"Only White People Get Anxiety" GUEST POST by Jessica Viada

Writer, Jessica Viada, relaxed or ready to push someone overboard? It's hard to know.

Writer, Jessica Viada, relaxed or ready to push someone overboard? It's hard to know.

This is Part I of a 2-part series from our guest writer, Jessica Viada, about the cultural stigma associated with mental illness and how those perceptions kept her from getting help for too long. We'll have Part II up next week. Make sure to check back!  

For a long time, I thought mental illness was a white people problem. Something only gringos dealt with. Growing up in Southern California, I believed depression and anxiety were byproducts of a life with too much leisure and too little suffering. A clean and comfortable life made people bored and weak. They either invented their own drama, or couldn’t hold their shit together. First-World problems, for sure.

In my family, in Honduran culture, you don’t reveal your business to strangers, which means anyone outside the immediate circle of close friends and family. Therapy is for crazy people, locos. Discussion of mental health is taboo

The first time I remember something happening in my head, I was around twelve or thirteen at home alone in my bedroom. Sprawled out on the cold tile floor studying for a test, I stood up to grab a book from my nightstand.  In the moment before that one swift motion, I was unaware of my thoughts. In the moment after, it was like some unknown barrier had failed—a levy, a lock, a barricade—as all my thoughts came rushing in so fast I couldn’t keep track of what I was thinking. One thought barely ended before being overtaken by another, faster thought.  

Normal stress thoughts unraveled and twisted with thousands of other, less rational thoughts of fear, worthlessness, loss, impending doom. I sat down on my bed, and with one part of my mind on the verge of panic, I waited for the other part of my mind to slow. I remember a feeling of not being in control of my body.  I felt ashamed.

What would happen if it didn’t stop? Would I go on like this forever? Did I somehow crack my mind?

These thoughts funneled into the race, and my heart sped to catch up. My tongue dried up and my mouth felt pasty. I lay back and looked for familiar shapes in the stucco ceiling. Dog face. Smiling moon with a little guy in its teeth. Pony. Court jester. Everything around me was still and quiet.

If anyone had walked in, it would have looked like I was taking a nap.

After a few minutes, my mind resumed its regular rhythm. I got back on the ground with my books. I pretended nothing happened. I never told anyone, even later when I realized that this wasn’t an isolated incident. It happened occasionally for years afterward. But what was there to tell? My mind broke for a few minutes sometimes? My parents would laugh at me.

Loca, I imagined them dismissing me.

My grandfather’s oldest sister had a lobotomy when she was close to forty years old.

Young Helen (far right) with her mother and sister in Honduras.

Young Helen (far right) with her mother and sister in Honduras.

My grandfather didn’t tell me until I was thirty-three. Her name was Helen and she sang all the time and taught my grandfather to dance. My grandfather’s family moved from New Orleans to Honduras in 1932, and in 1948 Helen began experiencing serious depression. A psychiatrist in Tegucigalpa who had studied in France treated her. She recovered a bit, but a short time later she was depressed again.

The psychiatrist administered electroshock therapy, which terrified Helen, but it also seemed to help for a few years. Then in 1951 Helen’s depression got so bad that she had to be hospitalized in Tegucigalpa.  She was eventually released, but the depression came back, and when it did, the doctors prescribed a lobotomy. 

After the lobotomy, Helen never lost control again, but she also had the mental faculties of a twelve-year-old.

She didn’t sing anymore.

But Helen’s life also had serious trauma. She was sixteen when her father packed the family of ten onto a banana ship headed for the coast of Honduras because he was facing financial ruin in New Orleans. Helen had to leave her boyfriend and close friends. My great-grandfather was Spanish and great-grandmother Mexican. What did they know about Hondurans? Helen was lonely living in the Honduran mountains surrounded by jungle; she missed her crescent city. A year after they got to Honduras, her father died of a massive heart attack.

Am I saying Helen’s depression was justified because of her life’s circumstances? She certainly had more to deal with than I ever did.

Tough crowd: My Mayan relatives outside Charity Hospital in 1920s New Orleans.

Tough crowd: My Mayan relatives outside Charity Hospital in 1920s New Orleans.

In my family, in Honduran culture, you don’t reveal your business to strangers, which means anyone outside the immediate circle of close friends and family.

Therapy is for crazy people, locos. Discussion of mental health is taboo.  Stick your head in the sand and pretend not to see what’s really going on.

Do whatever you do, but do it behind closed doors. In public, act right. It’s not about you.

Your behavior is a reflection of your parents and their parents and your entire extended family.  When you talk about things that shouldn’t be talked about, you’re not only shaming yourself but everyone who came before you.

To be continued! In Part II, Jessica writes about how anxiety infected all aspects of her life until she had no choice but to reach out for help, no matter how taboo. Part II up next Friday!