Since little, we had been dealing with the stress and pressure of having to live with someone who suffers from schizophrenia, without knowing it.
By FANNY ABURTO
EL NUEVO SOL
It felt like the worst days of our lives. At 19, I stood inside the bedroom anxious, scared and worried with uncontrollable tears holding my 2-month old sister Galilea while my mother screamed and banged the door. Minutes later the cops arrived and after seeing the scratches and blood on my father’s chest, handcuffed my mother. While I was still holding my baby sister she begged to kiss her goodbye and that was the last time we saw my mother.
Erika my sister was 16 and my little brother Leo 7. They returned home that day from school only to find out our mother was gone.
“Every day was scary to leave home because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Erika, “but I prepared myself mentally, I didn’t break down, I kept it cool and it wasn’t because I didn’t feel anything but because I couldn’t break down, there was a baby to be taken care of.”
“It was stressful and it was hard but we didn’t have time to think, to sit and feel.” she added.
This had been the tipping point of my mother’s illness. She suffered from schizophrenia and two months after giving birth to my sister Galilea, a week after new year she had a psychotic episode.
“After that all hell broke loose, that was the worst I’ve ever seen my mom it was the worst episode.” said Erika. “She started not sleeping, and she was waking the baby up and not letting her sleep, she thought someone was watching her and would do rituals, she wouldn’t eat, she was a bit aggressive, and would cry suddenly. Man, she was pretty bad.”
About three days later of trying to investigate where exactly my mother was detained, we found out she had been deported. My mentally ill mother who had just given birth was deported and left stranded in Tijuana.
We had received the new year with a lot of uncertainty and a whole lot of responsibilities.
After our mother’s deportation we had no choice but to persevere and continue to live without our mother who was now in Mexico. Till today, she remains in Mexico and although Erika, Leo, Gali and I don’t get to see her physically, we speak to her often
Erika applied to UCLA and was admitted. I remember taking her to her dorm and walking with her every step of her new journey. She explains she decided to dorm there and be away from home to try to renew and find herself.
Only there she found out that she had been neglecting every part of her. For years she had been constraining emotions.
“I applied to the school of psychology with that hope and that dream to being able to help people out, the same way I wanted my mom to had been helped out.” Erika said. “I honestly thought it would get so much better. I thought in that instant when I stepped on campus my life was going to change forever, but it was a daunting experience to know that it didn’t get better.”
Our mother’s illness wasn’t something we were unaware of, she had been mentally unstable ever since my sister and I could remember and it only got worst over the years.
My sister explains it as subtle increments of delusions and random acts. Since little, we had been dealing with the stress and pressure of having to live with someone who suffers from schizophrenia, without knowing it.
Later I learned this is not uncommon among Latino families. A 2001 report by the Surgeon General estimates that only about 20 percent of Latinos speak to a doctor about their mental-health concerns, and only 10 percent contact a mental health specialist.
Psychology graduate student and EOP counselor Abraham Ambriz recently gave a presentation to a group of students regarding mental health at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). He remembers his own struggle of seeking mental health. Coming from a Latino family he explains that it became much difficult.
Ambriz says he never received support from his mother or family to seek mental help instead they told him he would just get over it and was encouraged by his uncles to drink.
“Many Latino’s don’t believe in this, it’s still kind of taboo,” he said.
For my sister, it got really difficult when my mother falsely accused my father of sexually abusing Erika. At that point we knew something was definitely wrong we couldn’t comprehend those troubling thoughts would be going through her head. Over and over Erika reassured my mother that it was not true.
I trusted my sister’s word we were really close and I knew my father would never do such a thing. Our mother constantly harassed her and it became a constant battle.
“She pressured me a lot, she continued to harass me into saying something that wasn’t true,” said Erika.
As a 9-year old, my sister couldn’t understand our mother’s attitude, none of us did. Months later my mother took her to the hospital and forced her to take a medical exam to verify that she had not been sexually abused.
“I wasn’t ready to be taken to the clinic, it was exhausting to be in that situation,” said Erika.
My sister was right all along and the results only confirmed that.
Years later, tired of constant conflicts with my mother, my father left the house and we stayed with my mother. Things got rough one day and it got physical. After much back and forth arguments my mother struck Erika in the face.
It was enough.
We called our father and told him we couldn’t do it anymore. Although my father understood that my mother needed psychological help he always had doubt. He blamed her behavior to her new religion and attributed her actions to her personality. My mother had always been opinionated and loud, but this was different.
That same night, child services came knocking on our door and everything changed since that point.
Erika was 13 when she had to testify against my mother in the children’s court. She describes it as a numbing kind of pain, that pain that transcends and becomes too much to cope with, exhausting. She sat in a courtroom, looking directly into my mother’s eyes and testified all the afflictions she had caused her.
“I feel like I was betraying her, like I was a bad daughter because, at that point there was no doubt something was wrong with her and she couldn’t control things,” said Erika. “I felt shitty to go up there and talk about her in that way and I couldn’t even say all the good things she had done for us and all the other ways she was a good mom. All I did was talk about how she hurt us. It was hard to do because that wasn’t all it. Things were not black and white there was a lot of grey areas. It was hard to look her in the eyes and pretty much say she’s dangerous to me and I don’t want to live with her. That’s when the judge ordered for her to get a psychiatric evaluation.”
She looks at me with a pensive look and adds.
“It felt slow motion with everything. I felt restless “
The demons from Erika’s childhood followed her to college life.
Ambriz explains that many Latino students don’t seek psychological help because they think they don’t need it and they will get better on their own. He adds that students decide to self-medicate
Another reason he finds that students don’t seek help is because of family ramification.
It was away from home that Erika realized she needed help. Not knowing how or where to get the right help, she began to cure her pain with alcohol.
“I started drinking a lot, I felt I had no control over, my life.” said Erika. “Emotionally I was devastated. I had neglected all my needs I really didn’t value myself and had a hard time loving myself.”
Home responsibilities, the stress of assignments, applying to college and dealing with our mother’s deportation and illness were too much to bear with.
When our mother was deported Erika was in her senior year. On top of being a magnet student in the police academy, she challenged herself and took AP courses and was involved in other extracurricular activities in order to be accepted to her dream university.
At school she was a student but when she got home she became a mother to our little sister. She watched her, bathed her, changed her, fed her and at night relentlessly studied for hours.
Academically she was excelling but mentally she was completely broken. It was during her first year at UCLA that she decided to seek psychological help and soon joined the group Comfort in The Chaos.
“That’s when I realized that I wasn’t alone,” said Erika.” I found students who experienced what I had in a different way. With others it’s so hard to explain what schizophrenia is, but when we talked to one another we understood the pain”
Everyone goes through their own chaos. For my sister it was years of bottling up emotions of dealing with our sick mother, for some their chaos is different, but needs the same care. Many universities have developed programs to help those who are in need of counseling and psychological help.
Our father never truly believed my mother was sick and never spoke to us about getting psychological help as a family. I can’t completely blame him, the lack of resources as being undocumented are very limited. Also the stigma of labeling my mother as being “loca” or crazy was something my father couldn’t comprehend. In addition, coming from a Mexican household, he believed it was just something we had to get through on our own therefore Erika and none of us received help.
A research article by Roberto G. Gonzales Carola Suárez-Orozco, and Maria Cecilia Dedios- Sanguineti, “No Place to Belong: Contextualizing Concepts of Mental Health Among Undocumented Immigrant Youth in the United States,” shows that some of the factors that negatively affect the mental health of immigrant youths, including low wage jobs, lack of resources and fear. In addition, fear of deportation prohibits accessing health services for themselves or their children.
Other reasons to consider on why Latinos do not seek mental health, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), involve a lack of information, misunderstanding, language barriers, lack of insurance, faith and spirituality.
“It makes it way more challenging to treat somebody when there’s all these barriers because of not having documentation,” said Erika. I think it plays a role before and might even be a reason her health got worse because being undocumented and being under financial stress and having that experience is traumatic, crossing the border seeing your kids starve. I don’t think that the identity of being undocumented played the biggest a role when she was being deported but it was throughout her life.”
Having our parents get the help they need is just as important as us finding help for our own well-being.
Not getting the proper help has implications for college success. Ambriz explains that it impacts retention rates and increases academic probation numbers. In contrast, he explains that those students who do receive support graduate, have less stress and resolve their mental health issues.
Many colleges now offer psychological help to students.
The University Students Union here at CSUN offered this semester an event with endless booths with information on how and where students can receive help. One of them was The Blues Project a suicide/depression prevention program with peer educators such as Benjamin Garcia.
They go to different classes as well as other campus groups and organizations giving presentation letting themselves known and what they offer.
Garcia, a Political Science major student, has about a year in the program and says he joined for himself and because mental health is something that affects everyone. Peer educators like Garcia help guide other students through the process of signing up to receive help through CSUN’s counseling and psychological services. Students who sign up are eligible to receive free and confidential psychological sessions.
Erika has also become involved in trying to make a difference in people’s lives. She is a life coach in the Guidance, Resilience, Integrity, and Transformation program (GRIT) at UCLA. She speaks to students on academics as well as personal matters and guides them.
“I am happy that I’m able to help people who want help,” said Erika. “I do it because other people hear my story and I could be there for someone.”
Now more than ever there has been an awakening about what mental health really is. The truth is that many campuses offer mental health services for students. Ambriz as well as my sister explained that it takes effort and willingness to seek for help.
Ambriz explains that he had the three worst weeks of his life when he began to get constant panic attacks. It was in that moment when he decided to get help. He was diagnosed with anxiety disorder and began to take medication and his life changed.
“In order to be in our profession you have to help yourself to help others,” said Ambriz.
Above everything, Ambriz reminded everyone that the Latino community is one of the most resistant and resilience group of people he knows.
“No one else can do it for yourself, but you,” said Erika. “You’re a big piece of the puzzle. Take control of your life.”