“Stop taking the Xanax and start taking this medication instead, it’s less addictive,” the Neurologist in a fancy Pasadena office told my mom during her last appointment. I was able to join her, to find out why my mom had been experiencing terrible headaches for the past six months. “It’s called Chronic Tension Headaches,” the balding, grey-haired doctor said with a medical grade mask covering half his face. What I heard: “Yah, she’s anxious, and we didn’t need to drive an hour from my mom’s house in a heat wave, for this info!” That was the scream inside my head, but the words that came out of my mouth were; “Well that’s good news mom.” She did not look amused.
My mom is an immigrant from Quito, Ecuador. In Latinx culture, it’s common to treat a visit to the doctor like a visit to the mechanic. Something is wrong, you pay a professional to fix it, and voila! You’re fixed. The idea of self-care for pain is often dismissed, if not laughed at. So when a seasoned, specialist doctor in his fancy office tells my mom, to her face, that her headaches are merely a result of “tension” and not some horrific brain tumor, she actually looks disappointed.
“I have these pains in the back of my head, and sometimes they come to the front of my head, and sometimes Advil works, but not always,” she explained in detail to the doctor, with her flower-print mask that continually dipped below her nose with each motion of her hand. The doctor was very patient, even though she never answered any of his questions. She wanted to feel validated, and I get that. As someone who grew up with my emotions repeatedly dismissed or mocked (usually by my mom) I understood her need. I told her time and again I believed she had pain, but my words never soothed her.
That office visit was the first time I learned my mom had been taking the highly addictive Xanax. She said her mom and aunts once took this kind of anxiety medication. She said she was nervous about taking it, because she didn’t want to become addicted like they had. I’m 37 years old and this is the first time I’d heard that anxiety disorders ran in my family. The neurologist left us with a prescription for a non-addictive medication that would solve my mom’s tension headaches. The caveat: She’d have to go off of the Xanax immediately, and stop with the Advil. “The thing is with those pills; Advil, Tylenol, your brain gets used to them, and if you take them too often, they just stop working,” the smarty-pants doctor said.
In the car garage after the appointment, I asked my mom, “Mom, would you rather have a brain tumor?” I was annoyed by her sullen attitude over the good news. She silently shook her head as she buckled up and I pulled out of the parking space.
“Do you really think I’m depressed?” she demanded when we finally got to her house. “Yes mom, I do,” I said simply, not wanting to engage in an all-out shouting match.
My mom is a social person, before COVID-19 hit, she was a regular at her senior citizen center. She’d go there nearly every day to have lunch with her friends, play games, and basically socialize. She loves shopping and would visit her favorites like JCPenny, Macy’s, or Kohls weekly. But once quarantine struck, her daily routine, like all of our routines, came to a halt. As a retired senior citizen, whose husband passed just four years ago, living in a semi-rural city, I knew my mom would struggle, especially without proper coping mechanisms.
I remember the first time I ever brought up therapy to my mom. I had just started at SDSU, when my mom was complaining yet again, about something my dad had done. We were in the car driving somewhere, and she was unrelenting in her anger. Either out of frustration or some newly-acquired college-educated smugness, I asked my mom, “Have you ever thought of seeing a therapist?” And without missing a beat, my mom shouted, “What, like a psychologist? No soy loca!” I could tell she was beyond offended, how dare I call her crazy? I never brought the subject up again.
The first time I walked into a therapist’s office, it was after I’d spent nearly two weeks without sleep. I was in my late 20’s and on the verge of a Britney Spears-Circa 2003-like mania. I’d tried everything everyone and Google suggested to me. Warm milk, chamomile tea, Bath and Body Works lotions. Nothing worked. The night after my first session with my first therapist, a blond haired, blue-eyed bubbly therapist, I fell asleep. I thought it was a miracle. She simply suggested I write all of my thoughts down before bed like, every single thought. It worked!
I saw two student therapists at a sliding-scale based center, before I was referred to Karin; a Peruvian-American therapist who understood Latinx family values, being bicultural, and those Spanish phrases only the kid of a Latinx parent would understand. Karin is my Godsend. She has seen me through my dad’s Alzheimer’s disease, his ultimate passing, many heartbreaks, and complicated family relationships. Once I started doing the important work of self-realization, and boundary-setting, I couldn’t believe I had waited so long to start therapy.
At the beginning of this pandemic, I had hope that my mom would finally see someone regarding her anxiety. I don’t think she has fully processed my dad’s death, and I told her as much. My mom had a long and tumultuous relationship with my dad, and became his full-time caretaker until his death in 2016. While my mom has a great group of friends and family members, she still has an understandable amount of grief still left to process. In the third month of quarantine, I Googled her health insurance company and looked for Spanish-speaking therapists in her area. It was a sad pursuit. I found a whopping two therapists, both of which were at least a forty-five minute drive from my mom’s house. I figured it was at least a start; we just needed to wait for the referral from her primary doctor. And by “just” I mean she had to call her insurance company, then her doctor’s office, then wait for a call back from the doctor (all lasting about a week) before they finally said, “Yup, we can set up that referral for you.”
After my mom’s neurologist appointment, I spent the rest of that Friday and weekend with her, running errands and picking up lunch.
“Hey mom, whatever happened to that therapist you were supposed to get referred to?”
“Oh, nothing, they never called, and besides, do you know how many doctors I’ve been to in the last few months? I have this pill now, so why go to another doctor?”
I knew she was lying to me. We had called her insurance more than once, there’s no way they just forgot her, her multiple doctor visits over the years, ranging from headaches, to stomach aches, and to her very necessary thyroid cancer treatments, made her unforgettable. She was the feisty, petite old lady from Ecuador who was always complaining about some ailment. Who could forget her?
I sighed and dropped the subject.
That Sunday, when I left the 102 degrees of my hometown behind, and arrived at the 82 degrees of my San Diego apartment, I sent a text to my therapist.
“Hi Karin! Do you have any availability this week?”