When you’re depressed and poor, the answers to your problems exist, but are not within your reach.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably American, as I am. You might also be one of the 5.7 million Americans who suffer from bipolar disorder. If you’re an American woman, as I am, you have a 25% chance of suffering at least one major depressive episode in your lifetime.
If you are both a sufferer of a mental illness and a resident of a rich country, then it’s possible it’s never occurred to you that your place on a map, the luck of the draw of where you were born, can impact your ability to cope with your illness.
I’m fairly certain that I have undiagnosed manic depression. (I am aware that sentence will raise educated eyebrows, especially for any of you who’ve read this post about some-apparently-famous-person called Kylie Jenner, who concluded she was bipolar because she disliked her new hair color. Please just stay with me here.) I’ve gone through both depressive and manic episodes in the United States, England, and now in Colombia. Average GDP per capita here in 2012 was $7,748. As a freelance editor and translator, I earned about $18,000 last year, making me rich by Colombian standards. Yet I’ve never earned less or felt poorer in my adult life.
This is the first time I have had one of my many “swings”—a months-long creep from depressive to manic to (now, I hope) on-the-road-to-wellness—when I was living poor. And, my God, has it been hard.
I say “living poor” because I am hovering around the official U.S. poverty line while still sending home $300 a month to cover my outlandish credit card bills, racked up during various manic episodes (and two mania-induced divorces) over the past 10 years. My partner was recently laid off, and I have been trying to prop us both up until his freelance design business takes off.
I have stopped paying my student loans, because the extra $400 a month would certainly be impossible to cover and Sallie Mae doesn’t have a deferment option for low-income students who live out of the United States. My working-class, no-nonsense mother seems to believe my ability to simply do that—stop paying a bill that I know I owe but can’t afford—reveals a deep character flaw. Her concern for and distrust of me makes me feel like I can no longer talk to her, my long-time best friend.
I know that I’m not poor, though. In Medellín, I live in an upper-middle-class, gated suburb, with neighbors who bring cookies and show us their family albums. Just down the mountain from my barrio, on an urban hillside, is a slum, where skinny kids run barefoot on dirt paths and people tie cows outside houses thrown together out of sheets of tin. Every roof is held down by a stack of bricks. I go past it often when I walk the dogs (always looking over my shoulder for fear of being robbed. Again). I imagine how someone could spend a childhood in a place like that, and I know I’m not poor.
Remember what I said about my self-diagnosis? I know it takes a therapist to do that. And I really need a therapist, if only to have someone else to talk to besides my long-suffering but exhausted boyfriend about my fucked-up childhood. Not fucked-up in the same way as the kids in the slum next door, but still very dislocated and difficult. I desperately need a therapist, I know I do, but have no health coverage because I am a foreigner and have not a dollar to spare.
I think about the kids in the slum, and about the homeless man at the intersection across from the supermarket who only has a torso, with his entire bottom half taken off by one of the many landmines that still pepper Colombia’s countryside. I feel like needing a dollar for psychotherapy is a First World Problem. There are so many other problems to solve first: our almost-broken-down car, those unpaid Sallie Mae bills, the dogs that need to see a vet. We still don’t even have a washer, and I’m hand-scrubbing dog-smelling blankets every day.
Instead, I Google, for the hundredth time “symptoms of bipolar disorder.” I have nearly all of them. I am advised by the Internet medical powers-that-be that I should see a doctor as soon as possible. I resign myself to being a broken emotional mess indefinitely. When you are depressed and poor, the answers to your problems exist, but are not within your reach.
I have serious intimacy problems in my relationship because I am afraid of getting hurt or becoming too dependent upon my partner, whose patience begins to wear thin with me being lost in a world of depression. To build more space into the relationship, I rent my own room in another house, but the sudden fear of being alone catapults me into mania. I have casual sex with as many people as possible in as short a time as possible, and sleep a few hours a night for weeks on end, trying to soothe myself through looming panic. One month later, I have nearly ended the relationship several times, telling myself it’s better to be alone than to live in terror. My partner sees me crying and hysterical. He gives me frightened, confused, and often angry looks, and I panic even more.
But I know, somehow instinctively, that love—from my partner, from my friends, from my family (I have to start talking to them again), from myself toward myself—is the only thing that can “cure” me of whatever it is that’s making me like this.
In December, the slum residents, all of whom pirate their electricity with cables feeding off the overhead power lines, cover their tin houses in hundreds of Christmas lights. On New Year’s Eve, Colombians dance with their mothers-in-law and slightly tipsy 12-year-old cousins until 6am. They are all poor, by American standards, and, like me, full of hurt and trauma—and yet also full of hope and love.
Perhaps I’ve been making a mistake thinking that a psychotherapist and lithium are what it will take to “cure” me. Maybe these Colombians manage to make their country the happiest country in the world because they understand, after their still-recent history of violence and the relative poverty that most of them endure, how very much they need each other.
Samantha Eyler is a freelance writer and editor raised in Kentucky and London and now based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman, and is one of the founders of the London Fields Feminist Book Group. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.