My family raised me to believe depression was a choice. I didn’t know it was a medical condition people navigated, combated, and sought help for until in graduate school. In that space of talented writers and peers, I learned that people outside my culture and family had another perspective. In this larger world, I was exposed to new ideas: Depression was an illness, and it was treatable.
In creative writing workshops, my peers wrote about their experiences with depression in high school, in the suburbs, in Paris; depression was real. They wrote about overdosing on painkillers or calling a suicide hotline. I didn’t understand these narratives, nor did I understand why someone would write about them. Didn’t they have better stories to tell? It wasn’t that I was insensitive; it was just that these were foreign concepts.
Our family lived on the north side of Visalia, California, the “poor” side of town. Few white people lived in our community. Our small city in the Central Valley, where I still live, is clean, conservative, and agricultural; nestled between Fresno and Bakersfield; and known for its 110-degree summers, horrible air quality, and teen pregnancy. Two of every three babies born to teens in California are born to Latinas.
Situated in Tulare County, a farming area surrounded by the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Visalia is a place many prefer to leave right after high school, if not sooner. Many of my friends, ashamed of their background, removed themselves entirely and never looked back. Others embraced it. Most of us didn’t leave the neighborhood unscathed. My family moved out of the north side when I was in high school and moved back after my parents divorced. Others veered in and out of the prison system. Still, I loved Visalia and the surrounding area because my family and my roots were there. I loved it for the Mexican music always playing in the distance, for the downtown mom and pop shops local families happily supported, for the community where people felt safe to build a home and family.
Living on the north side, we moved differently in the world. We suffered from the stress most families face, but unknowingly, we were also coping with transgenerational trauma, attempting to transcend our predisposed economic status while pushing against the stereotypes, shame, and stigma of living in a “low-income neighborhood.” We learned at an early age that feeling sad was the luxury of lazy people whose imagination had idle time to run free. Depression was a privilege. Sadness, or a depressed mood, was equated with boredom, and if I expressed any, my family would immediately task me with a chore. We were a working-class family, and everyone worked. My mother once told me: I don’t have time to be depressed, Jacqueline; I have bills to pay. In our family, no one had time for such luxuries.
Like many American family stories, my family’s story is rooted in oppressive themes of labor and sacrifice. My great-grandfather Filiberto Cabrera removed my grandma Carmen from the eighth grade at twelve years of age. Carmen spent her adolescence picking fruit and vegetables in various labor camps in California and handing her paychecks over to her family. When my grandma retired, she owned her home and vehicle and had a substantial savings account. All of this with only an elementary school education. Whenever I complained about anything, my grandma stated, “Well, at least you never had to work in the fields.”
My grandma’s no-nonsense and hard-working approach to life kept me in check. Her stories of harsh working conditions at a time before the progressive reforms initiated by the Civil Rights Movement and activists like Caesar Chavez inspired a sense of humility and perspective in all her offspring. When life seemed impossible, thoughts of her rough hands picking fruit and vegetables in severe working conditions kept us moving forward, knowing that whatever we faced did not match the suffering of manual labor. If my grandma could work through her tumultuous child labor experiences, then my working through a math class at a community college shouldn’t be that difficult. Whenever life seemed impossible, returning to the image of my grandma having to work in the fields changed my perspective on the situation.
My family’s stories of manual labor became the family mythology, narratives passed down from generation to generation. When life challenged us in the present, stories from our oppressive past highlighted how much progress we had made as a family. The story of my grandma working in the fields to achieve the American dream was central, but the stories of success, of how my grandparents bought their first home and vehicle, and their progression out of those fields and into a more prosperous life were emphasized as well. These achievements were first-generation milestones paving the way to a promising future for the rest of us.
The unspoken family sentiment: If everyone worked hard and the bills were paid, that was all that mattered. There was no room for emotions. I felt inadequate, less than, but had no way to name my feelings. The feeling of not-good-enough lingers. Even though I was the first college graduate in my family, self-doubt eclipsed my professional and creative abilities. I overestimated what I could do, trying to prove my worth, and became overwhelmed and unable to accomplish what I took on. An invisible pressure lived inside me, and I did not have the necessary tools to break free.
The societal narrative prescribes hard work as the vehicle through which families like mine should make their way in the world, but it doesn’t always end well. In my parents’ earlier years, my dad was a customer service rep for an auto body store and sold the leftover car paint as a side hustle. My mother worked as a receptionist at a pathology clinic and sold costume jewelry on the weekends. The standards for productivity were set high.
At eighteen, my parents forced me into a second part-time job. I spent mornings taking sixteen units at College of the Sequoias, clocked twenty hours a week as a program leader for an after-school non-profit, and during my weekends worked at a retail clothing company to help pay the bills. A few years later, as a motivated student in my early twenties eager to begin a career, my commitment to passing the math class I’d struggled with and transferring to a four-year university did not work out. Diligently following the hard work model set forth by my family did not give me what it promised. Instead, I failed the math class, which resulted in me locking myself in my room for a week, rarely eating, and missing my first cousin’s funeral. No one in my family gave me permission to stop. No one said, “You’re doing too much; it’s okay to take a break.” I did what I had learned to do, just kept going.
Now thirty-seven and revisiting my twenty-two-year-old self, I realize I was depressed. Why did my father shame me for not understanding math? Why did he take away my car? Why didn’t my mother intervene and help me? Why didn’t my family notice my sadness? No one ever told them it was okay to feel sad. They didn’t know how to recognize the signs. Still, this cycle was created and repeated. My father shamed me for not understanding math because he believed education changes lives and, in his mind, I had squandered an opportunity. There’s a lot at stake for first-generation college students. We carry the weight of success for the entire family with little resources or guidance to show us the way. That math class failure distinguishes itself as the first time I recognized that I was struggling to cope and unable to regulate my emotions as an adult.
Reflecting on the dark tapestries of my childhood, I now see depression everywhere: in my Tia’s blackout curtains, my godmother’s reclusive nature, my mother’s inability to sit still for one second (she never stopped cleaning), and in the way my father concealed his eyes behind thick Wayfarers and could consume Corona after Corona. In the way I could drink vodka tonic after vodka tonic. We abated our depressive tendencies by keeping busy with bills and work. Whatever emotions were left at the end of the day, we numbed with beer and vodka, red wine, and tequila.
We worked hard to pursue some semblance of the American Dream, to have the things that families were supposed to have to build a life. When I entered high school, my parents purchased a four-bedroom home with a pool on the south side of town. All the years of struggle and hard work had paid off. Eight years later, everything was gone. My parents divorced, my father attempted suicide, my mother remarried, and eventually, everyone, including myself, moved back to the northside.
When I attended high school in the early 2000s, I was aware some girls went to rehab for coke and pill addiction, but I had motivations for staying away from drug use. At fifteen, I understood rehab was an expensive place people went because they couldn’t help themselves. My parents couldn’t even afford to give me lunch money, I reasoned, let alone pay for me to go somewhere for treatment. I decided to stay away from drugs for my family’s sake. I didn’t want to burden them financially. We were indoctrinated with 80s and 90s anti-drug propaganda in elementary school and First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, followed by President Clinton’s crackdown “three strikes you’re out.” The AIDS media hysteria prevalent during my generation’s youth further inspired fear and anxiety surrounding drug use. It was easy for me to stay away from marijuana.
I recognize today that many of my childhood behaviors—like secretly cutting myself and self-harming, experimenting with alcohol in the seventh grade, and having suicidal thoughts throughout my adolescence—were symptoms of depression. I had no words or knowledge, no way to understand what was happening. But I believed at the time my behavior was because I was a selfish child. In the context of a family that knew only hard work and survival and did not have the privilege or luxury of attending to their descendants’ emotions or higher needs, I floundered in the in-between. I was reaching for more than the toil and endurance my family came from, yet striving to match their resilience and determination, striving to make them proud, as proud as I was of them.
I saw how class and privilege paved the way to the opportunity for second chances for some girls in my high school, the opportunity to reflect and learn and grow in safe spaces. Growing up without similar resources or a backup plan makes you different. You hustle differently. You become hypervigilant. Survival takes precedent, whereas money offers protection and a solution. If I became addicted to something, I knew I was fucked. I had to find solutions on my own with limited resources and a type of inner strength that isn’t readily available. I imagine this is why so many of us raised in working-class families become high-functioning alcoholics or land in the gray area.
When my parents divorced, many family members did not understand why my mother left because my father was the epitome of a diligent worker. He worked full-time and did all the manly things a man is supposed to do: He fixed cars, mowed the lawn, and used his strength to help family members in an emergency. To outsiders looking in, he was the personification of the super dad archetype, except add Ray-Bans. Since he worked hard and provided for us, no one ever questioned his treatment of my mother. Nothing other than provision mattered, and he was exempted by family and friends, who saw nothing wrong with his behavior. I imagine our culture set the standard, and my father played the part. In our family, we didn’t question toxic gender norms, and if the “man of the house” met the expectation of male obligations then that was all that mattered. My father worked and came home; he never asked my siblings and me about school, friendships, weather, or the future. After a long day at work, he sank into his recliner chair, chewed on sunflower seeds, and hid his emotions behind his Wayfarers.
I became an expert manager of people, places, and things. In graduate school, I was a full-time substitute teacher, worked at a retail clothing company on the weekends, and attended graduate classes at night. Between the chaos of work and studying, I commuted the forty-five minutes between Fresno State and my graduate school obligations. My worlds were stretched thin and colliding. My only day off consisted of buying a bottle of Tito’s vodka and then drinking until my face glossed over.
I repeated this cycle of compartmentalizing alcohol for years, methodically prioritizing my work and school obligations and penciling in which day of the week was the best time to drink. It usually landed on Fridays. Drinking on a Friday meant two days to recover fully, and Monday morning wouldn’t feel that shitty. It never occurred to me to question whether alcohol was the best way to reward and remedy myself. I worked hard and took pride in my drinking and hard work superpowers.
Eventually, the drinking spilled into the workweek. Occasionally, meeting a friend for an innocent glass of wine didn’t work out as planned. Instead, the drinks didn’t stop, the bars didn’t stop, and the following morning was filled with micheladas, anxiety, and regret. A new chapter of drinking to escape the pressures of work became my new norm. The ability to resist drinking when I experienced stress and anxiety was gone. I drank to avoid feeling socially awkward with friends. Alcohol made me sexy and confident, or so I believed. Reaching for alcohol, whatever happened, good or bad, became the norm—I never questioned it. It reached a point where I couldn’t do anything that didn’t involve alcohol.
Because the culture normalized drinking, I didn’t see alcohol as the problem. I wasn’t Barney from the Simpsons or living under a bridge drinking Mad Dog 20/20 in a paper bag. Professionally speaking, my career was moving in a positive direction. My hard-work ethic provided me with a livable wage and a savings account; my CV had expanded, and I was landing tenure-track job interviews. Yet behind the aspiring part-time college English professor façade, I became unable to meet my own eyes or the weight gain I saw in the mirror every day. I was a high-functioning drinker and knew precisely how much to drink to maintain a buzz all night. The same way a coke or heroin addict learns how to measure their ounces to get the perfect fix, I knew how much alcohol I needed to feel completely numb yet alert. I popped phentermine every weekend and drank vodka to take the edge off. But the pills, combined with copious quantities of alcohol, caused crippling anxiety, and exacerbated my depression.
For an adjunct instructor, there is no reasonable assurance of employment. Even upon signing a contract with a college, classes may be canceled at the last minute, either due to low enrollment or because a tenured professor has preference. Despite my hard work ethic and upwardly mobile progress, financial insecurity followed me. To say “no” is to have power and financial autonomy, and the ability to have work boundaries is a privilege. I overextended myself by teaching wherever I could procure work in the Central Valley to make sure my rent was paid on time. Family and friends praised me for embodying the characteristics of a strong woman, but I acted out of necessity, “Just because you survive something does not mean you are strong,” Roxane Gay writes in her essay “What We Hunger For.” Acting strong wasn’t my choice. It was my survival. No second chances.
When the world went still in 2020, my drinking went from one-to-two days a week to four-to-five. Many friends set up makeshift bars and hosted daily happy hours. These new speakeasies provided refuge and friendship free of judgment to the Covid-19 pandemic displaced. When the world went still, so did I.
It was the first time in over a decade that life forced me to face my toxic circumstances. No more commuting to three different cities to teach 7 am classes, no more teaching in-person full-time, and no more hiding behind the hard work mask. Suppressed emotions bubbled to the surface and attempts to drink them back to their proper place did not work; they worsened. Sometimes, I drank for four days straight. Such binges resulted in anxiety so extreme my chest felt as though it was collapsing into my heart. I can’t live like this anymore became a refrain until, disgusted, one day I stopped. I handed my bottle of Tito’s vodka to my mom.
“I’m done,” I said.
Getting sober wasn’t easy, and it compelled me to find healthy ways to heal. I found community in a Zumba group and started to take spin and strength training classes at the gym. Sobriety forced me to find new friends and reconnect with my inner child. Choosing not to drink alcohol meant that I wanted to live, not just exist as I had before. More importantly, I wanted to live authentically, and this has been more difficult than giving up alcohol itself. There is no toxic substance to reach for to numb uncomfortable feelings like stress, anxiety, and heartache. Instead, I now feel every emotion on the spectrum, and I must be vigilant regarding my mental health. Despite having to endure the sad feelings sober, I feel the good ones too.
While not all Mexican American families are the same, and we exist at different intersections of race, class, immigration status, gender, and geographical region, the hard work narrative is intricately tied to Mexican American identity and often goes unquestioned. In my family, we used it as an excuse to avoid accountability. We equated hard work with being a good person. We rewarded hard-working people without ever asking if they were good people. We wore our hard work narratives like a badge of honor. We used the hard work narrative to shame people for not working hard enough. We need to instead consider how empathy, integrity, and sensitivity might matter too. We need to equally praise creativity and the unusual or different, especially in working-class families.
I played a part for many years, too, concealing a substance problem with my achievements and moderate success as an educator and writer. Yet, just like my father, I hid my emotions— not behind dark Wayfarer sunglasses but behind the hustle of trying to attain the American dream. The threads of immigration, family, hard work, and alcoholism weave together the beautiful and sometimes dark cultural tapestry that helped shape my identity. I hope someday the narrative changes, and we have the power to unveil the masks we wear, to discover the real power of vulnerability, and that choice lies not in denial of or shame for our humanness but in allowing for it.
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.