Valentina, Age: 27
How would you describe your journey with mental health?
I’d say my journey is definitely still going. It started when I was younger, like teenage years. A lot of it had to do with my upbringing and how I saw myself, or how I thought other people saw me. Around 13 or 14, I was really focused on body image, like how slim I was. To me, being slim meant being beautiful and healthy and happy.
Before I talked to anyone about it, I started keeping a food log. I was always so worried about what I was eating. There were moments when I would be in a restaurant, when everyone was ordering food. I’d get in my head, my heart would start racing. I felt uncomfortable and lonely and couldn’t express myself. I’d have to leave to go to the bathroom or outside. I was trapped in a cycle (starving, bingeing, throwing up), and it became second nature. Not a single person knew about it.
One day, I was driving and started crying out of nowhere. It felt so scary I called my boyfriend wondering if I should go to the ER. I googled things like, “feeling like your mind is fogged up in a room full of people, you’re alone, you can’t breathe.” I saw that symptoms of panic attacks can actually be confused with heart attacks. Like hyperventilating, feeling like your heart is racing, numb hands... At the moment, it felt like it came out of nowhere. But looking back, I did have a lot going on.
Where did you get your information about mental health?
It wasn’t until I was stuck in a very toxic circle that I googled some of the things I was doing and thinking about. It led to resources about eating disorders, OCD, anxiety. I kept reading and researching to see what applied to me and didn’t.
I also learned a lot in nursing school during my psychiatric rotation. I was like “oh wow, this is me,” and “yup, this is me as well.”
How did challenges with mental health affect your school?
Throughout high school, I just kinda felt like I didn’t really belong in any sort of group. I think there was always this struggle of being an immigrant child and having been married so young. I didn’t feel like I belonged – was I too Colombian? Too American? Not enough of both? I had a lot of identity issues. I will say that it’s normal to party when you’re young, but I was always rebellious, doing the opposite of what I was told.
How about your work?
Now, I’m a nurse. I’ve always felt like I’m here to help people. It makes me feel worthy and like I’m making a difference. But it’s also a really stressful job – it’s made me realize I have to take care of myself before I can take care of other people. I work with people with dementia who need a lot of patience, empathy, and endless understanding. It can really drain you during your 8 hour work day. It has led to a lot of reflecting – if I’m having a panic attack, how can I care for myself in the moment?
What do you find the most supportive? What's been helpful for you?
About two years ago, I opened up to my brother. He was surprised and had no idea that I felt the way I did. We had a very good conversation about my family dynamics and how they affected me. It felt good just to say it out loud, because it felt like the message in my family a lot of the time had been like “suck it up”.
I also talk to my boyfriend a lot about how I’m feeling. And I have a close friend who also has severe anxiety. It wasn’t until I met her that I felt 100% comfortable talking about it. She shared about her anxiety and we realized her symptoms were like the exact same as mine. Whenever I’d go through something she’d say, “If you’re having a bad day or can’t breathe just text me. Maybe I can help you get through it.” I was pretty down before I met her.
At work, I’ll tell my coworkers, “I’m having a really tough day, so if I need to step out, that’s why.” If I voice it at the beginning of my day my actions can’t be misinterpreted.
Do you think social media has changed people’s attitudes towards mental health?
It used to feel like no one was talking about mental health. Now, social media has really opened up the conversation. I’m really big on music, especially hip hop. In 2015, one of my favorite artists, Kid Cudi, publicly discussed his decision to go to rehab for suicidal ideation. Millions of people in the world know him, and yet he was crystal clear about what he was going through. Sometimes I think social media’s impact on young people can be bigger than family’s impact. It helps to know that even though someone’s famous, they’re still human.
What’s your experience with mental health like now?
Now, I can understand what I’m feeling. I can give myself a pass when I have a lot of anxiety and my heart is racing.
At least I know what’s happening and I can say “you know what, Val, give yourself a break and take care of yourself. Tomorrow is a new day.” Now I don’t feel like, “there’s no way out of this”.
It’s definitely still challenging and lonely at times. And it’ll definitely be a journey for the rest of my life. I have days where I wish I would disappear and the next day I’m ready to conquer the world.