Loneliness. Well, duh.
According to the Cycle of Vulnerability and Adjustment, the Cycle we’ll call it, I’m right where I should be.
The Peace Corps has been in business now for over 50 years. It has studied and charted the path its volunteers move along, their psychological ups and downs, a well-plotted roller coaster of emotions. By gazing upon the Cycle, I can see where I am and where I’ll eventually wind up. My next “up” is still a way off, I’m thinking August.
Somewhere along the line someone produced, or adapted, this Cycle to graphically depict the emotional highs and lows that many, if not most, Peace Corps volunteers experience. Like a roadmap, I can see where I am and get a sense of how long I’ll likely be feeling what I’m feeling, how long it will take to get to that next exit to normalcy. I only think of this graphic when I’m on the downswing, in the doldrums. I know I’m really staring into the trenches of my own voluntary despair, voluntary because I chose this Peace Corps service and knew, or assumed I knew, what I was getting into.
I’m coming up on five months here in Thailand and I’m at one of several low points in my course of service. I’ve already survived the tumultuously dark and heady days of training, those early days when one comes face to face with the realities of their decision to serve in the Peace Corps. I was new to Southeast Asia, new to the culture, new to the language, new to the food, new to the heat, and new to the technical aspects of my intended job. I was facing it all in brilliant 3D, surround sound, Smell-o-Vision, technicolor. In those first few months everything was strange and exciting, foreign and exasperating and the time flew by. We really didn’t have time to think beyond what the Peace Corps told us to think. After two months of training, five dozen volunteers, ranging in age from 21 to 65, were scattered like seeds across Thailand. You know, the whole “grow where you are planted” thing.
I’ve been alone, on my own now, isolated and groping in the tropical mountains for two months. My language skills have backslid to a point where I’m not retaining any new words and I have lost the ability to recall half of the useful phrases I had learned during pre-service training. I hear my colleagues speak in Thai everyday, chattering amongst themselves, but their voices have become background noise, like the rain falling now almost everyday in sheets onto the fiberglass roof of my home. These coworkers need to specifically call out my name for me to listen to them, and even then I’m not 100% sure I’m being addressed. I prick up my ears to hear variations of my name, “Rit” and “Lit” and watch for eye contact and only then do I know I’m being spoken to.
During training, when we were full of hope and of ourselves, one volunteer came to speak to us about her first year of service. She told us that for the first three months after arriving at her site she sat at the municipal office in her village, the tessaban, and watched Netflix movies all day. We were aghast and vowed that we would not do the same nothing. But I quickly fell into that trap, going to the office everyday with good intentions but with limited language skills and little confidence in moving forward. Oh, I tried to speak, and still do, but my counterpart would not understand my broken Thai and she would return the conversation in her equally broken English and every time I would let her win; the path of least resistance. I then proceeded to sit in the office, refusing to watch Netflix though, but still spending way too much time careening through Facebook, corresponding with distant friends, reading news and blogs and biding my time, waiting for something to happen. I know, I know. I need to take the lead here.
I compare myself and my progress to other volunteers who post pictures and achievements on social media, shining examples of volunteerism and adjustment (damn them). I wonder if I’ll ever “get it.” But the Peace Corps knows and understands our vulnerability and adjustment, this cycle. They know that all of this takes time and they give us that time and the freedom to flounder and adapt at our own pace.
I know that I will find my way out of the depression, the fear, the regression, and the loneliness. I know my cycle will swing upward, above the line separating excitement and woe. The Peace Corps, and my own constitution, says I will.