Friday, June 14, 2024

Depressed in paradise? You’re not alone

I’ve got a confession to make: my mental health has not been the greatest lately.

Okay, fine. It’s not really a confession; I didn’t do anything wrong, after all. But I’ll admit that I have felt some sheepishness when it comes to admitting I’ve been majorly depressed over the past several months. After all, what do I have to be depressed about?

I live in my dream home, and I have a great family and relatively few troubles, especially when you think about people who are literally living on the streets or losing everything to war and earthquakes or being reduced to fourth-class citizens by the Taliban or something.  

But as my therapist says, it does no good to discredit your feelings and try to punish yourself for not feeling the way you’re “supposed” to. And because guilt is my own go-to emotion, that’s what I’d been doing: feeling ashamed and scolding myself for not being happy when I should be.

So what are you supposed to do when you’re psychologically suffering in a different culture and country than your own and aren’t sure how to get help for yourself or don’t have the strength to do it?

This isn’t the first time I’ve been depressed. After my daughter was born nine years ago, I had what I can now identify as major postpartum depression. During that time, I felt lost and didn’t get psychological help, nor did anyone else try to get psychological help for me. 

Motherhood is probably one of the most loaded statuses there is here in Mexico, culturally speaking, and I felt constantly judged for not living up to the Mexican mother ideal; whether I actually was or not, I can’t be sure.

It didn’t help that my new baby never slept and cried as if she were being murdered much of the time. When I was pregnant, I thought we’d be best buddies, but once born, it seemed as if she hated me: “You’re doing everything wrong!” she seemed to be howling. 

She was diagnosed with “colic,” which is what they say is wrong with babies when they’re extremely unhappy for no apparent medical reason. Theories that perhaps she was unhappy because I myself was stressed only made me feel worse and more stressed and guilt-ridden than I already was. 

I stayed depressed for a very long time: at least five years, until I finally found my current therapist (more on that in a moment). During that time, I would just sort of shrug and tell myself that being a grown-up in the world was depressing and it was just how life was — oh well.

Everyone’s experience is different. I think most of us can admit, though, that being a foreigner — especially if you’re newly arrived — can be very isolating. Building a community can take time, and even when you do, sometimes there are cultural differences that just keep you cordoned off. And in the meantime, life just keeps happening; there’s no getting off the merry-go-round.

After the death of my mother and some major crises with my now ex-husband, I finally found Grisel, my therapist. She is lovely. She is wise. She is The Best. I’d write her a mushy platonic love letter, but that would be weird.

Getting myself to therapy in the first place was too long a road. Part of this was because I felt that my Mexican family would roll their eyes at it: yet another clear sign of my inherent weakness and not-enoughness — which was surely the depression speaking, but hadn’t I begged for marriage counseling, only to be brushed off time and again? 

I also knew people who gave therapy, and I was extremely not impressed with them. “That’s the kind of person that’s going to help me? Ha, no thank you.” I was a snob toward people who had basically just done an undergraduate degree in psychology and then slapped a “therapist” sign on their front door; and there were a lot of them. 

And besides, could someone from such a different culture even understand what I was going through? Surely they’d just tell me all the ways in which I was so obviously being ridiculous (again, the depression talking).

Finally, an acquaintance recommended Grisel to me, and I decided to make an appointment. She helped get me through what has been, up until now, the most difficult phase of my life, and now she’s helping me again.

She made sure, then and now, that I received a psychiatric evaluation. The first time I was told, “You can try antidepressants; you’re a candidate.” I did, and they helped, and then I stopped taking them, and I was still fine.

This last time that I went to see her, a few years later, she sent me to the psychiatrist for another evaluation, and he promptly diagnosed me with severe depression and insisted this time that I take antidepressants (many of which, by the way, can be bought at the pharmacy in Mexico without a prescription; I’m not recommending that anyone self-prescribe, but if you’re already taking something and need to find it here, in many cases, you can do so without too much trouble). 

I’ve been taking them again, and along with therapy, they’ve been helping. Slowly but surely, I’m crawling out of this hole that I’d unwittingly fallen back into (I wrote a more detailed blog about it here).

When I think about how much I needlessly suffered when help was right there, I feel sad for Past Sarah. But getting help even in one’s own culture isn’t easy, let alone a different one.

If you’re like me and live in a place where not too many people speak English, then your choice of a local therapist will be greatly reduced if you want to have it in your own language. I feel comfortable enough with Spanish that it isn’t a problem for me (Grisel doesn’t speak English), but I can imagine how daunting it must be for someone who doesn’t feel they can fully express themselves in Spanish when the stakes are so high.

For those who live in places where there are more English speakers, finding a local therapist might not be quite as hard. Getting a good recommendation can do wonders, and I can attest to the fact that a therapist from a culture different than your own can still help tremendously.

If a local option is impossible, there are good online choices as well. But whatever you do, don’t just suffer, punishing yourself for not being “happy enough” in what you thought would be a life-changing (only in a good way) location. 

We might be able to change our physical locations, but controlling our minds is a much bigger challenge than we usually think it should be. Remember, the same grace and understanding that we extend to other people must be extended to ourselves as well. Even if you’re in paradise. 

So if you or someone you know is suffering, don’t be afraid to look for help. It’s out there, I promise.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sarahedevries.substack.com

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