I was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (DR), and moved to the United States at the age of thirteen. My mom, Zoila, had already been living in the U.S for about two years before I moved. I am the only girl out of three older brothers—my mom had me fourteen years after she had the youngest out of them. Yes, a big age difference. We left all we knew back in DR — family, friends, our language, and our culture. I did not speak a word of English when we arrived. I was truly in unknown waters and it was hard for me to find my place in this uncharted territory.
First Day of High School
I still remember my first day as a freshman. I sat in the very front of the bus and made sure my bag was right next to me so no one could sit there—I feared someone would speak to me and I wouldn't understand. When I walked into Susquehanna Township High School, I noticed everyone had friends, or at least a familiar face that brought them comfort. Me? I had no one. Instead of going to the auditorium for the freshman orientation, I followed the first class on my schedule: Spanish 2. When I walked into the class I was welcomed by the stares of about 20 seniors who were probably wondering “Who is this girl and what is she doing?” I looked at the teacher and explained in Spanish, with an embarrassed look on my face, that I didn't know where to go. She kindly guided me towards the hall and gave me directions to the auditorium. On my way down, I bursted into tears. I felt like I was drowning within myself and no one could hear me. When I finally got home and saw my mom, I started to cry, again. I know she felt my pain and wished she could have helped, but at that moment, all I needed was to feel safe around the one person who made me feel at home.
Stepping Out My Comfort Zone
As I reflect, I know my parents wanted me to have a better future by moving to the U.S; and overcoming the hardships of this transition wasn't easy. Children of immigrant parents often struggle with assimilating, and overcoming the language barrier while discovering who they are. As a first generation American, I felt like I had the responsibility not to fail them and for a fourteen-year-old, that was a lot of weight on my shoulders.
During the middle of sophomore year, my ESOL teacher, Mr. Nelson, jokingly said, “Dhayana, you talk too much. You no longer need ESOL.” And just like that, by the following week I was completely on my own. This stage in my life came with many challenges. I was often embarrassed when speaking in front of the class as I could hear people giggling or laughing when I mispronounced words. In those moments, all I could think of was “I wish I didn't have an accent. I wish I wasn't me.” As a young girl, these thoughts kept me from loving myself. I was not only insecure about speaking English, but also about my looks. Back then, my hair was permed—started at the age of 10—because in DR, the beauty standard was “silky straight hair.” Every girl on TV had straight hair. Therefore, I felt like I needed it; to feel beautiful. This false perspective of what “beauty should look” like was one of the many lessons I learned as I discovered myself later.
Fast forward to Junior year (2011) when I finally joined the track and field team after my gym teacher, Coach Weller, finally convinced me to give it a try. This was the first time I played sports since leaving the DR in 2009. I was finally stepping out of my comfort zone. Sports have always been a way for me to express myself competitively, release my frustrations, and push myself further than my limiting beliefs. After trying different events, I realized that Javelin throws were my thing. I fell in love with it instantly! When I started to compete, I used to wear regular running shoes instead of Javelin cleats—my mom made low wages and I felt guilty for asking for them. One day, my child development teacher, Mrs. Thuma, said: I have a surprise for you—as she pulled out a box of new cleats! I was shocked and my heart was pumping. Even typing this makes me feel emotional. I must admit, God placed some incredible people in my life during this transition; like the teachers and coaches I had. They truly cared about their students and their struggles. They made a difference in my life.
In 2013, I graduated high school at the age of seventeen and was accepted into the Business Administration program at Shippensburg University with an Academic Scholarship. I also became part of their Division 2 Track and Field Team as a Javelin thrower. I vividly remember the feeling of accomplishment while walking across the stage. That day wasn't just a victory for me; it was a victory for my family. I was carrying a part of them within me. I was proud of who I was and the potential of who I could become.
A Wake-up Call
Remember how earlier I mentioned that “As a first generation American I felt like I had responsibility to not fail my family”? Well, that reason weighed heavy in my heart for a long time. When you’re the first person in your family with the opportunity to make an impact —all eyes are on you. Therefore, I felt like the person I was becoming was solely rooted in who I thought I needed to be for my family. I never felt like I was my own priority. Don't get me wrong, family is EVERYTHING. At the same time, as I started to experience life away from home, I started to see all the generational trauma I had to overcome. For example, while in High School, I saw my mom go through a lot of hard arguments in her new marriage. I often lifted her up and was there to make her feel loved, to make her feel understood. However, that made me neglect my own emotions. There were times when I wanted to talk to her about my issues, but I didn’t want to be a burden. I hid my emotions because I felt responsible for her happiness and improving the well-being of my family.
As a coping mechanism in college, I filled my days with extra activities to avoid acknowledging the painful emotions, and unanswered questions that often haunted me. I was a busy bee. Looking back to those days, I feel like half of the things I did – although they were good—weren’t done for me, but for others. A tough realization of how much I used to fill up my plate even if I was spreading myself thin.
Ring, Ring, Ring… Who is this? Pain, Wake up!!!
For some people, the path towards self-love and self-discovery is a smooth one; but for me, it wasn't. I am an empath aka “a person that experiences a great deal of empathy, often to the point of taking on the pain of others at their own expense” (Firestone, 2017). In other words, I have a hard time detaching from the emotions of others. Although I love to make deep connections with people, I used to struggle with giving too of me. I found myself mentally, emotionally, and spiritually drained. I placed every important individual in my life first; before myself. It felt good to help them, but who was helping me?
From the age of 22-24 I went through some tough circumstances. I walked through paths that made me question who I was in life and at times, if I even deserved to be alive. I was a prisoner of my own thoughts and carried too much pain and guilt in my heart. Most of the people around me probably couldn't tell half of the things I was going through. I guess I always seem like I had my shit together; when in reality, I was falling apart. There was a point in my when I was involved in two different sports (kickball and volleyball), was finishing my bachelor degree online, coaching, and working full time. When I look back to where I was mentally during that time, I have realized that I was running away from doing the inner-work by constantly having a busy schedule with no real time “for me.” That's because facing your own fears can be fucking scary. In addition, it was difficult for me to voice my emotions so I used to just write everything down instead of confronting anyone about it. Yup, people pleaser. I felt like it was better to suppress them instead of hurting the emotions of others. This perception took me down a self-destructive path were I often found myself questioning the following:
Who I am?
Why do I do things that do not reflect the person I am (or want to be)?
Am I happy?
Do I deserve love?
Would things be better if I wasn't here?
This is sad, but true.
It is crazy how the experiences that hurt the most are the ones that shape you into who you really are. When I finally started to open my eyes, I realized that it's okay to leave behind what does not allow me to grow. Whether it was a friendship, a job, or a part of me that was toxic. I started to love the parts of me that I thought were ugly. I started to uphold my boundaries and not betray my heart to satisfy others. Once I stepped away from the thoughts, people, and limiting beliefs that held me back, I gained a stronger sense of self-love and self-respect.
Where I Am Now
I am proud to say that everything I have been through I am thankful for. I believe that God only gives you what you can handle, even if you thought you couldn't bear it. In this 25 years of life I have accomplished and overcome more than I ever imagined. I have gained a higher sense of self-love which also allows me to love others in a healthier way without draining my energy. I have built a sacred space within myself where I feel loved, safe, and understood.
Whether you’re learning to love yourself, discover yourself, or healing; I want you to remember that embracing your emotions is nothing to be afraid of. Do not fear feeling and expressing how you feel. Most importantly, stay true to yourself always.
This is what I want to you take away from my story as you embrace your journey of growth, self-love, and discovery:
- Fall in love with who you were, who you are, and who you want to be.
- Growth is a continuous cycle with no expiration date.
- Give yourself the patience, space, compassion, and gentleness that you need through your journey in life.
- Use your emotions to think, not think with your emotions.
- You have a responsibility to yourself. Make yourself a priority in everything you do. And don't forget to love yourself wholeheartedly.
The darkest night
gave birth to the brightest star.
She bloomed in adversity.
Firestone, L. (2017, September 15). Empaths: Is being an empath a superpower or a super-stressor? PsychAlive. https://www.psychalive.org/empaths/
Connect with Dhayana: @dhayanaalejandrina