How I’m Prioritizing My Mental Health This Sala Season

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UNIVERSAL CITY, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 11: Sasha Merci attends the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project 2022 Summer Block Party at Universal Studios Backlot on June 11, 2022 in Universal City, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

The holiday season, particularly around Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) and Christmas Day, carries a bittersweet quality — regardless of whether you spend it in solitude or the hustle and bustle of family gatherings. There’s something undeniably special about gathering with family and relatives during this time. I look forward to the warmth of their company, the delicious traditional Dominican dishes that fill the table, and the joyous celebrations that fill the air. It’s a time when we come together to share stories, laugh, and embrace our cultural traditions. These moments of togetherness are precious; they remind me of the deep connections that bind us as a family. It’s also that one time of the year when introspection naturally sets in, prompting us to contemplate our priorities in life.

Throughout my journey, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing both the quiet, solitary holidays and the chaotic family reunions, each with its own set of highs and lows. At times, the choices we make about how to spend the holidays are influenced by our mental well-being. We might opt for solitude when there are unresolved family conflicts, or when our personal life feels too turbulent to discuss. Financial constraints can also lead us to withhold from our giving spirit.

While there’s something profoundly different about spending the holidays alone, celebrating the holidays with family can be equally emotionally taxing. Unspoken familial duties, assigned by the matriarch of the family, hang overhead like a cloud. The underlying pressure to meet societal expectations can feel suffocating, knowing that any misstep might fuel judgment for months until the next holiday season arrives.

As a Latina, there are expectations that often come with a barrage of toxic questions and comments that can take a toll on our mental well-being. It often feels like an interrogation — questions about my weight, career, relationship status, and even when I plan to settle down. These inquiries can be suffocating and make me question my worth. It’s as if our entire lives are up for scrutiny during the holiday season, and the pressure to conform to societal expectations can be overwhelming.

My struggles with depression stem from a persistent sense of falling short of where I aspire to be in life. Returning home to explain my chosen career path as an actress, writer, and comedian becomes an emotional hurdle. My family struggles to comprehend my profession because, in their eyes, a career is only valid if it can buy your parents a house.

There’s no greater hurt than being labeled as selfish when you feel you have nothing left to give. Family often drives this point home, making you feel self-centered for not meeting their expectations, even when you haven’t fulfilled your own. They see me as a success story, but beneath the surface, I grapple daily with the demands of my career and the authenticity I must maintain to survive in my industry. I firmly believe in my talents and the unique voice I bring to the world, yet I can’t help but wonder why I’m driven by such unrelenting ambition.

Growing up, it seemed like the ground beneath me was constantly shifting, and any attempt to build something substantial crumbled. I still sometimes yearn for a different brain that might be able to wake up each day with unwavering optimism. Instead, I battle daily against the overstimulation of my career, societal pressures, and the weight of others’ expectations, leaving me feeling paralyzed.

I’m beginning to understand that my journey has been shaped by a survival mentality, forged through the losses I’ve endured. I now have to teach myself the healthy routines I should have cultivated in a nurturing environment. Even amid my successes, I battle relentless burnout, leaving people to perceive me as standoffish, unaware of the constant high-stress mode in which my brain operates. There’s a pervasive lack of understanding when it comes to prioritizing self-care, and nobody seems to make me feel worse than my own family. As the holidays approach, my mental preparation begins even before I board the plane.

With this economy, I can’t afford to stay at a hotel or Airbnb while I’m visiting New York this season, and not seeing my family during the holidays is not an option. As the years pass, my parents are aging, and I can’t help but regret the moments I missed spending with them. Despite the inevitable clashes we had when I was a teenager, as an adult, I’ve come to treasure every moment shared with them. The moments I’ve spent the holiday seasons alone brought me a solitude that pierces the heart — I’d sit on the couch, mindlessly scrolling through social media, watching my family gathered together, and feeling the dreaded FOMO would take over. So, because I don’t want to miss another moment together, I’ve implemented practical strategies when it comes to overstimulation that can occur at family gatherings. I remember a quote from Eckhart Tolle: “Leave the situation or accept it.” Even though we have our differences, I choose to accept my family for who they are. One of the fundamental steps in this mental preparation is setting boundaries. I’ve learned that being honest with my family about where I am in life is okay.

Initially, my ego struggled with vulnerability because I wanted to maintain a particular image within my family (as if i got it all together), but being honest about my limitations has allowed me to set boundaries that my loved ones can understand and respect. This clarity helps prevent misunderstandings and reduces the pressure I may feel to be the family savior because the reality is I can’t even save myself. I set specific boundaries around certain topics of conversation that tend to be invasive or pressuring. My aunt once told me: “You claim to be an actress, but I haven’t seen a thing you’ve done. What are you really doing?” At that moment I’d like to yell out “A LOT,” and go into details but she wouldn’t understand. When it comes to the inevitable questions about my career and marriage, I find myself in a perpetual state of anxiety. It’s like there are no correct answers in this never-ending quiz of life. If someone brings up a topic that makes me uncomfortable, I’ve learned to steer the conversation in a different direction politely or say that I’d rather not discuss it at that moment to keep things light.

In terms of managing my energy during these gatherings, I’ve also found it helpful to have designated “breathing time.” This might involve stepping outside for a few minutes to take in some fresh air or carving out a few minutes of alone time each day. It’s amazing how even just 15 minutes of solitude can help me recharge and prevent burnout. Solitude can make a significant difference.

It’s a paradox — we can’t seem to live with them, but we also can’t live without them. Despite the complexities, being around my family is, for the most part, a joyous experience. We share a deep love for performance and storytelling, a trait woven into our very beings.

Now, I find myself in a much healthier place. I love my life, and I’ve seen the transformative power of investing in my mental health and wellness. This new approach to sala season has made the holidays an even more fulfilling and enriching experience. I hope that by sharing my story, others can learn to prioritize their mental well-being, set boundaries, and find joy in the holiday season without losing themselves in the process. Let’s make this season a time of true celebration, where we honor our own worth and cherish the moments that truly matter.

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