In 2015, I was diagnosed with a mental disorder. After battling depression and anxiety for most of my life, I discovered that my condition went beyond that and while it was a relief to finally put a finger on what was happening, the hard part began after diagnosis when I realized all the work that had to be done.
Initially, it was difficult to come forward with something so personal, but I've since discovered that I'm not the only one. Why is it so much easier to talk about our external struggles and progress than it is to admit to our internal hurdles? There's so much stigma around mental health that you white-knuckle it through until you're decades into wondering why the hell is living so damn hard. It's so much easier to hide and pretend nothing is wrong. Meanwhile, every action is calculated and analyzed, every day you're just hoping that you don't mess up again and then hate yourself when you slip and fail, hurt and disappoint. Then you dust yourself off and try again, riding on the hope that say one day you'll be "better."
The most basic things that should come naturally — breathing, eating, focusing, trusting, getting out of bed, relaxing, wanting to stay alive, being kind to oneself — require constant effort. Every maladaptive behavior your brain tries to push for requires a decision to override it and say, "No, I will not succumb." Over and over and over again.
It's hard to suffer in silence. To believe that everyone else has their life together and you're totally broken. We're so open and honest about weight loss struggles and fighting obesity, but when it comes to mental health, we try to package it up in a pretty box filled with vague self-help woo woo tips and "5,000 Ways to Be Happy" to make it an easier pill to swallow. It's easier to say I hit the gym three times a week than say I see a therapist just as much.
Having a mental illness is a three-fold struggle: you're running jiu-jitsu moves on your mental issues AND fending off society's stigmas against admitting you need help AND hoping you're not constantly scrutinized for having an illness at all. How's anyone supposed to get better?
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which cited a 2001 Surgeon General’s report, 20 percent of Latinos struggling with a mental disorder tell their doctor about their symptoms and only 10 percent go so far as to contact a mental health specialist. Many in our community tend to brush aside symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other disorders chalking them up to having the blues, lack of motivation, or sheer laziness. It’s as if mental illness didn’t exist at all because to them, there is nothing we can’t do if we simply put our minds to it. But what if our mind is the culprit in the first place?
There have been days when my spark has all but been snuffed out by a triggering event and suddenly I’m suicidal and you’ll be hard pressed to convinced me any of this hard work is worth plowing through. Last year, I was checked in as an inpatient at a psychiatric institution for two weeks and during that time I saw just how miraculous it is to have a well-functioning mind at all. Thankfully, I have friends and family who’ve held me up as I learned to stand on my own again.
The experience has been a huge learning experience for my Dominican parents, too. Instead of telling me to “shake it off” when I was too depressed to get out of bed or tell me I just need to think positive thoughts, they somewhat understand that this runs deeper than that. I say somewhat because they’re not perfect; they still struggle to fully comprehend that my emotions and actions are not always under my control. Sometimes it’s just too hard to feed myself either because I want to punish myself for not having my life together or because I’d rather sleep the pain away.
When my doctor suggested I consider taking mood stabilizers to help me manage my swinging emotions, my knee jerk reaction was to say absolutely not. Even my family was concerned by the idea and were sure that this was another pill happy doctor eager to push medication. My very first experience with mental health treatment came from my primary physician back in 2007, a Latina who brushed aside my health concerns, prescribed me antidepressants without addressing my hesitance or potential side effects and flippantly told me to go to therapy already. I felt like an inconvenience and as if writing off a prescription was her way of getting me out of her hair. Still, she was my doctor and you should trust your doctor, right? Wrong. When I decided to stop taking my medication a few months later, I asked if I should be weaned off the anti-depressants slowly so as to not cause any ill effects. No, she said. She was wrong as a couple days after quitting cold turkey I became lifeless with barely enough energy to lift a fork up to my mouth. I immediately broke up with that doctor and swore to never take anti-depressants again.
Fast forward eight years later and I decide to give these mood stabilizers a try. Perhaps it was because my symptoms had become worse over time, mostly due to a toxic relationship that triggered me constantly, or because I read up on all the details surrounding this particular medication. I asked questions, the doctor was patient, and she made sure I knew that this would be my choice alone. I started taking them that very night.
So has it been working? Perhaps, I can’t truly say because not only have I been on mood stabilizers for almost a year, but I’ve also been going to therapy twice a week for the past ten months. I’ve since distanced myself from various difficult situations that had been driving me insane over the course of six years and dove deeply into rebuilding my self-worth. All of those things have resulted in a much more stable me. I don’t know which one has worked over the other. All I can say is that I’m glad I’ve been attacking the dark from all sides and can see that hope was waiting for me once I got out of my own way.