Malice Draft 1 is finished!

Or rather, draft 0.5 of the novel that doesn’t even have a proper provisional title. My first draft is always more of a glorified outline that points out everything problematic about my initial conception of the project.

It’s clocked in at about 72,000 words (for the uninitiated: 75,000 words is a SHORT novel, too short for the fantasy genre unless it’s YA), which has me estimating the fleshed-out Real Draft 1 at around 100,000 words (the short end of average, for fantasy that isn’t Game of Thrones-style epic). About 60-65,000 of those words were written in Mongolia, with an additional 20,000ish words of outline when I reworked the plot in December.

The good:
– I can write in Mongolia! Keeping to a regular schedule has been really, really difficult for me here. I’ve been averaging slightly under 2,000 words a week here, where in the States — for the last three years! — I’d kept to a relatively steady 1,000 words a day. It’s good to see the words building up, however slowly.
– I have a solid outline to work from. The main characters are more or less fleshed out, even if their arcs kind of wander off into the sky somewhere around the draft’s halfway point; I know the major sticky points in worldbuilding and plot logistics.
– For the first time ever, I’ve *finished* something novel-length, and it’s (more or less) shaped like a novel!

That said, I’m not really satisfied. I never am, not by a first draft. I get to the end and I look back at all the things that don’t work with equal parts irritation and eagerness to dig back in. Coming as it did in 500-word fits and spurts, the completion of this draft is even less exciting than usual — I never really built up a consistent momentum to keep me enthusiastic about the story. Still, I’m pleased with the draft insofar as it goes, and I’m looking forward to the first rewrite.

What’s next?

While I’ve got a pretty good idea of what needs fixing, I’m going to set the first draft aside for a month or so, so that I can look over it with fresh eyes before coming up with my next plan of attack. I’ll probably do some worldbuilding, outlining, and character work when I do come back to it, rather than jumping headfirst into the next draft.

In the meantime, I’m going to be working on a strange secondary project I set up shortly before coming to Mongolia. I’m expecting it to be novella-ish length and I don’t quite know what it’s about, aside from sentient houses. I can (hopefully) finish that first draft within two or three months, and then return to the Malice project.

International Women’s Day

Yesterday, March 8, was International Women’s Day. I was aware that Mongolia celebrates the holiday, but not having heard much about it, I assumed it was a quiet affair much like Mother’s Day in the US. Work an ordinary day, then take Mom out to dinner and give her a present, that sort of thing.

I showed up to the teachers’ lounge on Monday to do tutoring for the national English Olympics. About halfway through the hour one of my teachers came over to inform me that the men at the school were throwing a party that night for the women, and that our afternoon meeting was canceled. I thanked her for the information with my usual spike of Oh god what do I wear how do I find the place how late should I show up? alarm, got directions to the third or fourth banquet hall I’ve partied at in this aimag, and resumed the lesson.

Toward the end of the lesson, a few students came in to chat with a tutee. One of them stole her Mongolian script reference sheet with a promise to return it the next day, at which point my student reminded her, “Ертең демалыс күн.” The other student shrugged and said she’d return it on Wednesday. With mingled alarm and reignation, I asked the girl in English, “No school tomorrow?” Half of my morning work was scheduled for Tuesday this week.

What I would give for advance knowledge about these events.


I’m happy for all women to be celebrated, but women in Mongolia — oh, do they ever deserve a day all their own.

10 of my 11 CPs are women. Out of the 110 teachers at my school, I would guess that less than 20 are men. Women in Mongolia, barred from traditional careers in herding and from dangerous and lucrative jobs in the mines, tend to be highly educated and are encouraged to pursue their education from a young age. They have a huge advantage over women in many parts of the world[1]. In any given collection of ‘bright’ or ‘talented’ students selected by their teachers, at least in the English department, a solid 90% will be girls. I think I have 4 boys in a concourse class that started with over 60 students.

In the modern world, this means that Mongolian women are highly employable. In a lot of families the woman earns higher or more stable wages. This does not, however, extricate them from the demands of social and family life.

Women in Mongolia are expected to do most of the housework. When I lived with a host family, I became the oldest ‘girl’ in the family, and as such (and ostensibly as part of my training) I was assigned a lot of chores. I did most of the dishes every night. Older girls are expected to clean the house, help attend visitors, and babysit younger siblings and cousins. Women will marry; married women will have children; women with children will be their children’s primary caregivers, along with the grandparents. This is taken as a given.

And then there’s the familial structure of a Kazakh household, which is again a little different. Kazakh families follow Muslim inheritance rules, which state that the youngest man of the family will inherit the parents’ property in exchange for taking care of them in their old age. This means that the son will continue to live under his parents’ roof (or a new roof he builds for them) for the entirety of his life.

His wife is келін, kelin, which in Kazakh means both younger sister-in-law and daughter-in-law. Just as the youngest son of the family is responsible for seeing to his parents’ welfare, the келін is responsible for seeing their household run smoothly. They take on the lion’s shore of the chores and childcare, and might even be responsible for helping with their siblings-in-laws’ chores and children if their in-laws live on the same property.

A lot of PCVs in Mongolia get asked why they don’t have a Mongolian boyfriend or girlfriend. My CPs tell me I should not marry a Kazakh man. I suspect I would not make a very good Kazakh wife.

And yet, despite all this work, my CPs are boundless in their enthusiasm for their work with me, their love for their families, their engagement with the life that they lead. I’ll be dragging and irritable in the afternoon as one of my CPs — who, aside from her teaching job, runs a cashmere business in the afternoons, does all the household chores, and manages a miniature kindergarten composed of her own children and her in-laws’ — cheerfully invites me home for lunch and an afternoon of lesson planning/Q&A. Or the department head, inundated with the projects assigned to her, will repeatedly ask for input about the latest competition assigned to her. The CPs who invite me to their homes, who make opportunities to work with me, who juggle their children and their careers and their holidays and the sudden appearance of in-laws from Kazakhstan, with not more than the occasional bit of snark at the dictates of their mothers-in-law…it amazes me. I don’t think I could do it.


I showed up an hour late to the Women’s Day party, expecting to be one of the first ones there, only to squeeze into a mostly-full table at which most of the food had been devoured. Shortly after my arrival, the men announced the official beginning of the night by serving milk tea. Only one cup per person: with a dozen or two men shelling out for eighty or a hundred women, funds didn’t stretch very far.

There were all the staples of a Kazakh party in Mongolia: singing, dancing, chatting with my table-mates. I marveled at how far I’ve come since the beginning of the year: I’m starting to catch bits and pieces of conversation, enough that I can piece together the gist of a discussion, and was proud to ward off a particularly insistent vodka server with, “Керек жоқ. Ішмеймін,”[2] which amused him enough that he left me alone. Dancing is fun instead of mildly terrifying, and I even attempted the Mongolian waltz with one of my CPs — who, not being especially good at it herself, agreed to give up halfway through. I also learned a new game, “Атым не?” (What’s my name?). You dance around until the music cuts off, at which point the announcer shouts out a number. Then you have to get into groups of that number. I just about had my belt yanked off by a teacher who was determined to keep me in our group, and was promptly disqualified with a dozen others when nobody else would let go either.

I would be lying if I said it hasn’t been a rough couple of months. But that night, giggling at my coworkers as they about knocked each other over trying to stay in the game, being yanked into the center of a dance circle by the craziest dancer in the school, recognizing the dance songs enough to sing some of the words, having my teachers affectionately call me “little” and tell me I wasn’t eating enough, chat with me, pull me into the dancing, make sure to assign me a ride home before any of them left — I felt, at last, as if I belonged.

I thought: I am here. There are so many places in the world I could have ended up, but I am here. There are so many people who have left, or have been left behind; but I have not, and I am here. And this is exactly where I choose to be.

[1] I remain puzzled, along with many other people, as to why Mongolia is a Let Girls Learn country. If anything, Mongolia has the opposite problem than the one Let Girls Learn proposes to solve.
[2] “No need. I won’t drink/I don’t drink,” though I got the conjugation wrong — it’s actually either ішпеймін or ішкем жоқ.

Food in Mongolia

Most of the time, these days, I eat horse meat.

It’s quite tasty, actually — it looks, cooks and tastes a lot like lean beef. It’s also one of the cleanest cuts of meat you can find here: in Mongolia, fat is considered as valuable and edible as meat, and so most of the cuts of beef or mutton are marbled. Horse meat is readily available in in Bayan-Ulgii at all times of year,[1] and only marginally more expensive than other meats. I supplement with beans and peanut butter, which I buy in UB or have shipped to me in care packages, since a diet of straight red meat can get tiresome.

Because Bayan-Ulgii is so far from the major cities, most of the produce is imported, and its availability varies. When I first arrived in August, we had onions, garlic, carrots, cabbage, in some дэлгүүрs (shops) cucumbers or tomatoes; apples, watermelons, and oranges. With regular shipments from China, Russia, and Kazakhstan, we are often able to find bell peppers, kiwis, and occasionally such gems as lemons, lettuce, and pomegranates.

I’m also a bit limited in prep methods. This is my kitchen:


That’s fine by me, though, since I do most of my cooking on the stovetop anyway.

I have easy access to fresh dairy, and there are a lot of dry goods from Russia, China, and even western Europe in the aimag center — there’s even a Russian store with goodies like oatmeal and spices.

There’s a lot of overlap between Kazakh and Mongolian dishes. Here’s a quick primer on the foods I’ve eaten here:

Хурга (xurag) – a dish of chopped fried meat. Comes in будаатай (budaatai, with-rice) and ногоотай (nogootai, with-vegetable) varieties, among others.
Шөл (shul) or сопа (copa) – soup. Meat and bones are boiled together; the bones are removed, the meat left in. Also comes in будаатай and ногоотай, as well as гуралтай (guraltai, with-flour, i.e. noodle), versions.
Хушуур (xushuur) – meat or potatoes fried in flour pockets; sort of resembles a pasty.
Бууз (buuz) – meat dumplings steamed in flour pockets.
Цуйван (tsuivan) or құрдақ (kurdak) – a noodle dish! Steamed noodles, meat, and sometimes veggies. This is my favorite.
Сүүтэй будаа (suutei budaa) – rice cooked in milk to make a kind of soup; for upset stomachs. (My stomach was not too happy with the offering, considering how rich the dairy is here, but I appreciated the sentiment.) I ate this during PST, but haven’t seen it in Bayan-Ulgii.
Қазы (kaz/kazi) – Horse sausage. This is a Kazakh specialty I have yet to sample.

And some classically Kazakh/Mongolian foods that aren’t meals:

Сүүтэй цай (suutei tsai, lit. tea with milk) or ақ шай (ak chai, white tea) – the infamous milk tea which both Kazakhs and Mongolians drink like water. Mongolian milk tea is made by boiling tea leaves in milk; Kazakhs boil a milk-water mixture then pour it over a strainerful of tea leaves. Some families add salt. Kazakh milk tea is made with tea leaves from Kazakhstan and has a stronger flavor than Mongolian tea.
Тараг (tarag) or айран (airan) – a thin, sour, drinkable yogurt. Delicious with sugar or made into a frozen juice popsicle. Also makes a good sour cream substitute.
Ааруул (arul) or құрд (curd) – dried milk curds. Sour, crumbly, and hard enough to break off your tooth, but as snack foods go it’s quite healthy, and my host sisters loved it.
Айраг (airag) or қымыз (kumis) – fermented mare’s milk. The taste varies depending on who’s making it, but it’s sour, thick, and slightly fizzy. Can be served hot or cold. Kazakh Muslims who abstain from alcohol sometimes drink this instead of wine or vodka at house parties.
Борцаага (bortsag) or бауырсақ (baursak) – nuggets of deep-fried dough, somwhere between donuts and funnel cakes in taste and texture. The борцаага bowl, along with candy and milk tea, is always on the table in a Mongolian household, though Kazakhs supplement or replace this with cookies and bread.

[1] Unlike Kazakhs, Mongolians aren’t fond of horse meat, and in many provinces it is only available in the winter.


A couple of weeks ago, I had to go to the internet store because my modem had stopped working. Again. I carefully prepared a few phrases to use with the customer service provider. At the store I ran into an English teacher friend, who was happy to translate the answer: I’d used up all my data because I hadn’t sent an SMS to the company to convert my units into gigabytes[1].

Great, I said, though I wasn’t excited to pay double for the month. I went home and popped the modem’s SIM card into my phone. I waited for a network to show up so I could text the company.

And waited.

And waited.

Nothing. A grey triangle where there should have been reception bars. After a week of cafe-hopping and buying lunch just so I could watch Facebook fail to load — after changing providers three months before for a network that actually loaded — after finally having a discussion with a provider where I understood what was going on, I still couldn’t get my stupid modem to work.

I threw the modem at the wall, threw myself on my bed, and cried for a while. And I asked myself: What am I even doing here?


That anecdote probably sounds a little dramatic. It becomes all the more so if I mention that I considered plugging my modem in and using a few kilobytes to research why my phone and internet SIM were incompatible; that I considered going back to the provider and asking if he could fix it; that I considered knocking on my landlady’s door and asking to borrow her smartphone to send the SMS. But no. I threw my modem at the wall and cried for an hour.

Take a minute, though, and think about the last time you focused really hard on something mentally taxing for more than an hour. Maybe two hours or four. Think about the way you felt afterward: a little bit like your brain had turned to limp noodles, as if all the usefulness had been wrung out of it and you could no longer form a coherent thought. Right? Communicating in a foreign language when you have low proficiency starts to feel like that after the first half hour.

Now imagine the last time you had a really busy day at work. You had two or three meetings on top of your own projects. And your coworkers kept interrupting you because they needed your help, or your input, or you owed them something and you just hadn’t had the time to do it yet. You end the day not just exhausted from multitasking, but irritable about how little got done despite it. With a dozen CPs, over a thousand students, and almost daily requests for new projects or private tutoring, I have a lot of days that go like this.

And that’s not talking about cross-cultural problems. Or about limited food availability and no control over indoor temperatures. Or the half-hour daily walk to and from school. Or the immature snots in the schoolyard who mimic me in a falsetto every time I speak English. Or, or, or…

It’s not an easy job. It’s emotionally taxing. You need investment and you need some kind of motivator.


I didn’t throw a tantrum because I was frustrated with something as minor as a faulty SIM card. Not really. I threw a tantrum because I was exhausted, because everything felt difficult, and because in that moment the whole two-year exercise seemed meaningless.

Why am I even here?

After an hour or two I gave in to practicality, if not to reason, and decided I should probably eat lunch. I had just heated up leftovers and was sitting down with my meal when I heard a knock on my door.

I paused. Listened. Decided I must be imagining things. Nobody ever came and knocked on my door. It was always the landlady they were visiting.

The knock came again. I put my lunch down to see who it was.

“Surprise!” exclaimed two of my twelfth-grade students, and announced that they had come to take me to lunch. One girl’s favorite restaurant, surprise location, their treat.

Oh, I thought, blindsided. That’s why.


The work I’m doing here is important, and I care about it. I care about my fellow PCVs and the network we’ve built, tenuous with distance and made enduring by shared experience. I care about Peace Corps ideals, abstract as they are — building cross-cultural communities and professional skills. But none of those things are enough in to keep me here, not in a moment of distress.

I’m here for the half-dozen students who are always asking to visit my home, to make American food, to climb a mountain together or go shopping.

I’m here for the girl who monopolizes my open office hours to ask every question about English grammar known to humankind.

I’m here for the full-time professional who stops me after an evening class to show me her new vocabulary app or ask how I pronounce a list of words.

I’m here for the sixth-grade boys who crowd in awe around my ereader in the canteen, cheer when they realize I know some Kazakh, and tell me proudly, “Food! Ол аспаз. Дәмді ме[2]?”

I’m here for the non-English speaking teachers and friends who patiently and encouragingly repeat the same question in Kazakh, over and over, until something in my brain connects and I can stumble over an answer.

I’m here for the afternoon spent chatting about anthropological terminology and cross-cultural experiences with the English teacher who runs a side translation business.

I’m here for the teachers who, seeing me exhausted at the end of a Monday, play with my hair[3] and tell me I’m very young to have this much responsibility, and then jump on my supervisor to tell him he should cut back my schedule.

I’m here for holiday parties and weekend game nights with the other foreigners in the community and some young-adult Kazakh friends.

I’m here for the friends and counterparts who have opened their homes to me, fed me dinner, asked about my life, and encouraged me to practice Kazakh with their children.

I’m even here for the gaggle of ten-year-old boys who chant “Apple apple apple apple” when they see me in the courtyard — not because it’s particularly endearing to have a random word shouted at you, but because they switch languages when I shout “алма алма алма алма” back, and give me something to laugh about on the walk home.


I’m dedicated to my work. I enjoy it, I find it fulfilling, and I am invested in developing myself a professional adult. But at the end of the day, I can’t live for work alone.

It’s about the people, the community, the connections I make. And I’m lucky enough to have made some good ones.

[1] Side question for PCVs using Skytel: Does anyone else have this problem or is my local provider just stupid about it?
[2] “She’s a cook. Is it tasty?”
[3] This sounds really weird in an American context. Here it’s a normal gesture of affection/comfort between sisters and close female friends.

Happy holidays (part 2): Tsagaan Sar

In most of Mongolia, winter ends on the lunar new year. As the Year of the Monkey began last week, friends and familiy gathered together to celebrate Цагаан Сар (Tsagaan Sar), the White Month, the biggest holiday in the country.

In most of Mongolia. In Bayan-Ulgii, the new year also begins in spring, and it is also the year’s biggest holiday. But for Kazakhs, as for Westerners, spring begins on the vernal equinox in March.

None of my CPs celebrated Tsagaan Sar in their own homes. Most Kazakhs I asked said they visited one or two Mongolian families — close friends, neighbors, coworkers — who kept the holiday. But where most of the country grinds to a halt for the first half of Februrary, my school and community charged full steam ahead until the nationally declared holiday (February 9-11) shut down all federal institutions (including schools) and Mongolian-owned businesses.

I had a nice week off, though.


When I was first introduced to the faculty at my school, one of my CPs pulled me aside to point out a teacher.

“That’s Tuul,” she said. “The Mongolian teacher.”

“There’s only one Mongolian teacher?” I asked, deeply puzzled as to how one teacher could manage two thousand students. Mongolian language is possibly an even more challenging subject for my students than English, given that most of them speak Kazakh at home, receive limited conversational exposure to Mongolian, and yet are expected to speak it fluently if they want to attend a Mongolian university.

“No,” the CP insisted, “the Mongolian teacher.”

Abruptly I realized she wasn’t talking about language. Of the entire hundred-something teaching faculty at my school, exactly one teacher is ethnically Mongolian.


I have a total half-dozen Mongolian contacts at site — Tuul, and about half of my students at the police station. Most of my fellow PCVs spent the last week visiting the homes of friends and family, being stuffed to the brim with бууз and vodka. I spent most of the week relaxing at home, because I didn’t know where any of the Mongolians lived and I was nervous to go alone[1].

I did, however, visit one family. At lunch with a Russian friend working at the local Teachers’ College, I mentioned that I wanted to experience the holiday somehow. It turned out that in a few hours she was going with some other teachers to visit a coworker, and they were happy to invite me along. We hitched a ride with the director of the college (a nominal CP of mine, though I’ve yet to work with him on any projects) and arrived to the family’s apartment around 4 in the afternoon.

The first thing you do, when you arrive at a house during Tsagaan Sar, is greet the members of the household from oldest to youngest. They are each holding a хадах (khadakh), or ceremonial scarf. You support their elbows (if they are older than you; if they are younger, they support yours) and kiss them on each cheek, saying “Амар байна уу?”[2]

Everyone sits at a table which is absolutely loaded with food. Notable elements are the боов (boov) tower, a pastry-and-candy centerpiece whose height signifies the age and status of the family; a great many different kinds of fruit and vegetable salads; and the meat plate, which (confusingly for me) features қазы, or horse sausage, usually considered a Kazakh specialty[3]. We were served milk tea, then hot айраг (airag, fermented mare’s milk, also known as қымыз or komis), and our hosts chatted with the other guests.

Then came the vodka. Theoretically, anyone who visits a house is supposed to take three shots of vodka. Thankfully, most households are aware that three shots is a lot for an hour-and-a-half visit that (elsewhere in Mongolia) may be directly followed by another visit to somebody else. We did one toast, after the eldest man in the family gave a speech; everybody sipped their vodka; one of the men refilled everyone’s shot glass; and we ate some more.

Out came the бууз. Бууз (buuz, pronounced ‘boats’) are steamed meat dumplings, a Mongolian staple, and the traditional Tsagaan Sar meal. It is considered polite to eat at least three бууз on a Tsagaan Sar visit. I ate five, because they were quite good бууз and I had eaten a light lunch in preparation for the visit. Everyone chatted, then the next-oldest man in the household gave a speech. Everyone had another sip of vodka. The ladies of the house refilled our айраг glasses and passed out wine to the women, which I was pleased with because it tasted slightly less like paint stripper[4].

The oldest man among the visitors gave a speech. We toasted. The director of the teacher’s college gave a monetary gift and a speech. We toasted. One of the teachers gave a speech, and another teacher sang a song. We toasted again. I observed that we were now well past the required three shots; but then again, no one was actually drinking a shot at a time.

Then the head of the household looked at me and asked the teacher’s college director who I was. I blinked and gave him my name in Mongolian. He told me to give a speech.

I asked, in Mongolian, if I could give it in English and have the director translate. They were excited to realize I knew a little Mongolian and told me to give it in Mongolian. I gave it a shot, but I haven’t spoken Mongolian in two months (and then only to taxi drivers in the capital). Finally the director told me to just speak English, I said a couple of sentences, and everyone toasted.

My Russian friend gave a speech in Russian, to which everyone but me nodded wisely, and then we wrapped up our visit with gifts from our host.


To learn about a more typical Tsagaan Sar experience, and see actual pictures, check out some posts by my fellow volunteers:

Tsagaan Sar: Year of the Monkey
Tsagaan Sar Pictures
Сар Шинэдээ Сайхан Шилээрэй
Цагаан Сар

[1] On Monday Tuul came up to me and apologized profusely, using as much English as she knew, for forgetting to invite me to her home like she had invited the other teachers. I felt a great deal less guilty for not calling her and asking if I could visit.
[2] A variation on the usual hello, “Сайн байна уу?”, this literally translates to “Are you resting?”
[3] One key way to distinguish between Kazakhs and Mongolians: Kazakhs like horse and eat it at most celebrations. Many Mongolians dislike the taste (which has the same consistency and flavor as beef, but is rather gamier) and consider it a winter-only meat.
[4] I don’t really drink, so all alcohol tastes at least a little bit like paint stripper to me.

Invisible Things, Part 10: Conclusion

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.

Invisible Things, Part 9

I mentioned in my In-Service Training recap that December was a stressful month. I went from full-steam-ahead mid-term workload to sitting around in a hostel wondering what to do with myself; then, after the first week, to being surrounded by other Americans 24/7; and from there to a tightly-scheduled Western-style seminar the likes of which I had not experienced since August. On top of that, one of my best friends was sent home on medical and I started to have a breathing problem from the pollution.

All this is to say, I was alternately quite busy and completely at a loss for what to do with myself, I had a lot on my mind, and I was rather stressed — none of which are particularly helpful if you’re in an anxious frame of mind. I had initially resolved to talk to the doctor about my anxiety at the same time as my lung problem; but when the initial appointment proved unhelpful (re: lungs), I gave up the idea. I almost approached the other doctor when he diagnosed the breathing issue at a second appointment, but I’d had an upsetting two days (because I couldn’t breathe) and couldn’t face an even more upsetting interview.

It wasn’t until after a conversation with a friend, after the seminar, that I finally approached the PCMO. She was having a stressful time, and I recommended that she talk to the doctor about it…and then, with a sort of mental sigh, realized that I couldn’t very well give advice that I wasn’t willing to follow myself. And the doctor’s thorough, on-point response to my asthma problem gave me faith that he would take it seriously.

So I called the office the Tuesday after IST, while I was still in the capital. Thankfully, the doctor I wanted to talk to picked up; when I asked if he was free at all, he invited me to his office.

I went. I sat down in his office and said nothing; he asked what was wrong. “I think I’m having an anxiety problem,” I said in a muted, shaky voice.

At his prompting, I outlined a couple of events from the last few weeks; a few I remembered from the list I’d made (which I had not, in the end, brought with me; it felt like overkill, somehow); and — reluctantly, terrified that it counted as medical nondisclosure[1] even though I’d never been diagnosed or even sought a diagnosis — mentioned that this was something that had been going on since before I’d joined Peace Corps.

The doctor considered this, asked me some questions, and then left me with a small sheaf of paperwork: a series of questionnaires designed to measure symptoms for a variety of mental health problems. “In the last two weeks, on a scale of 0 to 3, how often have you…?” I filled them out quickly, trying to ignore the niggling voice that wondered how on earth a four-point scale covering less than a month’s time could possibly constitute accurate measurement[2]. The doctor came back, took the papers, and tallied my scores.

“This is not that far from average,” he said with some puzzlement. My heart plummeted. I had managed to convince myself to ask for help — had managed to construct a narrative that showed I needed it — but if the numbers said I didn’t…

But, the doctor continued, since this was clearly a problem that had been bothering me for some time, he would put me on the counselor’s list. But it might be a week or so before I heard from her, because he couldn’t label my case as a priority. She might call me by the end of that week or the beginning of the next.

So I went home from the capital straight into the holiday season, at once relieved that there was finally help on the horizon and terrified about what that might mean.

[1] Failing to share some part of your medical history, for which you can be medically separated (the nice phrase Peace Corps uses in place of ‘fired for medical reasons’).
[2] I still don’t like these things, even though I’m coming to understand the how and why of them. Every time I have to fill one out my brain screams, “But is 75% of the time a 2 or a 3???”

Invisible Things, Part 8

In my freshman year of college, I didn’t talk to my roommate.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like her. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to her. We just never exchanged words, even when we were alone together in our tiny cubicle of a room. “It’s weird,” I would say in a puzzled tone when I mentioned it to a friend; then I’d shrug and change the subject. If pressed, I’d say that we had very different schedules — she was a partier, I was a morning person. Or that we just didn’t have anything to talk about. I’d leave it up in the air, like, I don’t know why she doesn’t talk to me. I tacitly avoided my own complicity in the situation.

The truth was that I felt massively uncomfortable with the silence in the room. Uncomfortable with the presence of someone else in the room. Jittery. Nervous to the point that I didn’t know if I could form a casual sentence. What would we talk about? What would we say? What sort of a conversation did you have with a roommate? My brain would lock up and, instead of staring blankly at her making the awkwardness palpable, I would turn to my computer, or my book, or retreat to a practice room in the music school. The more I avoided conversation, the more insurmountable the idea of it seemed. I mumbled my hellos and good mornings and kept headphones on as much as possible, to minimize the need for chat. I have no doubt that this made my roommate exceedingly uncomfortable, although our schedules were quite different and she never articulated any distress.


The biggest, most pressing sign that I needed to talk to a PCMO?

I couldn’t ask to borrow my landlady’s vacuum.

Let me be perfectly clear. My landlady lives next door to me. We share an entrance hall. She is one of the most generous, kind-hearted people I have met in this country. She has a twelve-year-old internet-savvy son whose favorite words (at least when I’m in the room) are “Не деді?”[1] She speaks a little bit of English and fluent Hungarian, and we are very good about interpreting hand signals when mutual language fails. My CP, her younger sister, has repeatedly encouraged me to visit her in the evenings to exchange language and keep loneliness at bay.

But there are a couple of things. I’m an early riser, and like to keep to myself in the evenings so that I can go to bed when I want, but in the afternoons — when I’m occasionally free — my landlady is busy running a business down the street. She’s free in the mornings, when I’m at the school. And because our doors don’t actually have latches, her door is almost always locked.

Between the locked doors and the sparse encounters, from day one I felt a kind of nervous inhibition about bothering her. I remember being on the phone with a friend, sometime in the first few weeks at site, and saying that I didn’t want to do such-and-such because the walls were very thin and I didn’t want to bother the landlady. My friend replied with the verbal equivalent of an exasperated eye-roll. But the less I talked to the landlady, the more intimidated I was by the thought of talking to her. No matter how many times I reminded myself she was nice, she was my CP’s sister, she wanted to talk to me, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

There was always a reason. Maybe she’s still asleep. Maybe she’s eating dinner. Maybe she’s busy. Maybe, maybe…

This came to a crux on the weekends. I’d usually spend one morning cleaning the apartment, intending to finish by vacuuming the carpets. But inevitably I’d finish around one or two in the afternoon, around the time my landlady left. I’d be afraid to knock on the door, in case it would inconvenience her if she was getting ready to leave. I’d dawdle around until I heard the keys in her door and saw light in the foyer — oops! she was leaving. I couldn’t ask for the vacuum now. I cleaned the carpet once a month instead of once a week.

The worst part of this is how ridiculous it sounds. Intense displays of emotion over something upsetting, you know, that’s understandable, that’s relatable. But avoiding small talk with somebody week after week? Finding it more nerve-wracking than the substantially more awkward alternative? It’s nonsensical.

Worse, I knew the nonsensicality of it even as I participated in it. All the energy went out of me after I gave up on asking; I felt ashamed and unable to accomplish simple things. Once I decided I should just borrow it in the evening instead of the afternoon, and geared up to ask her when she arrived. But then I was in the middle of eating dinner. And then — oh no — guests came over. How awkward would it be to interrupt that for housework? I told myself that was stupid, and tried to convince myself that my carpet had to be clean. (It shouldn’t have taken much convincing. My carpet was pretty dirty.) But then, when I unlocked my door, I heard the clink of cutlery. They were eating dinner. I couldn’t possibly interrupt that. What if (horror of irrational horrors) they invited me to join them? I’d have to make conversation. Even in that moment I couldn’t explain to myself why conversation was a bad thing — I needed to practice Kazakh, after all — but still it rooted me in place. At one point over this half-hour dance I made it as far as my landlady’s door — only to flee when I heard her voice, very close to the door already.


This is what anxiety looks like for me on a daily basis.

It’s not life-threatening. It’s not massively, visibly impactful. It’s ridiculous enough that I got in the habit of sending a friend silly texts about it. But it’s a real thing, it’s exhausting, and it hurts. It hurts to know that you are wasting hours fretting about something most people would not think twice about. It hurts that it scares you so much. It hurts to know that it is unreasonable, and to be unable in the moment to convince yourself that it is unreasonable. It hurts because it is a pattern made up of tiny, invisible, excusable avoided moments which are humiliating to admit the truth of aloud.

This is anxiety. This is real. Panic attacks and breakdowns are not the sum total of it. You do not have to have panic attacks and breakdowns to be suffering in a real and tangible way. Those little moments absolutely can add up into something big.

And if you are having these moments: It does not mean you did something wrong. It does not mean you are in the wrong. It means you’re struggling with something and you have a right to get help. You have a right to be healthy, and nothing else should come in the way of that.[2]

[1] “What’d she say?”
[2] Credit for this goes in part to my sitemate Jake, who told me this in almost these exact words at a time I really needed to hear it.

Invisible Things, Part 7

I felt a bit better a week or two after I talked to the doctor. I tried to put the conversation out of my mind. Thinking about it was soul-sucking, and I had work to get done, regardless of how I felt. I am good at getting work done regardless of how I feel.

I called my supervisor and said I wanted to quit the police class. He asked, quite reasonably, why. I said that my schedule was too full, and he said he’d talk to the police. The following Tuesday, per his advice, I went in with a CP and told them I couldn’t teach in the evenings. The chief of police said agreeably, if with some regret, that the officers had to work during the day and we would not be able to do the class if I couldn’t teach evenings. Then a few days later one of the officers showed up to my supervisor’s classroom and practically begged me to continue teaching. My supervisor took a look at my schedule and cut back some things at the school, saying I was team teaching too many hours and needed to do more community work. I told him I wanted to do community work that was not English teaching, but the point didn’t seem to come across. I finally agreed to teach half as many hours, earlier in the afternoon.

It didn’t make me feel any more comfortable in that classroom. It didn’t address the real qualms I had — either about the value of the class in the big picture, or about my skill as a teacher.

Meanwhile, I tried to exert what control I could over my nerves. I kept a mental list of priorities (sleep, eat, exercise, work, socialize…), but it was hard to prioritize individual tasks, or to decide what I should do at any given moment. I’d be preparing a lesson for the police course, say, when I’d suddenly remember that I hadn’t made idiom cards for my methodology class. Which was more important, the one that was due sooner or the one that took more time? Which did I care about more? I cared about nothing in that moment except how stressed the problem made me.

I had the same problem with exercise — which always helped me relax in the States, but which was more difficult to focus through without a dojo to practice for and work in. I’d be in the middle of a workout when I’d suddenly remember a work problem, or a friend I’d promised to call, or I’d realize I had plans later that evening and wouldn’t have time to cook dinner. Suddenly the other thing would become infinitely more important than what I was doing and I’d abandon the workout to complete it.

In a spirit of grim defiance, I started to keep a list on my laptop of all the moments I associated with anxiety[1]. I wrote a dozen entries over the course of a month — some recording single moments, others the summation of a week’s events — but, while it gave me a concrete record of something that looked like anxiety, it didn’t actually make me feel better. I felt like I was dwelling rather than addressing the problem constructively; as if explaining the thing in detail somehow trapped me in it. I suspect that feeling is part of why I struggle so much to talk about it at all. Still, the journal gave me a better certainty of my own sense of what was wrong, and I thought I could show it to the PCMOs when I went to Ulaanbaatar in December. It did a better job of conveying what was wrong than anything I could say out loud.

Meanwhile, gradually and hesitantly, I started to confide in a few close friends, all of whom had experienced depression or anxiety at some point in their lives. I did a better job explaining to them than I had to the PCMO — I didn’t lock up as much, because their response wouldn’t have the same repercussions on my service and because I had a lot of trust in them — and received pretty much the same response from each: Yes, that sounds like a real problem. Yes, that sounds like anxiety. Yes, you should talk to somebody about it. And yes, I’m here for you.

[1] Quick sampler of those moments: being upset to the point of tears when a teachers’ party conflicted with a police lesson; waking up in the middle of the night feeling stressed and unhappy; dreading returning to work after a break because of a nebulous sense that something will go wrong; worrying about my relationship with my landlady, which I’ll discuss in detail in my next post.

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.