By Dr. Ana Marrero, Assistant Director/The Intersection
I consider myself to be a fairly stable person, level-headed, and rationale. I’ve survived a lot of traumatic events in my lifetime though through it all, I always felt like there was a reason for the chaos I was experiencing: a lesson in the pain, a drive to endure, a challenge to not get too comfortable. All of these events taught me resiliency, coping skills and emotional intelligence. So imagine my surprise when I found myself in the midst of a deep depression in the middle of a global pandemic, COVID-19.
The impact of COVID hit me in March, when our office closed and we were all instructed to work remotely. Airlines were citing the cancellations of flights, states were announcing quarantine measures, and citizens were advised to not leave their homes for any reason other than to go to obtain medical care or shop for groceries. Here I was: single, living alone in Las Vegas, with my family hundreds of miles away on the east coast. I truly thought it would all blow over in a few weeks and we would return to our normal routines; this was how life worked in my experience.
At first, the transition was great. I could get up when I felt like it; and didn’t have to worry about getting dressed up for work. I could avoid unnecessary interruptions and focus on my To Do list items. My favorite snacks were an arm’s length away all day, and my pantry was stacked. I had enough toilet paper to last me the rest of the year. The days seemed to fly by. Then I hit the wall.
It was the third week, as I continued to see the numbers of infections and deaths rise, that it hit me hard. My parents are in their mid-80’s, and live in Florida—the epicenter of poor judgement, sky-rocketing COVID deaths and infections, and the hub of misinformation. I was constantly on the phone with them urging them to take precautions, avoid certain areas, reviewing cleaning protocols and giving advice on hygiene and self-care. I started wondering how I would get to them if they needed me in an emergency. Would I be able to leave Las Vegas? How would I get there? Would my travel to get to them put them in greater danger? What would I do if I lost one or both of them?
Then my mind spun out for real. What would happen to me if I got sick? Who would even know? Who would find me? What would they do with my belongings? What would happen to my body? I hadn’t made a will, and hadn’t even updated my emergency contact list at work or with my apartment complex. In my family and friends group, I have always been the strong one—the one everyone calls to solve problems and get shit done. The one who comes up with logical solutions to problems, uses strategic thinking and careful planning to make sure everything ran smoothly.
And here I was: no logical thought process, no clear thinking, and no plan. Instead I was lying in the dark under the covers, too tired to get out of bed after sleeping all night. Barely able to function, much less think straight. I was crying, like ugly-crying, at random times throughout the day. I was either really hungry, or everything made me nauseous. I was either constipated or running to the bathroom. AND perpetrating that I was okay; that I was doing fine.
So what got me through you might ask? Good question. In all frankness, it’s a daily challenge in our current new reality. The following things helped me get through that dark period, and every day I’m learning to not only listen to my body—but truly hear what it’s trying to tell me. This is what helped get me through:
- First, let yourself acknowledge that you are not okay. It took me a minute to realize that my thought process was a bit irrational. That my mood swings were not the way I usually handled myself. That my fits of crying were not ‘normal’. That is was okay to not feel okay.
- Tell somebody. I was fortunate enough to work with a group of people who were creating resources for mental health awareness, and holding virtual spaces to have open dialogue or conversations about mental health and self-care. Hearing that others were experiencing the same kinds of things I was going through made me feel better.
- I also picked up my phone and called some of my friends instead of waiting and hoping they’d call me. I made it a daily habit to call or text a friend, or my parents or my sister every day. Facetime also came into play, and it made me feel better to see familiar faces.
- I cleaned up my snack routine, opting for healthier minimally processed options, and actually cooking my own food…but when I want a Coke and an Oreo, I don’t feel bad about it!
- I started following a semi-structured schedule to my days. It helped me to feel like I was in control of some aspect of my life, and helped me feel like I was accomplishing things on a consistent basis. I found that instead of my traditional schedule of 8:00 – 5:00, I was working better and more productively from 10:00- 7:00.
- I incorporated daily meditation. I had been practicing meditation once or twice a week and found that it really helped me to feel calm and centered. Having a daily practice enhanced those feelings. Every few months Deepak Chopra offers 21 Days of Free Meditation, so I used that. I also added the Insight Timer app to my phone, which allowed me to set timers for mediation and was free! Hey!
- I started walking around my apartment complex for 15-30 minutes a day. Did I mention I live in Vegas? The heat here is serious; so if I didn’t knock it out early in the morning then I would do an hour of housework just to keep moving and get my steps in. Vacuuming, dusting, laundry…that all adds up. Seeing my house clean and organized made me feel like I had a handle on things…and if someone did find my dead body, at least they’d find me in a clean house!
- Can I get a ‘whoop-whoop’ for self-care! I found that the simple rituals of a long hot shower with my favorite body wash would make me feel better, and was a quick way to get in some aromatherapy sessions fo free! Using mud masks on my face helped control some of the blemishes that were popping up unexpectedly. Hot oil treatments for my hair compensated for the dry, brittle ends I had been ignoring…but understand that before I got to this point, I was fully embracing my Chewbacca-ness…my leg hairs were so long that when the wind blew I thought something was crawling up my leg…so returning to some kind of personal grooming was a good move for me.
- I limited my time watching the news. Instead of having the TV on all day, I just watched headline news either early in the morning, or at the end of the day. I realized that watching David Muir and Lester Holt spouting statistics about the number of infections, sharing the number of daily deaths, commenting on the increasing social and civil unrest, and recording the demoralizing actions of the POTUS were doing nothing for my emotional wellbeing.
- I started reading more books. I read a lot any way, but mainly work related stuff. During this time I embraced going back to my local library and downloading books on my I-pad. I reread some of my favorite classics, discovered some new writers and found comfort in an activity I really enjoyed. I’m still waiting for George R. R. Martin to finish that last book in GOT!
- I made a ‘To-Do’ List. I couldn’t get in to see a lawyer to start the process for a preparing a will, but I made a list of what to do with my belongings; who to call if something happened to me; and updated my emergency contacts. I organized my paperwork and official documents so that they would be easy to find; and I made sure to email copies to my family for safekeeping and peace of mind.
- I embraced my Latin-ness. In true Latin tradition, I lit a bunch of white candles. I burned sage throughout my whole house, and spread salt around my doorways. I even spritzed myself with Agua Florida. I was calling on all my ancestors!
So find something that works for you. Tell someone; talk to somebody; reach out. You’d be surprised at how many of us are feeling the same way but have no way to let others know, thinking that we don’t want to worry or burden others. You might be the little ray of light for someone in the same situation. Hope this little bit helps!
One Latina’s Perspective on Mental Health
So here we are…seven months into a non-ending pandemic, trying to keep it all together. I’ve been having a lot of conversations at work about mental health, hearing what people are doing to manage these times, and the question comes up about how to reach out to minority populations who may not have access to or knowledge of the resources that are out there. And it made me start thinking about my own family dynamic, and the conversations I had regarding mental health in my own family and my own community. My family is Puerto Rican; I was raised in the Republic of Panama.
Like many Hispanic/Latino families, we did not discuss mental health in the way we talk about it today. When I was growing up, and still to this day, when people didn’t follow the traditional and accepted social or cultural norms they were said to be ‘crazy’. This was an adjective thrown around often, casually, and to include a multitude of ‘sins’ including: being divorced, having children out of wedlock, being married more than once, marrying outside of your socio-economic class or of a different race/ethnicity, not going to church, going to church too much, living alone, living with other people that are not your family, being single, not following gender norms, or wanting ‘to be white’. Other times it was chalked up to ‘he got hit in the head’, ‘she was in a bad accident’, ‘they’re on drugs’, or some other physical cause that attributed to behavioral changes. The prescribed solutions for ‘crazy’ were always the same:
- You need to go to church
- You need Jesus
- You need to pray
- You need to light some white candles
- You need to do a sahumerio (similar to burning sage)
- You need to stop eating _________ (any non-Latin food group)
- You need to get some sleep
- Someone is doing brujeria on you, better see someone about that (usually a shaman, witchdoctor, local spiritualist, herbalist, oldest lady on the block)
- Someone cast el mal de ojo or evil eye on you, better see someone about that (see above)
- Someone has envidia and are cursing you…better see someone… ya tu sabes….
- Better go jump in the ocean and cleanse your spirit
These solutions were steeped in remedies that people had used for years, with no proven success rate—it’s just what people did, and still do in my community based on religious and cultural customs. Rarely did my people (family, friends, neighbors) attribute these things to medical issues that needed medical attention.
Today, we know and have a better understanding about potential causes and impacts of mental illness but our acceptance of these conditions still make it difficult to seek and use resources available. Studies have shown that our minority populations suffer from extreme poverty, mistrust of medical professionals and government services, discrimination in receiving adequate health care, language barriers, cultural differences that impact understanding, fear of being labeled as ‘crazy’ and what that may result in (loss of job, money, opportunities). We also know that statistically, many of our communities suffer from domestic violence, drug abuse, environmental factors that impact health, and lack of medical professionals that are from the same racial or cultural backgrounds.
This is particularly challenging in the Hispanic/Latino community because we do not get along with each other even when we make up the same general racial/ethnic group. Meaning the perceptions and stereotypes each group carries are strongly adhered to…like the idea that Cubans believe themselves to be White and do not subscribe to anything labeled as ‘Hispanic/Latino’; or that nobody trusts Dominicans; that Mexicans don’t understand any other Spanish speaking group; or that Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizenship and can’t relate to any other groups’ struggles….EVEN THOUGH ALL THESE GROUPS ARE FACING THE SAME CHALLENGES! So the idea that getting medical attention will be better accepted if a health care provider looks like me is flawed. It’s not enough to look like me, you have to be from my same background for me to even begin to have an ounce of trust in what you say.
Add to that, the many generational beliefs that still persist in adhering to the old ways of handling otherness, in whatever form they may show up. Meaning, you handle family problems within the family without bringing in anybody else to know your business. Or that seeking mental health help is for ‘rich, white people’ who can afford to ‘waste time’ thinking about their feelings. Or that you can’t rely on that medication because you don’t know what’s in it, or if we’ll be able to afford for you to keep taking it.
I don’t have an answer for what the best way to overcome some of these challenges might be. I try to read all that I can on mental health and wellness, build my knowledge and understanding on what symptoms look like for depression, anxiety, or other possible conditions. I have started having open conversations with my inner circle of people, asking simple questions like ‘How are you doing?’ Having done so, I can see a lot of patterns of behavior that lend themselves to help me better understand my family and friends. They better prepare me for when I get that call, ‘What do you think I should do?’ Sometimes, when I have suggested getting help from a mental health professional it is well-received….sometimes not so much. But in doing so, it opens up the window for my family and friends to do some self-reflection and see if there is a way to get some kind of help for what they’re going through instead of suffering through it alone.