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.

2 thoughts on “Invisible Things, Part 6”

  1. Renee! Firstly, you are a beautiful and well articulated writer. The way you explained the disconnect between your thoughts and what others hear really resonates with me because I feel the same way, but have never been able to articulate it so well. Secondly, I remember my conversation with said PCMO about my increasingly troublesome depression while at site. She had some comforting words, but none that truly comforted me in the long term because her telling me I had little reason to be depressed actually made me feel crazier for being so. I think the best thing to keep in mind is that your emotions do not rule you or define you. I do not personally struggle with anxiety as much as I do depression, and I can only speak for myself, but at site I found it particularly difficult to bring myself out of my incessant desire to sit on the couch and stare at the wall. Or sleep. I knew what I needed to do to be happier, but have you ever been caught in an emotion so deeply that it almost feels good to stay in that state of mind? Please remember that you’re not alone. Dr. Maya recommended that I speak to a PC therapist, who is based in Thailand, and after one phone conversation with her I felt better (also a huge sense of relief because in this conversation she told me they were sending me home on medevac), but nonetheless it is so important to try to utilize the mental health resources available to you. The conditions of service in Mongolia truly impact some more than others – they play into already existing vulnerabilities that some have and on top of that, being a foreigner makes it difficult to feel better through ways that you would normally use at home. I understand how you feel when you write that you were nervous to bring it up to the PCMO. It took me weeks before I made any sort of phone call, and I sobbed during every phone call I did make. But it takes a lot of courage to address these problems head on, and I respect your ability to recognize that you want to talk to someone. I left Mongolia but I am always here for you (AND I live in buffalo now!!). Keep your head up, sweet girl, and keep doing what you need to do to have a remarkable service. I think its incredible that you are writing this series on Invisible Things. That alone takes strength and courage. Much love and respect always.


    1. Thanks so much for the heartfelt comment, Jill! <3 I hope things are better for you now that you're back home.

      I've started sessions with the therapist in Bangkok and it's helping, I think. Or it will help in the long run. It's kind of emotionally exhausting, which is difficult in a busy week -- but it's giving me strategies to address my anxiety at the root, which is *exactly* what I've needed for a long time now. Thankfully, nothing more drastic than counseling is on the table just yet (I really want to finish the two years).

      And thank you so much for sharing your story. <3 I wrote this in the hope that it would resonate with other people, and clearly it has. Every time I hear an experience a little bit like mine, I feel a little more like there is a possibility for mutual support and communication on this thing so few people talk about publicly. 🙂

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