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Depression: The Other Consequences Attached to Poverty

One summer day Maliha woke up to the odd scent of sterilization and hand sanitizers, an incredibly dry mouth, a hand pinched with needles, and the sight of her older sister Lamia crying. In the next second, the realization of what she had done came crashing down on her. In the third second, she left her denial and realized that she just tried to kill herself. The millions of seconds after that were marked by a single question running around incredulously through her mind, “How did I get to this point?”

For seven years of her life, Maliha has bore witness to the systematic spiraling downwards of her life in the face of an absentee mother, a crippled father, her personal demons, and a loving sister holding the last threads of her hope together against poverty.

In the year 2012, we were all awaiting for the world to end as “predicted” by the ancient Mayan calendar. Nothing happened and we all moved on. But for Maliha, that year, marked the end of her life as she knew it as her mother, Momina, aged 41 at the time, divorced her father, Belayet who was 49 at the time, and returned back to Bangladesh with her new boyfriend. The marriage, an unfortunate byproduct of Bangladeshi norms of marrying young girls by the age of 22-24 against their wishes, fell apart. Nearly eighteen years of marriage completely thrown down the drain.

“Honestly speaking, she left my dad because she just didn’t love him at all. Bangladeshis are desperate for American citizenship and my mother could become one through marriage. I hate her and I will always continue hating her for abandoning us,” says Maliha with fervent anger.

Maliha, who was eleven years old at the time and on the cusp of entering the tumultuous years of puberty, marked by increased sensitivity of emotions, had found a deep-seated hatred imprinted in her soul from watching her mother abandon her own flesh and blood.

She says, “Now that I think about it, I started getting upset and withdrawn during the period leading up to my parents’ divorce. It felt incredibly unfair that I was somehow being punished and had to deal with their nonsense even though I wasn’t a part of it. I hated how selfish they were both being. At that point, I was really just confused and angry, but mostly afraid.

Belayet himself had attained citizenship during his college years which allowed him to legally apply and bring his wife to America. For Bangladeshis, all it takes is just one person on the other side of the ocean and they can bring in their lovers, wives, husbands, and all family members.

Her mother’s cold heartedness left a dark print on Maliha’s societal presence within the Parkchester community in the Bronx where they previously resided. Their family became the target of cruel gossip. Many Bangladeshi people are notoriously conservative, especially the large concentration of those who lived in Parkchester, and divorce was rare in the community. She became guilty by association, of her parents’ divorce, and people turned their nose up at her and made rude presumptions about the character of their family.

Her life was made worse by her father, who was working as a taxi driver, being assaulted by one of his passengers in 2014. Belayet drove the passenger to his house and the man said he had no money on him and stepped into the house to retrieve cash. Instead, he came out with a crowbar and tried to intimidate Belayet into leaving. However, Maliha’s father relentlessly pursued and found himself, mostly his legs, being savagely beaten and fractured by the man.

She recalls, “We did okay for awhile. I mean, I suddenly didn’t have a mother but we still managed to cook, clean, and supported dad. But, after dad’s incident, we started to fall apart. Things got worse when we saw that since my dad couldn’t drive anymore, it was near impossible to pay the $1300 rent and put food on the table. My dad barely talked to us, and my sister yelled all the time which I understood because her life was screwed too.”

Ultimately, Lamia, Maliha’s older sibling who was a high school sophomore and fifteen years old at the time, stepped up to the family plate and became the stand in mother. She became the pre-eminent member to be in charge of the family’s financial situation, while the father began working full time, manning the register, at a souvenir store in Times Square. She took care of paying the bills through her and her father’s money combined, doing grocery and housework while working nearly twenty hours per week and going to school full-time. Unable to bear the brunt of the rent, she applied for public housing assistance, specifically government housing voucher which, after being approved, led the trio to a small apartment in Brownsville, Brooklyn, almost one year after the incident.

During this entire time period, the relationship between the three had irrevocably changed for the worse. Her father became more withdrawn and aloof and Lamia thrust all her attention to school to escape the misery of the house which left Maliha all alone and crying with no one to hear it. There was an eerie and still silence that always penetrated throughout the ghost-like space. It was as if there were three entities living on different dimensions in the same area. Save for the required formalities of asking if they had eaten or done their homework, no one spoke much to one another.

The effect was momentous on Maliha. Her mental strength, from 2012 to 2016, had drastically deteriorated. By the end of Maliha’s sophomore year in 2016, she was miserable, lost connection with all her friends, spent more time outside of class than inside, and was well on her way to certain failure, academically, socially, and mentally. The succession of losses she was attacked with compressed onto her leaving her with an utter sense of hopelessness that no amount of trying or speaking would help.

She says, “It was somewhat easy to keep my mind occupied in school but when I got home, I was completely alone with my thoughts. I started cutting myself. I can’t quite remember why I started it but I felt so powerless and hurt by everything that I wanted to just do something. So that’s what I did. By sophomore year, which was my sister’s senior year, I stopped showing up to most of my classes altogether. I spent a lot of time sleeping in the Jefferson Park next to my school, Manhattan Center, and hiding from family. I was always stressed and anxious, I couldn’t keep food down most of the time, and just cried. I tried to focus in school, I tried to pay attention but I physically just couldn’t bring myself to. I felt paralyzed and suspended in fear and stress. I had no friends left, I was underweight, I hated looking at myself, and felt physically and emotionally weak.”

While she felt the closest to her sister, she felt disconnected from Lamia and her father. Any attempt to even speak about her situation was met with seething anger and threats of running away. It was especially easy for her to steal the words away from her father, in the rare occasions he emerged from his own despairing self-pity, by immediately placing the guilt of their destitute situation on his shoulders.

The whirlpool of despair collapsed into a suicide attempt by swallowing a cocktail of painkillers and sleep aids one night in May 2016. A few days after spending nine days in the psychiatric ward of Brookdale Hospital, Maliha officially withdrew from high school and dropped out of normal life. She spent her time like an owl, staying up all night and sleeping all day. For the next three years, she spent her time aimlessly drifting through guilt, hopelessness, and purposelessness.

“In the years after my attempt, Lamia showed me compassion and love that I did not deserve at all. I left every burden on her head and basically became useless furniture in the house. But she never made me feel terrible or say something with the intention of hurting me. When I look at her, even now, all I feel is guilt and love,” expresses Maliha with great sadness.

While majority of her time over the years since her attempt were marked by lying in bed all day unable to sleep or eat or scrolling through her phone in an attempt to spark any interest in anything, Maliha made some attempts to crawl out of her personal hellhole.

She says, “When you’re poor, you literally cannot afford to be depressed. I tried getting therapy and counseling but the steps to even making an appointment and getting to the location was exhausting. Most psychiatry agencies were more concerned if your insurance was going to be able to pay them or not, and were quick to just diagnose you with some kind of depression and slap on a prescription full of medications before you could get five sentences out about how you were feeling.”

For a person in Maliha’s situation, the act of getting in the morning instead of 2pm in the afternoon, gathering enough motivation to wash her hair and put on some clean clothes, and getting on the subway to therapy was impossible. Her sister, the primary breadwinner of the house, was continuously shuffling between her college, The New School, and her full time job at Nature Republic, a Korean skincare store on Union Square. Her father, currently 55, was working part time at the tourist store making just under $200 per week and years of anger and raised voices had made simple requests too awkward to express. The lack of a proper family support system to transport Maliha from one place to another and the crippling guilt of overburdening her sister resulted in her giving up the exhausting trip. Thus, the cycle of depression continued.

“Our relationship got really awkward and every time we spoke we fought, so I avoided my father. My sister became my rock. I think I would’ve tried to kill myself sooner if I didn’t have her support. But my depression just magnified every little failure and made me tired just thinking about the long trip from waking up to talking to the therapist. So, I gave up because there was no point in trying. They would just try to suck up the money from our insurance for as long as possible and throw us out when we’re bled dry,” she says.

For Maliha, living in poverty is a constant game of luck. She worries about the looming possibility that the landlord of her building is itching to find a sufficient reason to throw her family out to welcome new tenants because they would be capable of paying higher rent than the $1800 her family contributes with the assistance of the government subsidized voucher. The landlord wanted a piece in the rapid growth of rich mid-western transplants dying to find space in the city. Moreover, a few days ago, Lamia had received an email from her lawyer confirming the fact that the landlord had capitalized on some of the monthly rents they had become behind on to take matters into court to fast-forward the justification for their eviction.

So, Lamia began searching for other apartments for future safety. Every apartment they go see and every landlord they speak to respond with prejudice and disdain when Lamia talks of using the voucher to offset the cost of their rent. Hope and luck are not synonymous to their lives. Lamia’s own personal depression is what the catalyst for miniscule change within Maliha becomes. She worries about getting her GED and getting a job so that she may unload some of the financial burden from her sister before Lamia becomes victim to the despair that undid her.

“I’ve spent three years living the worst kind of life. It’s going to take a really long time before my mind is ever right again. It took me a really long time, unfortunately, to realize that I seriously just can’t be selfish anymore. It’s really just me and my sister against the world. My dad’s almost 60, my mom can rot in hell, and the institutions don’t care. My sister protected me, even though I don’t deserve it, and it’s time I protect her back,” she says with careful trepidation.