Three years ago, I spent the beginning of my summer jobless and pretending that alcohol wasn’t a problem for me—and the latter half of the summer in rehab. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but my family stood by me and through it all.
But even though my parents supported me through recovery, and despite their unending love, they’re still not the people I can run to when I need to talk about my alcohol issues and my journey to sobriety. It’s too difficult to open up to my family about the mental health issues that drove me to self-medicate in the first place.
My family is Latino. And in our community, we don’t talk about psychological health.
Growing up, I often heard jokes about distant family members or friends who had gone through depression or other mental health issues. Those people were different—constantly referred to as “la loca,” or “the crazy one.” In our community, psychological issues were equated to weakness—and admitting to that weakness meant you could be placed into that crazy camp with the rest of them. It was a shameful thing to admit that you were struggling.
My family was strong and proud. We had to keep our problems to ourselves. I came to learn we kept quiet.
Instead, we focused on hard work. My immigrant parents worked two jobs each to put a roof over our heads, while my younger brother and I were tasked with getting high grades and going to a good school. And I didn’t want to disappoint my parents, so I did what was asked of me. I received mostly As in my rigorous high school program, went to a top university, graduated with honors, and went straight into the workforce. I never stopped to pause or think about how all of this hard work was affecting my mental health.
My family was strong and proud. We had to keep our problems to ourselves.
Finally, the stress began to catch up with me, and as I entered the job market at the start of the Great Recession, I started to drink. And why would I think twice about it? Alcohol had never really been a big deal before. My parents, having both grown up drinking from a young age, let me have a drink here and there when I was younger. And because it was an afterthought to them, my attitude followed suit.
As my career grew, my alcohol habit did, too. With every new job and new responsibility came new anxieties and new cocktails. My self-medicating seemed harmless. Like many twenty-somethings living in a big city, I went out for happy hours with coworkers, grabbed mimosa-fueled brunches with girlfriends on the weekends, and drank many-a-glass of wine on first dates. When, at 28, I landed what I thought was my dream job, my drinking had been on a steady uptick. It was still manageable, but, by then, an almost-daily activity. And the dream job quickly made things worse.
I loved the work, my boss, and the company, but I felt the influence of my family’s expectations creep in as I pressured myself to achieve and over-achieve. I wanted to succeed so badly, to make my parents proud. I worked way too hard. I often went out drinking after work, then came home to finish more work. I also worked most weekends, and my stress levels quickly climbed. It wasn’t long until I was completely overwhelmed, buried beneath my own expectations. The only thing that seemed to help was the occasional weekend blackout.
I knew my drinking had become a serious problem, but I wasn’t ready to admit it yet. I knew I had so much to deal with—stress, anxiety, depression. Mental health. And I was cornered inside myself with no one to talk to: My friends might reject me, and my parents would just tell me to keep working hard. After all, isn’t that what they did when they first came from Cuba to America all those years ago? So, I just kept going.
Yet, when I lost my job eight months later, my parents hadn’t known about my drinking or why I’d gotten let go. But it all became obvious after a visit home ended in a few too many drunk nights. When I insisted I was fine and went back to a new job, only to lose it again a few days later, they knew something was really wrong. My mom flew from Florida to my home in New York to help me—into the rehab where I first realized I had severe anxiety.
Lucky enough, the Latina therapist I found through rehab helped me understand not only what I was going through, but what I’d been through, too. She allowed me to recognize the signs of anxiety and how they’d been present in my life since I was a young teen. And with her guidance, I began to understand why I couldn’t have seen them before. She gently walked me through the difficulties I had as a young adult and why it had been so difficult for me to open up about my mental health to anyone. Especially to my parents.
I still see those early days as a revelation. I connected the dots among my childhood, my immigrant parents who never wanted to talk about mental health, my anxiety in later life and in my career, and how it all manifested into self-medicating with alcohol. And, slowly, I started to heal.
Still, despite my three years in successful recovery, it’s been difficult to continue the conversation about recovery and mental health with my parents. I know that they want the best for me, but they don’t understand my anxiety or depression. They don’t understand the need for medication or why I still talk to my therapist once a week. “You’re fixed,” they tell me whenever the subject comes up. I have to explain to them once more that recovery is a journey and mental health is not something that can ever truly just be “fixed.”
“You’re fixed,” they tell me whenever the subject comes up.
One of the things that makes it really difficult is that there aren’t any national groups or further resources for Latinx people in recovery. I’ve seen various communities that have Spanish-speaking addiction support groups, but nothing beyond that. The most we have, really, is a few web pages on government websites about Latinx mental health or substance abuse (such as the Office of Minority Health, the National Resource Center for Hispanic Mental Health, the National Alliance of Mental Health, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration). But it’s too little information without enough of a base of support. It doesn’t help me to read data and reports about Hispanic/Latinos on the SAMHSA website. I wish there were a national group of Latinx people in recovery where I could go to for support.
Being a Latina in recovery has presented challenges I never imagined I’d face, but I keep going. Although my parents still don’t know how to talk to me about mental health, I keep trying because it’s important for them—and Latinos everywhere—to have these conversations. Maybe I’m naïve to think that one person can change things, but continuing to ignore mental health and recovery in Latino communities certainly won’t create change. And now that I see the difference a conversation can make, I know I have to try.