What would you say to combat stigma surrounding mental illness and what words of hope would you offer?
I think for people like me, and by people like me, I mean, people who are queer identifying, people who are immigrants, who are first-generation in this country, there is a lot of pressure placed on us. There’s expectations that we have to live up to because our parents made huge sacrifices for us to be here. Or even sometimes individuals made the sacrifice for themselves to be here. So we think, “We have to be successful, we have to be students, we have to go to school, we have to do all of these things.” And by pressuring ourselves to fit all of these titles and all of these molds, we put our mental health back in the burner. We tend to think that it doesn’t matter how we are feeling. And to some point we even romanticize feeling extremely stressed. But we can’t romanticize because it is serious. It’s not okay for us to work so hard that we reach a breaking point.
I came out when I was 17 years old. I was a senior in high school. At that point my parents had divorced recently, I was about to go to college, and I’m the first in my family to attend college in the U.S. I would go online to the universities websites and see tuition and I would think “yeah, right!” Before I knew about financial aid and scholarships, I would just think, “no way.” So, I had so much stress already. Then I came out, and it caused a lot of confusion in my family, a lot of chaos, and a lot of misunderstanding that turned into pain. So I felt like I couldn’t come forward with my mental health or I couldn’t address my anxiety because I felt that there was already enough trouble. I blamed myself almost for it. Our life was already hard enough, right?
And I remember my mom would always talk to me about it. My mom would say to me: “mija, la vida ya es suficientemente dificil para gente como nosotros, somos inmigrantes, yo no hablo ingles, no venimos de familia rica y aparte esto!” And by “this” she meant what she referred to as “my lifestyle choice.” Now she doesn’t think that way anymore but for her it felt like I was making my life more difficult and in some ways I internalized that. I felt that the stress, or anxiety, I was feeling was there because I thought that in some way I was choosing to feel stressed, or anxious.
And then I went to college and anxiety led me to take more poor choices about my academia. My first semester of college I went to St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. I had just come out my senior year, so it was only a few months that I was out. When I first came out it was really rocky with my mom. I had to move out of my mom’s house and I moved in with my dad whom I don’t have a very good relationship with.
So, for my first semester of college I stayed at St. Mary’s. It was a last minute decision to stay in Texas because I was actually supposed to go to North Carolina for college. I had a full ride there. But when I got right out of high school I found my first girlfriend. She was in Texas, and I always think back to that summer and my first semester of college and think of how I stayed in Texas because I had a girlfriend. And it sounds wild, to change your whole college career for a partner. But for me it was as if I had finally found a sanctuary. And I found support that I couldn’t find at home or my friends. For me, it wasn’t so much the individual but the feeling that I could be myself with someone. And feeling like I finally had an individual that provided support led my anxiety to get the best of me to thinking that that was the best decision for me. And knowing that I couldn’t go back home and ask for advice also led me to make that choice.
Not only that, when it was my first semester at St. Mary’s, I only completed half of the semester and then I dropped out. I dropped out and my parents didn’t know. They weren’t paying for my college or anything, I was on a scholarship, and I was working in retail over there in San Antonio. I remember I dropped out, and my life just consisted of hanging out with this individual and I felt that that was the only way I could be myself. And it was a relationship that ended a few months later, and of course, you’re 18, and you’re devastated for months, right? Listening to Sin Bandera, just the worst, right?! But I think back on that now, four years later and I analyze myself and I think, wow, how hard was it for me to acknowledge my mental illness, and then also not have a system of support to cope and then knowing that I couldn’t go home at that time to talk with my mom and ask her for advice about life. I think about how all of these factors led me to take those poor choices. And how those poor choices then caused more anxiety.
Also, months later after the individual and I broke up, coming to the realization that, I dropped out and you know, I had a scholarship, and I had moved out... Students like me that don’t come from wealthy backgrounds and that are first generation are not really given the opportunity to mess up. You can’t. And thinking I had messed up led my anxiety off the rails.
Mental health is something that people don’t talk about very often within the LGBT community. Having that lack of support from your family or not knowing where you can turn to affects you in many ways. And to some people this is what causes their anxiety, or their mental illness to amplify. Later, maybe two years ago, I told my mom that I had dropped out. I remember telling here how in the beginning that lack of support impacted me so much. And that I felt that I didn’t have anywhere to run and so when I found and individual that eased my anxiety a little bit, I deposited everything to that relationship.
I remember I left the Valley because I thought I would never find a place for myself in the RGV. The Valley has a reputation for being super conservative, homophobic and a transphobic place and in many ways that is true. But name a city where this isn’t true! Maybe other cities receive differences a little better but hate crimes happen everywhere. People leave the Valley for very wrong reasons, and I was one of those people. I thought the Valley didn’t have anything to offer for me. Both for my personal and professional life. Specially because I had just come out. I know a lot of young LGBT people feel that way. That they have to leave the Valley to find themselves, to find this “gay utopia” somewhere. You don’t have to do that. If you want to leave the Valley and go to another city, do it because you have ambitions to explore somewhere new, or because the career you want is still not offered in the Valley but don’t leave because you feel that you won’t have a community here. Because you do. And this is also specially important for LGBT youth who are undocumented to know who can’t leave the valley because of their immigration status.
In recent years the LGBT community has grown so much. Something very special about the LGBT community in the Valley is that in contrast to other cities, in the valley we’re like a family. We support each other when someone doesn’t have enough. Enough energy, enough resources. I would hope that young LGBT people don’t feel like they have to run away from their culture, from their roots here in the valley to find a sanctuary.
A lot of young LGBT people that I’ve talked with in the Valley also fight mental illnesses. Anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder. And there’s this thinking that if we leave home, it’ll get better. Sometimes we don’t know right away that we have a mental illness. We think that it’s because we’re in a homophobic place that we are feeling a certain way but if we leave, that everything will suddenly be perfect. And it doesn’t work that way. You can go ANYWHERE in the world, and trust me, you are still going to be a ball of anxiety! It’s hard to have the will to find that community in the valley because after living through so much rejection and homophobia, sometimes people just want out. But when it comes to healing and when it comes to being in touch with your roots, and your identity, that’s something that another place is not going to give you.
I hope that one day there will be no more LBGT youth leaving the Valley because of homophobia and transphobia and that more and more we build a place where LGBT youth feel that they can stay here and be themselves. That if they leave it’s for completely different reasons that it’s not because they feel that they can’t be themselves at home.
Dani Marrero Hi is an LGBTQ community organizer in the Rio Grande Valley. She has also organized on immigration issues and is a proud Mexican immigrant.