Stephanie Seren M. Lessa is a peer supporter and Peer School Facilitator with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). Through a journey that had her move to Canada, rediscover who she was, and grow in ways unimaginable to her past self with the CMHA (with a large smile to boot), being there for people is not new for her as Lessa has had a life that was largely focused on others, which carries its own lessons for life.
“From an early age, I started to become a caregiver,” said Lessa in a Zoom call.
Lessa was born in Fontaleza, Brazil, in 1986, and is the middle child of three. Her father is a dentist, while her mother was a teacher; as a result, their living situation was comfortable, with Lessa describing it as, “Middle class living.”
However, after the birth of her brother, Lessa’s mother suffered postpartum depression, which is depression that occurs with one out of every 8-10 mothers after a baby’s birth. Lessa took on the role of caregiver, saying, “I started to be there for her and take care of my younger brother. I was maybe eight years old.”
There were many challenges with this, with Lessa saying, “I had to mature fairly fast,” and adding, “But at the same time, it really taught me a lot of things, many of which I still use to this day.”
Lessa learned to be more responsible and to take action for her family, when necessary, all at the age of eight. As a result, Lessa missed living out a childhood, and the responsibilities put pressure on her to be the best she could be for her family.
“That pressure of being a fixer was something that I wasn’t aware of, and I didn’t know how to cope with it. While most kids would, after class, come home to do their homework or they would hang out and have fun, I had to go home and be at home.”
A fixer, as Lessa describes it, is a person that rescues others, and a person you can turn to when you hit the panic button. “I’m going to turn to this person to do it for me,” adding, “That was a role I was too young to know how to navigate, not knowing if it was healthy or unhealthy.”
“It was interesting being in that spot [because] it taught me so many practical things; but on the other hand, it really made me neglect some of my own personal time and needs,” said Lessa.
Lessa continued to be the caretaker of her family throughout her teens, and at the age of 20, her parents got divorced, which led to her mother depending on her more than she already did.
They are both very close, and during that time, they relied on each other, with Lessa saying, “I overprotected her, and she will then overprotect me, and we kept this.”
“I call it the hermit crab,” said Lessa to laughs, “Because we were depending on each other.”
It was during this time that Lessa started to become dependent on her mother, and vice-versa, which ultimately became a form of codependency. Codependency is described in the Oxford dictionary as:
Excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically one who requires support on account of an illness or addiction.
Codependency is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but the term can be used to describe close relationships without carrying any strict psychological meaning.
“[Codependency] wasn’t as healthy as I used to think back then, because I neglected myself a lot of the time,” said Lessa.
“In a way I liked it (codependency) because it kept me safe; but on the other hand, I wasn’t empowered to chase my goals, understand myself, know my values. All those kinds of things that you need to navigate the world.”