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Serena: Hey Everyone, I’m Serena.
Tina: And I’m Tina and we are the Mental Health Mamas.
Serena: Welcome to No Need to Explain, we are so glad you’re here.
Tina: First, as always, a quick disclaimer.
Serena: We come to you NOT as mental health professionals or experts in the field, but rather as the parents of kids who struggle with their emotional health.
Tina: If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek professional support. You’ll find a variety of resources in our show notes and on our website, NoNeedToExplainPodcast.com.
Serena: So I believe that I’ve shared on the podcast before that I moved around a lot growing up. And for anybody who has moved, which I think is most people, moving is not easy even when ultimately it’s a positive experience. My family moved from Northern Virginia to Londonderry, New Hampshire right before I started high school. Londonderry is a pretty small town, a small New England town, and one in which many of the kids have known each other since Kindergarten which makes it extra hard to be the “new kid”. I recently re-connected with a friend from high school and learned for the first time, actually, that she was also the “new kid” at about the same time. So I’m really excited to introduce our guest to you today as a friend from (ahem) maybe a few years ago. I will let Tina do the formal introductions, but first I just want to say, Elisa, welcome to our podcast!
Elisa: Thank you for having me on! It’s great to reconnect Serena!
Tina: We are so glad you can join us today! Elisa Batista has worked in a number of different roles in politics as an activist, writer and a public figure. Currently she works for the women’s rights organization, Ultraviolet, as a campaign director where she conceives and implements campaigns to end violence against women among other roles. She is mom to two teenagers and is especially passionate about elevating the voices of women of color who struggle with mental illness and addiction.
Serena: So Elisa, before we really dive in here...I wonder if you might share a little bit about what it was like for you to be the “new kid” in Londonderry, New Hampshire?
Elisa: Oh my God, that was an experience that shaped who I am to this day.
So, I largely grew up in a working class Haitian neighborhood in North Miami. Think brightly colored cinder block homes, tropical fruit trees that our fathers planted from the old country, and Creole, or in my case, Spanish Catholic mass. Our pastor was Haitian and is actually back home in Haiti now.
My father is Cuban from the east coast side of the island facing Haiti and my mother is Puerto Rican. In 1991, when I was 14, my father, who worked in manufacturing, got a job in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He ended up renting a townhouse in Londonderry so that we could attend the public schools there. It was definitely culture shock, and I do remember feeling like I had to be perfect to fit in.
Tina: So tell us a little bit, that was a little bit about your personal life...tell us about a little bit of the work that you do in your professional life.
Elisa: I am a trained journalist, and my first job out of college was as a reporter at Wired News in San Francisco. I was there for about 3.5 years, then I had my son, Ari. Based on the price of childcare in the Bay Area and the uncertain and long hours of working in a newsroom, I reinvented myself as a political organizer. I did this by first starting a mommy blog with a few friends called MotherTalkers. It ended up becoming a wildly popular progressive blog that was voted by Ms. magazine a “favorite mommy blog” and was recognized with numerous awards including by the Latinos in Tech Innovation and Social Media (LATISM). What set it apart from other blogs was that it had a function called “diaries” and it allowed anyone to blog on our website. It was through that blog that I got the attention of a start-up political organization called MomsRising.
I eventually became a full-time campaign director for them, where I helped start their immigrant rights campaign and their bilingual community, MamásConPoder, or it means “Moms With Power” in Spanish. I am passionate about empowering others to live their best lives, and that includes making structural changes in our society, in our country, so that all of us, including mothers, caregivers, immigrants, survivors of sexual abuse and violence, women of color, we can all show up as our full, authentic selves and thrive.
Serena: That is awesome. I love that. So we are gonna shift gears here just a little bit and go back to the personal part of things and talk about your personal connection with mental illness and addiction. And as we’ve shared on the podcast before, we’ve shared some statistics in the past about how many of us are affected and I don’t have updated statistics around COVID, I’m guessing those are still in the works, but what we do know is that one in five adults struggles with a diagnosable mental health condition in any given year. And that’s the same for youth. It’s one in five. And one in four adults has or has had an addiction of some sort. So this means that if it’s not us personally, then it’s someone close to us that struggles. So as we always say, this is all of us. So Elisa, tell us about your experience.
Elisa: Well, I’m 44 now, and I have learned a lot, especially in the last six years. While I and my family of origin suffered from various undiagnosed and diagnosed mental illnesses like mood disorders and alcoholism, I didn’t learn about them until I was in couples counseling back in 2015, trying to save a 20-year relationship. Our genius marriage counselor pointed out to me that I exhibited symptoms of an adult child of alcoholic and co-dependent parents such as perfectionism, denial, people-pleasing and shame. I didn’t believe her because my parents could hold down jobs and raise a family. For me, an alcoholic was someone who couldn’t do those things and lived in the streets--I didn’t realize that there were various degrees of the disease and that you could be affected even if you didn’t drink.
Anyways, this genius counselor had me read a book by Dr. Robert Ackerson that was called, “Perfect Daughters: The Adult Daughters of Alcoholics.” It was like reading my autobiography! Everything I had ever felt or done--my behavioral patterns and personality--it was all in this book.
From then on, I went through the stages of grief, coming to terms with the disease, which was a shock to my perfectionist tendencies and the denial that comes with the disease and shame. I was a regular red wine drinker who loved to go up to Napa and Sonoma near where I live here in California for wine tastings. And I would always bring out the bottles when people would visit me. At the same time I’ve had a mood disorder called PMDD or Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, which I had refused to do anything about even though it had impacted my relationships. PMDD basically, the week before my period, I’d get anxious, really depressed and weepy, and very moody. Then the week of my period, the physical symptoms were horrible. I mean this was not just menstrual cramps. These were really painful periods that I could feel to my core that made me vomit. My periods looked like a murder scene. And again, rather than seek help, I’d simply medicate with wine, which, as it turns out, is the worst thing you can do because alcohol is a depressant.
Five years later, after a divorce or what I’m calling my rock-bottom, I finally stuck with Al-Anon meetings--it’s a support network for family members of alcoholics--quit drinking altogether, and sought help for the PMDD. Not only do I exercise every single day and for the most part eat very healthy, I take two forms of birth control. An IUD with low-dose hormones and an oral birth control and two antidepressants to keep the symptoms in check. And honestly, I feel great now. My one regret, and I mean I look forward, but my one regret is I was so stubborn and didn’t get help years ago.
Serena: Yeah, so I’m gonna actually...I appreciate all that you shared there and the normalization of taking medication because it’s not always something that people are comfortable sharing, right? But I wanted to back up just a moment here and talk for a moment about the, the drinking culture, right? The...and I’ve certainly heard even more of this, you know, coming up around COVID with, you know, parents home all day and in some ways there’s kind of a glorification of, you know, the day drinking, right? So can you tell me what it was like for you as a young mom and how you kind of became part of that culture?
Elisa: I agree. I would say that quitting drinking...and I wasn’t that heavy of a drinker, but still a regular drinker....was really hard. It not only meant stop buying the alcohol, stop drinking it, it also meant changing my environment. Drinking friends. I mean I raised my kids, I would have these dinner parties in which we’d be playing card games and drinking down margaritas and wine and this was how we socialized and were intimate with one another. And letting all of that go, I even had to take, even if it was temporary, breaks from drinking mom friends because it was such a hard habit to break. We’d get together, we’d play cards and of course alcohol is involved. And you can imagine now during a pandemic why that was a lifestyle that was really difficult. I’m proud of myself. I actually stayed dry the entire pandemic. Although at the very beginning, like many people, I definitely wanted to calm down and calm the nerves with a glass of wine and I just didn’t because the way I lived before was not, it didn’t feel right.
Tina: Yeah. So, while we’re on the topic of culture, let’s talk a little bit, if you would, about, you said you’re Latina and so I’m curious about how mental health is viewed in that culture?
Elisa: Oh my goodness, with deep shame and denial. And I think it is exacerbated in immigrant, people of color and other marginalized communities. If you think about our larger country and society, it is very cutthroat, deeply individualistic. It’s like, go out, make money however possible. But one thing I have learned about this process is that it’s not necessarily the most humanizing system. It is incredibly racist, ableist, perfectionist and deeply dehumanizing. If you have barriers because of discrimination, you’re treated like, you’re just lucky to be here, you know, you shouldn’t have a problem. And the thing is that there is a lot of stigma around mental illness and substance abuse. I want to give you an example. One of the things that really rattles me to my core is the expectation that immigrants, especially if you do not have documentation, have to be perfect. Like if you get a DUI, you should be kicked out of the country and the reality is lots of white Americans get DUI’s and suffer from alcoholism. And why wouldn’t people from other communities also have these issues? But somehow we have to hide it and we have to behave perfectly in every way so that we can be deemed Americans too.
Tina: I hear you, I hear you. Yeah. I think that immigrant pressure is a lot, right? That lucky to be here thing, right? It is a lot and I am from a family that immigrated a long, long time ago and I think that was part of that culture, right? It is, you’re lucky to be here and you are held to a higher standard and that doesn’t seem right.
Elisa: Yes. I feel now I’ve learned to show a little more compassion to myself and especially my parents, right? I know for the longest time I felt like I had to work ten times harder than everyone around me to prove that I belonged there. And I can only imagine it was much worse for my parents who had additional pressures like learning English and feeding a family on working class jobs without, you know, that they didn’t have college degrees and I can just only imagine how much pressure that was. So of course, you know, talking about or drawing attention to any less than perfect or ideal circumstances was just not wanted.
Serena: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah and so I wonder if you could talk about that in terms of Londonderry. I imagine there are people out there who don’t have a clear view of what that might look like.
Elisa: Yeah, so, again I moved from a largely black and brown community that spoke other languages, multiple languages, to Londonderry, New Hampshire which was, at the time, we were one of three Puerto Rican families, at least in the school system. And I just found that the very few visible people of color, including my siblings, were all put in remedial classes and I was maybe one of two, max three women of color in my honors track. And I can tell you, I put so much pressure on myself. I was up until 11, midnight, you know, doing homework. I really suffered in silence. I felt like I couldn’t tell a soul about this because it was like a sign of weakness. Now in my political work I come across other people of color who similarly grew up and there’s a lot of deep internalized prejudices and imposter syndrome and it’s taken many years of work to undo that and I would say until now did I finally recognize, you know what, I always deserved to be there. I was just as smart and competent as other folks. But again, and I didn’t have the vocabulary or the insights that I have today to recognize that this was part of a larger structural issue. That it was purposely, you know, systems are set up so that people of color know, “their place” and are made to feel this way.
Serena: So knowing that one of the goals of this podcast is to normalize the conversations around mental health for everyone, we’re curious what your thoughts might be on how we might move a little closer to that normalization? How do we push back against generations of stigma?
Elisa: Oh boy. I would say it starts with awareness. It’s breaking through the denial and the stigma and I would say it took me at least six years of work! And this was going to support group meetings, therapy. I even have an Al-Anon sponsor that I talk to. Reading so many books like “Perfect Daughters”. To really undo what is intergenerational trauma. And then from then on, I’m still working on this, is extending what I’ve learned to my kids and the people who live with us, normalizing conversations at the kitchen table. I regularly broach the topic to my kids of being able to make mistakes. Like I said, part of this disease was feeling like I had to be perfect and the wall of perfectionism and vulnerability and shame are bad. And don’t show any weakness. And now I tell my kids the opposite. That making mistakes is healthy. Perfectionism is not. And I feel that that is an example of a teaching to help disrupt the stigma and trauma that has been passed from one generation to the next.
Tina: I love that. Just regular conversations. We all don’t have to be activists but we all can do what we can do around our kitchen table, right?
Elisa: That’s right.
Tina: Yeah, so that’s awesome. We always like to ask our guests about their self-care or the things that they do for renewal. You are clearly a super busy person with two teenagers at home and a full-time career. So what does that self-care look like for you Elisa?
Elisa: Well, it is an all-day, intentional practice every day. I seek joy and gratitude in everything that I do from answering someone’s email at work to washing the dishes. I exercise at least 30 minutes a day, typically an hour. I have a Peloton, which is a stationary bike with a computer screen and you pay forty dollars a month for service so you can have access to classes 24/7. It’s been the easiest, quickest way I can fit in the exercise every day. On the weekends, I go on long, hours-long bike rides through the hills near my home, not only for the exercise, I love cycling, but also to enjoy nature. It’s been shown, studies have shown that spending time in nature is a natural antidepressant. I read and meditate on Al-Anon literature before I go to sleep. I rely on the “Courage to Change” and “One Day at a Time” daily readers that have really inspirational readings and things that I can ponder. And most importantly, forgive myself for any mistakes I may have done. Again, undoing that perfectionism...it’s daily work and I’m just the much more joyful and grateful for it.
Serena: Yeah. Yeah, I love the intentionality of your self-care. I think that seems to be the key for so many of us to just make sure that’s really happening every day. So we have one more question for you today. This is a question we like to ask of our guests who are “Experts by Experience” like you. So for anyone listening out there who might have a family member struggling with alcohol abuse what might you say to them? Is there something that you wish you had known earlier in this journey?
Elisa: Yes. The 3 C’s: I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it. Earlier this year, a sister who was a year younger than me and who I was incredibly close to growing up, died of liver cirrhosis at the age of 42. She had been drinking since middle school. What this experience has taught me was that one, alcoholism is a disease that you can’t control or cure any more than cancer or any other genetic and terminal illness. And two, perhaps the most difficult lesson of all, is that I didn’t cause it. A lot of my own 12-step-work has been overcoming the guilt and the shame that I could have done more or what I would have done differently in the past. None of this is simply true. Now when I come across a difficult situation that involves me controlling another person’s actions or their disease, I immediately default to the Al-Anon slogan, “Let go, let God.”
Serena: Mmm. Yeah. Elisa, I really appreciate you sharing all of that. I’m so sorry for the loss of your sister and I appreciate that you’re able to share that with us and with the world. I have to say that before the loss of your sister, I had no idea that liver cirrhosis could affect someone so young. So it‘s obviously very important information for people to hear. And I wanted to take a moment and repeat the 3 C’s because I think this is huge for anyone who has someone close to them struggling with addiction. I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it. So I’m going to pause Elisa. I don’t know if you want to respond before we close out the episode or if there’s anything we didn’t ask that you want to add in here.
Elisa: No, I appreciate you having me on and honoring my sister in this way. I feel that I honor her every time I focus on my own self-care and share what I’ve learned with her niece and her nephew. And in my work moving forward I just have so much more compassion for others and most importantly for myself.
Serena: Yeah. Yeah. So thank you for sharing your wisdom with us today and your willingness to be vulnerable with us. I know it’s not easy. And for everybody out there who’s hearing it who you’re being vulnerable with, right? And on a personal note, I just want to say it’s great to have reconnected with you after all these years and especially over a topic that we are both so passionate about!
Elisa: Same here! I’m so thrilled that you both are running this podcast. Thank you for reaching out to me, Serena. It’s great to reconnect.
Tina: Well we are super excited and I personally, because I didn’t know you in Londonderry, as lucky to have met you and thank you so much for joining us today and sharing so openly about your personal family struggles. I think this is how we normalize, right? So thanks for all you are doing.
Elisa: Thank you Tina.
Tina: So podcast friends, we are, as always, grateful for all of you listening and supporting us. You can help us out by visiting Apple podcasts, leaving us a review, subscribing and please share with others. You will find more content on our website, NoNeedtoExplainPodcast.com. You will also find an email address and we would love to hear from you by email.
Serena: And this is your gentle reminder to take good care of yourself while you are also taking care of your people.
Tina: Thanks again for listening!