Raised as the “golden girl” in her Hispanic American family, Ana Mantica stuck to her ill-fitting pretty plan all while masking her depression—until she was forced to face up and seek recovery.
By Denise Mann, MS
Graduate from one of the top journalism schools in the country with a master’s degree. Check.
Land coveted job at a women’s magazine. Check.
Score super-hot boyfriend. Check.
Ana Mantica sailed through her checklist of goals in her early 20s. She literally had everything she thought that she wanted and had worked so hard to achieve, but nothing felt right or true.
Growing up in Miami, Mantica absorbed the expectation that Hispanic women should be strong and stalwart. She tried to fake it, but underneath the façade she felt unworthy, inadequate and trapped. Those feelings caught up with her in the form of a severe eating disorder which ultimately forced her to face down her underlying depression.
Mantica, now 37, is living an entirely different dream. She’s settled close to her family again, working for an organization devoted to community development, and, as a mental health advocate, shares her story regularly so others will feel less alone.
Mantica was the first member of her family to leave Florida—for college in the Midwest, and then for her dream job in New York City. She nabbed a position as an assistant health editor at a top women’s magazine—where she dutifully edited article after article on dieting and weight loss.
Immersed in advice on cutting out 100 calories a day and belly-busting moves for washboard abs, sitting in on discussions about how already attractive models or celebs could be airbrushed to perfection, Mantica’s self-esteem took a hit.
She was far away from her support system, especially her grandmother, who had always been a rock and a role model. Making matters worse, her mother and step-dad were going through a rough patch in their marriage, and she wanted to be there for her two younger siblings.
“Here I was, ‘living my dream,’ and my family was falling apart in Miami,” she recalls. “Not only could I not be there, but I also wasn’t feeling as euphoric as I thought I should be. The guilt was eating away at me.”
It seemed that the one thing she could control in her life was her weight. She followed the advice she was giving the magazine’s readers, “but it was killing me on the inside,” she says.
In retrospect, she realizes that her inability to cope emotionally gave rise to anorexia. Mantica was withering away, but no one asked why.
Her family urged her to eat more, as if it were that simple—and together with her boyfriend, they urged her to seek help. Mantica agreed to attend an outpatient program at a prominent eating disorder treatment center.
Yet little changed when she moved with her boyfriend to Indiana, where she landed another coveted job as a content editor for Vera Bradley.
“I was trying to be happy homemaker, but I didn’t want it,” she says. “My mojo was to starve myself because that I am good at and it gets me attention—even if it is only negative attention,” she says.
A therapist she was seeing around this time called her out on her behavior.
“She said, ‘This is depression and you are slowly killing yourself. You are delusional if you think this is just about weight and body image.’”
Mantica wasn’t ready to hear it.
“I was the first grandchild, first granddaughter. I was the first to go to college, first to fly the coop. I could not ever be depressed. I was the golden girl, the lynch pin of the family and the one everyone looked up to and turned to,” she says.
“To hear, ‘You’re depressed,’ was not acceptable. It was an admission of failure and an admission that I chose wrong.”
She suspects traditional attitudes in the Hispanic community also contributed to her denial:
“Mental illness is taboo because you can’t feel it or see it and in my community, they label it, ‘Esta loco.’”
It wasn’t until Mantica found herself weak and breathless one evening, frightened that she was going to die, that she promised herself she would truly work toward wellness.
Her mother flew in from Miami to hold her hand as she entered an inpatient eating disorder program, finally ready to address all facets of her recovery. In addition to the nutritional program, she attended group therapy and individual therapy, participated in art and equine therapy, and volunteered at a local senior citizens center.
Her self-acceptance was bolstered by her Nicaraguan grandfather, who sat her down and told her that he, too, had depression and found medication to be helpful.
Mantica’s eagerness to help others in the same way found an outlet at Arabella House, a transitional residence for women leaving the inpatient program. She was invited to speak about her journey to recovery and said yes. More invitations came her way and she kept saying yes.
“I feel like it’s my calling to share my story,” she says.
Mantica continued to get stronger with the help of a therapist, nutritionist, and medication. She was able to maintain healthy weight. She got out of an unsatisfying relationship. She returned to Florida, securing a job in the communications department of a foundation dedicated to investing in and building up Miami.
“I love it because it allows me to use my journalism skills for a great cause and give back to a community that I grew up in,” she says.
Coming back home meant more supports in place for Mantica. Her religious practice also continues to be a source of comfort and strength.
“I try to go to church weekly, Saturday evening mass in Spanish or on Sundays, and I also try to go sporadically just to sit and pray and reflect,” she says. “And I’m part of a young Catholic professionals group that meets monthly.
“When all else fails, faith gets me through it all. Prayer and faith helps center and ground me.”
The foundation of her recovery, however, is seeing herself more clearly—messy feelings and all. She’s been able to let go of her need to be the “golden girl.”
“It was totally unrealistic for me to feel and be that way all the time,” she admits. “Now I accept all of me.”
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What works for Ana Mantica
Focus on family: “I love my nieces so much, and if I am having a bad day, I play voicemails that I have saved from them and look at their photos,” she says. She does the same with her godson. She also keeps a picture of her grandmother nearby. “She’s a matriarch and north star. From her I learned the value of faith and service.”
Belly dance like no one is watching: “I use belly dancing as a way to reconnect with my body because this style of dance celebrates the body in a positive way,” she says. When she is feeling down, a belly dancing session can help turn her mood around.
Pay it forward: Volunteering has always been a thread for Mantica, wherever she lived. “When you volunteer, you give back and learn more about the community and meet real people,” she says. Currently she’s involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Say Om: Mantica tries to meditate daily, even for just five minutes. “If I do it regularly, I can fall back on it to blow off steam to bring myself back to reality after a bad day,” she says.
Printed as “Overcoming the Pursuit of Perfection,” Fall 2018
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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