It took a followup from the other doctor and a reminder call from me, but after three weeks I finally had my first appointment with the Peace Corps counselor. As I understand it there’s only one in the Europe-Mediterranean-Asia region, who works out of the regional headquarters in another country — which means that sessions with her are by appointment over a rather fuzzy phone line.
The first session (which happened a few days before the first post in this series went live) was incredibly validating. I explained some of the patterns I was seeing, which the counselor confirmed as sounding like an anxiety disorder; she talked me through one of the questionnaires I had done for the PCMO, and this time I scored moderate on the anxiety scale.
This counselor is a proponent of the cognitive method, which works on the theory that emotions are driven by beliefs/ideas that can be formulated into words, and that these two things together build mental habits that, if destructive, can be examined and rebuilt into something more functional. It’s a goal-driven, problem-solving approach that works well for me, since one of the things I lack in a moment of panic is a mental structure to straighten my thoughts along. I also like that it proposes to address issues from (according to the theory) their root — damaging or untenable beliefs about oneself or the world — because it means that the treatment is, if all goes well, preventative as well as palliative.
So I’m hopeful that these sessions will get me where I want to be, and so far they seem to be headed in that direction. They make sense to me, as I suppose they should. I aspire to professionalism in two things — teaching and writing; and this particular method of therapy overlaps with both. My sessions are, in a way, lessons about the narratives we build for ourselves, and how those narratives can be rebuilt. And isn’t narrative-building what I do, consciously and deliberately, every time I put a pen to paper?
And this brings me to the present day, and to the end of this series as I’d initially planned it. I have a few scattered thoughts I picked up along the way, which I’ll formulate into an epilogue at some point; but after this week the blog is going to return to its normal Wednesday schedule, and its usual focus on life in Kazakh Mongolia.
I want to take a minute to thank anybody who has reached out to me after seeing these posts. I was hoping to strike a chord somewhere — you always do, when you write to be published — but I’ve been really surprised by the response. Every week, publicly or in private, people have contacted me in support of these posts. Sometimes it’s a three-word comment on my Facebook autopost; sometimes it’s a narrative that they have felt compelled to share in return. I have seen and appreciated every one of these remarks.
That’s what I’m hoping for, really, in the big picture: for these posts to be a place for dialogue, a jumping-off point for somebody who needs a voice. Because, if nothing else, I have a voice and the skill to convey words with it — and I want to use my voice to help people who have not found theirs, yet.
And last, a word to anybody who is struggling in silence under the weight of invisible things:
The only thing worse than your struggle is going at it alone, with the feeling that what you are experiencing cannot be expressed or understood. You are not alone, not really. Mental health problems are a great silent beast in our culture, and for every person who battles them in public, many more are preyed on silently. An unspeaking or even overtly hostile social culture may contain more sympathetic elements than you expect.
Talk to somebody. I’m not saying you have to trumpet it to the world, like I am here. I’m not even saying you have to talk to a doctor — or that you should start there. Look for one person in your life that you feel you can trust. Start with an offhand comment to your best friend, and see how she responds; tell your story to a sympathetic acquaintance or a faraway relative, somebody you don’t have to face up to every single day. Start small if you need to. Every time you speak, you learn a little bit more about how to do it; every time you receive a supportive response, the easier the next attempt becomes.
If this blog series has taught me anything, it’s that other people have struggled, and that support exists. And if support exists, then there is hope for an open, supportive culture — a culture in which dialogue can happen both in and out of private rooms, in which it’s possible to talk about mental illness without fear of stigma or shame.
I intend to build that kind of culture around me, in what small ways I can. So know — always know — if you ever need a voice: I have been there, and I am here.