Margarita Gracia

Local Woman Is Not Dead

I walk around with a lot of palpable fear that I feel viscerally. It preoccupies my thinking. Even just getting here for this interview was a struggle. Driving is pretty normal for most people, but I have to work myself up to get in the car and go. Right now, I’m thinking about having to drive back home: not knowing my way, the mistakes I could make, the busy intersections I will have to cross, the other drivers who might not signal or stop.

I avoided getting my license for the longest time. Really, I spent four years of my life completely avoiding anything that required risk or responsibility, and now I have to teach myself how to not avoid things again.

My anxiety isn’t so much tied to my current life as it is to what I’ve been through in my life. I’m actually not that stressed right now. I’m a college student and creative nonfiction writer about to graduate this summer. I didn’t get a summer job so I could finish up my classes, which means I don’t have any money. But I’m living with my dad, so I’m lucky I don’t have any big expenses to worry about. My biggest stressor is myself.

The biggest obstacle I’ve faced is mental illness. It’s what has consistently prevented me from moving forward. I’ve been really, really depressed in my life. I missed a year of high school because of it. It took me five years to graduate from high school, and it’s taking me six years to graduate from college.

For some reason, my teachers always thought I was really smart—maybe because I read a lot and had slightly more verbal acuity than average—so they put a lot of pressure on me to perform well. I developed really bad perfectionism because of it, so bad that I wouldn’t turn papers in because I didn’t believe they were good enough. I’ve gotten over that. Now, I can turn things in that are disappointing to me, but they’re just that: disappointing.

The biggest lies I’ve been told throughout my life are: “Everything happens for a reason” and “You can do whatever you want.” There is good in the world, but it’s a tough place to live. It’s unforgiving and it’s harsh. There’s so much pressure to be great and do something really impressive, but that’s not for everyone.

Because people think I’m smart, they think I should be successful, and success to them means becoming a doctor or lawyer. But I could never put myself in a situation where I’m responsible for someone else’s life. I have to work within the confines of my own personality, and I’m too anxious. I need security and I like certainty, but certainty doesn’t exist. I’m also passive and not very industrious. That’s my fatal flaw. I tend toward inactivity because, for me, even brushing my teeth and combing my hair is exhausting. Depression makes everyday activities difficult, arduous, and cumbersome.

I feel like better advice is: “You can do whatever you’re capable of” and “It’s okay if you don’t do great things.” In order to feel successful at the end of my life, I think I just have to get through it. To stay alive. To get through the day, and then get through the next day. To wake up and do it all over again.

Four years ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I was already kind of an anxious person before that, but the diagnosis really ramped it up. It gave me a whole new set of specific, statistically-more-probable-than-the-average-person worries. Bipolar disorder is the sixth leading cause of disability in the world1, and as many as one in five people with bipolar disorder commit suicide2, which is about 30 times the rate for the general population.

I was diagnosed after having a psychotic episode, a period of mania that lasted for months. Once you have a psychotic episode, your sense of belief in yourself changes. It made me believe I am an unreliable person. I question myself. I don’t trust myself.

I was born and raised in Houston, and I moved to Omaha out of sheer mortification of what I had done when I was manic. Mania is a period of extreme activity that can coincide with total psychosis. You have all this energy, and at the same time, you might have delusions. You might think, “I’m Jesus.” You might call all of your friends and tell them that you think you’re Jesus. And when you fall out of it, or you medicate yourself out of it, you realize, “Oh my God, I called all my friends and told them I was Jesus. That’s so embarrassing.”

I had really wrecked everything in my life. Another characteristic of mania is having a looser sense of boundaries. At the time of this episode, I was enrolled in a Catholic college, and I had a professor, who was also a priest, that I ended up getting too close to. It was an inappropriate relationship emotionally. Students shouldn’t be confidants of their professors, and that whole situation really messed with my sense of self. I had trusted him too much, and it made me really question my grasp of reality.

I guess that was the biggest mistake in my life, engaging with that professor.

Sometimes, I wonder whether or not I would go back in time and change that if I could, but you know, I was very naive back then, and if I changed that mistake, then I would continue to be naive until I made another big mistake by trusting another person too much. I learned a lot from that situation. Now, I know a relationship is healthy when I’m not afraid to tell the other person the truth. When there’s no fear in being honest and vulnerable because you both know you have the other person’s best interest at heart.

The biggest risk I’ve taken was probably the choice to move here, because it might not have worked out for me. I had decided to leave Houston in July, and by the beginning of August, I was in Omaha. My parents are divorced, and I picked Omaha because my dad lives here. I feel like the risk paid off. Here, I got into something I like that’s creative, and I don’t think I would have found creative nonfiction if I had stayed in Houston.

Even so, if I knew I was going to die soon, I would probably move back to Houston to be closer to family. I’m most thankful for my siblings, Maria, Joseph, and David. Maria, the oldest, was born in April of 1990, and David, the youngest, was born in August of 1995, so we are all really close in age. I feel like it’s rare to find a group of siblings that like each other as much as we love each other. We all genuinely get along, and I feel extraordinarily lucky to be part of that group. I don’t rush my own death because I don’t want to screw them over by offing myself.

But honestly, if I knew I was going to die soon, I’d be very relieved. I’d think, “Oh, thank God, I don’t have to worry about anything now. It’s going to end. Finally.”

I hope there’s nothing after death. Nonexistence sounds like a nice, long sleep. I’m Catholic, but I spend a lot of time doubting. I’m not certain there’s a God or Heaven or Hell, and actually, if there isn’t, that sounds pretty good to me. There’s a mantra I’ve heard that I repeat in my head that goes “God in everything.” But for me, it’s a question: “God in everything?” Because everything is so hard.

In some ways, I’m a hypocrite because I’m bisexual, and I’m definitely pro rights—pro women’s rights, pro gay rights, pro transgender rights. But at the same time, I’m still part of an institution and will give money to an institution that is archaic in that way.

I think I hold onto my Catholicism because of Pascal’s wager: If there’s no God and I am Catholic, then I’ll be dead and it won’t matter, but if there is a God and I don’t believe, then I’m in trouble. Basically, it’s hedging because I’m anxious about God.

At the same time, though, I like being Catholic because it’s cultural. My family is very Catholic, especially my mom, who is Mexican American. It’s a whole system of beliefs, and there’s so much that comes with it that I don’t want to abandon. Within it, there’s some sound advice and a framework for living that has worked for a lot of people, so why not keep doing it? I need structure in my life.

I think what’s been most helpful for me in working towards wellness has just been having a routine of enough sleep, exercise, and regular therapy. I think it’s important to find at least one thing to do that you think is meaningful—for me, it’s writing—and to know your path isn’t going to look like everyone else’s. And it’s also really important for people with bipolar disorder to read and to find other people with bipolar disorder so you realize you’re not alone. Reach out for help, because you are only ever truly doomed when you’re alone with yourself. And trust me, you’re not the only person whose ran around, called your friends, and told them that you were Jesus.

Right now, as far as taking care of myself, I feel like I’m at the limits of what I can do. I feel like I’m taking care of myself as best as I can.

Recently in therapy, I’ve discovered that I can’t control feeling hopeless or anxious, but I can simply acknowledge my feelings and realize they’re not reality, and I don’t have to let them control me. I’ve realized that just because I feel a certain way doesn’t mean there’s a logical reason behind it. I don’t feel like I have a future a lot of the time, but that’s most likely not true, and it would be dumb to kill myself over something that’s untrue. It is difficult, though, because your feelings are right there. They’re pressed up against you, and sometimes they’re all you can see.

To help with that, I’ve started meditation, which involves going back to my happy place: a cloister I visited at the Church of the Jacobins in Toulouse, France. In that church—an ancient church of Romanesque, Gothic architecture—I came upon that cloister, a kind of courtyard surrounded by covered archways, filled with chairs that were filled with students just hanging out, some of them studying. Anyway, it was a beautiful day in one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen, and in that cloister, for the first time in my life, I felt myself relax. I felt my body without the weight of anxiety, and for me that was heaven.

I’m Margarita Gracia, and I’m a neurotic, God-fearing, God-hating Mexican American, Roman Catholic bisexual who has bipolar disorder.

I’m Margarita, and I’m not dead. I’ve been through a lot, but I haven’t let it kill me.

I don’t know if I’m going to achieve happiness in my life, and honestly, I don’t think most people do. What you can hope for in your life is a great adventure, and a great adventure for me, for someone who has a lot of fear, is just going out and living. It’s just the decision to continue on.

  1. World Health Organization
  2. National Institute of Mental Health

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