Being the first person in my family to openly acknowledge, and treat, my mental health is hard. For the last six years, going to therapy to help manage my anxiety has been something my family is afraid to name outright. While they know my standing appointment on Monday mornings make me unreachable if they called, their MO on Mondays isn’t to ask how therapy went, it’s just to call at a different time.
The avoidance of a very tangible reality may help them avoid shaking the status quo, but it also makes it really clear during times like BIPOC Mental Health Month that the call to action for a month like this isn’t to try to change them, it’s to try to feel less guilty about focusing on myself.
As The National Alliance on Mental Illness notes stigma is one of the biggest roadblocks to changing the narrative within our families and larger communities, about who struggles with mental health, what living with a mental illness actually looks like, and what healthy coping mechanisms can be.
I’m 27 years old, live with my boyfriend and puppy, and also live with anxiety, disordered eating, and the ramifications of losing loved ones very young. I have a successful career working for myself that gives me financial stability and also the flexibility to take an hour off to join a support group whenever I need it.
Last October, when I sat down in the back room of a church for my support group’s meeting, the first words I heard were: “You may think you came here to try to save someone else, but really you’re here for yourself. You’ll slowly see how this is true.”
The woman kicking off the conversation was just like the rest of us who were sitting down in the circle. All there for reasons that involved details we didn’t need to talk about because showing up was enough to know someone understood where you were coming from, where you had been. And yet, despite us all carrying similar baggage, she still spoke with such conviction that I believed her.
She spoke as if the circumstances of her life hadn’t tested her right to love herself, over and over and over again. Honestly, in addition to believing her, I also envied her.
She was where I wanted to be and where I definitely wasn’t on that day. My road to self-love had proven that self-love is a process, a marathon, and never a sprint. On the day I walked into the support group I was having a bad day. I was consumed with worry for someone else and whenever I had tried to distract myself with a healthier alternative, I was split between what I had learned in therapy and the old guilt that crept up anytime I prioritized taking care of myself.
It was like the guilt triggered my anxiety which made my body feel as uncomfortable as my mind did. It wasn’t enough that I thought focusing on myself was wrong, I’d also needed to feel it deep in my bones.
Those moments would always take me back to what I learned and didn’t learn while growing up with my Latinx family. From my single mother, I learned to work endlessly to make up for the responsibilities others shied away from. From my grandmother, the matriarch of our family, I learned to serve constantly, endlessly, and to never take time for yourself in the process.
From my therapist, I’m learning that my challenge isn’t just to unlearn what my family has taught me, but to put myself in situations that would reaffirm the new lessons I was trying to replace the old ones with.
I’m learning that my challenge isn’t just to unlearn what my family has taught me, but to put myself in situations that would reaffirm the new lessons I was trying to replace the old ones with.
The support group was one of the external ways I’d chosen for just that reason. It helped ease my anxiety and gave me a way to keep depressive episodes at bay. It reaffirmed that I wasn’t alone even if no one else in my family had ever modeled self-love and self-care behaviors.
Being the first person in my family to want to cope differently with my mental health will never be easy. It’s why as a way to keep my own mental health in check the biggest lesson I’ve needed to hold onto is also the simplest one: That I need to learn to be okay showing up for me, first and foremost.
The closely held beliefs by the generations that came before me aren’t ones that I’ll be able to change and to exert my energy towards trying to will deplete the energy I have left to serve myself. The best gift I can give my family is to teach them the way they taught me—through example.