Invisible Things, Part 6

The day after the lesson that could have used more games, one of our PCMOs came into the aimag to give us flu shots. I’d resolved to myself, a few weeks before, that I would talk to somebody about the problems I was having. Even so, I joined in the banter while we got our shots and said nothing about it to the PCMO when she came with me alone to check out my apartment. Only an hour later did I work up the courage to call and ask if I could stop by her hotel room.

My heart was pounding by the time I reached her room (granted, it was on the fourth floor), and I couldn’t seem to catch my breath as quickly as I was used to doing. The doctor served me a cup of tea and I made cheerful, slightly frantic small talk until she finally asked me what was wrong.

I stared down at my cup, toying with the teabag. “I think I’m having an anxiety problem.”

She asked me what, in my opinion, the difference was between depression and anxiety. I sort of shrugged and mumbled a noncommital. Not because I didn’t know some kind of an answer, but because I was afraid of putting an answer to words. Afraid they would be the wrong words, somehow, and that they would send the conversation in the wrong direction. I had this feeling — one I still struggle with — that words are inadequate to describe a person’s internal experience; that the gap between what I mean and what you hear is too large by far to be bridged. And in that moment, I desperately wanted someone with authority to describe the way I felt. I wanted to know that it was something that could be communicated and understood.

The doctor began to list off common symptoms of depression — I forget exactly which; I remember she said something about self-harm and I was able to answer, No, nothing like that. She asked me what I was having problems with, and I made an awkward attempt to describe what happened after the first class at the police station. How I hadn’t been able to stop going over what happened until I went to bed.

We had a brief back-and-forth, which essentially came out to “it’s normal to be nervous as a new teacher, and that will pass.”

I took a different tack. I’d been struggling with exhaustion for the last few weeks — I just felt stressed, all the time. But I’d only hit forty hours once so far.

The doctor answered that I most certainly should not be working forty hours yet; I’d only been at site a month. (This was some of the best advice she gave, although it’s a little difficult when the doctor tells you one thing and the regional manager tells your supervisor another.) She went on to give me a lot of advice I already knew (sleep and eat regularly, try to integrate in the community) and some that struck me as stressful, if not downright nerve-wracking, to follow (keep a to-do list journal — do I REALLY want an ongoing record of all the things I haven’t accomplished?; tell your counterparts you have to cut back — but that kind of discussion is one of the things that stresses me out most!; compare your workload with your fellow PCVs’ — but what about the ones who are working more hours than I am?).

She asked me: “Do you feel better?”

She had just spent the better part of an hour telling me this was normal, I was normal. What was I supposed to say? I thought. No, I’m not normal, the inside of my head is driving me crazy and I don’t know how to communicate it to you? What’s the point if I don’t know how to talk about it? I should be grateful. I shouldn’t want something to be wrong with me.

“A little,” I said, even though I was trying not to cry.

She wrapped up the interview with an affirmation. I was healthy, my situation at site was excellent, and I was a good communicator. I was overworked, but it was not at the time a cause for medical concern.

I went home with a cheerful front plastered on for my aimag-mates; kept it together until we parted ways. Then I spent the weekend on the couch, staring at the wall.

I had been telling myself for I didn’t even know how long that nothing was wrong with me. That I was fine and I didn’t need help. I shouldn’t be upset, I told myself, I should be glad nothing’s wrong. But it didn’t make me feel any better.

Saturday evening I called the friend I’d told about the anxiety, because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. But once I was on the phone, I couldn’t think of anything to say. I’d used up the few words I had with the doctor, and they hadn’t done any good.

“Are you okay?” he asked after a few minutes of monosyllables.

“I don’t know,” I answered, because the doctor had said I was, but I had never felt less so.

Invisible Things, Part 5

At the beginning of my sophomore year of college, I switched from music education to creative writing.

I had a lot of good reasons for this: my dislike for the hypercompetitve culture that exists in the higher tiers of classical music; the knowledge that teaching positions, like performance positions, are competitive, and becoming more so as arts funding gets scarcer in schools; a perfectionistic frustration with the expectation of near-note-perfect live performances; the dawning realization that my continued development would require increasing amounts of time, money and passion. Ultimately, I weighed my priorities and realized that I wanted to be a professional writer more than I wanted to be a professional musician — and while I could be an amateur musician while continuing to develop myself as a writer, it would be very hard to find balance with the reverse.

But there was something else, too — something that, at the time, I was at a loss to explain. Once I was part of a studio — taking private lessons, competing for ensemble seats, and performing for critique on a regular basis — once, in effect, my performances were being evaluated in ways that were very important to me, I started to get pretty intense performance anxiety. I’d be shaking before I played; I couldn’t gauge how people were responding to my performance, or even whether I thought I was doing the well; and after the fact, unless I got effusive and specifically targeted praise, I had a hard time shaking this irrational sense that the whole thing had been mediocre and unimpressive. I felt like the worst player in the studio — even though that wasn’t really true, nor would it have been a terrible thing if it was true, since I was also the most junior.

I never talked about those kind of nerves, though it belatedly occurs to me that my studio professor could have helped a lot. I had enough other reasons to want to change majors; and anyway, the way I felt in those moments was not entirely conscious and wholly unverbalized. But in hindsight, anxiety probably figures pretty heavily into the fact that I am currently teaching EFL in Mongolia, and not music at a grade school somewhere in the States.

#

Things got easier when I got to my permanent site. The first few weeks were stressful, since my former sitemates were now flung out across the country and I had nothing but free time for the first time in aeons; but pretty soon school started and I fell into a rhythm. Team teaching was considerably easier than practice teaching — there was a curriculum, my teaching partner knew a lot about her classes, and (most importantly) the burden of success or failure didn’t fall on me. The success of my lessons doesn’t affect my salary, and I leave in two years whether I do well or not.

At the beginning of the year, my supervisor suggested that I teach English at the police station as a community project[1]. Naively, I decided this seemed like a good idea; I could teach lessons targeted for officers dealing with tourists and foreigners, and fill up my community requirement right away. A few weeks later, I was handed a Cambridge (!) beginner’s book and told to teach out of it. Okay, I thought, they’re definitely used to following textbooks pretty closely. Maybe I will have to adapt this whole ‘targeted lessons’ idea.

Then, in the first class, I did a quick needs assessment. Why did they want to learn English?

The answers ran the gamut from “I want to help my children with their homework,” through “It’s my hobby,” straight to “Maybe it will be useful someday.” All very good reasons to want to learn English — and none of them any different from what you’d get in a general community English class. I realized rather belatedly that I’d locked myself into a very limiting situation.

Still, I’d agreed to it, so I decided to give it a shot. I spent hours designing the first classroom lessons I’d ever taught solo, looking up games online and planning out how I’d give directions without the guarantee of a CP. (My teachers sometimes came to help out, but I really wanted to show that it’s possible to create an immersive English classroom.) The early lessons usually went to pieces, as I got a better sense of how to design them, and it really stressed me out; but improvisation is a crucial part of a teacher’s toolkit, and the officers liked my lessons so much they asked my supervisor if I could add a Saturday class. My supervisor said no.

Then, about two weeks into the class, the chief of police requested that I come visit the station. A tad bit nervous, I came with my supervisor. I was invited into the chief’s office, while my supervisor was left to wait outside.

The chief of police said something to the other officer in the room, whom I’d later learn was the Mongolian-English translator. The translator said, “You should teach on the weekends.”[2]

I blinked at him for a moment, then indicated that he should go get my supervisor.

With Sabit translating for me, I learned that the officers liked my lessons. They really liked my lessons. Moreover, because of the mixed level in the classroom and the fact that they were all very busy adults, some students forgot what happened between lessons. The obvious answer, the chief of police concluded, was for me to teach more often so they wouldn’t forget.

I told Sabit a little bit wildly, “I can’t teach weekends. I have to get my chores and my shopping done. Tell them I can’t teach weekends, I really can’t.”

We hashed out an agreement. My hours would not change, but once a week I would teach a review instead of a new lesson. I left the station feeling dispirited and uneasy. I already spent so much time trying to find interesting games — and now I would have to think up twice as many, because I’d basically be teaching the same thing twice. And I was starting to feel like, no matter how much the officers proclaimed their enjoyment, there was no way I’d be able to teach a really good lesson.

#

Fast-forward to a really rough Thursday near the end of first term. I was exhausted and unhappy, and I wanted nothing more than to curl up in my apartment and cry into a mug of tea. But I had that damned police class to teach, and I had no idea if the lesson I’d planned would work with the chief’s request for more reviews.

That day, I’d managed to really upset the CP who had planned to come help me run the class[3]. She’d still agreed to come, however, and had even texted me to make sure the class was still on. I met with her right before the lesson to go over my plan, and we made a few last-minute adjustments.

We carried out the lesson without too much of a hitch. But because it had been a long day, and I was upset, and I just didn’t feel anymore that I was doing a good job with these lessons, I asked my CP what she thought.

“It was okay!” she said. “But you need more games and songs.”

Now, for context, this is one of my most blunt CPs. Few Kazakhs or Mongolians will hesitate to tell you their honest opinion about something, but this CP in particular will make a firm statement regardless of why you’ve asked. I knew that, and I asked for her critique anyway. She had no idea how much time I’d spent trying to put a fun lesson together. She saw how my face fell, and added consolingly, “It’s okay. I will help you!”

But, although I smiled and thanked her, this only upset me more. My CPs are always asking me for more games, more methodology techniques; and here my CP thought my skills were so insufficient that she was offering to help me find games. What kind of a PCV did that make me, in her eyes?

#

After the very first police class I taught, I went home, sat on the couch, and stared at the wall. I had a lot of work I could do, a lot of people I wanted to talk to, a lot of fun things I wanted to spend time on. But for the better part of an hour I sat, stared at the wall, and reviewed every last minute of the lesson I’d just taught.

It had gone remarkably well, actually, considering I’d taken a nosedive off the rails in the first five minutes when I started a needs assessment and the class demanded that I begin with the alphabet immediately. I knew it had gone well. I knew I’d done a lot of successful on-the-spot improvisation. I knew my students had grasped the lesson, and moreover that they’d enjoy it.

I went over this — I thought about this for the better part of an hour — and even as I reviewed all of the things I’d done well, I absolutely could not get rid of the sense that somehow, I had managed to do the most horrible possible job.

And that was the moment I finally acknowledged to myself that something in my brain was seriously malfunctioning.

I think a lot of people have a moment when they say, “I can’t do this anymore.” I’ve never had that moment. I’ve had moments where the cost of continuing a course of action seemed much higher than the reward; but I’ve never felt myself incapable of achieving something (no matter how badly I underjudged my skill at it). The same was true that evening.

I told myself, “Nobody can see me right now. I am alone in my apartment. Nobody has any idea that, in this moment, I am absolutely paralyzed by a completely unreal sense of my own incompetence. I know the reality is that I’m pretty good at what I do; I know that I can fake at least some degree of confidence in myself. I’m doing okay. But I am tired of only doing okay, and I am tired of doing this alone.”


[1] New PCVs: Don’t jump on community projects before at least a term at site. Just don’t do it. And do a needs assessment before you agree to somebody’s New Brilliant Idea. Community projects are some of the most rewarding and varied parts of your service, and there will be lots of opportunities — so make sure you only agree to things you’re really invested in.
[2] Polite expressions in English are kind of difficult for native Mongolian speakers. To form a polite command in Mongolian, you add -аарай4 to the verb root. (So, for example, “____ хийгээрэй” means “Please do ____”.) When English imperatives are taught in the classroom, though, the “please” is often omitted. A lot of the time people who know modal verbs will say “You should _____” or “You can _____” without knowing that giving such a direct command in English is a little rude. You learn to look past it, but if you don’t know it’s a language barrier thing rather than deliberate rudeness — as I didn’t, this early on — it can cause communication problems.
[3] Long story, of the “Renee made a regrettable decision despite multiple warnings that it was a regrettable decision” variety. It made things a little awkward with some of my CPs for the next week or so.

Invisible Things, Part 4: PST

Peace Corps is hard all the way around, but Pre-Service Training is the hardest part.

Within two weeks of arriving in country, you’re dumped on a host family with whom you have maybe a couple pleasantries of common language. You don’t know what they’re telling you most of the time, and between the language barrier and your relative ignorance of their culture, you have no idea why they do anything they do. Your home life is defined by linguistic mixups, mystery rituals, and the repeated difficulty of insisting that no, you’re not hungry, please Mama don’t give me more бууз. It makes for some of the most hilarious stories, but it’s also incredibly stressful.

Then there’s the actual training. Four hours a day of language training five days a week — enlightening, but exhausting, and culminating in an oral exam by which Peace Corps will judge your fitness to communicate at site. (Almost nobody fails their LPI. And if they do, they just get extra tutoring at site. But, still, the spectre of the test is present throughout language training.) Then the afternoons are given over to technical training.

I hated tech training.

Don’t get me wrong: Peace Corps is doing the best they can with what they have. We made a lot of suggestions about improving training at the PAC meeting, and staff’s enthusiastic reception demonstrated their commitment to improving the PST framework. But ultimately, there’s no way to cram everything we need to learn into eleven weeks[1], and there’s only so much our trainers can do to simulate a classroom situation in the middle of summer break. Yet, at the same time, how we performed during practice teaching was one of the biggest factors in our site placement.

As I’ve said in previous posts, one of my biggest concerns coming to Mongolia was my limited teaching background. I have a TEFL certification and a fair amount of tutoring experience, but before PST I’d almost never worked in a classroom setting. I absolutely did not feel qualified to give experienced teachers advice on how to handle their students (and some days, I still don’t). Even after I met my PST sitemates and learned that most of them didn’t have much more experience than me, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was making stupid rookie mistakes every time I stepped into a classroom. I was terrifically nervous around our awesome tech trainer Hongoroo, and downright intimidated by Bayar, who evaluated us for site placement — and who, as the other PCVs know, is a kind, gentle, and tremendously competent man, entirely physically unimposing, who has worked with Peace Corps longer than any other host country staff.

Despite these stressors, I did all right for the first half of PST. I’d practiced enough with the language before site that it was easy to keep up; my host family gave me adequate space; and in the afternoons we were taking lessons more often than we were teaching them.

But that changed during second half. We had finished ‘microteaching’, and were now supposed to start ‘practice teaching’ — delivering a complete unit of content to classes at three different levels. The setup at our site was kind of a fiasco, not to mention profoundly artificial (you could have ended up teaching the SAME set of lessons to 6-year-olds and 20-year-olds, albeit in different classrooms), but at the same time the expectations were much higher. We were teaching three or four days a week instead of one or two. Our trainers started asking us to provide detailed, typed lesson plans, despite the fact that we did not have access to a printer and the wifi at the school was not entirely reliable. I was partnered with a potential teacher trainer (attached to a bigger school with more CPs, responsible for doing more seminar-type stuff and observation and less classroom teaching), and our trainers had explicitly singled the three UT/TTs in our training group to write better lesson plans than the rest of the group — being more experienced, and having a different job, and all that.[2]

Since day one, I’d been nervous in the hour or so before our lessons, when we prepared our materials and set up the classroom. But it got worse during second half. Way worse. I’d spend the lunch break sitting in the school lobby listening to music: I couldn’t think straight enough to be productive, to relax, even to have a coherent conversation. I was consumed by this overwhelming fear of incipient failure, far beyond my ability to create an outlet, and I think this more than anything else left me exhausted at the end of the day.

I really should have talked with the PCMOs at that point. But here’s the thing: PST was the test. It was proof that you could hack it for the next two years. Trainees had already been sent home for both medical and behavioral reasons, and gossip was all over the place about the things they’d done to warrant it[3]. I didn’t know the PCMOs, I didn’t know how to talk to them, and no matter what we were told, I didn’t yet trust them to be able to help. When unwarranted fear is your root problem, it is really, really difficult to contemplate a solution that makes you even more afraid.

But I did get extraordinarily lucky in one respect. My practice teaching partner — whom I ended up spending a ton of time with, between teaching, lesson planning, and language class — ended up being one of my closest friends in-country. He was, openly and without dissembling, dealing with a pretty serious mood disorder on top of PST stress. One evening, not long after our trainers upped their expectations, we were trying to lesson plan. I couldn’t think straight. I hadn’t been able to relax in days. I absolutely could not shake the overwhelming sense that everything I was doing was wrong. And so, in a pause in the conversation, apropos of nothing, I said, “I think I’m having anxiety problem,” and started to cry.

I was genuinely terrified to make this confession. It had been on my mind for a while now, and I’d tried slipping it into conversation with friends who had similar issues: like, “Oh, doing such-and-such makes me really nervous, isn’t it silly?” or “Do you ever feel this or that way for no good reason?” But never had I actually admitted that I was struggling. I was afraid of that long pause after an unpleasant revelation; I was afraid no one would know how to help; I was afraid of being abandoned because of it. In my mind, there was a major possibility[4] that my friend would walk away. That he’d tell me he had enough of his own shit to deal with, and there was no way he could help me.

But what he actually said, after a pause, was, “I’d suspected as much.”

I spilled my guts then and there. Not nearly as eloquently or coherently as I am here — I had neither the perspective nor the presence of mind for that — but it was by far the most complete story I’d ever shared. He listened, and helped me talk through it; and for the rest of PST, despite his own struggles, he kept an eye on me and made a point of supporting, distracting, or teasing me as he saw I needed it. He didn’t pressure me to take this or that step to deal with things — which, although I suppose he should have encouraged me to speak to the PCMO, I appreciated endlessly. Between the anxiety and my own fears about the anxiety, I probably would have shut down and been unable to help myself at all if I’d been pushed into counseling just then.

So that was how I got through PST, and how I managed to open up for the first time. But, obviously, the problem didn’t end there.


[1] As our Director of Programming and Training put it, in a peppy but slightly harried voice, “Peace Corps is hiring more and more generalists, and we need to figure out how to adapt our training to that.”
[2] Still think this was a pretty shitty thing to do, especially considering the people who get TT/UT training don’t always end up with the job. We talked at PAC about giving EVERYONE TT training, so that we’d be equipped for whatever site we landed.
[3] And at this point in time, communication between Peace Corps trainees/volunteers and upper staff was kind of shitty. Staff kept completely silent on the subject of early termination and made no attempt to diffuse the fears ground out by the rumor mill. There was a distrust of authority on the part of current volunteers, and while the PCTs weren’t directly involved, the prevailing culture was not conducive to saying anything that might get you in trouble.
[4] And very unbelievably stupid from a rational point of view, as pretty much anyone who’s ever met Logan knows. Self-Sacrificing Adopter of All the Strays of Mongolia, etc. etc. This was a fear born of the silence (ergo non-support) I was accustomed to, rather than anything actual in either my environment or my friend’s behavior.

Invisible Things, Part 3

So at what point did I decide I was having a chronic problem and not a situational one? Briefly, these are the symptoms that culminated in my seeking help:

  • During PST, I got exhaustingly, paralzyingly nervous before each of our practice teaching sessions, so that I couldn’t think straight or get anything done in the hour or two before.
  • Circumstances surrounding one of the classes I teach led me to actively dread planning and attending it — even though it’s quite a good class and I actually enjoy being at the front of the room.
  • I started to avoid activities that should have been simple, like talking to my landlady or socializing in the teacher’s room. I’m gonna talk a lot about this later, because it’s an insidious problem that has been extremely characteristic for me, on and off, for a long time.
  • I’ve had trouble getting through activities that required concentration but not a lot of brainpower, like exercising or doing chores. I’d get distracted and start worrying about a class I was supposed to teach later, whether I’d have time to write in the evening, how I was going to get to the store while it was open, etc. etc.
  • I had a lot of trouble with prioritizing and decision-making in my free time; my brain would lock up and I wouldn’t be able to weigh different possibilities. Even simple things like whether I wanted coffee or tea with breakfast would give me pause for a few minutes at a time. It made it very difficult for me to find balance.
  • When I finally started to open up to a few close friends who had experience with mental health issues, my problems lined up with what they knew about (or had experienced with) anxiety.

In the next few posts, I’ll go into more detail about what these things looked like in my day-to-day, at what point they stopped being annoying and started to be a concern, and how I dealt with them. But for now I want to point out something that has made this very difficult for me: with the exception of PST, none of these things were insurmountable or overwhelmingly distressing. Unless I talk about them explicitly, they’re not visible enough to cause anyone alarm. That does not make them less real. They impact my life almost every day, and left unaddressed they become increasingly distressing.

The flip side of that, though, is that at no point have they ever left me completely unable to function. I develop workarounds, or put pressure on so I can’t run away, or straight-up power through the day. (As a general rule, if I do something that makes me anxious, it gets easier the next time. It’s a pretty straightforward fix. The problem is when I can’t bring myself to start, or when I’m stressed to the point that I can’t put what I’m doing in perspective.) Because it’s not dramatic, life-threatening, or even really visible, I’ve been struggling with a sense of guilt and non-ownership: like, it hasn’t taken over my life like it has So-and-So’s. Nobody noticed it or said anything. What right have I got to make a fuss?

Except, well, I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve realized that I don’t WANT this to take over my life. I don’t want it to get out of control, ever. And it shouldn’t have to ruin my life before it becomes worthy of treatment.

#

So what, in the last six months, has allowed me to get to that point? I think a lot of it is because I’ve come to a place where mental health is, of necessity, talked about openly, constructively, and without (much) shame.

Guys. Peace Corps is hard. Genuinely hard. Physically, mentally, emotionally taxing. Like: I currently live in a giant hotbox, because I have no control over my heating, and I can’t open the windows to cool it down because the pollution makes me sick. I boil water before I drink it because it could make me sick. I do my laundry by hand and sleep on an air mattress. The majority of people I encounter on a day-to-day basis do not speak my language, and have limited experience with second-language speakers (so when I ask them to slow down they look at me like I’m crazy and repeat whatever they were saying with different words at top speed).

And I am lucky. The small-soum ger-dwellers reading this are probably rolling their eyes. I don’t have to make fires or haul water from a well. My CPs speak conversational English and are capable, motivated teachers with previous PCV experience. There is a small but viable expat community in my aimag, and foreign tourists are common in the summer — I am not by any means the only white person these kids have ever seen. The majority Kazakh population means that almost everyone has encountered someone for whom Mongolian or Kazakh is a non-native tongue. And my aimag’s location and cultural makeup mean that we get regular produce and luxury-good imports from Russia, China, and Kazakhstan. A lot of people in Mongolia don’t have these advantages.

Peace Corps is hard. It is stressful. It is going to exacerbate underlying mental health conditions and could very well create new ones. If we didn’t talk about mental health, people would break down, self-destruct, and flat-out quit in droves. (People still do have breakdowns! People still do go home! Both are a totally reasonable and unavoidable response to some situations. But in other cases — as in mine — it is preventable.)

So we get training. We are told flat-out that what we’re doing is difficult, and that we should be on the lookout (in ourselves and others) for depression, alcohol abuse, and self-destructive behavior. Social support networks are stressed as a priority — within our community, within Peace Corps, and reaching back towards home. Mental illness cannot be this silent beast whose shadow people pretend not to see, because it is going to affect almost everyone in some way.

And then there’s the medical clearance process. In order to join Peace Corps, you have to be able to demonstrate that you are in a physically and emotionally healthy place. There’s lots of paperwork. Lots of exams. I know that people diagnosed with mental illness have a hell of a lot MORE paperwork and exams. This means that, of the people who got accepted and have a background of mental health problems — while I’m sure there’s also a fair portion that’s kept silent, socially, about their struggles — many have pretty extensive experience coping and addressing it constructively, to the point that they are able and more than willing to talk about it when the subject arises.

What I’m saying is, I have a pretty strong and capable support network here, very easy access to experiences like mine, and a social culture that urges me not to suffer in silence. And that makes a huge difference.

Invisible Things, Part 2: Viable Paradise

In the last post, I asked: At what point do you stop calling a problem situational and acknowledge that there will always be a situation?

I’ve had a few of those points in the last six months, and the bulk of these posts are going to address how my anxiety manifested in Peace Corps and how I’ve dealt with it in that context. But for this post I want to rewind a bit further, to talk about the first time I was ever part of a community[3] that discussed mental health openly and without shame.

VP XVIII students and instructors: the post is over a year owing, but this one’s all for you.

#

In June 2014, I was put on the waitlist for the Viable Paradise Writers’ Workshop, a competitive sci-fi/fantasy workshop that takes place on Martha’s Vineyard every October. It’s one of very few SFF workshops that looks good on a cover letter (at least for a year or so). It lasts a week and is led by big names and bedrocks of the SFF community: Steve Gould, Scott Lynch, Elizabeth Bear, Dr. Debra Doyle, Jim MacDonald, Steven Brust, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, and Sherwood Smith were the instructors my year[1].

Within a few weeks of being put on the waitlist, I received a second email. One of the invitees had dropped out; was I still interested in participating in the workshop? I took a few hours to stop bouncing off the walls and typed back an enthusiastic yes.

And then I took a few hours to be tremendously intimidated.

At 22, I was the youngest person attending the workshop. I’d just graduated with a B.A. in English. I did not have any publishing credits or even submissions to my name. When Steve Gould asked me, casually, if I’d ever tried to submit my workshop story, I stared at him with bugged eyes and narrowly refrained from asking outright, “I can do that?” (I think I substituted the slightly more worldly, “How do I find markets?”) I was not a part of the SFF community at that time. I’d never been to a con, I didn’t have any friends who were submitting to SFF markets, and my online interactions were pretty much limited to lurking silently on the blogs of authors I liked. In my mind, I was thoroughly outclassed, in terms of age, of life experience, of publications and connections. I was not a “real author”, whatever the hell that means — in hindsight I’m well aware that the SWFA, an MFA program, a casual reader at the bookstore, and a hardworking but still-unpublished writer are all going to give you different answers.

So that was my mindset going into the workshop: thrilled, but absolutely terrified. I remember my heart pounding as I sat on the ferry from Woods Hole to the island; I couldn’t focus on a single page of my book to read it. What if there was another VPer on the ferry and they came to talk to me? Worse, what if there wasn’t, or if there was and they didn’t? What if I couldn’t find the staff car once I got off the ferry? What if, what if, what if…?

Needless to say, I got off the ferry just fine, found the car, and got a ride to the Island Inn. All the staff and instructors were there already, along with a good number of my fellow students. I hung out in the staff room and did my best to socialize, but after a little while my nerves got the better of me — did I sound stupid? ignorant? snappish? reserved? — and I fled to my room. I wrote in the travel journal I’d brought and turned up my music loud enough to drown out my thoughts. When my roommate came in, I removed a headphone long enough to tell her that it was nice to meet her and I needed some quiet time; I simply could not imagine having a normal conversation at that moment.

(Many <3s to Shveta, who figures large in this post and the story it's a part of, even if I don't always say so explicitly.)

That evening, after dinner, we had icebreaker games. My group played Mafia, a game I was already familiar with and quite fond of, and I loosened up enough to participate pretty vocally. At one point I accused a fellow VPer of a suspicious smile, and at once he protested vehemently, “I can’t help it! It’s my anxiety!”

My brain halted.

You can do that? I thought, bewildered. Just say it? Just like that? And everyone just nods and — where’s the hush, the seriousness, the wary concern? Not here? Not now? We all just — nod and move on? The room became a little bit safer: That’s one less barrier here, one less thing forbidden to speak of. And a lot scarier: I don’t know how to talk about mental health. What if I say something wrong — no, what if I don’t say something and I’m supposed to — and I hurt somebody?

I couldn’t answer those questions, and I didn’t know how to ask them out loud. So the game went on, and I kept playing.

#

A lot of Viable Paradise’s sessions are dedicated, of course, to the craft of writing: drafting, critiquing, revising, submitting. But a lot of what I took away from the workshop had less to do with craft, and more with surviving the long game of a writer’s career.

It’s a strange sort of person who’s drawn to write SFF professionally. You’ve got to have a keen interest in psychology, anthropology, philosophy — the way people’s brains work, the way the world works, the way both could work if things were just a little different. You’ve got to be disciplined enough to write when you don’t feel like it or don’t think you have the time, passionate enough to care about what feels like your hundredth revision, and gutsy enough to tell yourself your work is getting better when it’s received a dozen rejections.

That sounds wonderful, but it means that a fair number of writers are downright driven — they prioritize their writing success above their relationships or their health. “I crashed and burned because I wasn’t taking care of myself” is a regrettably common anecdote. And there is a documented correlation between arts professionals and mental health problems, though its nature is debated.

The instructors at Viable Paradise did not ignore this. Over and over, within the smaller workshop context and in terms of general advice, I heard the same things: Make sure you eat. Get enough sleep, even though there’s a lot you want to do. Exercise[2]. Socialize, or grant yourself quiet time, as you need. Take care of yourself. Stay healthy.

If you aren’t healthy, you won’t be able to write.

Mental illness was, for the first time in my experience[3], a topic on the table for discussion, instead of a shadow spoken of quietly behind closed doors. It loomed large in the stories, in the sessions, even in conversation, but it was not an object of fear. It was something a lot of people in the room lived with openly and addressed constructively; it was a fact of life.

“Talk to someone,” Scott Lynch said, in a Friday afternoon discussion dealing with depression and writers’ mental health. “Get help.” Mental illness is treatable, but it can take you down, and it will if you don’t address it. The resources are out there.[4]

#

Near the end of the workshop comes the infamous Horror that is Thursday. I will spare the unitiated any gruesome details, but for comprehension purposes I have to share this much: You have three days to write a story. This story be read by your classmates. The idea is to show that most writers at your level are, in fact, capable of dashing off something halfway decent in a pretty short timeframe.

I agonized over my Horror. Narrative structure is not my strong suit, and I run long rather than short. I have a developing sense, now, of how many words a concept needs — but I gained that after and as a result of attending the workshop. I started a novel, backtracked, ran out of time to rewrite, froze completely, and was pretty much dragged out to dinner Wednesday night when my roommate Annaka saw how badly I needed to calm down. I still didn’t manage to finish, and turned in an incomplete draft I very much disliked.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s not that important,” several people told me consolingly. And in the big picture I knew that. It was the connections I made and the skills I learned that mattered; and anyway, by Thursday we were all exhausted and only the really good stories would stick in people’s minds. But I couldn’t get over this jittery, terrified sense that I had failed somehow and was going to be judged for it (it didn’t help that my story was read by Bear, whom I was slightly in awe of, and a student who’d just recently gotten her first book signing, though both of them said very nice things). Here the whole idea was that we knew enough about writing to speedily compose an interesting if shitty draft — and I couldn’t do it.

I was a mess of nerves. I toughed it out until our afternoon break. I couldn’t sit still, but I couldn’t think straight long enough to decide what I ought to do instead. For about an hour I wandered around the main conference room pretending to read people’s stories, then hurried to the staff room to try and help with dinner. I lasted about twenty minutes into the meal before I pled a migraine and fled to my room, where I curled up on the couch for the better part of two hours in an anxiety- and exhaustion-induced daze.

#

The story I submitted with my application was about a woman had cheated on her dead husband being harassed by a ghost whose husband cheated on her.[5] Grief and guilt obviously figured large in the narrative, but one thing that had never occurred to me — one thing that several critiquers pointed out — was that the main character might be suffering from depression.

Those comments stuck with me, coming as they did on top of the mental health talks. (I admit I don’t remember the exact commentary now, a full year out from my last submission of the revised story; but it had to do with some small giveaways in the main character’s thoughts and behavior, and came in the context of a criticism or suggestion for revision.) My first thought: Woah. That’s what that looks like? How’d that end up in there? Should I keep it?

Then I thought: I dunno if I can write that. I dunno if I have a right to. If I’m, I dunno, capable of doing the research right to make it feel authentic to people who actually have depression.

And then, on Thursday night, after I’d recovered somewhat in my room: Fuck. I can write that, can’t I? Something is wrong and I…I can write about it. In this story. Maybe. Or am I just, like, overwhelmed by all the discussions and taking on something I don’t actually understand? I mean, why would I ever think I understood depression well enough to write about it?

I never really reached a conclusion on that point. I tried a draft which ended with the main character asking to see a psychologist, but that wasn’t the point; it undermined her casual belief in the ghosts. If depression lived in the story, it was underneath the surface, driving Holly to do stupid things without ever being acknowledged. And where I was pulling that kind of pain from, what was driving me to write about it — I didn’t know how to acknowledge that. I don’t think, in hindsight, that I was depressed, although I was very unhappy with my circumstances; but I was in the midst of a dialogue about it even as, for the first time in my life, I confronted a huge load of fear and shame at the idea that something might be wrong at me.

And so, sitting alone in a quiet room feeling so afraid that I wanted to cry, I asked myself, timidly, Is this normal? I don’t think this is normal.

#

So Viable Paradise did a lot to shift my sense of what it means to take care of yourself, and why (on a purely practical level) it’s important. It really was the foundation for many of the habits that I’ve since developed. I suppose the question remains: If I suspected I had a problem more than a year ago, why didn’t I try to follow up on it then?

Part of the reason is that I simply had no idea how to talk about it. I had a very overwhelming experience where mental health was discussed in a safe environment, but it did more to bewilder me than to clarify what I ought to do — it was just too much at odds with the silence I was used to. I bit my tongue because I didn’t know how to speak up or who to reach out to; then the workshop was over, and I went back to Buffalo, and my contact with all the people I’d met was limited to critique emails and the occasional Google chat. Viable Paradise was eye-opening, but it was never intended to provide an entire framework for someone to understand and cope with mental illness.

And honestly, I still didn’t want to believe that I had a problem anybody could identify and help me out with. I was still saying to myself: I’ve never had a panic attack. I’ve never slept for days on end. I’ve never wanted to hurt myself. I’ve never had a breakdown, and whatever’s going on, it’s never really stopped me from doing what I want to do. I’m okay, really. This will pass. It’s just a tough situation.

The excuses were wearing thin, but…look. When your issue is characterized by irrational and incomprehensible nervousness to the point of genuine fear, you’re thoroughly intimidated by authority figures (like psychologists!) and by the mere hint of an idea that your friends might not support you, and you have no clue what to do with the idea that your brain might not work like you think it does? The idea kind of spirals until you’re terrified, and the only thing you can do is look the other way and pretend it never occurred to you in the first place. In an environment characterized by shame and solemnity, if not outright silence — which was the case in most public situations, although I knew I had friends addressing struggles of their own — it is really, really difficult to accept that you might have a problem and you might need to talk about it without feeling totally ashamed and helpless.

#

Again, for the sake of caring people, I am going to end with a firm note: This was a year ago. This is not the way I am feeling now. I’ve moved past that and, to be quite honest, I have no desire to return to it and rehash it. I’ve included this post as part of the larger story because I think it’s really, really important to acknowledge what a difference it makes to have a supportive and explicit social culture, and because I want to give credit where credit is due. I’ve moved on. This story will, too.

#

Oh, and a final note for Twitterers: I’m on hiatus from Twitter while I’m in Mongolia, with the exception of blog autoposts. I won’t see any replies to my Tweet about this. Please share and discuss as much as you like; but if you want to get in touch with me personally, you should either comment here or shoot me an email (reneenmelton at gmail).


[1] I realize this doesn’t really add context for those of you who aren’t well-read in the SFF genre. All of these people write or edit books for a living and have been published multiple times. Their publications include bestsellers and/or many solid books over the course of a long career.
[2] Or, as Bear put it, “Your body is not a meat-puppet.”
[3] To be perfectly clear: I have many friends who have struggled with mental health on some level at some point in their lives. Most of those friendships predate this workshop. I have no doubt that any of those friends could have been a source of support or at least information for me. But they never said, and I never asked. Because even when my close friends would have been accepting and understanding, the wider community (at its smallest, my larger circle of friends and acquaintances; at its largest, the American public as a whole) presented a front of silence, non-understanding, and fear. It’s hard to get away from stigma entirely. And even in friend groups that were largely supportive, there was often worry, frustration born of the impossibility of perfect empathy, sorrow where empathy did exist, and guilt. I did not want to cause any of that for anyone. Before this workshop, I had never been in a situation where mental health struggles were normalized.
[4] Do any VP18ers have quotes or recordings from that talk? It made a huge impression, but for the life of me I can only remember the general tenor of what Scott Lynch said, and I think I’m conflating specifics with some stuff he’s written online.
[5] It was a solid journeyman-level work — got the point across without being remarkable in concept or execution — and has been shelved indefinitely after several rounds of revision/resubmission.

Invisible Things, Part 1

Forewarning: This is going to be a fairly heavy series of posts discussing mental health and anxiety. Nothing triggering — I hope — but you might want to steer clear of the blog for a month or two if you usually come here for laughs.

I’m going to be posting on a Wednesday-Thursday schedule until these posts are done.

For people who’d prefer to miss them, but would like the other life updates I post in between: All of the posts in this series are titled ‘Invisible Things’ and tagged ‘anxiety’. Skip those and you should be set.

At what point does an intermittent problem become chronic?

It can’t be when the little girl is quiet in school, a little afraid of her teachers, slow to make friends. Can it? A lot of kids are shy.

It could be when the little girl becomes a moody teenager. Family issues can certainly cause mental health problems. She’s quiet a lot, not entirely happy. Still very shy. But her parents are both supportive, if they’re not together, and she’s high-achieving in school, and she has close friends and passionate hobbies — well, she’s struggling with a difficult situation, but it’s okay.

It could be when she gets to college and has a rough first year. But, well, freshman year is rough for a lot of people. She sees real, diagnosed mental health issues for the first time, and it’s not like that for her. She gets good grades. She has good friends. She doesn’t self-destruct. She’s never had a panic attack or a day where she can’t get out of bed. It’s a rough situation, but she does okay.

It could be when she goes to England. She’s a little moody, a little shy, slow to make friends. Spends a lot of time in the computer lab and travels by herself. But, well, her laptop broke down in the first few weeks of the semester and nobody gets their shit together in time to make travel plans. And if she’s a little isolated, a little isolating — well, that’s just how she is, right? If she’s a bit more stressed out than she has a right to be — well, culture shock hits people differently. It’s probably just the situation.

It could be when she graduates college, and realizes that when she was in England, all those awesome friends she made in college went on with their lives. When she realizes that the friends she made in high school are long out of touch. When she spends a year housesitting a too-large house alone at the end of a lonely road, and works a job way under her capabilities while she waits for her Peace Corps application to go through. She’s upset, and isolated, and lonely, and she wonders…but she’s never had a panic attack. She’s never been unable to get out of bed. She’s in a difficult situation.

At what point do you stop saying, This problem is situational, and start to say, There will always be a situation?

I’m finally hitting that point.

I’ve been struggling with an anxiety problem for I don’t know how long — definitely the last six months; probably the last five or six years; possibly my whole life. I’ve dealt with it, for the most part, in silence. It’s only in the last year or so that I’ve started to realize that it is a real problem, one that can be addressed, and one that affects my life on an almost daily basis; it’s only in the last few months that I’ve started to talk about it openly. Even now I catch myself wondering: Can I really claim this thing, own this thing, if I’ve never had a breakdown? If I’m happy a lot of the time and good at what I do? If I’m having to insist over and over that something is wrong, it’s affecting my daily life, even though it doesn’t always show?

But, you know, I am the kind of person who keeps her shit together in public and saves the tears for the privacy of her room. Who gets her work done on time even if she skips a meal because she can’t think straight long enough to put a pot on the stove. Who spends an hour listening to music turned up loud enough to drown out her thoughts only to deliver a badass lesson. Who relies so much on language, but is so very much without a linguistic framework to elaborate on “I’m not okay” that “I’m doing okay” slips out instead, even to a doctor.

So I really don’t know what kind of a problem this is. I can’t gauge severity on a scale of 1 to 10; to do that accurately I’d have to be able to see into a few people’s heads, feel the tenor of their thoughts, and compare them against mine. For all I know, my 3 is your 11, or vice versa. Narrative is the only way I can build a basis for comparison, and narrative is a slippery thing. I see the world differently from you, you from him, he from her, she from me.

That’s why I want to write these posts, even as I’m struggling to conceptualize this thing in my head. One of the most helpful things for me, the last few months, is talking to people who do have diagnosed mental disorders, or experience with people who do, and being able to see where the patterns line up. I want my experience to be available for others to draw from.

I will say, though, that this is pretty much the online equivalent of stripping naked in a public square and shouting from a pedestal. It’s a little bit terrifying and a lot more exposure than I really want. Please be thoughtful in your responses, not only for my sake, but because there are a lot of people in the world who feel a lot like me — and who may have kept silent out of fear or shame.

One final note to people who know me well and are hearing about this for the first time — who might be upset, if not entirely surprised, by some of the things I share here. I’ve talked with a lot of people about what I’ve been going through. I haven’t talked to a whole lot more. I have the benefit of some really excellent support systems — in Peace Corps, at home, from college, in the SFF community — which I most definitely have not strained to the limits.

If you are a good friend learning about this, for the first time, in this very public setting: Please don’t be upset. I know that I can trust you and that you will be there for me. But realize that talking about this, for me, is terrifying and emotionally exhausting. There is a lot of stigma associated with mental illness, and it’s hard not to internalize some of that. And the things that are driving me to finally open up about this are really, genuinely upsetting. I have yet to be able to open a conversation about anxiety without either shutting down or crying. I also really, really have not developed the language to explain what’s going on with me, and I’ve needed people who can help me articulate. Because of that, I’ve talked mostly to people who have spoken openly about their own struggles with mental health, who have explicitly supported me before, and who are easily, immediately, and reliably available. Please, by all means, get in touch with me if you want to talk — I like support and I also want to be able to support you — but I really do ask you to be empathetic and not to be hurt if I am a little reticent.

Lest you worry in between posts, since it will probably take a month or two to get the whole story down: I am currently dealing with this constructively and with the extent of Peace Corps’ resources (which are free and immediately available, at the very least) at my disposal. I am not in a desperate place, I am not self-destructive, and I am not without help. If anything, I am a little concerned that the response to these posts will be smothering. So please, try not to worry about me!

IST Recap

Happy 2016, everyone!

I’m glad December’s over. It was a weird and kind of rocky month, and I’m ready to start fresh.

I spent the bulk of last month in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, for a series of Peace Corps trainings. Because I’m a fly site (Peace Corps buys me plane tickets for official events), because the Bayan-Ulgii flight schedule is a tad bit haphazard, and because my meetings were pretty scattered, I had training for seven days but stayed in the capital for two and a half weeks.

At the beginning of the month I had subwarden training. Every aimag has two safety officers — a subwarden and an alternate — chosen from among its PCVs. In the event of an emergency, the subwarden is responsible for communication between Peace Corps staff in the capital and other PCVs in the aimag; making sure aimag-mates are safe; keeping track of emergency supplies; and generally making sure no one loses their head and runs into a fire. If the subwarden is out of town, the alternate is supposed to take charge.

That training was only a day long, but gave me a whole week to hang out. It was pretty cool, because I got to see people I wouldn’t otherwise have met for months, if ever: Community Youth Development and Health volunteers, who had IST the week before; our M25 TEFL IST trainers; and M25s who’d come in for VAC (Volunteer Advisory Council) meetings, which happened that week as well. Toward the end of the week TEFL M26s began to filter in — the last two nights before IST, most of my PST sitemates stayed at the same guesthouse as me.

The following week was IST — In-Service Training. Five days of sessions about how to work well at site, specifically tailored to TEFL volunteers. IST is interesting, because everyone brings a Mongolian (or, in my case, Kazakh) counterpart, and the sessions are designed so that you work both with your own counterpart and with other people’s. I found the Experience Sharing session really useful, because it demonstrated for me that (while my school is atypical in a few ways) some of my difficulties at work are shared by many PCVs. We also had a cross-culture session that my counterpart says she found enlightening, but it didn’t benefit me as much. There are some rather pointed differences between Kazakh and Mongolian culture (holidays and drinking culture being major ones), and because of the way our groups were divided, there were no Kazakh CPs in my session.

I walked away from the seminar with some new ideas, but it was also absolutely exhausting. When you put into one hotel 40 Americans who know each other embarrassingly well and have interacted with only a few native English speakers in the last three months…well, I’ll let you imagine the kind of shenanigans that go down. I think we were pretty evenly split between people who threw parties nightly and people who hid in their rooms because the population of the hotel was overwhelming. (I was among the latter, but I did spent a LOT of time making sure I got to see my close friends.)

I’d been having problems with the pollution at site — I’d start to cough whenever I spent more than a few minutes outside without a mask. I had intended to talk to the doctor about it anyway, but the week before IST I stayed in a guesthouse that kept ALL of its windows open. (Central heating in Mongolia is controlled by the government, and some buildings are randomly set to ‘sweltering’.) I’d developed a pretty deep cough, so on Tuesday I booked a few minutes with one of our doctors.

“I cough whenever I go outside,” I said.

“Okay. You should take Vitamin C for your weak immune system.”

Confused, I said, “It’s not a cold. I’m not sick. It’s the pollution.”

“Ah. Then you should exercise to make your lungs stronger.”

It’s a half hour walk from my home to my school, and I spend about an hour a night practicing karate. It was a bit of a sore point that morning, actually, because the night before I’d tried to work out with some other PCVs and started wheezing within fifteen minutes. Biting my tongue on a sharp retort, I said civilly, “I do exercise. Should I exercise when I’m coughing?”

“No. Maybe you are allergic to coal dust. I will also give you Benadryl so you can sleep at night.”

“I don’t have problems sleeping at night,” I said, and gave up, frustrated. In any case, I’d figured out some healthy practices on my own: wear a mask when you go outside and keep the windows closed.

By Wednesday night, however, it got to the point where I couldn’t take a deep breath without coughing. I couldn’t focus in sessions because my chest hurt. I staked out the hotel’s temporary medical office Thursday morning and pounced on the other doctor as soon as he got in. Upon realizing that he couldn’t actually listen to my lungs because I wasn’t capable of taking a deep breath, he brought me into the Peace Corps office proper for a breathing treatment. Afterwards he informed me that my lungs had been spasming and that I was probably developing pre-asthma triggered by the pollution. I received an inhaler, cough syrup, and several extra face masks, and returned to IST much happier and more functional.

The Monday after IST I was invited to the TEFL Project Advisory Committee meeting. The PAC is assembled annually (?) to review how Peace Corps is doing in Mongolia and how the program can improve. I attended with three other M26s, three M25s, two counterparts, the president of the English Language Teacher’s Association of Mongolia, and the Peace Corps staff associated with the TEFL program. In a way I feel like this was the most valuable part of my time in UB — I got to share my experiences as a TEFL volunteer and make suggestions for how the program might be bettered for incoming PCVs. I was also put on committees to compile resource handbooks for PCVs and to help the national education department revise their new textbooks (!!!!!).

All in all, it was a productive, emotional, and ultimately exhausting month, and while it was pretty interesting, I’m glad it’s over. Here’s to everything 2016 will bring.