Peace Corps Breakdown: Why More Vulnerable Travelers Should Speak Up About Mental Health
“Hi…I’d like to see if I could…take a mental health day…”
…I said, my voice shaking.
What is a mental health day? Good question. I’d heard rumors that volunteers are given a few nights to stay in Managua, Nicaragua, but that’s about it.
A week earlier I had gone through a long-distance break-up. I needed to move forward, but I realized that I couldn’t do it alone anymore. That morning my mind raced with anxious thoughts: Will I be happy again? What now?
“Okay, see you at 3”. I confirmed my appointment with Martha, a Nicaraguan doctor trained in basic counseling.
Will Martha judge me for being gay? I worried about coming out to her. Queer people shouldn’t have to worry about coming out to their doctors, but I’ve had uncomfortable experiences doing so.
I made it to Managua and put on my flannel shirt while entering the medical office. I braced myself for the sharp switch from the tropical heat to the air conditioning.
How much do I tell Martha? Will she think I’m depressed and send me home? I worried, then distracted myself by reading Bossypants. Tiny Fey’s white denim suit from the ‘80s made me chuckle.
Martha called me in. “I heard you’re not doing very well. What’s going on?” she asked in her soothing voice.
I told her everything I was going through.
I didn’t think I could cry for an hour and a half. For the first time in a while, I felt as vulnerable as a newborn baby, dropped in the middle of a cold, dark forest. I couldn’t even look at her half the time because I felt guilty and ashamed that I was no longer superwoman. I’d been reduced to having a red, puffy face, but I still wished I’d advocated for myself earlier.
Martha didn’t judge me for being gay. Also, she wasn’t constantly looking at her watch. “There’s more time than life” is a common saying here. In Nicaragua, long conversational pauses are more acceptable than in the States. We took our time.
I also learned about Martha. She had worked in Africa, and she advised me to try the coffee that’s grown around Mount Kilimanjaro. While there, she would smell a bag of the local coffee before going to bed. Nicaragua grows a lot of coffee, so she felt at home.
Then, it was time to go.
Newly initiated volunteers crowded the office. They wore suits and their prettiest dresses. I didn’t want my puffy, red face to be their first welcome. When I finally stepped out, I could feel their confused, concerned looks.
I spent two nights at Hotel Brandt’s and continued to see Martha. We decided that I needed to write more. Writing letters to myself (or to anyone else) that I wouldn’t send helped me so much. I needed to express myself more than anything.
At breakfast my friend Jen reminded me to focus on the present.
“What’s wrong with this moment, right now?” she asked. Well, we had unlimited fruit, and the coffee wasn’t instant. I had no pressing complaints.
That night I wrote myself a letter to forgive myself. I’m my own hardest critic, and I’ve felt too guilty for not living up to the high standards I set for myself as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I thought of Brené Brown’s inspiring Ted Talk on vulnerability. I connected with its main idea: Vulnerability is not weakness.
Jen and I later ate falafel at an Arabic restaurant. I enjoyed listening to the staff speak in Arabic. Many of the menu items were foreign, but that’s what I liked about it. The restaurant reminded me that although being far from home can be difficult, it’s worth it. The world is a huge place that needs to be explored.
Mental health affects us all, but it is often overlooked.
When I told friends that this week was hard and that I needed help, I didn’t want them to feel sorry for me. I wanted to be honest. Now, I’m passionate about normalizing mental health simply by talking about it. Since I’ve shared my experience, many friends and volunteers have thanked me for exposing my own vulnerability and for talking about something that they didn’t feel safe talking about.
Taking care of your mind is just as important as taking care of any other part of your body.