When You are a Depressed and Christian Latina
I’ve tried writing this a hundred, maybe thousand different times and a million different ways. With pen and paper, in my head, on my phone, on my laptop. Somehow I kept getting the words wrong, my thoughts wrong. None of what I was writing seemed “right”.
But then I realized that depression and suicide, as much as we’d like to believe are soft, and lovely and easily and always poetically written about; they’re not. Depression and suicide are absolutely awful and to paint them as anything else is a slap in the face of anyone who has experienced these. So screw respectability and all the poetry masquerading as truth that I have tried to write for the past two years.
Depression as defined by the National Institute of Mental Health is, “a common but serious mood disorder. It causes severe symptoms that affect how you feel, think, and handle daily activities such as sleeping, eating and working.”
April 18, 2013 I took almost an entire bottle of prescription pain killers before I went to bed in hopes I wouldn’t wake up the next morning. Somehow I managed to fall asleep, despite the pain in my stomach. I’m not sure how much time passed but I woke up suddenly with the urgent need to throw up. I ran to the bathroom hunched over the toilet (eww) and proceeded to vomit all the pills I had taken.
When I’d emptied my stomach, in the midst of all the snot and crying, I kept dry heaving. Nothing was coming up but in some part of my mind I hoped that despite not being able to kill myself all the ugly and awful I felt inside would finally be expelled and I could live in peace. In some ways, I thought of my suicide attempt as an exorcism. But I should’ve known demons aren’t so easily killed.
After I finished dry heaving, I washed my face, brushed my teeth and quietly crawled into bed. I told myself not to cry because I’d make noise and my sister and I shared a room. I told myself not to cry even though I felt just as terrible as I had before swallowing those pills. I told myself not to cry because that’s what I’d been taught not to do.
When I was about 13 or 14 I told my parents I was depressed. I love my parents. I love them and I know they love me. But when I told them I was depressed their response was hurtful and typically Latinx, “Ni tienes razon para estar deprimida. Eso solo esta en tu mente.” You have no reason to be depressed. It’s all in your head. I remember feeling so deflated, and not supported or comforted the way I wished to be. Their final response to me was, “Somos Cristianos, tenemos a Jesus, no nos deprimimos.” We’re Christian, we have Jesus. We don’t get depressed. So I did the same thing I did after taking those pills. I quietly went back to my room and told myself not to cry.
In Latinx culture, we don’t talk about mental health issues. We don’t talk about mental health issues, like depression, because there’s this belief that they do not exist, or that at least if there is something wrong it’s all in your head. The mentality behind this if you have food in your mouth, a roof over your head and clothes on your back you have no reason to be depressed. And even if you do “have a reason” to be depressed or mentally ill people with mental health issues, whatever they may be are stigmatized as being “crazy,” untrustworthy, or that “it is all in our heads.” There’s this lack of understanding and empathy that we can’t help our mental health issues. These stigmas and this mentality that ignores mental health, or mistakenly believes that the symptoms are that of some physical ailment, is such a large issue in the Latinx community because of all ethnic groups in the U.S. we have the highest rate of suicide attempts. We are the most at risk of emotional stress, and less than 10% of us with mental health illnesses actually receive the medical care we need.
In Christian culture, depression shouldn’t even be a thing really. “Jesus didn’t die on the cross for you to be sad all the time!” I used to think to myself, “I can’t be depressed, I’m a Christian.” But the thing is I am depressed and I am a Christian. So where did that leave me? Really confused and guilty. There’s this misconception in Christianity that once you accept Jesus as your one and only savior that that’s going to make life a whole lot better and easier. The reality is things are still going to be terrible sometimes but because of Jesus they’re much easier to deal with. Somehow we believe that because we are Christians, depression eludes us. When in truth, we are just as vulnerable to depression as we are to a myriad of physical illness such as the common cold. Our common response when someone shares their hardships with us is, “Let me pray for you,” or “You’ll be in my prayers,” or “Have you prayed about it?” And as Christians, that ought to be our response, we should offer our prayers. But when it comes to mental illnesses we seem to think that’s enough. Thinking on this I can’t help but think that when someone is very physically ill, for example if someone were to break their leg, they’d be told to go see a doctor for that and that the healing of their leg was something to be prayed for. The same principle should be applied to mental illness, because even though it may not be physically evident it is still real.
Today my older siblings, my dad and I spoke about depression. As the father of someone who has gone through depression, we tried explaining to my dad what depression actually is. “It’s like a dark cloud that follows you around everywhere you go,” my brother said. “It’s always in the back of your mind, and even though you know you don’t have a reason to be depressed you still can’t stop yourself from feeling the way you do. It’s not being sad, it’s beyond that. It’s more,” my sister explained.
My dad stayed quiet for a second before saying, “I think we’ve been through it before. I’m not sure but I think we’ve been through it before.” He went on to say he wanted to tell us a story and see if that fit into what we were saying about depression. “Habia una mujer en Temascal que tenia 12 hijos y no comida.” There was a woman in Temascal who had 12 children and no food to feed them. He paused, eyes glistening. For a second, I was confused until I realized my dad was talking about his experiences in Mexico and my grandmother struggling to raise and feed 12 children. “Yeah, maybe you were,” Brianda quietly said.
And I find this is where we hurt ourselves. My dad recounted this which happened years ago and still to this day hurts him. We think saying we need help, or admitting our depression compromises our strength, our poder, our resiliency. Makes us less worthy of respect and admiration.
My dad asked, “I don’t understand. What makes you feel that way?”
We talked about chemistry and how emotions aren’t just from the heart but also from the brain.
Here, my father with children who struggled with mental illness, himself struggled with understanding depression, and whether it’s actually real or not.
I admire the strength and resiliency of my culture, of our people. But too often I believe we mistake ignoring our pains, choosing to ignore what hurts us rather than healing ourselves, for strength and power. We ignore our emotional welfare for the sake of our physical (home, food, water, clothes) needs. And coming from a low income family I can understand that a lot of the times it feels as though you can only choose one.
With one college graduate, two college students, and two children starting their education, steady jobs and a having home, in many brown people’s eyes my parents have “made it.” They’ve successfully come to the United States and made a life for themselves here and watched their children succeed. The problem with this thinking is that we need to find ways to take care of our mental and emotional state as well as our physical needs.
I believe in the power of prayer, but I also believe God has given humankind healers and doctors on this earth to help us with our ailments.
I share this because my father told my siblings and I, “help me understand because I don’t.” So this is my conversation starter Pa. I share this today in hope that everyone, especially my brown and black family understand and know there is no weakness in asking for help, and there is no shame in admitting your pain is real and very much felt. I share this so that parents learn from my family and don’t make the same mistake mine made, in undercutting the depression my family and I experienced (and I am still battling). I share this so that those of you struggling with mental illness feel safe reaching out to your parents, siblings, mentors, teachers, counselor, doctor etc. Reach out.
To my brown and black family: We can still be strong and resilient even in our moments of weakness.
To my Christian brothers and sisters: Jesus wept. (John 11:35, Luke 19:41, Hebrew 5:7–8, Isaiah 53:3).
To everyone: let us work together to create support for individuals living with mental illness.
I share this so you know someone believes you, someone is listening and that we are in common struggle.
I am so grateful we are here.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Phone Number: 1–800–273–8255
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: http://afsp.org/find-support/resources/