A Safe Alternative: Finding Relief, Identity, and Self-Esteem Through Expressive Writing

How I Turned to the Keyboard for Clarity and Hope

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” Anne Frank

I sat at the corner hugging my legs and gasping for air. My bedroom shrank away from me, taking the oxygen with it. It was an early summer day in 1988 when the oppressive weight of depression settled onto my chest.

To drown out my thoughts, I’d turned on the radio, the fan that rattled on my bedside table, and every light with a working bulb. 

After an hour and eternity, a cold rush came over me as if doused with a bucket of ice water – I decided it was the end. I’d lived a full, sometimes agonizing, life – thrust into adulthood in the mere single digits of life. I could go already, I agreed. I wanted the pain to end. I thought about the old bottle of antidepressants in my dresser drawer. 

I can still hear myself whimper, “I’m so tired…I’m so tired…I’m so tired…” as I rocked myself. A tired ninety-year-old trapped in a seventeen-year-old body.

Was there a particular incident that drew me to the corner that day? I suppose it could have been the conversation I’d just had with my boyfriend, my first love and best friend, that definitively ended our relationship. 

It could have been the fact that my circle of friends was disbanding, not because of anything that happened, but the way friendships end after high school when we reshuffle to new schools, the military, or to Florida, where many of my friends had family and a desire for warm sun and long, sandy beaches. 

It could have been that I hadn’t seen or spoken to Mami in over a year. Mom tended to separate from things that were too hurtful. Not long after my parents’ divorce, she joined the Florida migration and moved as far away from us as she could from the Connecticut coast. 

Or, it could have been that I suddenly found myself completely lost – alone and invisible between two worlds that couldn’t see me in my pain.

I no longer belonged to my familia. So many broken relationships from choosing sides in the divorce, mine – to live with my father when I was fifteen- was unforgivable to my Puerto Rican family. While I had steadiness and security with Papi, I lacked identity and self-esteem. 

“Nena, your Spanish is really bad,” I was told by some in my family. I heard the rumors, too. “She ain’t down with our familia.” 

“Yeah, she’s just in it for her.”  

“She’s conceited. Thinks she better than us with her white girl english.”

In those pre-AOC, Salma Hayek, and Justice Sotomayor days, I couldn’t see myself outside of my inner-city neighborhood either. That spring, I toured NYU’s Stern School of Business with my prima Wanda. As we walked the campus and visited the dorms, we noticed no one looked like us. “Damn, girl, where are the Puertoriqueños up here?” I asked.

Hello? Am I alone? Where are my people? I felt misplaced and boxy in a world accustomed to people who fit neatly into smooth shapes. 

Later, when I received my letter of acceptance and a half-ride offer, I turned it down. I decided my place was at home to watch over Papi. He didn’t push me. I had no plan B.

I didn’t trust myself at that moment, so I called my best friend Lisa. She rushed over and saw me pressed into the crease of the corner like a wet banana leaf. 

I’ve seen girls like me get called changa and estupida for showing too much confusion and emotion as if the deal was already sorted for us and there was nothing to feel or figure out. Pick up your pantaletas and join the rest of us who are suffering, en la lucha!

I measured what I shared with Lisa, something I’d become used to doing with people because I didn’t want to freak her out and scare her away. 

Later, when she left to go home, so did the sense of relief she provided. I panicked. 

What if she hadn’t come over? 

What was I capable of doing? 

Who could I turn to next time? 

No one understands me!

I always thought diaries were reserved for girls who believed their dreams were possible.

The green letters on my monitor screen were twitching. I sat in front of the computer, barely able to see the wavy letters through my tears, and began typing. Like a ravine during a heavy rainstorm, my thoughts screamed down my arms through my fingertips and exploded onto the hard keys. 

I wrote letters to two people that day. 

I thanked Miguel, the yin to my yang, for keeping our promise to say when another eye caught ours. I gave thanks for our four years of love and described everything I admired about him, everything I would miss about us. My heart ripped through my ribs as I finally let him go.  

The second letter was to myself, by a voice I’ve always heard but never understood. This time I let her speak through my fingers. She told me I was where I needed to be, feeling what I needed to – I would grow from all of this, she said – and she assured me I’d know what to do when the time came.

This new self-talk way of expressing myself, translating my feelings into words without thinking or censoring or judging myself, calmed my racing thoughts. The weight on my chest felt bearable. 

In front of me, her words unfolded like a present: “Just keep going, Nancy. Just keep going.” 

The next day I read my journal as a friend’s note, allowing me to separate from my feelings and see things more clearly. That same week, I enrolled at my local community college.  

Still today, as a Latina woman trying to adapt to a new life in London, I journal to relieve stress and to observe my thoughts. I write to get to the bottom of how I’m feeling and why I’m feeling that way.

And I began reflecting on what’s positive, things that make me happy, big and small: my bed, my blanket, a good book, the smile from a stranger in passing who sees me.

Over time, I’ve gained confidence in myself, knowing there is good in my life, and believing the voice in my head who assures me I’ll know what to do when the time comes.  

How about you? 

Is there a letter you need to write? Is there someone to forgive, to let go, or thank? We don’t have to mail these to release the hold they might have on us.

Let me know how journaling works for you.


Latinas and Depression

Recently, I met with a group of young ladies in Ohio who completed the La Mariposa program. As we spoke, they shared how journaling helped them gain clarity and to feel better about themselves.

As bicultural females, young Latinas today have many of the same struggles I did growing up. Yet, anti-immigrant rhetoric adds to their worries and feelings of inclusion and security.

In his book titled Latinas Attempting Suicide: When Cultures, Families, and Daughters Collide, Dr. Luis Zayas, a psychologist who conducted a 10-year study to understand the mystery of the alarming number of suicide attempts by young Latinas*, found that journaling helped significantly reduce attempts among his study group. He found it gave them a voice and an immediate way to express themselves and safely release the heavy pressure they hold inside.

ABC News reported that 1 out of every 10 Latinas has attempted suicide, and nearly half of all Latina teens have felt a sense of hopelessness (2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to people ages 10 to 24).

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255); Suicide Crisis Line 1-800-784-2433.


When I want something easy and comforting, nothing tastes better than a bowl of rice and sweet plantains topped with an egg over medium.

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3 Things I Didn’t Expect When I Stopped Lying and Started Listening

In my late teens, I began to spend more and more time away from my hometown – flipping burgers at McDonald’s on the I-95 highway, attending community college, then working my first corporate job as an office clerk. I noticed there was a big-time gap between my life experiences and education as a second-generation, inner-city Latina and those of my co-workers.

As the new girl in the office, I’d been invited to join a group of women for lunch. After introductions, the conversation naturally moved to current events. Names I’d never head of – captured journalist Terry Anderson, Cormac McCarthy, Follet’s Pillars of the Earth – filled my head with doubt. I folded like origami to fit neatly into the tiny box I believed contained people like me, those who felt stuck in between two worlds: the one they knew and the one they were too intimidated to enter.

I nodded and listened, wondering how I knew so little. I’d been sucker-punched. At first, this realization upset me:

How dare my schools not prepare me enough; students from more prosperous school districts were trusted to take books home with them – to read the classics and spend time with passages and characters, bringing the words and images to life – while we inner-city kids were lucky if we had twenty minutes to read aloud before stacking them into a tower on our way out of class.
Do my co-workers assume I don’t understand things because I’m Hispanic? How will I ever catch up?
I’m not smart enough.

I don’t belong here.

Then, I feared being found out.

I tired from trying to erase myself invisible. Worked myself sick figuring things out on my own rather than ask for clarification, because I believed asking questions was a sign of ignorance – too slow to get it right the first time. 

Shame followed me like a thunder cloud. When I did engage others, I found myself slipping into a dangerous habit. Lying became my umbrella. It felt easy at first. I could walk the red carpet with everyone else: Por supuesto, I’ve been to the new restaurant downtown; Claro, I’ve heard of that bestselling book; Pues sí, we also set the dinner table during Thanksgiving and ate as a family.  

The fact was that my family never ate out besides the rare trip to McDonald’s for breakfast sandwiches or Duchess Restaurant for onion rings and vanilla shakes. 

I grew up eating at Abuelita’s house where there was always a pot of rice or chicken stewing on the stove. At grandma’s we ate sitting on the floor, if the sofa was full, or on the bed while we either watched telenovelas on full blast or listened to the latest hip hop cassette on the boom box that was glued to my cousin’s shoulder. We didn’t read novels. We lived them hanging out on Caroline Street and Hough Avenue in Bridgeport, and summers spent owning the pueblo in Manati, Puerto Rico.  

But the dishonesty only made me feel more anxious about my place in the world. I felt like a fraud. 

The first step to getting what you want is having the courage to get rid of what you don’t.” – Paulo Coelho

One day, a friend at the office said she dined at the restaurant I had recommended. She enjoyed it so much she wanted to hear details of my experience. I generalized, nodded, and smiled nervously in agreement, but as she dug into the details, my reddened face told her I’d never been. She was gracious and moved on to another topic. I stopped listening and prayed that quicksand would swallow me whole.

I made the decision to stop. Both the not asking and the knee-jerk lying. No longer would I pretend to know what I didn’t. And no longer would I agree to have the same experiences when I hadn’t. 

Instead, I would find a way to flip my reaction of embarrassment into excitement and an opportunity to learn more. 

I created a three-step approach to keep me from falling into my old habit.

Step 1 – Prepare to reply without a fight

I knew I needed help, a sort of break-glass-in-case-of-emergency response, to volley the questions I felt defensive and small answering, so I memorized the following phrases: 

“I have not experienced (or visited or heard of, etc.) that. Tell me more.”

“I want to be sure I understand. Will you please repeat the instructions?”  

Step 2 – Listen up, nena!

I would also need another trick in my back pocket to keep my shame umbrella tucked away because I knew I’d most likely reply with a “Yeah, I get it” (when I didn’t) or “Yes, I’ve been there, done that” (when I hadn’t).

So I decided that listening would become my superpower. I let go of the need to respond for the sake of looking smart and decided instead to listen and absorb the lessons.

Step 3 – Reflect back

As a sign of respeto, I would paraphrase what was shared with me. For example, if instructions were repeated to me, I would reflect it back: “What I heard you say was this… is that right?“ If a friend shared a new experience with me, I’d tap back with, “It sounds like you really enjoyed tal y tal (at that restaurant, about the book, Thanksgiving dinner).”

I tested my approach for each situation. Here are the three things I learned:

  1. I felt free from shame and open to absorb new things when I stopped sabotaging myself
  2. Most people expressed empathy and were happy to share their knowledge and experience
  3. Everyone felt understood when I validated what was said

People appreciated my eager interest in their experiences, and they became interested in mine.

I described my neighborhood and our traditions like pig roasts in the summer that began at 4am, and parrandas, traveling sing alongs during Christmastime when carolers and musicians showed up at your home unannounced any time of day or night to sing carols and eat and drink.

Once I brought my own lunch to work: chicken noodle soup using sofrito – a Puerto Rican cooking base made with cilantro, garlic, onions and green peppers. Everyone at the table commented on its delicious aroma and asked for the recipe. One woman, who became a lifelong friend, even tasted it. A few days later one of the women slipped me a wink and a post-it with a recipe for her Sicilian family’s sausage soup.

The more we got to know one another, the more we understood that our cultures share similar dynamics and customs. From this respectful exchange of personal experiences, we became closer and more trusting of each other, our perceptions broadened.

I began to understand that my dual worlds – my beautiful Puerto Rican culture where traditions and values ground me and my American culture where my aspirations are possible – could coexist if I propped the door wide open.

Still today, I find planned emergency responses helpful in dealing with difficult situations. For example, people asking me for money or to cosign on a loan: “As a personal rule, I don’t lend money, but I’m happy to help you find resources you can use now and in the future,” or a disagreement with someone: “I want to hear your thoughts. Can you help me understand?”  Think for a minute what the conversation might be in these situations if instead I replied, ”Oh, hell no,“ or ”It’s you who doesn’t understand!” 

Here are some situations when a practiced response can help:

  • A troubled friendship: I value our friendship and I miss spending time with you. Can we get together soon? 
  • Pressure to have sex: I don’t have sex until I feel it’s the right time for me. If you care about me, you’ll respect that.
  • If you’re asked to do something you’re not comfortable doing: I don’t do things I’m not 100% sure about. It’s a rule I won’t break. If you care about me, you’ll understand.

How about you?

When did you last lie or present a false front? What would be gained by being real? 

Is there a situation you’re currently dealing with where a planned response can help? 

Let me know if you try this and how it worked!

Here are recipes for sofrito and sopa de fideo. Buen provecho!

Sofrito -photo courtesy of Carolyn Gonzalez

Sofrito is the base for many Puerto Rican dishes. It’s similar to the mirepoix of French cooking, or the “trinity” of Creole cooking. This is my version using items you can easily find in your local grocery store.

Yield: About 1 1/3 cup

1 large bunch cilantro
1 green bell pepper or 3 cubanelle peppers (also known as Italian peppers), chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
1 large Spanish onion, coarsely chopped
6 large cloves of garlic, crushed
(and, if you can find them, ¼ pound small sweet chili peppers called aji dulce, sliced in half with inner seeds removed)
1 tbs extra virgin olive oil

Combine all ingredients in a blender and puree, adding a little water or olive oil until it has a thick but smooth consistency.

Storage tip: Freeze sofrito in ice cube trays. When frozen, pop them out and seal in a freezer bag and your sofrito is always ready to use.
Usage: There are so many simple dishes you can make using sofrito. I like to pop one or two cubes into my soup stock for a quick burst of flavor and into my pasta meat sauce for a Puerto Rican twist on the Italian classic. Have fun exploring ways to use this simple base in your cooking.

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How Letting Go Was My Secret to Success

I was the first in my large Puerto Rican family to attend and graduate college. As such, it was my duty to help Latina girls proudly travel the bicultural bridge, while keeping a connection to their roots.

I did it through La Mariposa (The Butterfly); it was my life’s calling. La Mariposa is a groundbreaking empowerment program I created in 2016, by way of a nonprofit I co-founded called Together for Latinas, to help empower young Latinas in taking down barriers and succeeding in life.

It took me 8 years to create it. And, it took me another 3 years to let go of it.

Letting go wasn’t easy. I didn’t want to. But spirit conspired, in the way that it always does. My husband was transferred to Sweden, splitting my focus between my family in Stockholm and my organization on the east coast of the United States.

I felt an inescapable sense of worry about the burden of making sure the program reached those who needed it nationwide. My board was unwavering in its dedication and effort, but we needed more marketing and distribution resources to succeed. Supporters started expressing concern. Distance fueled my anxiety. Instinctively, I knew I needed to quit as the leader, but how could I let everyone down and be left a failure?

I had Founder’s Syndrome. It was hard to see how anyone but my team could take the program to the next level. If we couldn’t make it a success, who would?

But it was time to let go. To do that I first had to overcome certain misconceptions. 

Misconception #1: Good Leaders Don’t Quit

The Hispanic/Latinx population desperately needed programs like La Mariposa. As a Latina girl and young woman growing up in the ’80’s and ’90’s, I didn’t know of Hispanic role models who released their projects for the greater good. To overcome this fear, I searched for positive examples of such leaders – and happily, found many of them. This taught me that the process of letting go was more like “graduating” than “quitting.”

Misconception #2: Many Will Be Disappointed

Everyone at Together for Latinas established deep relationships with our benefactors, supporters, and communities. I didn’t want to let them down. Nervously, I began to communicate my intention and asked for help transitioning the work. To my surprise and utter delight, everyone I asked understood it was the right time and was relieved and happy to help. I feared letting them down and instead allowed them to have a deeper stake in the program’s success.

Misconception #3: No One Cares Like I Do

Part of having Founder’s Syndrome was believing that I am the only one who cares enough to make my life’s work a success. To help me overcome this misconception, I needed to do the same thing I encourage all our workshop participants to do: give the inner voice an outlet. So, I wrote freestyle, unhindered, about the question: “If we don’t make it a success, who will?”

And I realized in my answer that our next step was to find the organization that will.

For several months we had been in talks with a partner, One Circle Foundation, that could help us cast a wider net. When I told its founder about my decision, she said the program “would be in caring hands” with them. It was as if the cupped hands I had often envisioned in meditation were extending their reach through the phone. I found people who care as I do, and who also have the resources to make that caring a tangible reality for others who need support.

The answer was right in front of me. I just needed to be posing the right questions to the right people. Meditation and awareness helped me get there, and so did reaching out to friends and colleagues.

Often what we need is right in front of us. All we have to do is notice.

And, once a curriculum developer, always a curriculum developer. Here is my step- by-step journey and advice towards that noticing.

Step One: Understand why it’s time to let go. Write, nonstop, without lifting the pen or censoring thoughts. Let the words flow freely onto the page until the reasons emerge.

Step Two: Create an intention. Choose an internal message to serve as a guiding light. (Mine was “La Mariposa will succeed beyond what I can imagine!”)

Step Three: Identify any misconceptions. Create a list and positive affirmation for each, imagining what it looks like releasing the work as a great success (positive examples in your field can help). Acknowledge all your feelings. Is there a sense of relief or peace? Post the affirmations where you can regularly see them – visualization is a powerful life tool.

Step Four: Repeat steps 1-3. Repeat until there is alignment with the intention and the success envisioned.

Step Five: Make a plan. Identify stakeholders who can help create a roadmap.

Step Six: Execute. Identify the person or entity who can deliver the vision (remember they may be right in front of you!), plan the transition together and communicate it to all constituents and stakeholders.

Step Seven: Celebrate! Have a “releasing” party and acknowledge everyone’s role in the transition and its success.

Step Eight: Complete the circle. Practice self-care. Identify a way to capture this important milestone and the contributions you’ve made (for example, write a letter to yourself or craft a poem).

Releasing our work intentionally does not mean we have failed it. On the contrary, it’s a stepping stone to growth and greater potential. By viewing releasing as a way to graduate from our work while promoting it to the next level, we can create our own success story.

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