I’m not sure how old I was when I started experiencing anxiety. It might have started the first time I translated an immigration form for my parents. I didn’t know I was translating. They pointed to English words and I told them what they meant in Spanish, and I started to understand that my parents could be taken away from me at any moment. I was terrified of police cars or anything or anyone that might be connected to the government. I was 7 years old.
My cousin and I used to count the gang graffiti on the walls of our neighborhood. Another cousin saw a man die. At school, officer Gray used to come into our class and tell us don’t do gangs, and we’d all promise not to. He didn’t tell the tall girls not to bully the short girl. That would be me. “Rat,” she called me. It went on for three years. I can only guess whether any of this caused my anxiety.
I just remember sitting in class in sixth grade and my heart, suddenly, was racing in my chest. It happened a lot. If I could get myself excused to the restroom I could usually calm myself.
A therapist helped a lot, but then COVID hit
My family tried to be understanding, but they didn’t seem to understand at all. It is partly a cultural thing. Both my parents come from Mexico and have brought with them that “toughen up” attitude. Anxiety was not in their vocabulary. "Trabajo" (work), "comida" (food), "un techo sobre tu cabeza" (a roof over your head) – and no space to worry about anything else.
So I managed my racing heart and my shortness of breath. Until it turned to depression and I couldn’t manage it anymore. That happened in 2018, in the months before high school. Not long after, my father’s application for residency was denied. I was interviewed by a psychologist during that process, and when I told her that the uncertainty about losing my father or being moved to Mexico was causing me intense pain in my knees and wrists and a racing heart and hyperventilating, she told me to just relax and breathe.
That summer, I could barely get myself out of bed and hardly left the house. I lost weight and got weak. I kept feeling this strange warmth inside my chest that would then dissipate, as if life were draining out of me. I didn’t think my parents would understand, but I was desperate and told my mom what was happening to me. She seemed to take it personally. She seemed to believe that she had failed me as a mother and agreed to find me a therapist. Ironic because finding me a therapist was the opposite of failing me as a mother.
Ms. Ruby’s office was oddly inviting – a combination of disorganized adult work space and kid’s room – and Ms. Ruby was immediately disarming. It was nice to have someone listen to me and offer me tissues. She didn’t take notes like therapists do in movies. We just talked. She asked questions and I reflected. She encouraged me to keep it simple. That’s what we worked on most of the time, keeping it simple. She gave me the freedom to speak and even joke about my pain. She gave me little assignments to do between sessions.
Like use one grounding skill when I started to feel panicked. My favorite was using the five senses. She also made me promise to stop doing extra credit work in classes where I already had more than 100%. Mostly it was talking and listening – and tissues. When the weather was nice, we’d walk through a park while we talked. She wanted to have sessions with my parents but I resisted, and by the time I started to consider it, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and everything shut down.
I still met with Ms. Ruby through Zoom, but soon I was overwhelmed with anxiety and depression. Eight of us – two families – share three rooms. For me it was claustrophobia and that strange loneliness of being besieged by people who don’t understand you. I had frequent panic attacks. Heart racing, thoughts all jumbled, breaths shallow, like my lungs are filled with concrete, vision patchy. I’d try to close into myself and my tears and barely move and chase after a single thought that might calm me.
No escape from immigration system and poverty
During the lockdown, I felt what seemed like anxiety in its purest form – unattached to any thought or action or external force. It was terrifying to think my own body and mind would do that to itself. Sometimes I welcomed the distraction and annoyance of taking care of my little brother all day and making sure he was logged into his classes and stayed on task.
I started journaling every day and that helped, and after a while I adapted to the limitations of the pandemic. I survived and kept my grades up – and, yes, did all the extra credit. But I cannot say the anxiety has gone away and I’m not counting on it ever going away.
It is something I just have to live with. Like an immigration system I can only hope doesn’t take my father away from me, or the poverty I hope to escape but which we can’t collectively seem able to end.
Ashley Juarez is a senior at Middle College High School with two AA degrees from Los Angeles Southwest College.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Youth mental health crisis: Telling me to 'toughen up' doesn't work