My mother and I were sitting on opposite ends of the dinner table. Silence. I was staring at the San Judas Tadeo figure that stands in the center of our table. After my mother lost her mother, our house became filled with more and more saints.
On the other end of the table sat my mom. She was just scrolling on her phone. I assume she was on Facebook or WhatsApp.
The quietness and stillness aren’t unusual. My mother’s and I relationship has always consisted of what I consider 50% silence, 40% outburst, and maybe 10% actual conversation. However, this time, it was different. I wanted to find a way to muster up the courage to ask, “What did the doctors in Tijuana tell you?”.
Throughout the entire summer of 2020, my mother suddenly started having a hard time breathing, eating, and sleeping. The slightest amount of food would make her choke. The woman that took pride in cooking Mole Poblano and tamales de mole rojo could no longer eat her food. She now had to consume pureed vegetables and avoid all fat and complex sugars. The fear of choking in her sleep made her stay up at night. And sometimes, when her eyes and mind finally allowed her to rest, she would suddenly wake up gasping for air. This went on for months.
Week after week, my mother went to different clinics, hoping that one clinic could run a diagnostics test that would explain her physical condition.
The bureaucracy of Medi-Cal, public clinics, and the safety regulations of COVID-19 made it difficult to run tests fast enough. My mother went to the urgency and emergency care room hoping that would speed up the process, only to be turned away.
The uncertainty of my mother’s health took a toll on our entire family. My siblings and I started to tell ourselves that maybe this was the beginning of a life-long illness. That just like our grandmother, my mom was meant to spend her last decades with a medical condition.
Seeing my mother go in and out of clinics and hospital exacerbated the anxiety and depression I was already feeling.
As my mother was struggling with her physical health, I was struggling with my mental health. In May, I came to terms with the heartbreaking reality that I was sexually abused by a former long-term partner. This realization led to a storm of cry-spells, feelings of unrest, and a sudden disinterest in everything I loved. I put my whole life on pause. I shamefully kept to myself that my bed had no covers for weeks and that keeping up with my basic hygiene felt like a surmounting challenge.
But it wasn’t just coping with the sexual abuse I encountered in my former relationship that made it difficult for me to be there for my mom.
In July, I became invested in reading psychology and self-help books (this is not an alternative to professional help). A category of books I read was about difficult mother-daughter relationships. I found relief in these books. The “anger” I embarrassingly had towards my mother throughout my teenage years was validated and explained. And despite being validated, the hurt and anger caused by my mother’s unintentional harm remained. My anger, mixed with my anxiety and depression, made it difficult to healthily grieve and cope with my mom’s deteriorating health.
At some point, my mother became desperate and no longer wanted to wait. She impulsively decided she was going to Tijuana and paying out of pocket to have multiple tests taken. She stated that in this country, people are just expected to wait and die. We couldn’t find a way to change her mind. The only option left was to have my older sister accompany her to Tijuana.
They went to two different specialists. My sister would update us through text as they went to the different specialists. “They found nothing.” The last text of the day was, “The doctor said mom has anxiety. Mom confessed to the doctor that she would stay up late watching videos of different respiratory illnesses. That probably caused her strong symptoms of anxiety”. That text brought our entire family an overwhelming sense of relief.
My mother and sister returned from Tijuana late at night. So I didn’t have the opportunity to talk with her until the following morning. After finally mustering the courage to ask her, “What did the doctors in Tijuana tell you?”. My mom described her entire trip and how the doctor concluded she has anxiety. In my mother’s voice, I hear a reluctance around the word “anxiety.” That’s when I told her, “I have anxiety too. A doctor hasn’t diagnosed me, but the symptoms are there. I’m currently looking to begin therapy”. My mom responded with, “They told me to go to therapy too.” It wasn’t this conversation that drastically healed our relationship.
It was the conversations after that were most transformative. The ones where we talked about our overwhelming anxiety and how we attempt to navigate it. The conversations where we discussed our therapy sessions. And most importantly, the ones where we admitted and apologized for the harm we caused each other as a result of what we were going through. By having a single conversation about anxiety, my mother and I were able to spark many more vulnerable and healing ones. By removing the stigma around mental health, we were finally able to connect, begin our healing journeys, and create a path in our household for healing intergenerational wounds.