Erika Sánchez is a poet, novelist, and essayist. Her debut poetry collection, Lessons on Expulsion (Amazon, Bookshop) was a finalist for the PEN America Open Book Award. Her debut young-adult novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (Amazon, Bookshop) is a New York Times bestseller, a National Book Awards finalist, and is currently being made into a Netflix film directed by America Ferrera. Her memoir, a collection of essays called Crying in the Bathroom (Amazon, Bookshop), just hit shelves.
I’ve read both her novel and her memoir, and I couldn’t wait to talk to Erika about happiness, habits, and mental health.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Erika: I have to take solitary walks to feel balanced. There’s a large park and river trail close to my house that I love. It’s a beautiful piece of nature in the city. I enjoy the trees, the birds, and the people, most of whom appear to be in a happy mood. Whenever I start to feel anxious or depressed, I make myself take a walk even if I don’t want to. By the end, I usually feel refreshed, and I have drawn some sort of conclusion or made a connection I didn’t expect. My imagination comes alive. My mind wanders in all directions because I’m present, which perhaps makes no sense to anyone but me.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
At that time, I thought that if I achieved enough success, my depression would magically disappear and that I would be happy for the rest of my life. It wasn’t until I had a mental breakdown after my first two books were published that I realized this wasn’t true. You can’t achieve your way out of trauma. At 18 I also hadn’t yet learned that I have a mental illness that requires medication. I now understand that I literally can’t experience happiness when my brain chemistry is not right. Thank you, science!
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I don’t always particularly enjoy working out—it’s a love/hate relationship— but I force myself to do it because I know how relieved l will feel after the fact. My favorite form of exercising is running outdoors. I like to get fresh air and enjoy the scenery. There’s something very satisfying about exerting myself physically. I’ve also shifted my perspective on working out. I make myself move because it feels good, not to lose or maintain my weight. Even though I’m incredibly slow, I feel like I deserve a parade when I’m finished.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I’m a Questioner!
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
Social media is a real pain in the butt for me. Part of me wants to delete it forever, but another part of me enjoys it and believes it’s now necessary to my career. Sometimes I scroll mindlessly, and I hate myself for it. Sometimes it becomes a compulsion, and it makes me feel very gross. I’m still trying to figure out my relationship to it. I don’t want it to take up too much space in my brain. I want to be present in the world.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
This happens a lot when I’m reading or taking a walk. A few months ago, I was at the park and realized that I carried my female ancestors with me. Their flesh is my flesh. I believe both my rage and talent come from them. I’m the first woman in my family to have the opportunity to determine my own life. I had been working through a lot generational trauma, and that fact stunned me. I cried it out and felt stronger for it.
Is there a particular quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
“I stood at the border, stood at the edge and claimed it as central. l claimed it as central, and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.” –Toni Morrison
Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?
Books change me all the time. One that comes to mind right now is When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron (Amazon, Bookshop). I read it when I was recovering from a very severe bout of depression. It helped me reconnect with my Buddhist faith and find meaning in my suffering.