A month after I turned 29 years old, I lost a job due to the alcohol problem I still wasn’t admitting that I had. I pretended like it wasn’t happening, as if the stress and anxiety weren’t getting to me and causing me to overcompensate with black-out weekends fueled by alcohol. I didn’t want to think. I just wanted to ignore what was happening in my head, how I was destroying my life, and the way I was suffering. What I didn’t realize was that I was ignoring my mental health completely.
A year later, after going to rehab and relapsing, I decided to leave New York City — the place I had called home for almost 12 years — and moved back in with my parents in Florida. It was an arduous journey filled with trying to figure out the next steps in life, finding love (and even getting married), rebuilding my career, and ultimately overcoming the Latina shame that kept me from going to therapy for years. What I have learned in the time since is that going to therapy is crucial to my mental health.
Growing up, nobody in my family ever talked about mental health. Sure, I heard stories of a loca cousin or friend of my parents, but it was always just a story told in a funny way. And apparently I’m not the only one who grew up with a lack of awareness when it comes to mental health issues. According to a national survey from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, only 15.9% of Latinos report any mental illnesses, versus 20.5% among whites, 18.8% among blacks, and 16.1% among Asians. We just don’t talk about mental health issues in our community.
But not talking about the issues doesn’t mean that we don’t experience them. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, just 20% of Latinos who exhibit symptoms of a psychological disorder will actually talk to their doctor about their concerns and only 10% will contact a mental health specialist. They also report that we as a community experience generalized anxiety disorder, major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and alcoholism. Even worse, Latina high school students have higher rates of suicide attempts.
All of this sounds all too familiar to me.
When I was in high school, I experienced heavy anxiety and chronic stress that remained undiagnosed. My family loved me, sure, but I could never talk to them about these things. I was a good student and my immigrant family expected me to succeed in school, go to a great college, and live a fantastic life. But before I got there, I was so stressed by one of my classes that I attempted to commit suicide in the 10th grade.
Long story short, the night before a major assignment was due, I swallowed every pill I could find in my house and woke up throwing up. Nothing happened, so I went to school and received a bad grade: my first and only C on a report card. I was ashamed, but I could never tell my parents what really happened. In fact, they still don’t know about my suicide attempt. Only a handful of people know til this day, and it’s an episode I rarely share.
The shame of what I tried to do keeps me from being open about the experience but the truth is, what I really needed at the time wasn’t to keep quiet. What I needed was therapy.
It wasn’t until 10 years later that my mental health issues caught up with me again. I thought I was on top of the world with a successful career in journalism, jumping from one job to another as my career grew, but I didn’t understand the slowly creeping chronic stress and constant anxiety that was starting to impact my life again. I ended up in rehab and, for the first time in my life, had to face up to my mental health issues.
I got really lucky, though. My therapist in rehab was Latina herself and she understood very well the fine line I walked between being the perfect immigrant daughter and seeking to be my own person. She helped me to understand that the anxiety I felt was natural but that I also needed to take care of myself if I hoped to get my life back on track, if I wanted to get healthy, and if I wanted to stop letting my mental illness plague me. So, I got therapy and lots of it during my 30-day rehab program. Shortly after I left the treatment program, I found another therapist.
I have been seeing my current therapist for over two years now, though we had a break when I first left New York City and moved down to Florida. But after almost half a year of not speaking with her regularly, I realized that I still needed therapy to manage my anxiety and that this is nothing to be ashamed of. These days, we have bimonthly phone calls where we talk about whatever I am currently dealing with. Sometimes, though, I admit that I need to talk to her every week and make those arrangements. She is always accommodating and our talks help ground me.
So many people in our community continue to suffer through their mental health issues, not seeking help out of fear of being labeled “loca” or worse. I know, because I was one of those women. I was afraid to admit that I needed help to quiet the voices in my mind, the voices that told me I wasn’t good enough, that I couldn’t do well, and that I was going to fail. Even worse, that I was always going to be a failure.
Thanks to therapy, I now know that the voice in my head isn’t the truth. It’s my anxiety, which I have come to understand is never going to fully go away. But what I also know now, is that I can get help to quiet that voice by doing various things like taking time off, journaling, cuddling with my pets, and most importantly seeking therapy.