All My Secrets: One Latinx Woman’s Struggle with the Silence around Mental Health

All photos by  Diana Ascarrunz

All photos by Diana Ascarrunz

By Yvette DeChavez

TW: Suicide

Years ago, I jokingly told my best friend, “I have so many secrets I don’t even know who I am.” At the time, I thought it was hilarious, charming even. I’d convinced myself that my ability to hide certain truths from people while seeming to have it all together was a testament to my strength and intelligence. There I was, a first-generation college student with good grades about to graduate from college. My parents were proud of me. My friends were impressed. My professors were talking about grad school.

But what they didn’t know was that I was hiding a big secret: I hated myself. Depression and anxiety were beating down on me, making every day a battle with my own mind and life a constant dance of maintaining the façade of happiness while harboring constant suicidal thoughts.

I was losing myself to myself, and I was too afraid to tell anyone the truth.

I’ve been dealing with mental health issues for a long time, and I know that these challenges run in my family—I inherited a predisposition to anxiety and depression. But I only found out about my family’s history of mental health struggles through whispered stories over the years that always ended with things like “You better not repeat what I said,” or “Please don’t go telling anyone about this.” Don’t. Sssshh. Quiet. This is family business.

Of course, my family isn’t alone in this silencing. Mental health has long been a taboo subject in Latinx communities: instead of talking about it, many of us are taught to keep it to ourselves and power through, because there are more urgent things to deal with, or because we can’t have the whole world knowing that there’s something “wrong” with us or because we can’t afford help anyway, so what’s the point? So instead of voicing our problems, we suffer in silence.

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The manifestations of this silence can have devastating consequences. In 2017, “15.1% of Latina adolescents in the US tried to take their own lives one or more times.” While I’m sure this statistic shocks a lot of people, for many of us who were once (or still are) Latinx teenagers, this is much less surprising. In an ideal world, my depression and anxiety would’ve remained dormant, never to be seen or heard from, but that’s not how things worked out for me. Instead, various triggers and traumas in my life created the perfect opportunities for these issues to come to the surface. While I never actually followed through with a suicide attempt as a teen (or adult), sometime around the age of fifteen I came damn close. And because I didn’t seek serious help for my problems–or even admit my feelings out loud to anyone–I would come close again in my twenties, not long after telling my friend that I was full of secrets. The swirling vivid mess of these memories still make me shudder.

The truth is that I grew up in a household where secrets were the norm. Although there was a lot of shit going on inside our household, we didn’t tell anyone about it. In some ways, this secretive spirit in my Latinx household feels connected to one of the other foundational beliefs that my mom raised us on: “We don’t have a lot, but we take care of what we do have.” While my mom couldn’t afford a nicer house in a “better” part of town, you can bet that the house she did have smelled good and had flowers blooming in the garden. She took pride in keeping a roof over our heads despite struggling to do so during and after my parents’ divorce.

Mental health has long been a taboo subject in Latinx communities: instead of talking about it, many of us are taught to keep it to ourselves and power through.

Pride for Latinx families is often a very necessary and important means of survival: acts of daily resistance that allow us to continue in a society that so often tries to bring us down. But at the same time, the struggle to survive can leave little room for softness to exist, for the space where we are allowed to be gentle with ourselves and move beyond survival mode. I grew up hearing my mom say things like, “I never had time to be depressed. I had four kids to worry about, so I had to get up every day, go to work, and then come home and take care of your brothers and you.”

No matter the problems we had at home, it was important to maintain our dignity by pretending to be the perfect happy family. This, of course, speaks to my experience as someone who lived a life of privilege, as I didn’t have to worry about things like my immigration status and language barriers. And yet, even with this privilege, I felt the effects of mental health as a taboo issue in Latinx culture.

Nevertheless, pride is perhaps what made me such a high-functioning person. Like others in my family, I inherited an unwillingness to let others see that, beneath the surface, I was struggling to stay afloat. But this also meant I was in a constant state of denial as to how much everything was affecting me. My parent’s divorce? Don’t worry about me, I’m fine! PTSD from sexual assault? Nah, I’m strong, I’ll get over it. Watching my mom struggle to pay bills? Think about something else. I put on the happy face, made good grades, and hung out with friends all while my brain was throwing dark thoughts at me. Keeping the darkness to myself meant that I found other ways of coping, none of which were healthy nor fixed my problems.

No matter how high-functioning I was, over the years my depression and anxiety began to feel like a game of whack-a-mole: as soon as I handled one problem, another needed my attention. But working with subpar coping skills meant that I was attempting to fix things with rusty, broken tools. Eventually, the exhausting task of trying to keep it together while also wanting to disappear became too much, and my secrets started to slowly reveal themselves in subtle ways. My incredibly self-deprecating sense of humor became less entertaining and more alarming. I showed up to important events hungover and/or anxiously awaiting my next drink. The quality of my work began to suffer and professors were no longer excited to work with me. But I remained quiet about what was really going on.

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And then one day, out of the blue, a friend sent me an email that would start me on the path to healing. In it, they simply told me (in the kindest way possible) that I was smart and worthy and needed to talk to someone, needed to get the hurt and anger out so that I could be the best version of me. It was a wakeup call: here was this friend of mine, a fellow Latinx person, who was unafraid of admitting that they had mental health issues. I’d always seen them as one of the chillest people around—kind and wise and a biting sense of humor, someone I wanted to be like when I grew up (you know, if I grew up). I never took them for the type of person who faced the same sort of difficulties that I did. But here’s the other thing about silences when it comes to mental health: not talking about it can also make you feel like there’s something wrong with you and only you. And that sure as hell ain’t the truth, a reality I came to discover the more and more I talked about my depression and anxiety.

This is just my story as one grown-ass Latinx woman who decided to stop priding myself in my ability to appear perfect. My struggles certainly pale in comparison to those that many of you have faced, but that’s not the point of this piece. The point is this: You are smart and worthy—talk to someone. Talk to a therapist, if possible (but remember, white therapists might not completely understand you). Talk to a curanderx or brujx if you find them helpful (when I had no money for therapy, my curanderx became my therapist). Talk to your friends. Talk to your family. Talk to the mental health professionals available through your schools. Talk to the friends you’ve connected with on social media. Fucking talk—let it out in a slow leak or a rushing tide or whatever water metaphor works best for you. I’m not saying it’s going to fix everything, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Here’s a secret for you: It took me a year to write this piece because I was overwhelmed by the pressure of telling this story to a larger audience, overwhelmed by the pressure to make it perfect. But I realized that the more we let ourselves live as we truly are in this world, the more space we create for others like us. I didn’t have to make this perfect; I just had to put it out there. And now there’s a little more space for people like you and me.

 

Yvette DeChavez is a Latinx writer, artist, and scholar from San Antonio, Texas. A first-generation college graduate, she earned a PhD in Literature from the University of Texas at Austin. Her research and activism focuses on centering the voices, narratives, and performances of Indigenous Americans and People of Color in academia and the media.