Breaking Tradition

By AJ Mendez | Jul. 12, 2017

 

Growing up, I was convinced my father was the strongest man alive. Not only could he carry two full bags of laundry up our three-floor walkup in a single trip and open any stubborn jar with almost zero effort, nothing could make the man cry. As a child, I thought that was the toughest thing about him. To be able to feel pain and say nothing was the stuff of superheroes in my eyes.

You see, the Mendez children had been taught from day one that strength was synonymous with silence.

But don’t get me wrong, we were some loud-as-hell kids. I was raised in a rowdy Puerto Rican family. We spoke our minds about anything and everything under the sun. If we had an opinion, we had it at the top of our lungs. We took pride in our strong emotions. But pain was the exception to the rule. Pain was something you kept quietly under wraps. In my household, if you stubbed your toe, simply biting your lip and moving along made you a badass. If you scraped your knee and didn’t flinch when cleaning the wound out with rubbing alcohol, you gained respect. If you were worried about where your next meal was coming from or were broken hearted about being evicted, you never once spoke about the pain aloud. The environment we were living in did not allow for vulnerability. Like an animal leaving its belly exposed in the wild, tears made you a target. They revealed weakness, and we, already living as an “other” in a world so afraid of the unknown, had to exude strength to survive.

My parents feared that as an impoverished Latino family in an underprivileged community, we were already at a disadvantage in life. We had to work twice as hard just to be seen as equal. We had to demand respect, speak our minds and project confidence. Complaining about anything felt like just another luxury we simply couldn’t afford.

I look back now, and I know that choosing to smother our aching hearts was just inflated machismo—a misguided overcompensation for our insecurities and a way to try and take control of an unpredictable existence. But back then it was my way of life. And it was an attitude I took great pride in. I wanted nothing more than for my parents to believe I could be as tough as they were. But when, as a teenager, depression began to unexpectedly take control of my mind, that pride would be my downfall.

At first, I thought the darkness filling my thoughts was temporary. I pushed it down like I had pushed so many other feelings of self-doubt and worry. And when it grew into a heavy weight on my shoulders, I resisted the urge to shout out. Fear was a constant in my life, and I thought I couldn’t possibly start giving in to its menacing power. I thought I could tough it out.

I didn’t want to disappoint anybody by giving words to my “weakness.” I hadn’t realized what I was going through was only the beginning of a long and arduous road, a lifelong battle with my mental health. Allowing years to pass without proper treatment and diagnosis would eventually let it spiral out of control. I would suffer panic attacks, social anxiety and crippling bouts of manic episodes and depression, all without once daring to ask for help. The need to maintain my faΓ§ade of strength outweighed the need to heal. And that is a dangerous imbalance. It would take a near-death experience to finally push me to raise my voice.

The problem with struggling for so long is that you don’t even realize that there is another way to live. Speaking up means putting your heart on the line, laying bare your insecurities, and having faith in the unknown. That uncertainty and vulnerability can be terrifying. But having the guts to face that fear head on is the true test of a person’s strength. It took me too long to understand that asking for help was the bravest choice I could ever make. It was a choice that opened the door to limitless possibilities. It was a choice that saved my life.

As the years went on, and my family slowly became more educated about mental health and more willing to share our battles with our brains, we realized we all had been suffering in silence. My mother, like me, was properly diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, giving us a tangible enemy to fight. My brother, a tough-as-nails Army veteran living with PTSD, openly praises the merits of therapy. My father, the man who never let me see him sweat, can now bravely talk about his emotions. The day I saw him cry for the first time, was the day I realized I truly do have the strongest man alive for a father. Because, as all grown women will testify, real men cry. How ridiculous it seems now to have wasted years living in the same tiny apartment, hurting alone, when a lifeline was so close.

We can talk about our feelings, go to therapy, take medication and still be tough Puerto Ricans. That innate hardened resilience is something I will always love about my culture. My grandfather built his home on a farm in Rincon, Puerto Rico with his own two hands. My tiny little grandmother would kill and cook their dinner! (Subsequently making me vegetarian for years to come.) My sister can brilliantly and cleverly shut down any argument with unmatched confidence and sass. I, myself, have thrown several grown men through tables. In short, the Mendez family doesn’t play. But we had to learn the hard way that it’s ok to ask for a helping hand. It doesn’t make you weak. It takes a brave person to acknowledge something needs fixing and to go fix it.

We are strong and proud. We have broken generations of tradition of struggling in silence. Which is appropriate, considering how loudly we do everything else.  

 

New York Times Best Selling author of  Crazy Is My Superpower. Animal Avenger, former WWE wrestling champ, gamer and anime lover, NAMI Ambassador. Instagram/Twitter: @theajmendez

Comments
George Hook
Not only did you throw grown men into tables, but you threw John Cena off a ladder! My heroine. Not only did I suffer from undiagnosed bipolar, but I am a classic introvert, as in, leave me alone, I'm reading a book. I wonder if that's another part of your personality. If so, you really turned it around in the squared circle. So happy to have met you during your Chicago swing, though I missed breaking through the fourth wall with your husband. Keep well and God bless.
9/1/2017 11:25:15 AM

Aedan Amos
Aj you are my Idol, you motivate me, and always keep a smile on my face. From you in the ring action to you writing your book. You've inspired me and many others. When I was sad from the hell of highschool I would always come home and listen to your theme song and skip in my living room and it would make me feel like I was on top of the world. I use the strength u give me to help others that don't quite fit in as well. #ThankyouAj #Breaktherules #Leader
8/23/2017 12:18:42 AM

Kiana
Love ya girl
7/14/2017 9:42:48 AM

Jay
Much love and respect aj πŸ’™πŸ‘ŒπŸ’™
7/14/2017 2:26:20 AM

Carol Ward
You and your story are beautiful, strong, powerful, courageous and have an amazing family. Sad for all you went thru as a teen in your struggles; can't wait to share your story with my daughters as your message is so relevant AND happy ending. God bless.
7/13/2017 11:20:00 PM

Tiffany Barnes
Let me just start by saying I adore you!!! I loved watching you enter the wrestling ring and I loved the personality that you displayed out there. Now that you are no longer wrestling, my adoration for you stretches far deeper. I love that you have chosen to tell your personal story like this. It is truly inspiring to see that you are willing to let us all in to the hardships that you went through growing up. You are so much stronger for it now, far beyond the physical strength you showed in wrestling. I also grew up in poverty and very often stayed silent and quiet about how depressed I was. I poured myself into books and was always the smartest girl in my class. That was my outlet- reading and trying to be the best in whatever I did. Now, as a 28 year old adult, I still find myself feeling down at times and depressed at certain situations. And I do suffer in silence because I don't feel comfortable letting people in. I didn't confide in anyone about my feelings growing up, so that habit has followed me in adulthood. Reading your story gives me so much inspiration and courage though. I adore you. I really really do!!!!!!
7/13/2017 8:33:09 PM

Russell
AJ,

Your continued work with mental illness and to help shine more light and offer aid is truly inspirational and everything that you've done with NAMI, your book... I'm sure has been a boon to many people and I know it has to me! Thank you so much for all that you do!
7/13/2017 6:17:47 PM

Lizanne Corbit
I'm so glad to have come across this read. Cultural and familial "emotional traditions" are truly alive and well and something that many people simply write off as that's just they way it is, or they are. There's nothing wrong with sticking true to strong tradition but one's like this, where they originated out of a place of fear and protection might be more damaging to hold onto than to replace. Silence does not have to equal strength and acknowledging pain, asking for help, talking through issues can be equal to strength. Wonderful read.
7/13/2017 4:35:23 PM

Karissa
Thank you so much for sharing your story.
7/13/2017 12:14:43 PM

Shanell Connelly
I love AJ Mendez-Brooks article it's awesome and I was crying rainbows because I'm so proud of my idol for opening up to her fans all over the world including myself etc!? 🌈πŸ’₯πŸ’°πŸ’«πŸ’«πŸ’«πŸ’«πŸ’«πŸ’«πŸ‘€πŸ˜πŸ‘€πŸ˜πŸ†πŸŽ–πŸ…πŸ΅
7/12/2017 10:51:10 PM

Edward Taylor
Everytime I hear this story I sort of get frozen, like unexpectedly seeing your own reflection. I've grown up the same way, adding the excuse that there are so many who really need help why should I take up all the time of professionals. I've been put on welbutrin to stop smoking when I found out that it helps with depression I was like Oh boy, now I don't have to worry. The medication perscribed only helps a little, I was able to cut my smoking habit by half, but the sadness and self pitty still hits me from time to time, not as bad, but it is still there. Hearing people telling their stories I have the same period of questioning everytime, should I, but what would happen, how does the whole thing work, and my biggest question, how will it change me. I perform stand up comedy, I'm worried It will negatively affect my performance. Generally I'm worried that the "evening out" would take away the mania, sometimes my only motivation to get up and move in my free time. Sometimes I feel that the mania is the best part, it ranges from a burst of energy lasting for hours to just enough to get up and write some jokes. Eventually I forget about the whole thing in a wave of excitement, the only time it crosses my mind after that is either hearing other's problems or that stagnant sad feeling of depression, nothing like facing your own worries and pain to make you think of seeking help, but when it's over, or I fall asleep, i forget about it, because, as I was raised to believe, "Only p#$$!$s can't handle there own pain".
7/12/2017 7:06:09 PM

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