By AJ Mendez Jul. 12, 2017
Growing up, I was convinced my father was the strongest man alive. Not only could he carry two full bags of laundry up our three-floor walkup in a single trip and open any stubborn jar with almost zero effort, nothing could make the man cry. As a child, I thought that was the toughest thing about him. To be able to feel pain and say nothing was the stuff of superheroes in my eyes.
You see, the Mendez children had been taught from day one that strength was synonymous with silence.
But don’t get me wrong, we were some loud-as-hell kids. I was raised in a rowdy Puerto Rican family. We spoke our minds about anything and everything under the sun. If we had an opinion, we had it at the top of our lungs. We took pride in our strong emotions. But pain was the exception to the rule. Pain was something you kept quietly under wraps. In my household, if you stubbed your toe, simply biting your lip and moving along made you a badass. If you scraped your knee and didn’t flinch when cleaning the wound out with rubbing alcohol, you gained respect. If you were worried about where your next meal was coming from or were broken hearted about being evicted, you never once spoke about the pain aloud. The environment we were living in did not allow for vulnerability. Like an animal leaving its belly exposed in the wild, tears made you a target. They revealed weakness, and we, already living as an “other” in a world so afraid of the unknown, had to exude strength to survive.
My parents feared that as an impoverished Latino family in an underprivileged community, we were already at a disadvantage in life. We had to work twice as hard just to be seen as equal. We had to demand respect, speak our minds and project confidence. Complaining about anything felt like just another luxury we simply couldn’t afford.
I look back now, and I know that choosing to smother our aching hearts was just inflated machismo—a misguided overcompensation for our insecurities and a way to try and take control of an unpredictable existence. But back then it was my way of life. And it was an attitude I took great pride in. I wanted nothing more than for my parents to believe I could be as tough as they were. But when, as a teenager, depression began to unexpectedly take control of my mind, that pride would be my downfall.
At first, I thought the darkness filling my thoughts was temporary. I pushed it down like I had pushed so many other feelings of self-doubt and worry. And when it grew into a heavy weight on my shoulders, I resisted the urge to shout out. Fear was a constant in my life, and I thought I couldn’t possibly start giving in to its menacing power. I thought I could tough it out.
I didn’t want to disappoint anybody by giving words to my “weakness.” I hadn’t realized what I was going through was only the beginning of a long and arduous road, a lifelong battle with my mental health. Allowing years to pass without proper treatment and diagnosis would eventually let it spiral out of control. I would suffer panic attacks, social anxiety and crippling bouts of manic episodes and depression, all without once daring to ask for help. The need to maintain my façade of strength outweighed the need to heal. And that is a dangerous imbalance. It would take a near-death experience to finally push me to raise my voice.
The problem with struggling for so long is that you don’t even realize that there is another way to live. Speaking up means putting your heart on the line, laying bare your insecurities, and having faith in the unknown. That uncertainty and vulnerability can be terrifying. But having the guts to face that fear head on is the true test of a person’s strength. It took me too long to understand that asking for help was the bravest choice I could ever make. It was a choice that opened the door to limitless possibilities. It was a choice that saved my life.
As the years went on, and my family slowly became more educated about mental health and more willing to share our battles with our brains, we realized we all had been suffering in silence. My mother, like me, was properly diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, giving us a tangible enemy to fight. My brother, a tough-as-nails Army veteran living with PTSD, openly praises the merits of therapy. My father, the man who never let me see him sweat, can now bravely talk about his emotions. The day I saw him cry for the first time, was the day I realized I truly do have the strongest man alive for a father. Because, as all grown women will testify, real men cry. How ridiculous it seems now to have wasted years living in the same tiny apartment, hurting alone, when a lifeline was so close.
We can talk about our feelings, go to therapy, take medication and still be tough Puerto Ricans. That innate hardened resilience is something I will always love about my culture. My grandfather built his home on a farm in Rincon, Puerto Rico with his own two hands. My tiny little grandmother would kill and cook their dinner! (Subsequently making me vegetarian for years to come.) My sister can brilliantly and cleverly shut down any argument with unmatched confidence and sass. I, myself, have thrown several grown men through tables. In short, the Mendez family doesn’t play. But we had to learn the hard way that it’s ok to ask for a helping hand. It doesn’t make you weak. It takes a brave person to acknowledge something needs fixing and to go fix it.
We are strong and proud. We have broken generations of tradition of struggling in silence. Which is appropriate, considering how loudly we do everything else.