As Guatemalan refugees seeking safe haven, Noemi and her family fled to Canada in the late 80’s. Noemi describes growing up in a household filled with tension as her family moved from place to place, struggled with finances, an unfamiliar language, and the strangeness of a foreign country.
Noemi remembers being a child and, while watching the Care Bears, a revelation took hold in her. She became acutely aware that she, along with everyone, would one day die. She would stare at her father, who was nearing fifty years old, and think about how she could lose him. It was around this time that the nightmares began.
The terrors that filled her dreams were horrifying and, at times, so vivid she would have trouble differentiating between reality and dream. She would wake up, overwrought and gasping for air.
Noemi shared about an episode which sprung up in the middle of class. She felt her body react as though she were experiencing one of her nightmares. She was breathless and in a panic, though she hadn’t been sleeping. Coming from a family that made a point not to show emotion, Noemi kept these occurrences to herself.
As Noemi grew older, home life continued to consist of stress and fighting, eventually leading to her parents’ divorce. Noemi found herself struggling to cope with the intensity of it all. At 13, she started doing drugs and began drinking heavily. This was also when she began talking openly about her perceived mental state with her friends.
“I think I’m schizophrenic,” Noemi would say, though then, she wasn’t knowledgeable about mental health.
The question “How do you know what’s real?” was one she often asked. The line between dreams and reality became so blurred, she genuinely could not tell them apart. Noemi continued to abuse drugs, getting high a couple of times a day, and her mind began spewing strange thoughts, and even scarier dreams. Fear and paranoia became a constant in her life, both day and night.
By fifteen, Noemi had been kicked out of her house, arrested, and then placed on probation. She developed, what she now recognizes as, agoraphobia, which is the fear of crowded, public spaces. She began anticipating the fear and adjusted her lifestyle to accommodate it by avoiding large crowds, going to theatres, and ditching classes. At one point, she refrained from looking at the sky because it, too, had become a trigger. She describes the feeling as a constant dreamlike state. Even getting high soon lost its allure because of the paranoia that accompanied it. Thereafter, she ventured to quit drugs and go back home.
Noemi recalls one memory that occurred days after. She was at a Dairy Queen with her friends when she was suddenly convinced that those around her were demons. She sincerely believed this to be true that she, while attempting to maintain a calm facade, left quickly for home. Noemi doesn’t know quite how she looked like when she arrived home, but she must have looked panicked enough to get through to her mother, who took Noemi to the hospital.
Her mother assumed that Noemi was high, to which Noemi repeatedly countered with, “No, I’m crazy!” She remembers reiterating this multiple times that night, desperately trying to convince her mother, the nurses, and the doctor, to believe her. Noemi began yelling as they attempted to sedate her when the doctor finally understood, saying, “Sometimes we all need a little help.” The next moment was a whirlwind of relief. Someone finally heard her. Later, Noemi found herself being admitted to the psychiatric ward. For once, it was a relief to sleep.
“Before this, I was sleeping four hours a night. I either didn’t want to fall asleep or couldn’t fall asleep because I had so much anxiety,” she explained. “The feeling of falling asleep, to me, was the feeling of losing that control.”
During a meeting with Noemi’s doctor, he asked her, “Do you have a hard time distinguishing between dreams and reality? Have you ever wondered if you’re dreaming?” Noemi was shocked as he began voicing the thoughts that she had been struggling with throughout most of her childhood. Putting a name to all the fear she had been experiencing without knowing the cause, he told her she had a panic disorder.
Life wasn’t magically fixed with this diagnosis, but slowly, change did arise. At a party following this experience, Noemi decided to get high again. The paranoia that set in was severe. Her heart felt as though it would explode. Her friends wanted to call an ambulance, but instead, Noemi turned off the music, gathered everyone in a circle, knelt down and prayed.
“And then that immense fear that I had was gone.” She talks about how, because she was still had a high, she saw strange things like snakes sliding around the floor, but without the fear, her delusions weren’t scary anymore. She remembers thinking, “I am completely wasting my life. I need to change.” That summer, Noemi enrolled at Okanagan Adventist Academy, near Kelowna.
It was a long while before she had another panic attack and when it occurred, she cried in the school bathroom. She prayed to God, saying “Why do I have to take all these pills just to be normal? I’m done.” She had built up a tolerance to her sleeping pills. She had also been taking multiple medications, Ativan, Fluvoxamine, Suboxone. She says, she has never taken them since, and though she still has residual anxiety, she has never had panic attacks of that kind again.
As Noemi stood on the steps of her university library, she said, “I never thought academics were for me.” This statement is astounding considering she is now finishing her second year of law school at UBC and spending her summer in Kelowna working with Farris Law. She is interested in pursuing the Family Law route and potentially some Immigration Law as well.
Noemi can’t believe the difference between the girl she once was, and the person she has become. She encourages anyone who would like to chat to get in contact with her. She has shared this with you because she wants to bring mental illness into the conversation. “Start talking [about mental illness] and set your goals high. Take a chance on yourself and take a chance on God.”