I am the only girl in my family, oldest of four. Born and raised until the age of eleven in Puerto Rico with my mom and maternal family, I had a fabulous childhood, apart from my biological dad leaving when I was one. Between my mom and grandma, they made sure I had everything I ever wanted or needed. I was on honor roll, loved school, learning, and spending my weekends at my grandmother’s. She was truly my best friend. In 2007, days before my twelve birthday, my mom decided moving to New York was the right thing to do for the future of my siblings and I. I had never been away from my grandma, and I'd seen her every single day as long I could remember. I attended the school where she taught and would then go home with her. I would visit her during my recess or lunch period. I was attached to her in ways I could never explain.
We came to Buffalo, New York, and I only knew the basis of the language. I was fluent in Spanish, but no one else here was. School was hard, and I was held back a whole grade.
This is when I began to struggle. Not only did I not speak the language, but being held back automatically made it worse for me. I stood out in many ways. Physically I was darker, taller, my hair was extremely curly, I was already developing breasts, and I looked very different to all the other students. Not knowing the language made me isolate myself — although girls wanted to be my friends, how could that be possible if I couldn’t communicate?
A year and a half after moving, I was immediately diagnosed with depression. All I wanted to do was sleep and cry, and I would spent countless hours on the phone with my grandma begging her to come here. She visited a few times, and that’s when I was the happiest. There’s nothing I loved more than having her near me. I got through school just fine, I loved learning, and I understood English. In Puerto Rico, taking English class is mandatory through all the grades. I knew a lot but people talked too fast for me to communicate, so I was shy. When I got to eighth grade, I was a little more comfortable, joined the volleyball team and had a few friends, but I was still very different from everyone, and I didn’t like it.
Entering high school, I wanted nothing but to fit in. Depression only got worse, I self harmed, but I was always open about it to my doctor. My pediatrician, school counselor, and my global teacher were the only people I trusted for many years. They knew about my struggles, and due to me being under age, they would talk to my mom. I was forced to see multiple therapists in outpatient facilities but I never had a connection with any of them. It was hard.
Sophomore year I began to restrict my food intake, thinking that it would help me look like my peers and help me control things in my life. I drifted from many people, but never from my grandma. My mom noticed I was restricting and doing nothing but sleeping. I would have a granola bar a day, and within time I lost all my energy, I had killing headaches, and I wasn’t myself. Between the doctor and my mom, I was forced to eat. From restricting, I switched to purging. I would eat and then purge, that way no one was concerned and in my head I believed I was still getting smaller.
Malnourishment made my depression and anxiety very severe. That’s when I experienced my first panic attack. It felt like my entire body was numb and I couldn’t breathe, and all of the sudden, I got very hot. I knew it had to do with my eating habits, but I refused to believe it or do anything about it. It was even worse throughout high school. Senior year, instead of attending the homecoming football game, I stayed home and tried to take my life for the first time.
I knew if I wanted to go away to college I had to get help. This was it, I couldn’t hide it anymore.
With therapy and medicine, things improved for a few months. I still struggled with episodes of depression, anxiety, and negative body image, but I got through it. I was healthy enough to go away to college, and I did. I never thought I would trust anyone ever again, and I struggled with attachment and relationships. I tried the school counseling center, but the first counselor was leaving, so I got switched and I was not happy. I went and saw the new one, but I was rude. I would constantly walk out and was disrespectful. But I knew deep down she meant well. For about two years, I refused to let my walls down, but I knew she was a good counselor, so I kept going back because she was helping me, I just didn’t want to tell her.
At the beginning of my second year of college, my grandmother passed away. That took a toll on my life and I immediately went back deep into my eating disorder. The whole year, I kept it to myself. Junior year, I told my counselor, and with her help and one of the nurses, I took a semester off and received treatment. That’s when my life truly began.
I went through two admissions at partial hospitalization program, an evaluation at a residential center, and two hospital visits. It was hell, but it was so worth it. In treatment, I did a lot of DBT, as well as exposure therapy with food. It caused a lot of anxiety. I tried medicines — not all of them worked; it took time. My depression was a rollercoaster. During treatment I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and although it made sense, I had a hard time accepting it. Opening up and trusting the process along with the treatment team was the hardest, yet best decision I ever made. There was one counselor who would constantly push me to my limits and I did not like it, I felt like she had something against me, but in the end, she was the one who helped me the most. She was the one who helped me come out of my shell and realize what I am truly capable of. I will forever be thankful.
Learning healthy coping skills has helped me with all my mental illnesses and relationships, along with knowing and loving myself. I am now a week away from graduating and obtaining my bachelor's in psychology, one year strong into recovery. Last year, I was in treatment, I didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, and now I am living my best life. Trust the process, feel the fear, and do it anyway. Recovery is everything I ever wanted and more. It’s worth it.
Being different is beautiful and I cannot wait to help others realize that as I make my way to becoming a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in the future.
Written by Giannylee Santiago