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Wrap-up: Being tough, being good

This is a part of a series of wrap-up posts about my Peace Corps service. In previous posts I have discussed my personal commitment to service, the advantages and pitfalls of the Peace Corps, and issues specific to my sector, country and region of service. You can find the first post, and links to the rest of the series, here.

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I’ve talked sometimes with Americans and other foreigners not in the Peace Corps — either over the internet, or as they’re passing through my town. People get this degree of shock when I discuss my everyday life: “That sounds so difficult! So foreign! Props to you for sticking with it, I never could.”

On one level, it’s nice to get credit for doing something hard. Mongolian winters are not easy, especially if you have to make fires to keep warm and draw water from a well[1]. But these conversations also make me feel as if somehow, the other person has missed the point.

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When is the last time you did something altruistic? (This can be as simple as holding a door open, listening to a friend’s troubles, or cooking dinner for your spouse or roommate.) Thinking of the last few occasions, can you name a time you’ve regretted it profoundly? How did these acts make you feel? What resulted from them?

In America we’re accustomed to thinking of acts of generosity as somehow dangerous — as if by giving we must lose something. I disagree with this mindset. The emotional high of altruism, the back-pat we give ourselves when we do something good, and the way it reinforces our identities as “good people” are all motivating, if intangible, rewards. As is seeing tangible results of a good act, even if the subject of the act is unappreciative.

Everyone is capable of altruism, and many people are more inclined to it than they think. It’s true that commitments vary, but that depends in large part on a person’s life circumstances and inherent openness to adventure. Not on inherent altruism or lack thereof.

So when someone pins a PCV’s motivation as “good” or “altruistic” or “a blessing”, when they say “I could never do that!”, they discredit themselves even as they distance themselves from the PCV. They also set aside the complicated motivators both for altruism in general and for joining the Peace Corps (which are often as much about debt, career-building, or adventure as changing the world).

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It’s necessary for a PCV to tough out adverse circumstances and adapt to the unpredictable. But while toughness is a necessary quality, I wouldn’t call it laudable. A determination to “be strong” in the face of anything can lead to self-destruction as easily as triumph.

When people ask me for advice before joining the Peace Corps, I tell them to figure out their dealbreakers. At what point are they willing to quit? This is not to figure out if they’re “tough” enough for Peace Corps. Rather the opposite — to get them to think about what Peace Corps is worth to them.

The worst way to spend two years is one you’ll look back on in regret. To stay in a stagnant or toxic situation because “you’re strong enough” or “you’ve made a commitment” is a terrible waste of mortal life. Why not move on to somewhere you can both enjoy and value your actions?

I’ve watched people go home in the last two years, some of them close friends. I’ve always empathized with their decision to go. I would never, ever shame someone or look down on them for choosing to end their service early; they have probably faced dilemmas I can’t imagine.

But faced with a good few personal nightmares, I’ve stayed. I wouldn’t attribute it to toughness per se, or even to sunk cost fallacy. If at some point in my service I had felt I was neither contributing to my community nor growing as a person, or if my unhappiness outweighed the pull of that growth, I would have gone home. My usefulness at school and in town has fluctuated, but I’ve never stopped learning. So here I am.

So, applicants and future PCVs alike: What is this experience worth to you?

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[1] Note that I do neither of these things; I live in a nice new apartment with excellent utilities and very little furniture.

back on board (maybe)

Hello, my lovelies!

It has been a veeeery long time since I posted. This is partly because Life in Mongolia, Year Two posts would be nearly identical to Life in Mongolia, Year One; partly because I have been less oriented towards Renee the Writer this year, and more toward Renee the Teacher; and partly because I’ve been interested in living my life with the people immediately present in it, rather than broadcasting it for the world’s passive intake.

Nonetheless, I do enjoy my blog as a place to broadcast occasionally, and these days it withers with neglect. Expect the odd post, perhaps less the streamlined “Peace Corps! Mongolia! Writing!” and more whatever strikes my fancy.

Meanwhile, if you miss hearing from me: Emails are much more personal than blog posts anyway. Mine is reneenmelton at gmail.com. Send me a bit about your life, and I’ll send you a bit about mine.

xo

Schedule changes

Hello, lovelies!

As I approach a year in Mongolia, and as the year winds down toward summer, there’s been a scarcity of events I’m motivated to blog about. Blogging shouldn’t feel like a chore (unless you’re being paid for it, and even then, dude, find work that interests you!).

To preserve my sense of engagement and to keep up the quality of these posts, beginning this month I’m going to (a) diversify my post material, and (b) space out my schedule a little bit.

Future postings will look like this:

  • 1st Wednesday of the month: writing- or reading-related ramble.
  • 2nd and 4th Wednesdays: Life in Mongolia/PCV Life posts.
  • 3rd (sometimes 5th) Wednesdays: no post, general life post, or occasional bonus writing/Mongolia post.

I am giving myself a break this week because I am cranky and spring-cold-ridden. That means the next substantive post will be on May 25th.

I shall miss your frequent viewings and comments, but cheers for quality wordsmithing!

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!

Some scheduling notes

Turns out regular blog posts take substantially less time than introductions!

Given internet access, events to write about, and a few hours of free time, I think I can handle at least one post a week. The at-least-one-post will be published on Wednesday afternoons, but extras may appear at random.

This week is special. Every day, Monday through Friday, I will blog about the major events of my application/pre-departure process. So keep an eye out around 1pm.

Also.

Fair warning: This site is probably going to break a lot.

I bought this domain and its hosting about a year ago, thinking, hey, a year is plenty of time to learn a bit of PHP and tailor the WordPress platform to my own needs.

About three weeks ago I realized just how much I had to do before I left for Mongolia, and how low “learn a bit of PHP” was on that list. So what little tailoring I’ve done is slapdash and jury-rigged and I only half understand it, which even I know is a recipe for disaster.

Hopefully I’ll have enough internet access to fix things when they break.

Hello, world! Sort of.

I would love to kick off this blog with a deep discussion of my emotional state and a heart-wrenching appeal to all the people I’m going to leave behind in the USA.

Unfortunately, I’ve spent the entire morning setting up the static pages on this site. Go appreciate them in their rambling glory, and I’ll be back tomorrow with my pre-packing shopping done and a post of actual substance.

xx Renee