Venezuelans are sharing feelings and pills and screaming into mirrors.
Editors Note: There are few places as chaotic or dangerous as Venezuela. “Life in Caracas” is a series of short stories that seeks to capture the surreal quality of living in a land in total disarray.
It started with a rapid heartbeat that woke me at dawn. The doctor said it wasn’t a heart attack, only a panic attack, due to “intense stress.”
Of course. I live in Venezuela.
He surprised me, though, when he told me not to worry about being able to find the alprazolam he recommended. Our country has been so short on meds that some people buy drugs made for pets. But this anti-anxiety potion had flooded the market. “Everyone’s taking it,” he said.
That wasn’t much of an exaggeration. If my friends aren’t anxious and on Valium or Xanax, they’re depressed and taking Zoloft or Prozac or some other uplifter, often—very often—no prescription required.
If you have the money or a generous acquaintance, you can pop the pill, which will have been made in the Dominican Republic or Bolivia and imported via private courier service. You might think we’re crazy to medicate without even the questionable level of regulation Venezuela can provide. True enough. But the more relevant thought is that we would be crazy not to be stressed out or depressed or both.
We talk about this all the time. Even men, in our macho culture, cop to feeling down. Nothing’s off limits. How many milligrams are you on? Can you afford to see a shrink? Have you tried meditation? Acupuncture? Does yoga help?
We couldn’t even avoid the subject at New Year’s Eve parties, looking down the barrel at the start of another year in a broken country, at a whole new decade stretching out into…who-can-predict?
People share feelings and pills. In WhatsApp groups, a common question is whether anyone has some extra of this or that. Ivan Zambrano, a 30-year-old comedian who gave me my first box of Zoloft, donates to friends and family who can’t afford them. A 10-day supply can cost $5, and the minimum monthly wage here is less than $3.
Zambrano plays on his bouts with depression in his routines, trying to keep it light but often going dark about the abyss: “Since I found out that each cigarette takes away eight minutes of your life, I smoke half a carton daily.”
I can still be surprised by how people I know, not necessarily that well, will tell me so much about their emotional states. Luis Gorrin, a 64-year-old English teacher, didn’t spare a detail about how helpless, frustrated, dejected and angry he was when he first ran short of money to buy food for his two teenage daughters.
Gorrin had rapid heartbeats, too. Drugs and therapy didn’t do the trick. So he came up with a DIY treatment: “When I’m about to explode, I stand in front of the mirror and shout: ‘This is not going to happen again.’ It hasn’t.”
Pablo Andres Quintero, a political scientist, said that, like me, he’s been struck by how so many Caraquenos are willing to spill about dark thoughts and unhinged nerves. He said he figures it’s healthy. “It’s a form of collective catharsis. It’s a way of relieving pain.”
I guess so. And honestly, I’m grateful that I don’t have to bear all these burdens alone. But I still keep a stash of antidepressants in my nightstand.