Peace Corps can take you to some very dark places.
The reality of Peace Corps life is that no one [except other volunteers] can even possibly begin to understand the day-to day realities of Peace Corps life, and while communication is much better in 2018 or 2019 than the 1960’s or 1990′ or even the late 2000’s, people in America can’t possibly understand what our daily existence is like. Peace Corps came up with the slogan ‘The toughest job you’ll ever love‘ in the early 1980’s, and it stuck. The current Peace Corps slogan is ‘Life is calling. How far will you go‘. Regardless of what is current or not the original 1980’s slogan is still what most people think of when they hear Peace Corps.
When you’re applying for Peace Corps, you will hear that slogan many times. From the comfy confines of our living room, I’m sure none of us doubted it would be difficult, or that we’d love it (most of us, at least). We knew full well we would leave behind the relative comfort and richness of America for some poverty-stricken corner of the world. What we didn’t realize is in just how many ways we were rich.
When I landed landed in Kigali some months ago, the immediate effects were simple. Two 8 hour flights. Minimal food and general travel weariness greeted us. When we were deposited at the nunnery, despite the plethora of available food, many of us did not eat a lot. Or talk a lot. We just wanted sleep. And the chance to get horizontal was just beyond unloading our luggage from a giant truck.
Getting vaccinated against every probable disease known to inhabit the planet… Sitting in an uncomfortable, hand-made wooden chair for two agonizing hours. Beginning to learn a language than even Google Translate doesn’t even attempt. That moment of utter disbelieve that the last year [or two] of your life has culminated to this, to these trials and tribulations, these extreme extremes. The path that was ahead of us was, albeit long, an exciting one. One where every corner brought another new surprise, even after you felt like nothing would ever surprise you again after what you’ve seen. This is the ‘honeymoon’ phase. You show up here, having idolized and idealized what this life would be like. You (I) had these ideas of grandeur, of sleeping on dirt floors, bathing in rivers, being the ‘cool’ Peace Corps Volunteer who had been there, done that, and lived every awesome experience you could possibly imagine.
The first riches stripped away were not these physical comforts we see as ‘necessitates’ in the States. The first things we lost were the things it would ultimately take us the longest to realize they were riches in the first place. Prior to landing in Rwanda, my training group ‘staged’ in Philadelphia. Prior to taking off to quite literally the middle of Africa, I stood in the airport in Greenville and did what I now understand to be one of the hardest things in my life. I stood there, said good bye to my best friend and two little munchkins, knowing that next time I saw them the third little munchkin on the inside would be on the outside. I checked in, went through security, and waited in the terminal. I waited until literally the final boarding call for Philadelphia and thus Peace Corps being before I got on the plane. Even though at that moment getting on the plane was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. For them, and the others I’ve said good bye to in the preceding days, it was ‘she’s doing something she wants to do, making the world a better place, ect.’ For me, however, I have to live day-to-day with the question of ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ No amount of soul-searching, and no measure of resolve, can stop this from happening.
When you join Peace Corps, you will be willingly subjecting yourself to certain things, ‘extremes,’ if you will. A lot of these will be physical. You will have insomnia [or hypersomnia]. You will get sick [For me, it’s been a never ending battle with dizziness]. You will vomit on a routine basis [I’ve only vomited once–30 minutes after ingesting suspect watermelon, but I’m nauseous quite frequently]. Chances are, you’ll succumb to some disease (or three) that would have potentially been extremely serious if you hadn’t paid attention during training or if you didn’t have access to health care that far exceeds that given to your community members [Giradia, Malaria, Ebola?]. At first, a full-night’s sleep will seem impossible [I was up at 2am for a solid 3 weeks straight] This will change over time, but can (and will) revert to deprivation at the drop of a hat. You will sweat [even if you live in the cold, mountainous part of the country.] You will cry [in the privacy of your own home or perhaps a random latrine; that’s not usually kosher in public]. You will bleed [probably from falling down.] You will be able to scrap the dirt, dead skin, and God knows what else off your arms with your fingers [or loofah if you had the foresight to bring one] . Your hair will be absolutely disgusting [two words–dry shampoo], and there’ll be more dead skin on your scalp than on your arms [if that’s possible]. And these are just the physical changes that will happen.
The far darker side is the mental effects you will undergo. You will feel more alone than you have ever been, felt, or dreamt of being in your entire life. Sure, you will be a ‘member of your community,’ insofar as a 20 or 30-something foreigner with a very limited knowledge of their language and even less understanding of their cultural norms can integrate into a community which is physically and emotionally homogeneous. Let me say again: You Will Cry. You will want to curl up in your empty bed and scream for the ‘simple’ things in life. You will want somebody to hold you, to just wrap their arms around you and pull you into them. There will be days when you feel like you are empty inside. There will be days when you feel like going ape-shit crazy and destroying anything you can get your hands on, including your neighbors, colleagues, and yourself. These are the VERY dark days of service.
Often a bad coping strategy for Peace Corps… And Life.
Talking with friends and family at home helps, but only to a certain degree. Some days a call to/from home is exactly what you need to persevere for another day. But you’ll get this nagging feeling in the back of your mind that, for as much as they can say they understand, and as much as you’d love them to be able to, they cannot. Confiding in parents, purging your emotions to your old friends, and talking to significant others can only get you so far. Sure, you can build up fantastic relationships with your community-members, you can get to know them pretty well, and you can confide in them and become really good friends with them. But in the end, they still cannot fully understand what you’re going through because you do not share the same cultural connotations.
In the end, the logical place to turn to aid your emotional well-being is your fellow Volunteer. But, just like everything in Peace Corps, it is not that simple. Yes, these people understand what you deal with on a day-to-day basis. They were there during the 10-week trial that was Pre-Service Training. When it comes down to it, regardless of how counter-intuitive this is, we all left behind the majority of things that made us happy when we came here. Once here, it becomes so tempting, so easy, to allow your happiness to rely on a single thing, a single person, a single ability. Then, just as you feared, that solitary thing that makes you happy and is what keeps you sane is gone. You will have the darkest, coldest winter in your life, even if you’re 2 degrees away from the Equator. You’ll learn your lesson, but by that point, it’s too late.
Peace Corps service is all about these extremes. As dark as it is, even masochistic on some levels, this is what we signed up for, right? We tell ourselves we are here for some noble purpose, that we are not here to find ourselves, but to lose ourselves. To change who we are at the very core. Make no mistake; Peace Corps will change you, hopefully for the better. But this is not for the faint of heart or the weak-willed. There will be times when you want nothing more than to quit, to say ‘screw all of this’ and go home, curl up in your comfortable American bed, watch TV, eat as much food as you can see, and never move ever again. But what we are really here for is to take the punches, not to roll with them. Rolling with the punches assumes you can see them coming and avoid getting hurt. During Service, things will come from the left just as you were so preoccupied by what was to your right, slamming into your head and sending you sprawling. When you finally pick yourself up (and you always will), you’ll look to the left just in time to see… nothing. Whatever knocked you down so hard was so minute, so trivial that it begs to be laughed at for even affecting you. Peace Corps service is a time when ants can topple giants. Most days you’ll feel like the giant; on top of the world, having it all because you chose to be here. Then, BAM! Dark days are here again.
It is impossible to compartmentalize your emotions and feelings here. Attempting to bottle them up and put on your ‘game face’ will only make it worse. Those of us who claim to be expert compartmentalizers will simply be able to hold out longer, but we [they] will eventually crack just like everybody else. At the same time, you cannot risk wearing your emotions on your sleeve. You have to allow the bad things to either roll off your back or limit their expression to the privacy of your own home all while actively seeking the positive things. Holding back emotions in a situation like this makes implosion only a matter of time. Above having to cry, you will need to cry, sometimes for no reasons. Some days you will not want to get out of bed [not because it’s super comfy although my 3! yes 3 mattresses do make it tolerable], some days you will not be able to fall asleep no matter how many drugs you take or how early you have to be at work in the morning. These are the dark days of service.
The only constant in this life is that nothing is as it seems it was, is, or should be. If it feels like rain, put on sunscreen. If you feel on top of the world, bring a parachute. Whatever you think will happen will not and no matter how creative your imagination is, you will consistently be baffled at what actually does happen, at the seemingly random occurrences and outcomes that meld together to blow your mind every night. Daily events will seem like something out of a bizarre dream, yet your new reality won’t hold a candle to what your subconscious mind can now conjure up while you’re sound asleep. .
Peace Corps Service is a roller coaster. There will be ups and downs. There will be dark times. There will be times that you feel like you are in free-fall. You will feel like you will die. But you won’t. [Most likely] The only guarantee is that you will rise up again, only to come rocketing back down until that day comes when you pull into the station and the only thought that pops into you mind is “Wow, what a ride.’
Let my make myself clear: I am not suicidal, depressed, homicidal, or wanting to self injure. Emotions are a bitch.