Skip to Content

Vanessa Nino-Tapia

When I was 22, I had everything to look forward to. I was accepted into graduate school, was planning my wedding to my partner of five years and had a great job as a research assistant.

I also had good friends, housing, food, even a loving pet; but I had experienced a tremendous trauma in my life, I thought the worst thing that could ever happen to me happened when I was 22, and it was that pet, her name was Katie, a cat that stopped me from killing myself in February 2009. The day after Katie rescued me, I walked into a school psychologist’s office not because I was seeking help for my mental health, but because I was told they were mandated reporters. 

After that I realized that the suicidal ideations wouldn’t just go away. So, I continued to see somebody to try to keep them at bay. I had to go through seven people before I could find a counselor that was also culturally competent to Native American women. I thought I was improving, and I was. I was finally taking charge of my mental health, addressing the depression and anxiety. And I was determined to continue moving through life as I did before and not think much of it.

As a Native American woman, I wanted to study indigenous engineering methodologies or what I phrased indigenous ingenuity. What better place to witness indigenous ingenuity than Peru? In the Nazca valley there are these ancient aqueducts called puquios; which in Quetchua means source of water. For my master’s thesis I had hoped to go to the puquios and construct a groundwater model that would account for climate change and the continual threats to the puquios that make way for more land and diesel run pumps. After years of preparation for what was supposed to be a month-long research trip, I only got to spend three days in Nazca, Peru.

The third day, April 9th, 2012, after nights of not sleeping well or not at all, racing thoughts, and fiercely writing letters to many of the folks I just met, I left, alone. I didn’t know the words then, but I know the words now; I was manic and psychotic. It was right before dawn, and the town was so peaceful. It was a dream to walk through Nazca knowing I finally made it. My lifelong struggle with depression and anxiety had lifted. But the dream quickly turned into the worst nightmare I have ever had. It felt incredible at first. I felt invincible crossing busy streets and stopping traffic dancing and singing throughout the town. At first people were intrigued. One woman gave me a coca cola and let me sit and chat in her shop before it was to open. I made it to the Tierras Blancas River, and could see Cerro Blanco, the highest sand dune in the world and from my studies the place believed to provide puquio water by the tears of the God Viracocha. I suddenly felt fear when I heard thunder. It never rains in Nazca, Peru, I believed I had brought rain to the valley, so I ran from the river. I ran frantically throughout the town. People tried to help me, but I ran from them too. I ended up back at the apartment I was crashing at with a couple of archaeology students. They were out, so I began to obsessively clean the apartment. I could not stop myself my energy was astounding and would not let up. At one point I hid behind the building. Turns out they had been looking for me. I remember one of the girls reaching out to me, I felt so scared. Something was wrong but I could not communicate what it was.

I remember being taken into a room with my belongings and the door closed shut. I turned on my laptop and instead of seeing the loading symbol I saw semalulukut, the hummingbird Nazca geoglyph flying on my computer. My mind began making all these absurd connections. I was having auditory and visual hallucinations. The delusions had already begun. The energy I felt was endless and terrifying. No one could understand me, I had gone insane.

I was transported to a Peruvian psychiatric hospital where I was almost sexually assaulted by a male patient. Consequently, I screamed and ran. The nurses, four men and one woman, forced me onto a iron bed in a solitary locked room and tied me limb and limb on the bed posts. I still have the scar on my finger from the woman nurse pressing her finger into one of my wounds to subdue me. I spent three nights with no water and no one that could hear my cries. How ironic that I went to Peru in search of water only to be denied it.

My partner came from the United States to get me out of that hospital. Somehow, by the grace of God and psychiatric medications, we made it back to Sacramento. I felt my body so disposable and my mind completely lost. The day I was supposed to walk the stage for my master’s degree, June 14th, 2012, was the day I decided to walk into an Outpatient Program after weeks in a their psychiatric intensive care unit. 

My symptoms for the most part went into remission. In September 2013 I accepted a job offer to work at the US Army Corps of Engineers in downtown. I was certain that if I ever disclosed my mental illness that I would be fired, deemed not good enough for such a position. I excelled in their recent graduates’ program, and I slowly built my confidence in myself back up. My medication was working. But when I turned 30 my meds stopped working and started making me sick. I became depressed again and my boss recognized something was off and approached me. I broke down naming my illness as bipolar 1 disorder and PTSD certain I was going to have to be fired. He replied, “Bipolar disorder? We have supervisors who have that.” I was shocked and I needed all the accommodation I could manage. I continued to struggle. At one point I called my father crying and he said, “Mija no one is immune to illness.” Him telling me that gave me great comfort and helped me accept that I needed to leave from work to go back to the psychiatric unit in March 2017 after admitting I had been actively suicidal. This time prepared for the hospital. I even brought a cobija, a Mexican blanket to keep me warm at night because I remembered it would get very very cold. 

Instead of suffering silently seeking help was the bravest act of love I could gift myself. Some of the staff recognized me from 2012 and asked what had happened to my beautiful long hair. I had cut it in 2016 to cope with the suicidal ideations, depression, and anxiety. It was like night and day being in the hospital again compared to the first time. I was relieved and not so terrified. Turns out I was deemed med sensitive and as we searched for a medicine that could help me, I continued to struggle with the suicidal ideation. October 7th, 2018 was the first time I called the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. 20 Minutes on the phone bought me enough time to continue searching for help. I kept reminding myself of my father’s voice. “Mija, no one is immune to illness.” Fall 2019 we had found a new med combo that worked, the symptom of suicidal ideation finally went back into remission. I was no longer in crisis and was able to participate in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention walk, grateful that I had survived the darkness. 

No one is immune to illness and we each have a mental health. Me taking medication daily doesn’t make me a weak or misinformed person, and it doesn’t make me less Native or less of a spiritual person. When I was at the hospital in the US for the first time, I was scolded by another patient, “You have bipolar, but you don’t even know what that is? You better learn if you want to ever get out of here.” Telling an engineer that they don’t understand something is the fastest way to get them to learn about it. It is a challenge. Let me pay that challenge forward, learn about mental illness and disability because I can guarantee it is happening or will happen to someone you love, maybe even someone you admire. And if you ever get the chance, go visit the puquios in Nasca, Peru. Tell Viracocha, Vanessa says hi. 

Mental Health Services

Call 211

For local mental health counseling, support and crisis response services. If you are in crisis or experiencing a life-threatening emergency, call 911.