We yelled over the thump of the music. It was a family party, as rambunctious as the ones before it. It normally would've blended into all the other ones but I remember so distinctly that someone brought up therapy. My family didn't talk about mental health often and in the circle where we stood, someone laughed at the idea of therapy. What problems does this person have that lead him or her to start going to therapy? Look at all the things we've been through. As a teenager I thought: It's true—my relatives immigrated to another country and took whatever jobs they could get. They're tough.
Therapy seemed like a luxury rather than a right—even though the numbers that prove we need it are pretty damning. A 2014 report from Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that 5 percent of the Latinx study sample was taking antidepressants—a small number compared to the 27 percent that "reported high levels of depressive symptoms." According to a 2007 article (that I feel is, unfortunately, still relevant especially with healthcare in flux) the discrepancies in treatment between racial groups were definitely present, as "US-born white women were far more likely to be in treatment than the women from ethnic minority groups." And then there's the cultural component.
As a teenage woman of color—a first generation Guatemalan-American—I didn't have a role model that looked like me and spoke frankly about mental health. I eventually found something close enough in the work of Frida Kahlo. When I first saw her paintings in an art history book at school—ripped skin, bones exposed, dripping blood—I felt unsettled. It was full physical pain in display. In "The Two Fridas," a pair of Fridas sit side-by-side, one wearing a white outfit and the other a blue shirt and green skirt. Their gazes are steady and firm; they hold hands and a single vein connects them together, both their hearts exposed. Small pools of blood form on the dress of the Frida on the left.
At first glance, I wondered: Why spend so much time creating such a gruesome subject? But it wasn't just a subject—it was Kahlo's life. In her book Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, Hayden Herrera describes some of the background behind "The Two Fridas." "Frida's only companion is herself," she writes. "The doubling of herself deepens the chill of loneliness. Abandoned by Diego [Rivera, her once husband], she holds her own hand, and links her two selves with a blood vein."
I felt that isolation after my dad's unexpected death. I was 12 years old. It was also the first time I went to therapy. I had no one to ask about going to therapy and that wasn't uncommon; so few Hispanic people dealing with mental illness seek help. Even when I went, I found the session unnerving. My therapist liked to take her shoes off and tuck her feet under legs as she settled into the armchair across from me and my mom. I never felt like she took me seriously; every time I talked she seemed to have an amused look on her face.
So I put the pain away as best as I could, developing depression and anxiety along the way. They popped up at the most inconvenient moments, convincing me that any happiness I experienced was only fleeting. I'd lost one of the most important people in my life and felt that everything I loved would always be threatened. And my experience was a fairly private one.
Kahlo, in contrast, put her physical and mental struggles on full display. Her story is well known by now: Her health problems after a bus accident and her complicated relationship with Rivera—also an artist—inspired a lot of her work.
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I wondered if my own depression could be tempered if I expressed it creatively. It seemed unlikely—the pain mostly dragged me down, bringing me further into murky waters. And the worst part is that sometimes I like it there, where it's dark and cold and I can only hear the distant echoes of people trying to find me, trying to pull me out of that place. What could I do with something so damaging yet seductive?
Kahlo painted it. She gave it color, she gave it form. She dared us to stare at it, even when we might want to turn away. One recently published article in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology notes that positive effects have been linked to this type of acknowledgement. Overall, "individuals who accept rather than judge their mental experiences may attain better psychological health."
Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School says that art therapy is particularly helpful for people "who are either having difficulty putting emotional states into words for various reasons or because this ability to be visual in their representation resonates for them."
Finding a creative outlet, even if it's not art therapy, can make a huge difference. While I don't paint, writing has saved me more than a few times. (The first time I told my mom that I wrote a piece about depression and that I was paid for it, she said, "Good. At least get something out of it.") Many artists find a release in doing what they're doing, Saltz says. When it comes to Kahlo, she explains that it would be "unusual to have that kind of trauma and have that kind of chronic pain and not have a mood issue."
Another of Kahlo's pieces, "A Few Small Nips" shows a naked woman on a bed with multiple wounds. Blood marks are everywhere on her body, on the floor and on the man standing next to her. Two birds hold a banner that reads "Unos Cuantos Piquetitos!"—the piece's title in Spanish. The pieces refers to a bloody crime and the man's testimony: "But I only gave her a few small nips!"
In many ways, the stigma against depression felt that way to me. Now, at 25, I've been on medication for a little over a year. People suggested yoga, weed, meditation, anything but accepting that I needed regularly therapy and medication. Each time my struggle was invalidated, it felt like a cut. And for a while that stopped me from getting help; what did I have to complain about when I had so many more opportunities as a first-generation American than my family before me?
But I wasn't just experiencing a few small thoughts, it was a consuming depression. I felt worthless and unimportant; I started to experience suicidal and self-harm ideation.
One night, after an argument with my boyfriend, I left the house. I refused to tell him where I was and got into an Uber, where I spent the whole ride wondering if I should just open the door and throw myself out. One side of my psyche had to convince the other that that wasn't the right option. That I'm often fighting myself by myself is perhaps the most painful part.
When I finally seeked help again, experiencing Kahlo's art helped me realize there was a way to turn all of that pain into something else. Many talk therapists—including Saltz—encourage patients to journal or write in order to have it be on the outside, to table it for a time so it can be expressed.
"There's clearly a drive, a release to just express it outside of oneself," she tells me. "To be understood by other people reading those writings." It turns out, you're hard-pressed to find a famous writer that doesn't have what she calls "brain differences," or a "mood or anxiety issue."
There's an inherent strength in the way that Kahlo faced her pain head-on in the work that she produced, and in some instances even seemed to find humor in her situation. "She had made up her mind not to be a wretched 'antipática,' but instead…she would turn life's nips into a joke," writes Herrera about "A Few Small Nips."
Kahlo showed me that there are many ways to express your pain, to give it validity, but also dilute its power—to know that it's something that others might understand, even if it feels too messy to put down on paper.
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