Facing Stigma and Recovery Alone as A Child

Maria Estrada embodies the spirit of hope and help that Unsinkable is all about. Since childhood, Maria has faced serious mental health challenges, challenges that resulted in self-harm, multiple suicide attempts, and addiction. When she first took the reins of her mental health at the age of 12, she also took that first critical step towards not only surviving, but eventually thriving. As she spoke to me, my skin went up in goosebumps so many times I lost count. She dedicates a huge part of her life, education, work, recovery, and her story to helping others. She is truly amazing. She is unsinkable; and it’s an honour to share her with you.

Jody: For readers who may be meeting you for the first time, can you walk us
through some “demographic information” about you?

Maria: I’m 23 and currently live in Burlington, O.N. I immigrated to Canada – I’m from Peru – and right now after many, many years of going to school, have finally graduated. I currently work at this agency called SAVIS [Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention Services] of Halton. I’m one of their new counsellors there and I’m working with victims of sexual assault and human trafficking.

Jody: Is this related to your degree? What did you study?

Maria: I went to school for child and youth counselling and in my career I really specialize in concurrent disorders and trauma. That has been my passion, obviously in mental health and addiction, because I have lived experience with both.

Jody: How do you keep a balance in the work that you do? How do you keep yourself safe from potential triggers and how do you walk out of that world and say, go have dinner with people?

Maria: I think that because of my mental health and addiction issues and because of my lived experience, I always think that I have – well, I call it my ‘superpower’. I’ve been really blessed with being able to keep my work life and personal life separate.
Although it really all intertwines because of my lived experience, so when I’m at work I only focus on work. As soon as time’s up there and I go home, I really practice self-care. I don’t do anything work related at home. I love music and I love having dance parties with my dog and my cat. I love watching TV shows that are funny and distracting from the serious world.

Because I am a recovering addict, I also go to NA [Narcotics Anonymous] meetings almost every day, sometimes twice a day. I make sure that my recovery is being followed up: I still have my people. I still have a social worker and psychiatrist and a therapist and I pay my dues with my mental health. I guess one of the gifts of having lived experience is that I’m very aware of my body and my mind and my emotions. So, I know that if my mental health is kind of deteriorating, I’m able to access those skills and access services as soon as possible and take care of myself.

Jody: What do you notice, or what are the signals for you, that it’s time to get some extra help and support?

Maria: I see a social worker every week and so I will flag things. Like if I’m not sleeping. If I’m not sleeping for more than 3 days, I know that something is happening. I know that if my anxiety becomes physical, I know that that’s my body’s way of saying, “Please stop.” I suffered throughout my journey with somatic pain which is anxiety/depression becoming physical. It’s mostly anxiety…so, feeling like I’m literally having a heart attack, like my chest feels like it’s being crushed and I can’t function. I can hardly breathe, and the shakiness and all of that becomes very physical and very strong. As soon as things move into my physical body, I need to flag that as well.

I know that sometimes – because I am human – I constantly have to battle negative thoughts, mostly about myself. Sometimes my brain says, “Oh, you don’t need medication anymore, you seem fine,” and I’m noticing those thoughts and I know I have to flag them to other people. Mostly to hold myself accountable. I have to hold myself accountable for the things that I do. Or in more serious cases if I am thinking about relapse or self-harm or my depression has become too debilitating, I gather all my team and tell them what’s happening and that we have to get on top of it and that I’m not okay and that I need some extra help.

Jody: Wow. That’s really incredible because it’s one thing to have the awareness that you need a team, but another when you are working against yourself in such a profound way when your mental health is deteriorating.

Can you walk me through where you are now, what your recovery path has been and what gives you the ability to stay strong that way? I know you have team support, but at the end of the day it’s you who has to make that call for help. How do you think you’ve been able to come to that point?

Maria: It all started when I was 12 and I hit my very dark point. I was struggling with self-harm, I was struggling with substance use, and I was struggling with a lot of suicidal thoughts and actions. I realized after I had attempted suicide one night
that nobody had noticed! My family never noticed. As soon as I woke up, the agonizing, extreme emotional pain of waking up, I realized that I needed to take care of myself. I grew up having nobody – that was kind of a huge kick in the butt. I was like, Okay, this is obviously a cry for help and nobody noticed. It indicated that I only had me.

So, I started “ratting myself out” – I had this awakening that nobody should ever feel the way that I felt. Nobody should struggle with the pain that I struggled with. Nobody should do this alone. So then I started ratting myself out. At 12 I went to a walk-in clinic and as soon as I walked in I said, “I just attempted suicide and you need to help me.”

I remember the receptionist’s face: her eyes were so big and wide and she didn’t have anything to say. Throughout my recovery I’ve had to rat myself out because lying to myself and listening to that voice really makes you sick. And because I don’t have anybody – and when I say ‘anybody’ I’m talking about family support, right? – I didn’t grow up with family support. I have a family and they’re wonderful people but they just don’t know how to deal with me or how to handle mental health and addiction and all the things that I struggle with because of cultural differences.

It was just me, myself and I. So, how I treat myself in my recovery is that I rat myself out. I don’t like going to NA every night, I don’t like going to the therapy every 2 weeks. Nobody likes those things because that voice in your mind tells you that you don’t deserve this, that you deserve pain because you’re not worthy of recovery. When I go to therapy or to an NA meeting, even though my body is telling me to run away, I sit there and share like my life depends on it. Because it does.

If I kept those secrets…Secrets make you sick and that’s how I’ve gotten myself into situations where I’ve overdosed; I’ve attempted suicide multiple times because I kept those secrets.

I have to do this because my life, my sanity, depends on it.

Jody: Obviously there has always been a part of you that wants to survive, that wants to triumph.

Maria: One day I asked this question to myself. The question was, Do you want to die or do you want the pain to stop?

I was 17 when I first asked myself this question after attempting suicide 5 times. My answer was that I wanted the pain to stop. And then my pain challenged me: No, I want to die; there’s nothing in this world for me. And then I challenged myself even more by asking: Do we know what happens after death? If you’re spiritual or religious you have this theory and this faith, but I can’t tell you what happens because none of us have ever been there and back. So for me, it always comes back to I want the pain to stop.

That question saved my life and now I ask it to my clients. And ten out of ten times they say they want the pain to stop. I truly believe that nobody wants to die, but people want this emotional, physical, spiritual pain to go away and they have tried everything and nothing has worked and therefore, they think if they’re dead that it will finally stop. But I tell people that it’s possible for the pain to stop and they can stay alive.

The pain has stopped for me – not fully – and sometimes I forget the pain is there and I’ll go weeks and months not noticing it’s there and fully enjoying my life. And then sometimes I wake up and the pain is there. It’s not overwhelming, but it’s there and I acknowledge it. I acknowledge it because that’s what [the pain] needs.

Jody: So you are able with your clients to at least try to get them to accept that there is a way to lessen the pain, to even make it stop, without having to end their lives.

Maria: Yeah. It’s a desperation point that they’re at. And desperation is such a gift because it brings people to where they need to be, whether it’s reaching out for help or telling somebody or outing themselves. It’s desperation that brings people to recovery.

I’m a very holistic person: I work with the body, mind and spirit. When people challenge me, I ask people if they believe in something bigger than themselves. Faith in something is SO important. My depression and anxiety and all my illnesses were greater than me, but they were ‘evil’. I wasn’t a spiritual person for a very long time because I resented God. It’s only been about 3 years since I started exploring my Higher Power – I needed something greater than my illnesses, greater than myself. If that was just a tree I would talk to one day, well, that tree was greater than me. And then it became the universe and then it became the source. When something happens, NA has taught me to surrender to this Higher Power.

I honestly think that everybody needs something to believe in that’s greater than themselves. Whatever that is.

Jody: What do you say to your clients who are at the point where maybe if they hadn’t come to see you, they might have taken their life because it’s been that bleak and that dark for them? How do you convince them to keep trying and to come back and do the work?

Maria: I can’t convince them. They have to want it. So, the way I do my practice is that I’m honest. I humanize myself. A lot of people see therapists as perfect, that their lives are perfect. And they’re not. So I humanize myself.

Sometimes people need someone to believe in them until they can believe in themselves. And that’s me. Some people need somebody to love them until they can learn to love themselves. And that’s me. When they just need somebody to listen – that’s me. And some people will sit in my office for an hour and cry. And I’ll just be there.

I truly believe that nobody is broken. Therapy is not about ‘fixing’ people. I tell people they’re not broken. They are a puzzle. And when you open up a new puzzle and see all the pieces, is it broken? I’ll ask them that: is a puzzle broken? They always say no and then I say to them, “That’s exactly you and your life – not broken but waiting to be put back together into a beautiful picture. And that’s you. We just have to put the pieces back together into the beautiful picture of you. But you have to want it.”

Jody: What a profound shift in how someone could see themselves. Who was that person for you who loved you until you could love yourself?

Maria: I had a lot of people that came and helped me be the person that I am today. They take some of the credit, but I did all the work! Reach Out Centre for Kids (ROCK) was huge – they’re my family. They’re my people. I remember when I was 16 or 17 and I could get a tattoo, I got a ROCK tattoo. I got the little hands. ROCK was there, they saw something in me and they believed in me. The receptionist would treat me like a human and is such a sweet soul – she saw me. I used to sit there even when I didn’t have an appointment because it was a safe place to be. The CEO of ROCK asked if he could have a painting that I had done for my counselor when I graduated and he put it in the Head Office. He got it professionally framed and it’s there to this day. Sometimes I walk in (because I’m always excited to go there) and I will look at that picture and go, “Wow. You guys saved my life.”

Another one of the big players in my life is a friend I met through one of the youth groups I was going to [the Coffee Project] and he taught me a lot of harm reduction things and taught me patience and how to love myself. He became my friend after the group ended and assured me that I would never lose him. It’s been 7 years and he’s still in my life. When I moved out of my house and into my apartment, he helped me move and set up my place. When I’m upset and I need someone to call me out on the crap that my distorted mind thinks, he’s that person. I recently just called him because I needed to get out of my head and he just listened to me cry. He said something after that totally validated my emotions and I thanked him. He said, ‘Anytime.’ He was the first person I told that I thought I was an addict and he didn’t judge me. He’s always been that person.

Jody: Wow. What a special person.

Maria: And that’s the beauty of family. It doesn’t have to be blood.

Jody: It reminds me of what you said earlier about opening up. When you’re keeping your dark secrets, there are no angels. But when you start to open up, there are angels, aren’t there?

Maria: That’s the blessing of being vulnerable. It’s tough and scary and you don’t know how people are going to react, but there is always someone who’s going to be there.

Jody: Maria, thanks so much for talking with me today. You’ve been so generous with your time and your story.

Maria: This opportunity has been so amazing because one of the things that I needed was for my story to do some good. Sharing my story and hoping someone can relate or get a message is why I am willing to do this. My dream is to share my story around the world and to write a book. My goal was to make something out of my story so nobody else has to go through what I did. And if they are, that they don’t go through it alone.

Jody: Is there anything else you’d like to say before we close?

Maria: Yes. Recovery is possible. People might not think they deserve it or that they’re bad people because of the things they have done, but nobody is a bad person. Mental health, addiction are diseases, they are not moral deficiencies. I did horrible things for my addiction and I thought I was a horrible person. But I wasn’t. I was sick and I needed help. I needed to be loved and I needed support. But what I did did not make me a bad person. I tell people that they deserve recovery, they deserve to have a good life. They do.