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.