I’ll admit, I have been struggling with how to approach the subject of this blog. It is a blurry line between treating a serious subject with levity and respect without slipping into banality or flippancy, both of which I abhor. I am talking about the “mean reds.”
After coming back from Peshkopi I was struck down by, not misery, or fear, or depression, but incredible inertia. For three days I barely left the house. The first day I didn’t. The second day I went through the regular morning routine only to turn around at the last-minute and go back inside, leaving only for language class and then promptly going back home.
By the third day, however, things were on the up and up and life was beginning to feel grand again. That and I was out of food. Hunger ejected me from my isolation and I went out and about the market, chatting with vendors, collecting all the pieces to make a meal. When in doubt trust your baser needs.
I broke through the wall of stagnation with a most delectable and delightful delicatessen of cauliflower mash, herbed chicken and lemon parsley cous cous and for the final course, the pièce de résistance, fresh zucchini bread.
To steal from the film Julie and Julia, “You know what I love about cooking? I love that after a day when nothing is sure and when I say nothing, I mean nothing. You can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. That’s such a comfort.”
The food was my saving grace. Cooking my mode of meditation, and the final results, nirvana. For a few days; however, while trapped in the “washing machine of my own mind,” I was worried about whether I was alone in these thoughts and whether they were indicative of something more serious. Never surf Web MD in a heightened state.
Now that I’m on the other side of it I think I can say with some assurance that not only am I fine but I am, despite all evidence to the contrary, normal in these thoughts and feelings. With my humors balanced I’ve tried to examine the episode. We’ll look first at this lovely chart the Peace Corps has prepared for volunteers covering the adjustment/vulnerability cycle. I borrowed this version from a volunteer in Ethiopia.
Maybe my mental schedule was delayed a few months but sure enough the lows came, but more importantly, went. And they will come and go again, if this chart is any indication. For many months I thought I was acclimatizing quite well to a culture and society that didn’t seem too dissimilar to my own when compared to say the Ivory Coast or a Star Trek convention. Now I see that I was simply ignoring and avoiding the stress which finally cracked through to the surface and manifested in my three days of going Walden.*
I talked to a few friends, many Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) current PCVs and a few folks who have just lived abroad. Over and over I heard similar stories of the mental shut down. Not that I’m overjoyed by their discomfort, but I was happy to hear reaffirmed how normal it is to go off the deep-end a little and that in each case it passes.
I can’t find the exact quote but there is a marvelous scene in Kiki’s Delivery Service where a young witch has moved to a new town and finds her self-confidence lacking, so much that she even loses the one skill that really defined her, her ability to fly. Kiki leaves the city to stay with an artist friend out in the woods who describes how sometimes when she hits a wall she first tries to keep painting and push through it, but if she can’t, then she stops painting and takes a break from it entirely.
So fellow PCVs, future PCVs and anyone who is just beginning to feel like it’s too much. It’s OK to hole up in your house for a little bit, or travel, or cook massive extravagant meals, or go to Tiffany’s, or call a friend. Whatever you need to do to push past the slump. And you will.
Well, shit. Now I’ve gotten preachy.
*Emily Dickinson is probably the more appropriate literary reference.