It is said that depression is like a great hole, black as night and with sides impossible to climb. They say that you struggle with silent screams, of which nothing can be heard of above. Some say it’s your own fault. Others say it is a disease.
I did not fall into any hole – I walked into a swamp.
I watched as my feet stepped into its murky depths until each one became laden with sticky tar, and then I became stuck. Now I cannot go forwards or backwards. If I look behind me I can see each footprint that I made flashing like a neon sign. The first one I took as I lost my health. The second as I lost my independence (and my job). The third imprint (perhaps the deepest of them all) came as we lost all our money and began arguing over things I took entirely for granted, such as hot water or washing powder. My last step into the murk I was not alone, for I took the baby growing inside me too.
The swamp sits, like most swamps, beneath immense trees with low-hanging branches of leaves. The leaves block the sun just as my mind blocks my spirit. The mud is up to my chest with a touch that is heavy enough to make it constrict. The air is damp, close and suffocating – worse still it is stale because it is as though time cannot move. My heart beats but it takes all my energy to do so.
There is no question of me forgetting love. Every time I look at my son my heart swells with pride and I feel energised with purpose. I am a mother. I still laugh and smile when I am around him, and shower him with kisses. This sustains me while I live in the swamp … but is that enough? Do I want to just linger on?
If I am honest, I am not sure I even have the energy to answer that question. The hardest battle for any person weighed down with sadness is not living with it, but doing something about it. The resolve to keep going or to pull yourself out of a blackness that is fighting to pull you down, in a feat worthy of Hercules. Harder still, I believe, to give up entirely and let it swallow you.
Chile is not an easy place to have these kinds of thoughts. For although this is a nation that seems to hold doctor visits as important as religious holidays and that overmedicates to the extreme, Chile does little to actually help those that are actually suffering. I read a story the other day of a man from La Pincoya who was struggling with a terrible drug addiction, which was made worse thanks to a past filled with abuse and parental neglect. The company he worked for had a drug rehabilitation programme, which they were very proud of and was a selling point for their business. When the man finally found the strength to enquire about it he found that the cost was at least double his monthly earnings … soon becoming triple because they fired him immediately. This is not an unusual story, particularly as delicuencia is considered to be on the rise.
This is also not a country that rewards people who think outside the box. In fact, uniformity is perhaps the reason why Chile is now one of Latin America’s most “stable” nations. It is also one that gives the appearance of equality but has a gross difference in income brackets and lifestyles. People pay extortionate amounts to send their children to good schools, even those these very schools offer an education that is barely en par with public offerings in other places. Girls wear the same clothes and sport the same hairstyles, while babies are cleaned within an inch of their lives and sprayed with perfumes. The same meals are eaten every day alongside the now-expected and recent additions of coca cola, UHT/reconstituted milk, table salt, margarine, potato chips and processed bread (said to be the highest consumption in the world). Doing something even a little bit different, such as declining fizzy drink for a baby, can be met with sheer disbelief, something which will then crop up in endless conversation after you leave thanks to Chile’s national pastime, the Cahuin.
None of this is unique to Chile but it comes as part of the package that, alongside Santiago’s heavy smog, can make expats feel as though they are suffocating here. Many move with their children and do not speak fluent Spanish, living amongst a new culture that is not particularly open to the new faces and ideas that expatriates undoubtedly bring.
All of us get the blues from time to time, but this effect on a mother in Chile can be incredibly difficult. Mothers, like elsewhere on the globe, get the brunt of the childrearing questions but are also expected to be more than a housewife. My biggest earwag is hearing that children must go to jardin from a young age or risk growing up with deformed social behaviour (or other issues). It replaces breastfeeding, my son’s attire and his “too healthy” diet as the number one complaint about my parenting – because no matter what my husband might say, all these unusual choices have come from me, as the foreign mother.
But there is no greater hurdle in Chile then when your relationship begins to fall apart. No matter how much your suegra appears to understand you, she is secretly counting the days until her son is free from your wayward clutches. No matter how much your suegro laughs at your jokes, he would much prefer it if his son had bought home someone who came from a Catholic past and didn’t debate his theories at the dinner table. They certainly never wanted their son to bring home someone who was … depressed, and openly so. They just don’t know how to deal with it. Just take a pill and stop complaining – the doctor can fix you after all!
There is also the question of where the children will go. The second a cross-cultural relationship ends so too does all attempt at normalcy, because the foreigner will always want to leave (scratch that: escape). Countless parents are stuck in Chile for just that reason. Don’t get me wrong – I know there is nothing good waiting for me in New Zealand but at least it’s someplace that I know.
I came to Chile for love and through time fell in love with this place, but there is good and bad here, just like everywhere else. Life can be really hard, particularly so when you are conned out of millions and Chile rewards the criminal. Or when you are pregnant and have already suffered humiliation after humiliation thanks to the public healthcare system here (stories for another day).
My screams are not silent, in fact they are deafening. “I do not want to be here anymore!” I seem to shout constantly but the swamp does not want to let me go. I stepped in without any money or independence and a pregnancy that was planned during a happier time. But the line between the swamp and the forest is not a clear cut boundary, in fact they are very close and at times merging – just as is the line between happiness and unhappiness. Debt and credit. Love and hate.
And life and death.