Trigger Warning: This post mentions sexual assault, panic attacks, and suicidal ideation.
Growing up in a strict religious Puerto Rican family from the Bronx, I never learned about mental health. Needless to say, I had no one to talk to when I experienced depression and anxiety in my early teens. After being sexually abused by someone I trusted, I was plagued with guilt. I genuinely believed it was my fault. Eventually, I started to smoke marijuana to numb the pain...but nothing lifted the hurt I carried.
When my family learned of the abuse, no one sat me down and addressed it. It was like it never happened. I was left to sort through my feelings alone. So I suppressed my feelings and pretended that I was happy. The only person who knew my genuine feelings was a close friend. She became my one trusted outlet and went with me to my first therapy session when I was 14.
I'm so grateful she went with me because it was life changing. My therapist helped me understand the abuse wasn't my fault. I learned to view the world differently and to never dim my light. Instead, she encouraged me to share my truth and light with the world. That positive experience made me feel safe enough to try counseling again later in life.
But even with an amazing therapist, my life wasn't magically fixed. I still didn't feel "right." My heart would feel like it was going to burst, rendering me unable to catch my breath. Eventually, I lost interest in my studies and dropped out of school at 15. I didn't care about anything, not school, my family, or my future. I didn't have anything or anyone to give me hope...until the birth of my daughter.
When I held her in my arms, I vowed to give her the love, support, and hope that my family didn't give me. I wanted to show her what it meant to be an independent and self reliant woman. I didn't want her to feel helpless like I once did. So I made the decision to enroll in school and work hard to provide my daughter with everything she needed.
But last December my anxiety was out of control and I knew something wasn't right. I gained weight, experienced hair loss and severe acne. My body sent clear messages that I needed to slow down but I didn't listen. I was too busy trying to balance work, classes, an internship, and family time. I wanted to keep my sense of happiness... and acknowledging my pain meant recognizing that something was wrong.
With all the successes of my life, I should have felt happy... right?
But I wasn't. While I had a supportive partner and amazing kids, I was having up to 5 anxiety attacks a day. I lost count of how many times I was overcome by grief and streams of tears. Once again, I felt hopeless... just like I did as a teenager. And again, I tried to bury my feelings and pretend that I was okay.
While I was I busy pretending to be okay, my daughter was drowning emotionally. Last year, she went to school and openly shared that she wanted to die. I was wrecked with guilt. I had failed to show her that she could be strong AND cry, have bad days, and struggle. I failed to be transparent with the one person I carried and nurtured in my womb.
But I knew what that pain felt like...
and unlike my family, I was going to do everything in my power to get her the support she needed.
I managed to get her an awesome therapist she adores. As her parent, the best thing I can do is to be open and honest with her… but more importantly, with myself. I learned that recognizing my feelings and limits doesn’t make me weak or a failure. My daughter's ability to name her feelings gave me the wake up call I needed. She had the courage to verbalize her pain instead of burying it. That level of fearlessness pushed me to confront my own trauma and unhealthy coping skills.
As a result, I'm currently searching for a therapist and although it's a challenging process... I deserve this. I deserve to have a space to not have it all together. It's a reminder that I have the right to take care of myself and say, "no," without feeling guilty. I deserve that kind of freedom.
So here I am being unapologetically me…growing and evolving through it all.
Sheina Sanchez is a New York native working to share her mental health story and encourage others to stand in their truth. She has dedicated her career to advocating for others in the social work field and takes great pride in being ally to marginalized communities.