MACHISMO: A Personal Struggle With Mental Illness
I was five years old the first time I ever encountered the signs of something “being off.”
I was seated in the passenger seat of my mother’s sedan, freshly parked opposite of a concrete bridge we had passed many times before. My mom, with her tendency to misread directions, had always put us in these kind of situations on our morning drives: car stationed in a random cross-street, both of us in the vehicle mutually confused as to where the fuck we were.
Looking at her face that morning, though, I could tell this was different.
Rather than seeing her eyes wander to the street signs as they always did before, I watched them instead immediately shut and become guarded by gripped palms, all before slamming her face against the steering wheel. She was crying — so much so, that the only discernible sounds I could gather were brief attempts at my name before each sob. I listened, waiting for some kind of command.
In those frozen moments, I questioned only the bareness of what was happening: I wondered why the car wasn’t home yet; I wondered what errand could’ve possibly caused this much distress; I wondered what, maybe instead, I had done. At the time, my mind only translated her running tears as a phased tantrum, and for a child who was virgin to life experience, the more she tried to gather her words, the more confused I became behind that safety belt.
And then, after ten minutes of watching, she finally paused and made her command clear:
“You will be the man of the house after this.”
On that early morning, I saw my mother leave the vehicle with the keys in the ignition and walk towards that familiar bridge with terrifying confidence. Her footsteps, almost controlled by the metronome of the ignition chime, only grew further. The more distant her steps, the more I realized what her words had meant.
In her mind, I can only assume, her fate was met with that pale pedestal, and with despondency calling out to her, she finally answered by standing against the wind. Still, watching and seated with her name lumped in my throat, I found myself like a theater patron in a horror film, unable to deter the course across that windshield. I was afraid to even move or yell.
And then, she made her decision. With all fortune that day, it was moving both feet back.
Mutually dazed and unable to speak, I sat as she came back to the car, turned the ignition and repeated another round of tears before driving home. The whole car ride back I remembered being silent and feeling an overwhelmingly uneasy sense of luck. All I could think about was my mother backing out of the decision. What I’ve learned since is that the decision has yet to ever back out of me.
What followed shortly were many trips to therapists and psychiatrists, all who came to a similar conclusion: my mother had a mental illness, specifically what they referred to as “manic depression” — or bipolar disorder, as it is known now. With the confirmed diagnosis, we suddenly felt a sense of clarity in her episode, yet also understood the reality that it was alive and breathing, and as such, only dormant. It was both settling and crushing all at once.
As time went on and similar scenarios took hold, I quickly learned the role this new disease would have in our lives. This meant respecting the delicacies of a loved one simply going through things I couldn’t make sense of, and most importantly, understanding it’s patterns.
For me, that meant three months of medication, one week of her realizing “she doesn’t need it anymore,” and then a sudden uncompromising fit of devastation — and repeat.
On the brunt end of it, it meant having to separate myself from the person my mother was pelting words at, especially when her fits made me the primary target. Learning to “not take it personal” became key. As for the moments of recuperation, it meant simply offering unconditional love when she had fully dissolved into tears and regret, especially in the form of a an open ear and warm embrace. No unsolicited offers of advice, no calls to action, not even a dismissive “it’ll be okay.” I learned, then, that sometimes just being there for someone — and most importantly listening — was good enough.
And then, one day, I found myself in the opposing end.
I first noticed that feeling of “being off” during the onset of puberty, of course, like many others did. For a time that is universally accepted as the most awkward phase of existence — a time where hormones metamorphosize joyful children into hate-mongering acne-breeders — it only seemed natural to develop that sense of “teenage angst.” Middle school may do that to you.
It’s beginning signs mostly came in the form of unexplainable isolation. Group activities I once enjoyed began feeling off-putting, and surrounding myself with friends no longer felt like a remedy, but instead a grievance and waste of time. My focus on school work and life at home only followed suit.
This, from what I’ve gathered, was less a product of boredom or disinterest than it was a feeling of implacable disconnect. At that point, nothing felt like home anymore — and not in the “carelessly wandering the world” kind of way, but in the “I can’t locate shelter or safety and I am fucking terrified” manner. It was a distinctive version of loneliness, one that made me both angry at the world, and more so, angry at myself for even feeling.
That self-denial eventually proved itself devastating. Like heads of the Hydra from Roman mythology, the struggle I felt had now sprouted itself through many conditions, one particularly through the form of severe self-consciousness. Convinced my body was the problem to my emotional distress, I remember looking in the mirror those days and — recalling the disgust my mother had placed on heavier frames — seeing sin in my chubbiness and round cheeks. Unable to understand my internalized anger, I had apparently manifested the pain and found a physical culprit I could blame in the mirror. In a way, it allowed me to justify the unexplained hatred I felt at my own reflection. Frustrated tears in the bathroom became common back then.
Still, accepting the obvious was inconceivable.
My bouts of frenetic frustration were left unexamined, and like myself at five years old behind that safety belt, I felt a choked up confusion as I watched my deterioration move forward. And yet even then, asking for help was simply unacceptable. Body issues, loneliness and despair were traits I found in my mother, not myself. These were traits I had diligently worked against week-by-week to repair and console. These were traits that were, as I thought, beneath me. My culture had a word for this relentless aversion to vulnerability: “machismo.”
What followed the next few years was a cycle of intertwined self-medication through the form of self-harm. Drugs became a primary outlet, specifically the ones that almost completely diminished my eating habits. Coricidin, dextromethorphan capsules, oxycodone — whatever worked to numb the senses and decay my body into a lifeless heap worked for me. If I looked thinner, I felt better, but if I felt nothing, well, that was the best.
This continued throughout most of High school. By my junior year, I had lost 60 pounds and was regularly experimenting with different forms of prescription medicine. Malnourishment and snorting crushed up pills on park benches became a norm, and encountering the physical side-effects, like flash blindness or ulcers, only came with the territory if it meant a blank mind. In this hazy state of being, my personal relationships and sustainable health had almost completely collapsed. Unlike my mother, I was never brave enough to test my luck with a bridge, so indirectly killing myself seemed to fare better.
Then, after years of torturing myself in the same brooding manners, I simply just found myself tired.
Tired of drugs, tired of physical outbursts, tired of pushing people away. With my life shadowed by the depths of what I perceived as rock bottom, I felt the only choice I had was to either give in or give up. Luckily, I was too panzy to ever do anything overtly calamitous, and even more fortunately, I had a few right people on my side willing to listen and embrace me in the way I had learned before. These two features were instrumental in building the courage to finally admit the words: “I need help,” and actually seeking it.
So, as I write this years (and many doctor visits) later, I think about the question, when did the recovery happen?
I’ve asked myself this countless times while writing this piece, and what I’ve realized is that, well to be completely frank, it still fully hasn’t. Better yet, it probably never will. In an article by writer John Folk-Williams describing his own bouts with depression, Folk-Williams begins by remarking a definitive truth, “A recovery story is a messy thing. It has dozens of beginnings and no final ending.”
Now, this is where I wish life was like a movie. I wish I could write about a moment where somehow, suddenly, I snapped out of it and became cured in Act III. Maybe even, perhaps, sprinkle a happy ending that divulges in me explaining the secrets to coming out of those funks and leading a life free of a debilitating psyche. The truth is, it never really worked out like that.
On growing from that period of my life, I learned many things: how to cope better, how to express myself better and how to be myself better. These have all been momentous for the care of my self-esteem and state of health. In a way, I learned how to properly be human again. What I didn’t learn, though, was “the secret.”
On nights where the moon hangs too low, I can sometimes feel that same aching pain of distinct loneliness. On days where I may be surrounded by friends, I sometimes remember that even those I love can still hold the foreign obscurity of passing strangers. As for the mirror? We have our good days and bad days. This process goes a day at a time, and those days are still writing themselves. A large part of recovery, for me though, has been in realizing that that this is okay — specifically, it’s okay to simply just feel.
And so, I write this with the hopes that maybe someone going through the same ordeal can find a bit of peace in knowing that their illness isn’t for shame. If my experiences and those of millions of others prove anything, it’s that you are truly not alone, even when it feels like that is anything but true. Do not be afraid to take look within. Do not be afraid to speak out. Do not be afraid to simply be kind to yourself.
Above all, more than anything, know that you are worth the effort.