‘Why is Mami in the hospital?’ She’d turn manic. It was like walking on eggshells.’: Young woman recounts growing up with mom battling bipolar disorder, ‘days without sleeping’

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“In the wake of an era where mental illness is no longer a taboo topic and discussions are opening up about the importance of mental health, I have realized what a lack of mental health awareness can have on someone, especially me. No, I do not have a mental health condition, but my life has been guided by the impact of someone who does – my Mami, my mother. Mami was diagnosed with a mental condition when she was 10 years old. Bi-polar disorder. Bi-polar disorder is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.

Courtesy of Maria C. Alfaro

Growing up I did not understand Mami’s mental illness. I didn’t come to a complete understanding of her illness until I was 16 years old and in high school where I educated myself on her disorder. I was enrolled in a Scientific Research program that allowed me to read and study journal articles on a topic of choice. I chose to learn more about mental conditions. I was so eager to learn more as it was so personal to me and had influenced my life without me even realizing it. I always knew she was sick or there was something wrong. On and off throughout my entire life, when Mami succumbed to her illness and had to be hospitalized, I’d ask, ‘Why is Mami in the hospital?’ I always recall my father and grandmother saying. ‘Mami estaba enferma,’ which means, Mami was sick. Of course, it was much more than that, but how could I understand the complexities of her mental illness at such a young age?

I clearly remember times, where Mami would say, ‘I’m not sick, I don’t need to take medication.’ She would then go without taking her medication and the symptoms of her disorder would intensify. Mami went numerous days without sleeping, she’d turn manic.

Talking to her was like walking on eggshells because if I said something she didn’t like, she would either start to cry because it bothered her or she would become extremely hostile because it bothered her, there was no in-between.

Courtesy of Maria C. Alfaro

Not understanding Mami’s mental disorder crippled my relationship with her. It also crippled my relationship with myself. I didn’t know how to allow myself to feel growing up. My way of coping with what was happening around me was by not feeling it. If I didn’t feel it, I couldn’t allow it to hurt me, or so I thought. I’ve always considered myself to be extremely strong – up until January of this year. All the built-up emotions from my childhood hit me like a ton of bricks. I started to develop uncontrollable anxiety and my depression was getting the best of me. It was a long time coming but I finally reached out and started seeking help from a therapist. It really changed my life for the better.

Courtesy of Maria C. Alfaro

Despite many obstacles, I kept moving forward. Something just happens when you’re the only person you can count on and you have to figure it all out by yourself. I had moral support from family growing up, but I learned to count on myself for those things only I could do, such as paving the way for myself as I moved through life as the oldest daughter of immigrant parents. I am a first-generation Salvadorian American. I had to have triple the determination, grit, perseverance than others to build a better life for myself and my immediate family. I also knew I had someone watching every move I made, my little sister. It’s always been her and I going through this journey together. I needed to be someone she could look up to. As my dad worked long hours to make sure I had everything I needed to succeed, we also dealt with the instability that came with Mami’s on and off psychiatric hospitalizations. When Mami succumbed to her illness and my dad couldn’t care for my sister and I full-time due to working long hours, either my grandmother and/or aunts would take us in. We moved constantly throughout my childhood.

Courtesy of Maria C. Alfaro

Once I came to a full understanding of Mami’s mental condition, I had so many questions about my upbringing. Why wasn’t she like other moms? Why were there times when she wasn’t there? Why did she sleep so much? Why did her emotions change so drastically? Another thing I had to learn were the side effects of her medications. My mom sleeping all the time was one thing I recall bothering me so much. I’d ask her constantly about it. Then one day it all just clicked, oh my goodness! She slept all the time because of the medications she is on and she acted a certain way because of her condition. To answer all these questions, I turned to my grandmother. The woman who with the strength that God has given her, has carried my mom, sister and I through this battle. My grandmother and I have had many conversations about my mom – what she was like before she had kids, why my sister and I went through the situations we went through growing up. She has helped me gain a clearer understanding of who my mother is. I always knew the essence of who Mami was growing up: kind, giving, a jokester, and most of all a woman with a huge heart. But my grandmother helped me understand things I could only understand now as a young woman.

Courtesy of Maria C. Alfaro

Very early on, I knew I would have to work extremely hard to create stability for myself. I moved out on my own when I was 18. I’ve been working and going to school full-time since I was 16 years old. Through the Academy of Finance, a business program I was a part of in high school, I obtained a paid internship. I’d go to school during the day, then would walk to work, which was nearby. This eventually led to a full-time summer job, I’d work there for 3 years while finishing high school and starting college. I then went on to work in the healthcare industry which is where I presently am. While obtaining my bachelors, I’d work 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., then go to school from 6 p.m. – 9 p.m., two to three times a week and sometimes one or two online courses.

Thinking back at that now, I’m not sure how I managed everything, but I did, and I did it well.

Courtesy of Maria C. Alfaro

With time, I have come to an understanding of what Mami’s mental condition entails of and I am able to move forward in a positive direction. Through her I have been able to find my strength and my weakness. I have been able to endure pain but not allow it to get the best of me. Instead, I am allowing it to let me flourish and bring to light the severe impact mental illness can have on those who are not aware.

Courtesy of Maria C. Alfaro

Today, I have a strong head on my shoulders because of the challenges life has thrown my way. Life forced me to grow up before my time. I reflect on my upbringing and I truly believe that all the adversity I faced growing up is part of a bigger plan that God has for me. I believe part of that plan is to help other Latinos acknowledge that it is perfectly normal to struggle with mental health. After having many conversations with other Latinos, and them hearing stories from my grandmother, having a mental condition or even taking care of your mental health is viewed as a shameful thing. There is a profound stigma about mental health in the Latino community, and I am here to help change that.”

Courtesy of Maria C. Alfaro

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Maria C. Alfaro of Yonkers, New York. You can follow her journey on Instagram here and here. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more empowering stories of family’s working through bi-polar disorder:

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