Hey. Could you go on a little trip with me for a second? It’ll only take a few minutes, and all you need is your body and your mind. Take a deep breath with me.
In . . .
Out . . .
Nice. Now let’s get started.
Think about something that makes you happy.
It could be your dog, or your cat. Maybe that one time you asked your partner to get you food and they had already gotten it beforehand. Flowers. The last time you went on a hike. Relish in that happy thought. Keep that going for a minute. Look away from the screen.
Now where’s your body in this? How are you expressing this thought? Are the corners of your mouth upturned into a smile? Is your breathing nice and even? Your hands relaxed?
Now think of something that makes you anxious. It could be driving in traffic (that’s mine). Going to an event alone. That one time your cousin pantsed you when you were 10 or how about I ask you a question—where’s your birth certificate? Okay. Hold onto that thought for a minute. I know it’ll be uncomfortable but sit in that discomfort.
Now where is your body? Shallow breathing? Maybe a little sweat? Your hands might be clammy, or are they balled up into fists? Maybe you started cracking your knuckles. It’s okay. You can always think about something else.
We embody our emotions, thoughts, and experiences through our physical self.
I’ve always had trouble grasping this relationship between mind and body, but it didn’t become so apparent to me until it was affecting the people around me and how I treated myself. I can only speak for myself and my experience.
Content Warning: I will be going into some heavy topics like anxiety, depression, and self-harm. I had to take breaks from writing this piece and if you need to take breaks from reading, do so, and be compassionate to yourself. No judgment here.
“I can’t let it out.”
I’ve experienced panic attacks for a LONG time. Way before I even knew what they were—I think my first one was in the fourth grade. I have a spoken word piece called Daldal about it but seriously, I was just an eight-year-old who needed glasses and I couldn’t see what my teacher was writing, so I kept all my emotions in until I started sobbing and shaking uncontrollably. I got sent to the nurse’s office and my teacher printed out the notes for me after class.
“Whenever you need notes, just let me know and I’ll print them out.” I was stunned. I didn’t understand that others would accommodate me.
I was never taught how to express my emotions in a healthy way. Bless my parents for doing their best in the culture they were brought up in, but we just did not know. I bottled in every negative emotion as a result.
I did not learn after this first time.
In the seventh grade, I lost a library book. To this day, I have NO idea where it went. I went into an immediate panic because I had this thought spiral about how my parents were going to get super angry and the school was going to call and make me pay for it. My parents hated paying for things that can be prevented.
So I went into my sister’s room and closed the door. I cried and sobbed in the fetal position and scratched my arms. It was not kind. It was not understanding. I was like Elsa in Disney’s Frozen.
My stepmom caught me, not really understanding what was going on. But she told me to get up and I told her I lost the book. She laughed a little and said, “It’s fine, stop overreacting.” We went on with the day.
Flash forward to high school and my panic attacks went away for a little because I started writing. Ms. Wooten’s Reading class in eighth grade SAVED me because I found poetry, and poetry found me. I have journals stacked on journals in my room now. I had a Tumblr. Even though I had gone through a big move to Germany as a junior, I was okay because I had friends, art and poetry.
I had an idea about my depression and when I wrote about it online, people reached out and supported me. They told me I could talk to them, even if we were complete strangers. I read poetry by people who felt the same way, even people I knew in real life. It felt so good to talk about it.
But then my dad found my Tumblr. Actually, my online class Art Appreciation teacher found my Tumblr and, for good reason, was concerned about the feelings I wrote about so she sent my dad an email.
I don’t like remembering this. I typically have an amazing memory. I remember things back from when I was 3 and can memorize texts and locations of quotes in books, no problem.
But sometimes, my moments of high anxiety are underwater. Blurry and hazy. Eyes brimmed in tears.
“What is this?”
“What is this? Why are you writing these things?”
“I want the passwords to all your sites online and I want this page taken down.”
I didn’t take it down. I couldn’t. So I stopped posting instead. And I wrote everything in my journal. My writing community was gone, just like that. I stopped using words and I started using art.
Perception. Graphite and colored pencil on paper. An original drawing by Mei-Mei Mijares.
“I want to escape.”
I had quiet bouts of depression. On and off. Thinking about it now, reading book after book and refusing to get out of bed for whole days at a time wasn’t just because I was an avid reader.
I fought with my dad regularly. I don’t remember what we fought about. It was probably small things, especially about my siblings.
“Let Sarah go out with her friends.” “Let Michael stay in his room.” “Let Karlo cry; he needs to know how to.”
I did SO much in high school in Germany. One reason was because I finally could.
In Tennessee (middle/early high school), I barely ever went out of the house. Once, I went across the street to a male friend’s house and after, my dad video called me FROM AFGHANISTAN telling me I could never go there again because I was a girl.
The other reason was because it was better than being home.
So junior and senior year, I did everything. Musicals. Student Council. NHS. AP classes. Cross Country. MUN. Prom Committee.
I did everything I could to be out of the house. To experience life.
But the panic attacks came back. Now that I was doing more, I had a different kind of stress.
Senior year, during rehearsal for High School Musical, I couldn’t get the choreography right. I ran backstage.
I always go for the dark. I don’t know why exactly; there’s probably some psychological study somewhere. When I was smaller, I’d go in my closet to cry. This time, I went underneath a table in the girl’s dressing room and tucked my head into my knees. Pitch black. I took fistfuls of my hair and tugged just so I could focus on something. Anything except—inept, incapable, untalented, uncoordinated, clumsy, this is why you can never get the lead in anything why can’t you just do something right for once—
Then there were hands on mine. I pulled my head from my knees, and looked up into the light. My best friend looked at me with a concerned face. I loosened my grip from my hair and he pulled my hands away from my head. It started with, “What’s wrong?” And then I opened up and flooded the room with my worries and he sat and listened.
The rest of the year was a lot easier after that.
So when I went to university, I spent a few years unpacking how my family dynamic affected me and rewiring my brain with all its beautiful neuroplasticity.
“You’re not God, Mei-Mei.”
At my alma mater, they have this thing called CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services). I enrolled myself right away and I was on-and-off through and through. But it was a consistent on-and-off that went with the seasons. There was one season in particular, Fall Quarter of my third year, where everything fell apart.
VENTURA, CA - DECEMBER 5: A family pack up and evacuate as a brushfire gets closer to their home on December 5, 2017 in Ventura, California. (Photo by Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Not only was there the stress of the Thomas Fire—yes, it was that time. I had the added stress of refusing I had a problem, refusing I needed help, and refusing there was any problem with the relationship I was in.
Just a few bare cuts every 3 weeks. See them heal. Repeat. Walked home from work with tears in my eyes, another fight, another day, another night of homework. I stood a little too close to the road every time. 3 months underwater. I remember bowls of oatmeal. Spoons of peanut butter. I couldn’t feel panic anymore, I was just numb.
Put school, becoming president of Poets’ Club, family, friends, financial trouble, and two jobs on top of that and you get Mei-Mei, having an emergency session with a new therapist maybe a few weeks before the fire started.
“You hold yourself to a really high standard.”
“Yeah, I can’t make mistakes.”
“Would you hold your friends to the same standard?”
I stayed silent.
“You’re not God, Mei-Mei. You’re human too.”