A conversation about our mental health

UC Berkeley was always a distant star in my universe. I was afraid of not being good enough for the “No. 1 public university in the world.” Studying here is enriching in ways that I could’ve never imagined, and although there are difficulties, we’re all experiencing something that has changed our lives. 

The stress can be daunting at times. We are in constant motion of heavily caffeinated nights, looming deadlines, buzzing social lives — and the list continues. In the midst of it all, we often forget an important aspect: taking care of our mental health. I’ve realized that we frequently promote talking about mental health but never actually go through with it, afraid of opening up about our inner truths. Personally, it’s been severely painful. Growing up, my environment restricted me from being able to healthily express my depression, social anxiety, body dysmorphia, and suicidal and dissociative thoughts. 

When I was 8 years old, I moved into a room and board facility for people with mental illnesses. My mother worked as a caregiver at the facility, but instead of getting paid with money, the owner provided food and a little room for us to share. Moreover, the owner emotionally abused and controlled me for years. She would call me demeaning names, force me to work for hours and would completely disregard my feelings, as well as my responsibilities in school. Over time, I watched my mother slowly become a mirror image of her, instead of the mother figure I needed. This unexpected shift from sharing a home with my family to living in a room and board facility completely changed who I was. My mother and I were on our own — my father’s drug addiction led him to abdicate his responsibilities as a parent and husband. The loss of my parents motivated me to strive in my education, to build a life where I could have the potential to solve problems and help others. I didn’t realize that this small part of my story could help contribute to my dream. 

During the summer before my senior year of high school, I was invited to a leadership camp at Sequoia Lake. The camp revolved around training leaders to collaborate with people from different cultures and develop skills to improve personal assets. I gained a deep understanding of ethics, more specifically diligence, integrity and self-reflection that transferred into my personal life. At the end of the camp, we were given an activity where we had to let go of anything that had been giving us pain. When looking out toward the beautiful water and serene mountains, I realized that I had healed. During our group discussion, I opened up about the challenges I faced growing up in a room and board facility. Through this, I rediscovered and found myself. 

For five years, I used to draw a vine of leaves on the palm of my hand every time I needed a reminder of my strength. I drew this instead of self-harming. Each leaf counted as someone who supported, guided and loved me. And it was my way of coping with the situations I never thought I would be able to survive. On June 18, I got this drawing tattooed, wrapped around my upper left arm. The concept is that 10 leaves with red veins represent the people who I know are always going to be in my life, eight leaves with shading represent the good friends and a variety of smaller leaves represent people who I have not met yet, but I know will hold a special place in my heart. I love telling this story to new friends who ask, and I especially love when they ask me if they can be one of the smaller, growing leaves. I have such an amazing group of people who became my family, and I want them to be part of me forever. Each leaf represents a person who has saved me, and each new person will represent a part of that growth. I can’t thank them enough. I am still in disbelief that my life changed because I grew the courage to speak out and be accepted for who I am.  I want to be constantly reminded that my purpose in this life is to help those people and others. This is who I am. 

My ability to open up about my mental health has helped me strive and find my place here at UC Berkeley. I have found myself being able to talk to people about my mental health and have helped others as well through support and guidance. Starting the conversation has let loved ones know that I confide in them about the intimate parts of myself that I never thought I’d share. We need to spark such conversations about mental health because its positive impact can change someone’s life. It can encourage those who have been silent to take steps toward understanding their feelings and to reach out for help if needed. 

For me, I know I am not perfect. I still walk on Upper Sproul Plaza and feel alone despite the chatter of clubs and organizations surrounding me. Remembering that there are people who are here to listen only gives me hope in a world that seems impossible. Your voice matters: You never know who you can save, including yourself.

Contact Gisselle Reyes at [email protected]