Courtesy of Marizol and Selenis Leyva
June 28, 2016 4:19 PM EDT

Marizol: I was 17 when I finally told my sister, Selenis, that I am transgender. She wasn’t surprised: she had asked me on several occasions if I was, but I had denied it because I didn’t know myself. I was in a place in my life where I wanted to know what I would be getting myself into and better understand the transition process.

I needed to learn about hormonal treatment and about what being an open trans person would mean moving forward. I had heard that the process wasn’t easy because health issues can come up, and I knew there would be no turning back. So I began to do my research. I met other trans girls, I kept reading, learning and hearing others tell me their stories. I met with my doctor who helped me start hormones. Finally, by age 19, I began my transition.

My sister was really happy for me once I told her I was ready. I was thrilled to have her support— I was finally a step closer to living my truth. It wasn’t easy, emotionally or physically. But I knew it needed to happen. I could no longer continue living a lie. I went through such a dark time. I was depressed, I didn’t want to live.

But I don’t regret my decision to transition—it ended up being the best thing for me. The support and love my sister gave me kept me focused and hopeful. It was a transition for her as well: She had a hard time at first using the correct pronoun or even calling me Marizol, but she worked on it and quickly adapted.

Selenis: Marizol telling me she was Trans wasn’t a specific moment for me. It was a build. I knew very early on that she was struggling with her identity.

Being the oldest of my siblings meant I took care of them all. My parents depended on me a great deal even as a young child because they barely spoke English, so I had a full-time job translating for them. I had to go to doctor visits and teacher conferences to bridge the language barrier.

I was in many ways the second mom to my younger siblings. This included Marizol: I would watch her as she played with my toys or my little sisters. My brothers would try to get Marizol to play sports and act more “masculine,” but I knew that wasn’t natural for her. Her movements were different than the other boys I knew.

Read more: What Jazz Jennings Wants All Trans Kids to Know

By the time she turned 16, she came out to me as gay. I knew there was more. I asked her if she wanted to be a woman. Of course now I would’ve asked it differently, like “Do you identify yourself as a woman?” or “Are you Transgender”? But I didn’t have the information I do now. Neither one of us was informed.

It would be two years later that I would meet Marizol. She had been dressing as a female for a while. She would hide this from me, but I knew. I also knew she needed to come to terms with all of this at her own pace.

During that time my mother and I would find clothing and wigs. We never confronted Marizol. We waited. We weren’t sure what this all meant. But what was clear was that she was in trouble. She was depressed, and it got very scary for us all. Marizol was on a dangerous downward spiral.

Things got better once she started to make friends with other people in the transgender community. I still remember how excited she was when she shared with me that she had met a young woman who was transgender and taking hormones. I knew it would only be a matter of time before she took the steps to start hormones and live as a transgender woman. I was so relieved the day she told me she was ready— I could immediately see her newfound sense of hope.

It wasn’t an easy transition for me. As much as I was happy and relieved, I went through different stages of mourning my brother. I went from relief to anger, asking, why? Why was this happening to my little brother, my family? I was also afraid: Would she be ok? Would we as a family be alright with this change?

I felt a great deal of sadness. I started to miss my baby brother. It was such a strange sensation to mourn the loss of someone who was still very much alive. I had to mourn, I had to say goodbye to what I was used to. It took some time to call her by her name and to use the correct pronoun.

Today it’s strange to see pictures of that time in our lives. I have a sister. And she is living her truth, she is happy and that makes me happy. The thing is, she had been there from the start, it just took us a while to really meet her.

Marizol Leyva is a transgender Latina model, cook and activist. Selenis Leyva is a star of NETFLIX’s hit series Orange Is the New Black, which recently returned for its fourth season. The two were recently awarded Stonewall Community Foundation’s 2016 Vision Award for inspiring visibility, advocacy and outspoken support for the transgender community.

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