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My Life, My Family
My four-person family is protective, we guard each other, track one another's steps. We yell at each other, we are fiercely passionate. We are fiercely stubborn. My extended family isn’t close; we inhabit all corners of the earth. The four of us; my mama, sister, and dad take up the corners of our brownstone.
The color green looks great on my mama, it compliments her red hair and white-toothed smile. My mama looks perfect and put together. She’s poised and confident, she doesn’t take most people's s**t. I wanted to be like her so bad growing up and I felt like I was disappointing, not on the level of put together she wanted me to be. I was at this stage, a mess of cracked teeth and bruised knees.
My best friend would come over and we’d brush and braid my mama’s hair. We’d make thousands of little braids of different small sizes, tying them up into rainbow-colored elastics. We’d make her keep the braids in to remind her of our accomplishments and patience. I still want her approval for everything.
My favorite thing that my mom would make for me has always been mac and cheese. But not like Annie's box mac, more like slow-cooked, salty, panko-crusted, birthday mac and cheese. She listens to Joni Mitchell when she cooks so I learned to sing songs from Ladies of the Canyon and play River on piano.
My dad didn’t always love Joni Mitchell. He would take my sister and me to the beach on certain Tuesdays in July when there was parking in the Rockaways near 148th street. He’d play The Cult in the car.
We would get out of the red Toyota and spray ourselves down with the thick, white, sunscreen my mom would always pack for us. Food at the beach, of course, is a necessity to get the taste of saltwater and sand out of your mouth. I’ve always loved cheese. Melted cheese, egg and cheese sandwiches, Babybels. My dad knew this and would bring cheddar bunnies to the beach. He would feed me through my missing teeth, comparing them to mailboxes. The cheddar bunnies would get sandy but I loved the attention I was getting from him. I would compare myself to my sister, how I’d lost four teeth and she hadn't lost any yet. Little things to make me feel confident and older because I needed affirmation that I was properly fulfilling my role.
My sister is the more sporty one out of the two of us. We’d go to the beach and she would play soccer with my dad and I would lay on a towel reading Judy Blume. My family would try to get me to get up and play, but I couldn’t do anything without comparing myself to them. I started to perceive myself as inactive and lazy. I started zoning out to avoid the feeling of being swallowed by the suffocation of judgment.
My sister and I would always want to listen to Taylor Swift on the 40-minute drive back to Brooklyn from Queens and my dad would sing over her “weak voice.” I sometimes wondered if he had really wanted to have girls, was I good enough?
My dad would always stop at the butcher in Bay Ridge on the way home to get butter steak and spicy potato salad. He’d leave my sister and me in the car. At those times, I knew I had to protect her, to be a good older sister. The daughter my parents wanted. Every time a stranger would walk by, I’d make her duck under the leather seat. My mama began recognizing this behavior and other repetitive ones as early manifestations of OCD and anxiety.
This anxiety only grew bigger with age, I started feeling not good enough for my family so I’d hide out in my room. Not good enough for my friends, so I’d overcompensate. I didn’t allow myself to be vulnerable with people. Vulnerability is weakness. I would cradle myself between pillows, denying that I needed medication or help of any kind. This state, I believed, is what I deserved as a result of burdening those I loved. My mama, normally able to apprehend how I felt, would always tell me that there’s nothing I could do that would make her love me any less or any more than she did right then and there. These words made me feel at rest until the psychiatrists insisted “no more reassurance.” I felt less safe from myself and my behavior.
I knew my mental health, my loops, the scratches on my arms; put stress on my family. I could see it in the way they talked to me, more sensitive when slipping up on potential triggers. Frustrated at my sadness, because my dad would say, "there is no reason for it.” My sister would want someone to play with but I wouldn’t leave my bed. I can now see these habits developing in her as she starts high school and I worry it’s my fault. That I made it okay to watch an entire season of The Office in one day and not eat for two.
I still have an obscene amount of habits; cracking my back to the right before the left, I always crave symmetry. It takes me forever to get comfortable, yet I constantly leap into new things, trying to prove that I can take on however much I want to, no matter how ugly it gets, leaving no time for myself.
I now try to fill up my days so that I don’t have time to wander into the dark parts of my mind. I get out of school and go right out to work or to sit in a park, avoiding home, avoiding judgment, feeling protected by the people around me, forcing me to stay grounded. I’d get so overwhelmed with the busyness of life that sometimes I’d scream or tug on my hair. The thing is, I need consistency in my life, but no matter how hard I try to stabilize my relationships and mental health, I never feel completely secure.
When I was first put into therapy, I didn’t know what was happening. I was nine years old and my mama took me uptown on the F train. I remember being in the psychiatrists’ white room with big shiny windows looking onto Park Avenue, only thinking about how I was missing a playdate. The psychiatrist started asking me questions, and I answered with what she described as a “poker face.” I was good at not lying to her but also at not telling the full truth, I lived by trusting no one.
Eventually I figured out how this whole therapy situation would work. The psychiatrist, Doctor Something I Don’t Quite Remember, tried to get me to talk through various anxiety coping strategies --there were cards, cupcakes, the Coping Cat Workbook-- it all felt rather childish. These sessions were like a dreaded game to me, eventually I indulged and played. I remember first opening up one day when mindfully eating an orange in the gray kitchen of the institute. I also hated that it was called an institute, it made me feel sick and I wasn’t sick. I didn’t like the way the doctors smiled at me because it all felt so fake. I knew they were being paid to dissect me as they did with the big MRI machine in the lobby.
Now, in high school, several psychiatrists later, I have let down my wall to a point where I feel safe. In a time like this, in quarantine during the rise of Covid-19, I have a lot of time to think. I’ve always tried not to think too much when I’m home, especially now because I don’t want to be upset in a place where I can’t escape. My journey with ever-changing mental health and personal struggles with depression has forced me to come up with different getaways. I’ve found myself making art and finding freedom through creation. I draw and paint over the walls in my room; I photograph people in their own bubbles.
Being able to submit at times to reality and also have dreamlike escapes into creating is a balance I am still striving to maintain. I’ll find myself disassociating for days on end and then snapping back to real life in a state of shock, what had I missed? I’ve become good at slowing my brain firings, muting them to almost silence. I know it’s bad for me, but I don’t care. Maybe if I make myself more numb, I can help my sister more without being as emotionally affected.
At times when I was younger, I felt like my family could never truly acknowledge my struggles with mental health. But, I have come to realize that throughout all these years, my mama has been pushing to get me the help she knows I deserve. I still find myself in an expansive realm of self-doubt, asking myself, am I good enough for everyone else taking care of me instead of asking am I the best person I can be, am I the best version of myself for myself. Yes, yes I am. It’s taken my adolescence; boyfriends and girlfriends, friends and enemies, family dinners and family fights, to acknowledge that the person I’ve become is a culmination of my collective strength.
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