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Learning to mask emotions and insecurities and picking up the English language were skills I mastered early in grade school. This earned me the role of family translator and set the foundation for me to become the ‘perfectly adjusted’ Mexican Americana daughter. A glance at my teenage journal, filled with dark poetry about emotions described as floods and droughts, told a different story. My parents, migrants from Mexico, couldn’t read English and were struggling with their own tribulations, so warning signs went unnoticed.

Who would think the bright kid constantly talking about college plans and career dreams could also be silently contemplating suicide?  No one.  So when I walked out in front of a car outside of my high school one desperate day and was narrowly missed by a driver with quick reflexes, no one the wiser.  

Over the years the smart girl in me turned to books for answers and began to understand how the depths of my emotions were part of something bigger. I began to understand how my chemical makeup and family history created a space where depression could not only find a home but have a place to flourish.   

Life, instead, becomes a mad dash where we’re scrambling to juggle financial uncertainties, racial discrimination, and inequities in everything tied to our very survival. Mental health, which impacts how we are able to move through life, should be of increasing concern but is instead the last to be addressed.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports the percentage of Latinx adults who receive treatment in the U.S is roughly 35%.  Cost, cultural and language barriers, accessibility issues, and fears around legal concerns are just a few of the hurdles that keep us from accessing the services we desperately need. I know because managing life with my forever companion, depression, has been a hard and long struggle.

 Several years ago, I began embracing the superwoman, chingona, and girl boss identity that creates a beautiful sense of empowerment but lacks the resources and social buffers necessary to keep us from crashing and burning day in and day out. In many ways, it also left us completely unprepared for the collective crash the pandemic brought and the unfortunate rip tide that pulled us into deeper waters of despair.

So, like many women I know, the first couple of months of the pandemic were fueled by ‘we’ve got this’ posts that slowly morphed into less optimistic revelations. Eventually, I hit the ‘I can’t continue to hustle or grind my way through this level of isolation and loss’ stage. The rising tide of feelings, the numbness, and the overwhelming sense of dread tore away at every tool in my bag, and I fell apart…again.

This time around it was different. Different because I had to juggle canceled work appointments for our business and brainstorm ways for our income to not come to a crashing halt, had aging parents to help care for from a distance, and had children that desperately craved the stability of sleepovers and playdates while the best we could do was scramble to set up video chats with friends so they could ‘watch’ movies together over miles of fiber optic wires.  

And without warning, nothing was enough to keep me afloat. Not my collection of books or podcasts; not my art and writing and deeply held spiritual practices; not my children or loving partner or our pet babies. Nothing could stop the numbness that enveloped my being. 

Nothing until the day I realized a tiny knot had settled into my youngest daughter’s hair. That sweet crown of fine brown wavy hair that she loves to add barrettes and colorful scrunchies to and that I have tenderly braided into trenzitas (braids) and combed into chongos (ponytails) as a way of weaving our indigenous and rancho ways into her existence. I’m not sure how or when it happened either, but a small and barely noticeable tangle settled in at the nape of her hair and got bigger and bigger until we could not ignore it anymore—much like my depression.

A tsunami of emotions pounded through me then as I realized my continued insistence on handling this on my own was adding unnecessary weight to the already heavy baggage my children were inheriting from me. 

The solution was twofold. 

First, she and I sat on my bed and watched movies together while I combed the tangles out. Each stroke an apology and every instant spent working through tiny knots a prayer asking for the fog to lift. Second, I hesitantly scheduled an appointment for my first-ever psychiatric evaluation and dealt with the internal deluge of words for crazy like loca, and deschavetada that came through in familial voices to describe my subsequent depression and ADHD diagnosis.

The tendency of our community to discount symptoms or to see them as flaws coupled with this country’s consistent neglect of mental health creates an environment where it’s easier to stay in the dark.  Our country has to build a safety net that addresses the factors that exacerbate life’s inability to color in-between the lines or people in this country will continue to ‘fall apart’. Conversations also have to happen in our homes that normalize mental illness and frame daily struggles in a non-disparaging way. 

And even though my life feels less chaotic right now there’s no guarantee that’s where I’ll be tomorrow.  Acknowledging this while trying to build a suitable support system is crucial for myself and the millions in the same predicament. I can see that clearly; I just wish those in charge could also understand it.

If you or someone you know is suicidal or in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You also can Text HOME to 741741 to reach a Crisis Counselor. For more information on Latinx therapists and speakers, go to https://latinxtherapy.com/

Ofelia Faz-Garza is the founder of Cascabel Group in Dallas, an organization that uses the literary and cultural arts to build community through a variety of initiatives including the Semillitas Neighborhood Library program and the con safos Community Ofrenda Tour. She is a writer, poet, mother, and daughter of Mexican migrants.