A Message from the Presenter:
Working in our industry, we interact with a wide variety of people every day, each with their own unique backstory and unknown past.
While a person may appear to have a life that is fulfilling and successful, it’s impossible to know exactly what an individual has been through in their life and how it has affected them. Christina’s story struck a chord with the Sway team because she works in the entertainment industry and is working in the public eye, much like many of the people that we work with every day. Our hope is that this story will show people that anxiety and domestic problems can be a reality for anyone, and that it is okay to speak out about it and get help for yourself.
Thank you Christina for bravely sharing your story.
Author’s Note: Due to the personal nature of the story, the individual featured below has been given a pseudonym to protect the privacy of her family.
“I was planning my escape from the age of nine,” Christina says, thinking back to a childhood that left her unprepared for the world around her. Although she would eventually escape her circumstances, her real journey only began when she realized the importance finding a change within herself.
Growing up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Christina’s earliest memories are wrapped in the anxiety of her home life. The only child of two parents, she was caught right in the middle of a tense marriage.
“You never knew what you were going to get at home,” she explains. Her father in particular made her feel as though she spent her life walking on egg shells. Constantly in fear of his rapid mood swings and sharp rebukes. “I could do the same thing three different days in a row, and every single day I would get a different response.”
Christina’s father had issues with his emotions, fueled by troubles with alcohol, and while he was never physically abusive, she struggled with his mood swings over the most minor of issues.
“When I was trying to write my name on my grandmother’s birthday card,” she says, remembering a time when she was six, “I spelled my name wrong, and he lashed out at me.” The outburst was typical for her early childhood, and created a general anxiety that would only worsen as she got older.
As Christina struggled to create a relationship with her father, she had trouble doing the same with her mother, who had her own challenges trying to handle his temper. “[I was] scared to be fully be relaxed at home because I wasn’t really sure what was going to trigger him,” she explains.
What helped her through those early years was teachers who took an interest in her life. “My first grade teacher would come to my house with bags of books, and she would sit there and read with me.” And these interactions gave her a comfort she couldn’t find in her home. She describes it: “Somebody that was listening to me. Somebody that really cared how I was doing.”
The struggle for Christina was expressing the difficulties she faced at home, still being too young to explain the problems. “If dysfunctional things are going on at home,” she explains “you’re not really taught to talk about what’s going on at home at school.”
At the age of 8, Christina saw her parents get divorced. “I remember when that happened, my dad got worse.” And while the separation meant seeing less of her father, who she would only visit every other weekend and on alternating holidays, it also meant seeing him could be even more traumatic.
Christina’s father moved to Miami, roughly a one-hour drive from her home in Fort Lauderdale, and she found the culture clash unnerving. Christina’s considers her upbringing as “very American”, and though she felt connected to her Panamanian roots, she found it difficult to find a place in her father’s new Hispanic neighbourhood.
“I had an accent in Spanish, so they would call me gringita,” she says with a laugh. A ‘gringita’ being a play on ‘gringo’, a word used to describe someone who is not Latino, usually an American. As someone struggling to fit in, it made it even more difficult to find a place in the community. “I was already insecure…and it made it even more difficult for me, because I never knew where I fit in”
“I’m Panamanian, I’m Latina, those are my roots, and they would say ‘No, you’re gringa’,” she remembers, “but everybody else was Latino.”
Christina grew up as an only child, but when her parents separated she found herself as one member in two new families. First when her mother remarried when Christina was 10, and then when her father remarried when she was 15.
Christina found herself in households with new sets of challenges, including more alcoholism, a step-sister struggling with Crohn’s disease, another step-sister struggling with obesity, a step-brother in jail, and a step-mother struggling with addiction. And Christina felt like the odd one out in both families.
With difficulties finding herself in her home and community, Christina found an escape in the arts. It gave her an outlet for her difficult home life, and while this helped reduce her anxiety, she looks back at that time thinking it might have been to an excess. “The art was my therapy,” she explains, “but at the same time, it was a way to escape…There was no boundary line, so it morphed into my everything.”
She fantasized about becoming a famous model and actress, so much so that at 17, she moved to New York City to pursue those dreams. Although it seemed like a good escape at the time, it slowly revealed itself as an imperfect answer to the difficult question of being happy in her life.
“My reality started to get fuzzy,” she says, as she began living this life of who she thought she wanted to be. A version of herself she created that she thought would make her happy. It took her to Los Angeles at 25 as her ambitions grew, but she couldn’t escape the anxiety of her childhood.
“It was a great mask” she says, “to not have to deal with everything that had happened while growing up, and continued to happen and get worse.”
Although she was living this idealized life she created for herself, Christina still found herself waking up each day feeling anxious and afraid. The same feelings she could trace back to her childhood.
“I had no idea how to run a relationship, or be in one,” she explains. “I just didn’t have any tools. I didn’t know what boundaries were. I didn’t know how to not people-please. I was very controlling.”
Growing up in a home where she felt she had to cater to a domineering father had made Christina think she had to do that just to get by. She had never gotten past the patterns of behaviour instilled in her at that young age. “Every day was horrible,” she says. “I was attracted to what I knew, so my relationships were not with quality people.”
Christina had felt burnt out upon reaching Los Angeles, but wasn’t sure how to fix her problem. An older woman, a mentor figure, entered her life and asked her if she had considered getting professional help. Initially Christina blew off her concern and rationalized that it was her family who had the problem, and she would feel better later.
“I cried and said, ‘I’m not the problem, it’s other people.’” Christina says. “Because I was feeling like the victim, and I didn’t understand. And then I saw [my mentor] three months later, still in the same rut, and she asked ‘have you gotten help?’ and that’s when I decided I needed help.”
From there Christina started seeing a therapist, going to support groups, and essentially getting the tools she was never able to develop in her childhood. She found: “a place to go, with someone or people that you can trust, and you can talk about what’s really really going on…I wasn’t judged, and I wasn’t criticized.”
She found some solace on the beaches of California, often travelling an hour in each direction to reach spot in particular where she could find peace. “It really helped me with my anxiety,” she explains. “Eventually, I moved to Santa Monica to be walking distance permanently.”
Reflecting on her time before getting help, Christina regrets having taken so long to get there. “I had all these secrets, all these things I was carrying around with me for so long, and letting them out in an unhealthy way.”
Christina also had to acknowledge that the behaviour she saw in her father, the wild mood swings, were something she had been seeing in herself. A complete lack of patience that would lead her to overreact to the smallest of situations. “I couldn’t regulate my feelings, I had no patience,” she remembers before getting help.
After taking charge of her life, Christina has found a new source of strength. “Now I can take a step back and breathe…having emotional stability, it’s like having emotional sobriety.”
The challenge of developing those tools to cope with anxiety, and have a functioning life, has been a tough road, but at 30, Christina now sees her life as a happy one. Currently studying to become an early-childhood educator, she’s hoping to be the same positive influence in the lives of her students as some of her teachers were in hers, and hopefully, ensure no other child has to go through the same trials alone.
Looking back at those early years, she doesn’t have any scorn towards her father. “My dad is doing the best he can,” she says, thinking of the support she needed as a child, “he doesn’t have that to give.” And now Christina is looking towards starting a family of her, working to break the cycle of alcoholism and emotional abuse, and instead give them a loving home. “When I have my family, I can give them that.”