Junot Diaz and Mariah Carey both dropped bombs on us this week as they revealed their struggles with childhood trauma, sexual abuse and bipolar disorder. Diaz first revealed his truth with a heartbreaking and honest essay about how he suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a family friend at the age of 8 and never told anyone or sought therapy until he hit an absolute low point a few years ago.
Told in searing first person, Diaz chronicles how the childhood rape effected everything in his life moving forward, from his ability to have romantic relationships to bouts of depression and even (to this day) determines how much he is able to write. It’s about as open and honest of an essay as I’ve ever read, and I was deeply touched by his willingness to let his guard down and take his mask off for the whole world to see the deep pain and anguish he’s been in for most of his life. At one point, Diaz speaks explicitly about how being an a man of color makes it even harder to seek the help that you might need if struggling with childhood trauma or mental health problems, or both. About the rape and why he didn’t, or couldn’t tell anyone, he writes:
I was afraid—afraid that the rape had “ruined” me; afraid that I would be “found out”; afraid afraid afraid. “Real” Dominican men, after all, aren’t raped. And if I wasn’t a “real” Dominican man I wasn’t anything. The rape excluded me from manhood, from love, from everything.
The stereotypes about being a strong Dominican man and what you are and are not allowed to feel and think as such kept Diaz from seeking the help he needed for decades. It wasn’t until he found and lost the love of his life that he finally realized and accepted that he needed professional help to handle his trauma. The heartbreak of losing his love combined with what amounted to a third failed suicide attempt, thwarted by one of his best friends, lead him to a wonderful therapist. And Diaz is not alone, he first attempted suicide in high school and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention 2015 Suicide Statistics stats show that 18.9 percent of Latinx students have seriously considered suicide, and 11.3 percent have attempted suicide. In fact, Hispanics are are more likely than their peers to contemplate and carry out suicide attempts. Once he found his therapist, Diaz’s life began to change:
It took years—hard, backbreaking years—but she picked up what there was of me. I don’t think she’d ever met anyone more disinclined to therapy. I fought it every step of the way. But I kept coming, and she never gave up. After long struggle and many setbacks, my therapist slowly got me to put aside my mask. Not forever, but long enough for me to breathe, to live. And when I was finally ready to return to that place where I was unmade she stood by my side, she held my hand, and never let go.
He talks about his therapist like she saved his life, because in reality, she probably did. His reluctance and the masks and walls he’d built up to keep himself from being vulnerable with his therapist is nothing new though, especially for Latinxs, whom so often face stigma from their own families if they attempt to go to therapy or grapple with mental health issues. In fact, according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Office of Minority and National Affairs fewer than one in 11 Latinxs reach out to mental health specialists when they experience mental health problems.
Diaz is not the only person in the limelight this week who has opened up about mental health. Mariah Carey recently gave a bombshell interview in People in which she admits to having Bipolar II, and knowing about it since she was first hospitalized in 2001, but refusing to accept the diagnosis or treatment. So she suffered in silence for 15 years and tried to just battle through the ups and downs of her depression and hypomania on her own. “Until recently I lived in denial and isolation and in constant fear someone would expose me,” she says. “It was too heavy a burden to carry and I simply couldn’t do that anymore.”
Bipolar disorder is particularly tricky, and studies have shown that it’s tougher for those from multicultural and Latinx backgrounds to receive proper diagnosis. But when you consider how much higher the rate of depression is for Latina women, you quickly realize how crucial it is for us to have access to the health care providers and treatment that we need. Especially daunting is the fact that only 5 percent of the Latinos studied used antidepressants, even though depression affected 27 percent of the population.
Carey is not an outlier in her resistance to taking meds or to seeking professional help, even after receiving a correct diagnosis and not facing many of the economic barriers to health care that many Latinas do. She finally decided to seek treatment after going through the roughest couple of years she’s faced both personally and professionally. In therapy and taking medication for bipolar II disorder, she says, “I’m actually taking medication that seems to be pretty good. It’s not making me feel too tired or sluggish or anything like that. Finding the proper balance is what is most important.”
What both Diaz and Carey have done this week is nothing short of heroic. Many people would feel comfortable either suffering in silence (and do) or if they have recovered, be unwilling to share this vulnerable aspect of themselves. In fact, it took Diaz almost three decades to tell anyone the horrible things he had experienced as a child, but instead of bringing him back to that dark place, it was his first chance to see the light at the end of the tunnel. As for Carey, she says she wanted to be open and honest about her diagnosis and treatment.
“I’m just in a really good place right now, where I’m comfortable discussing my struggles with bipolar II disorder. I’m hopeful we can get to a place where the stigma is lifted from people going through anything alone. It can be incredibly isolating. It does not have to define you and I refuse to allow it to define me or control me.”