It’s hard to care about the fact that being poor makes people unfree when you’ve never been subjected to the trauma of poverty yourself.
Mother Jones magazine ran a piece recently about how people who live in poor neighborhoods—certain parts of, say, Chicago, Philly, Detroit, and Atlanta—are as likely to get PTSD as veterans of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Vietnam. Just from living somewhere.
Being afraid, having to be on your guard every day, can literally traumatize people.
I don’t want to write here about crime rates, or urban violence, or racism, or the recently corroborated fact that living poor puts a severe, constant burden on your intelligence and can make you both physically and mentally ill. Many people have said all that before.
Mostly, I want to tell you my story about moving to a poor place and then myself becoming emotionally unwell, and how that experience gave me context to put that Mother Jones article in. I want to offer my lesson on poverty and privilege as a middle-class American.
When I first read the Mother Jones headline, I realized that 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have even stopped to look at it, I would have just carried on inside my filter bubble. I was a freshman English/History major who wrote conservative op-eds for the school paper at a Methodist liberal arts college in Kentucky.
My family was poor then (by American standards). But I didn’t realize that until later, because I’d been a smart kid, a home-schooler who read novels to escape the terror of reality in a sheltered, fundamentalist evangelical family.
Because I loved to read too much, I skipped grades and got a scholarship to start college at 16, and then another to study in England, then in Spain, and then to do a Masters back in London. By the time I graduated, I had secured both a wonderful English husband, who swept me away to live in Las Vegas and visit Japan and Mexico and Prague, and what I thought was a secure position in the middle class.
Because I had it rough as a kid in a messy family, I never stopped to recognize how I was accumulating privilege. In the standard American-exceptionalist sort of way, I thought I’d suffered enough to deserve my success, that maybe things would always go right now that I’d escaped from the hyper-religious American backwater of my youth.
Full of confidence, I left that husband and finally managed to make it, as I’d always dreamed, to Latin America. But the place where I found a job was, of all places, a still-recovering warzone: Bogotá, Colombia, where drug cartels had been blowing up malls, murdering journalists, and kidnapping civilians during the ’90s, the same years I spent watching Full House and reading romance novels on farms in Wyoming and Kentucky.
In 2012, though, Colombia was becoming an economic powerhouse, and when my mom freaked out about my move I laughed at her. We Americans who live here practice bravado daily, like yoga; we think we are invincible, whether we admit it or not. I put on that attitude like a superhero cape, and walked around deciding to believe I was safe.
In short order, though, I got violently assaulted while visiting the beach at Taganga on Colombia’s wild, underdeveloped Atlantic coast. Because I am what Colombians might call a “dumb gringa,” I tried to fight back against the three teenaged muggers, so they threw me on the ground and cracked my teeth against the rocks and one of them flung himself on top of me and suddenly I realized I might get raped.
I didn’t get raped, thank God. But that fear—the screeching jerk in perspective that happens when you realize the safe world you think you’ve been living in is a lie—it physically hurts you, aches like the enormous black bruises that covered my arms and the bleeding front tooth I thought was going to fall out after the assault.
That was when I started to understand my privilege in being born someplace relatively wealthy and 100% safe. When I reported the assault, the woman at the dusty police station rolled her eyes and asked me for a bribe. Suddenly I understood that most Colombian people—in fact, so many people in the world and even in the United States, as the Mother Jones piece made clear—simply internalize this fear. It infuses their outlook every day.
I started having panic attacks and freezing in terror when people walked too close to me on the street, and for several months I withdrew into my suburban house and nursed a bout of depression. All of this trauma was not much helped when I got robbed again a few months later by a drug-addled Bogotá teenager.
In our society, violence and poverty go hand in hand. And as the journal Science confirmed last year, just living poor, even without the correlated violence, changes how your brain processes things. Thus, when middle-class readers see headlines like the one from Mother Jones, or the recent Oxfam finding that the richest 85 people in the world have the same share of wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion, our brains simply can’t compute the actual human suffering hidden behind those figures.
I realize it’s hard to care about the fact that being poor makes people unfree when you’ve never been subjected to the trauma of poverty yourself. But is our collective empathy button broken?
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.