worse for the Latinx and Hispanic communities; Brown people are more likely to lose their jobs and less likely to work from home or have access to health insurance compared to white people. The struggle has added a strain on the mental health of Latinx and Hispanic individuals, increasing worry, depression and the fear of uncertainty for the future, including my own future.
However, with the help of therapy, medication and the eventual support of my family, my anxiety has significantly lessened and the stigma surrounding mental health illnesses isn’t as scary or shameful as my family thought. With that said, I’ll admit, I would have never gone to therapy or taken medication If I hadn’t taken that first step into my college therapist’s office. It was an appointment I reluctantly made because my best friend who was studying psychology suggested I talked to someone. If it weren’t for the resources and people around me, I would have accepted my family’s ideology that mental health illnesses were for other people, people with “real” problems.
As a second-generation Mexican-American woman, my journey is something that takes generations to tackle. When immigrants enter the U.S., they are forced to take on the pressures to quickly assimilate into American customs, ethics and English-speaking language. Those pressures are passed down or transferred to their children along with the state of their mental health. With a lack of healthcare insurance, the language barrier and the impoverished state of the Latinx and Hispanic communities, mental health resources are limited. By the time those resources are presented, it is often the second generation that benefits from the available mental health resources.
I still experience panic attacks, but I know how to ground my mind and I can rely on myself and my family to comfort me. I can sleep easily and I’m starting to feel more like who I used to be before that tar-like goop took over my mind and body. I’m seeing a personality that was so deeply buried that I almost didn’t recognize myself when I saw it resurface.
It’s an inexplicable joy and relief to know that things are getting better and that I want to believe it’ll keep getting better.
Who I am is enough.
What I do is enough.
I am loved, and I am grateful to have friends and family who support me. After all, it only took a generation or two to get here.
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