If I stretch my memory as far back as it’ll bend, I can remember the first time I had to teach myself how to breathe again. My parents had gone to a fundraiser, leaving me alone with my sister and my brother. I don’t remember exactly why, but I remember I needed to talk to my mom on the phone. For whatever reason, maybe because they thought I was too much of a mama’s girl or maybe they wanted to mess with me, my siblings wouldn’t let me call her. Then there was this pressure on my chest, a feeling that I can only compare to someone taking a dull spoon and carving out your heart, and I couldn’t breathe anymore. I started sobbing uncontrollably and begged them to let me use the phone. I was maybe 7 or 8, but the possibility that this might be the last time I got to talk to my mother or that something horrible would happen if I didn’t hear her say she loved me that night overtook me. My hands went numb, and I’ll never forget sitting in my room alone, desperately trying to coax air back into my lungs.
There are so many little moments like that from my childhood that my family and I had chalked up to me being حساسة, being sensitive, a crybaby, but which read like undiagnosed anxiety when I write them out. I love my family so much, but I felt so misunderstood. For so much of my life, I internalized that view of myself — that I was a crybaby, irrational, prone to over-dramatic displays of emotion for no reason — and for a long time, it stopped me from developing any security in my emotions. I am normally the first to apologize, I let countless makeup technicians and hairstylists fully fuck up my face because I don’t know how to speak up for myself, and I tread so lightly around everyone’s feelings because they must be more valid. It wasn’t until I was much older and I spoke to a therapist that I had the language to describe what I was going through. It was hard hearing that I showed very classic signs of clinical depression and anxiety, but for the first time I could trust my feelings as being real and valid and not just a creation of my melodramatic mind. Most importantly, they were something I could control.
We all have these stories about our lives we tell ourselves in our heads, again and again, until they become our reality. I never told my parents about any of this, because being misunderstood had become a core part of my story. I equated coming from a culture that doesn’t prioritize understanding mental health to my parents simply not caring about mine. I would get so angry at them for not sympathizing with a struggle I never made the effort to explain to them. I resented them, a little bit, for being a barrier in my attempts to get better. I told myself I was alone in this, I had always been alone, and there was no point in asking for help.
Ironically, amidst all this social distancing, I no longer had the choice to isolate myself. Being quarantined with my family day in, day out means that all of my emotions are on full display for them to see again. Despite my best efforts to hide how hard this whole pandemic was for me, my mom walked in on me one night mid-panic attack. My hands were shaking, my mouth gaping, gasping for breath, I was suddenly a child again. Except, I wasn’t alone this time. My mom immediately put her hands on my back and told me to breathe. I could feel the hesitant judgement and confusion attached, but she stayed with me for however long it took me to calm down. That willingness to meet me where I am meant the world to me.
A universal gap in knowledge for most first-generation immigrants is understanding that just because their parent’s love and support doesn’t show up how they want it to, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. We speak our love (among other things) in different languages. Our parents only know what it is to try to survive in this country and they want the same thing for us. They didn’t have the luxury of self-actualization. There was always a bigger problem. Emotional needs were always a barrier to be buried. It doesn’t mean they don’t care. When I decided to look for it, love was there. Even if my mother couldn’t fully grasp what I was going through, she still sat there and breathed with me. And what a great miracle it is now to share a breath. That’s all that really matters, all that I can expect.