A week before this, I had gone through a break up. I knew I needed to move forward, as daunting as that is.
Like most people who find the courage to make a mental health appointment, it had taken me too long to admit that I needed help. I thought I was doing a pretty good job of healing after the breakup, until that Thursday morning. I just couldn’t stand being alone in my house. My mind raced with anxious thoughts: “How can I get time to speed up? Will I be happy again? What the hell do I do now?”
My eyes watered as I confirmed my 3 PM appointment at the Medical Office. I asked to speak with Martha because I thought she was a psychologist. She had done our mental health and alcohol awareness workshops during training, but that was all I remembered of her. It turns out that she is not a psychologist, but she, like all the PCMOs, is trained in basic mental health counseling.
Will she judge me for being gay? As I packed my things, I worried that I’d make her uncomfortable by explaining my past relationship.
I took the next bus to Managua, anxious to see how this weekend would unravel. Mental health days seemed like such a vague concept- I thought that I’d be put up in a hotel for one, maybe two nights, max, then be sent back to site. Different volunteers say different things about what they did on their mental health days, and I just wanted to know what would happen to me.
I entered the medical office and sat down. I nervously looked around the chilly, air-conditioned room. How much do I tell Martha? Will she think I’m depressed and send me home? All these thoughts raced through my head. I distracted myself by reading about how Tiny Fey made fun of her past fashion choices, like her white denim suit, in her book, Bossypants.
Martha called me in. “I heard you’re not doing very well. What’s going on?”, she asked me, in her soothing voice.
I’d cried before, but I didn’t think I had it in me to 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 dark, cold forest. Maybe it’s because of the air conditioning that I wasn’t used to, but it was certainly because I’d felt guilty for wanting help.
I couldn’t even look at her half the time because I was ashamed that I was no longer superwoman. I sat there, crying, embarrassed. Although my face was red and eyes were puffy, I was happy I’d decided to advocate for myself. I wished I’d come to the office to speak with her before.
I told her everything. She let me speak for as long as I needed to. She made it clear that I wasn’t the first gay person to talk to her. Not by a long shot. In site, it’s always a game of “Should I come out to this person? How do would they react?”. I thought I’d have to continue this self-preservation game at the office, but I was relieved to let me guard down.
Unlike therapists in the states, she wasn’t constantly looking at her watch. There was no impending “well, time’s up” with her. We sat. We thought. Sometimes, twenty silent seconds would go by, and it was okay. It was and still is a lot of grief for me to process, and she gave me the time that I needed.
While I told Martha my life story (the dramatic parts at least), I also learned about her. She loves coffee. She worked on a recent assignment in Africa, and she advised that if I go, I should try the coffee that’s grown around Mount Kilimanjaro. She would smell a bag of the local coffee before going to bed at night to remind herself of Nicaragua. Sometimes, all we want is to feel at home.
Then, it was time to go. I didn’t want to leave. The office was full of volunteers that had just returned from their swearing in ceremony. They were dressed in suits and their prettiest dresses and heels. I didn’t want my puffy, red face to be their first welcome to volunteer life. When I made myself step out, I could feel them looking at me, wondering if I was okay. Hopefully they thought I had allergies then. If they read this, they now know why I looked as if I’d had a dandelion shoved up my nose and couldn’t stop sneezing until I had it surgically removed by the PCMOs.
I ended up spending two nights at Hotel Brandt’s. On the second day, I had a follow-up appointment with Martha, where we further explored how to deal with grief. I decided that I needed to write more. I used to blog quite often, but I’ve been to wrapped up in the past and the stress that came with it.
That night, my good friend Jen stayed with me. I was relieved to be with someone else who understood me and supported me instead of judging me for being out of site. She reminded me the importance of being present, which has always been a challenge for me. At breakfast, she asked me “What’s wrong with this moment, right now?” I couldn’t think of anything. We had unlimited fruit. The coffee wasn’t instant. I had no complaints.
I stayed in León the next night to teach STEP English Class. It was exceptionally rainy, and the smell of the wet ground reminded of the rare thunderstorms in my hometown of Moses Lake, Washington, which is hot and dry in the summer. I listened to country music to further propel my memories into my idealized image of home. I remembered listening to the 100.3 country music station while driving past corn fields on my way to work at McDonald’s.
I wrote a letter to myself, in which I began to do the unimaginable: forgive myself. I’m my own hardest critic, and I’ve felt too guilty for not being the superwoman that I try to be every day. I acknowledged my own vulnerability, and by doing that, I wasn’t being weak. Vulnerability is not weakness.
That night I met up with my new friend Hope, who, like Jen, is also from Chicago. She teaches English in León. She and her boyfriend had almost cancelled our dinner date because of the rain. We were supposed to get pasta at 7. We didn’t do so until 8:30, because by then, the rain died down.
Hope’s boyfriend, Julio, loved talking about Nicaragua’s history and culture. He was a proud “Leonés” who enjoyed explaining how León was destroyed by a volcanic eruption, and that current-day León was actually relocated to the place it stands today. I never would have thought this, since the Cathedrals look as if they have been here for a thousand years. It was as if someone had sent this person to remind me of how interested I was in Nicaragua’s history before coming here, and that I shouldn’t take being here for granted.
After teaching the next day in León, I returned for another night in Managua. Jen and I ate hummus and falafel sandwiches at Albasha, an Arabic restaurant. I enjoyed being in a place where Arabic was being spoken. I don’t know why, but I appreciate being in places where I don’t understand what’s always going on. I didn’t know what everything on the menu was, but that’s what I liked about it. Being there reminded me that the world is a huge place that needs to be explored.
The next morning, we sat with other volunteers at Los Pinos and asked each other why we were there. I could tell that Jen didn’t want to give away that I was here because I’ve had a tough time, and I appreciated that. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with admitting that I was there for a mental health weekend, though. It was strange for me to say that at first, but no one said “why would you need to take a break?”. Instead, volunteers would react by leaning their heads back and say things like “Oh, yes. We all need that at some point”.
This weekend reminded me that while mental health is an uncomfortable subject to bring up, it affects us all. When I told people that this week was hard for me and that I needed help, I didn’t want them to feel sorry for me. I wanted to be honest. By admitting to my friends that I was taking a mental health weekend, I felt as if I were normalizing this often overlooked need. For more on this topic, check out Brené Brown's Ted Talk on vulnerability.
Taking care of your mind is just as important as taking care of any other part of your body. Volunteers are beyond comfortable talking about afflictions like diarrhea and dengue with one another. We’ve all dealt with parasites and bacterial infections. When will we begin to talk about mental health with this level of nonchalance? When we realize that mental vulnerability is not weakness.
Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now is an incredibly insightful book that has guided me on this journey of accepting the present for what it is and not for what it should be.
Brené Brown's Ted Talks on Vulnerability are also interesting for those of you interested in the subject of vulnerability.
Do you have any other resources in mind? Please share!