What I don’t want this blog to become is a site where I pretend everything is OK, where I ignore the presence of doubt, where I filter out the difficulties I will inevitably encounter in Zambia. What I don’t want to do is lie and pretend like moving to a foreign country, living with a host family for a year, and adapting to a culture different from my own isn’t scary. I want this blog to be an honest telling of this experience. With my train scheduled to take me to YAV orientation on Monday, I’m taking the time to tell you all what’s been on my mind.
This past year, my senior year of college was a struggle. I had several panic attacks. I skipped several days of classes multiple times throughout the year, not leaving my bed for hours on end. I cracked more than once, sobbing into my hands and questioning everything I had put myself through for the past four years. I felt the enormous weight of expectation, the pressure to perform.
I was diagnosed with anxiety mid-way through spring semester. I immediately went to group therapy (which was amazing) and I also started medication (which was absolutely the right decision). Since starting these two forms of self-care, I am no longer paranoid about being good enough, I no longer believe that I am aimless, I no longer see my future as something that I should fear. However, therapy and medication does not shield you from the very real and very understandable fear of moving to a foreign country.
When I had my first interview with the Young Adult Volunteer program, I knew I had to be honest about my mental health. I told them that I had been diagnosed with anxiety, that I was taking medication, that I was seeing a therapist, and that I wanted to be transparent about this very important and sensitive part of my life. They responded in a very encouraging way, and I was relieved by their reaction. But now that I only have a few of days before I leave for Zambia, I cannot deny what having anxiety means for this experience.
The stigma of mental illness has had an obvious impact on my life. We are told, as a society, that mental illness can be debilitating. We are told that mental illness handicaps the individual, causing them to not live life fully or embrace situations that might be difficult. In other words, we are limited. After my diagnosis, I believed that I wasn’t ever going to rise above my (perceived) mental or emotional limitations. I doubted whether I could actually accept the program’s offer to go to Zambia. I doubted whether I was mindful enough, strong enough, courageous enough to embrace the unknown.
It has taken me months to accept that fear is a normal and understandable part of this process. I am most afraid of hurting the community I am trying to serve. I am also afraid of not adapting to my surroundings or accepting the culture I will experience. But if dealing with anxiety has taught me anything, it has taught me that fear should not be ignored, but embraced. To be afraid means being mindful of your reality. To be afraid means acknowledging unpleasant emotions and negative thoughts. In other words, to be afraid means experiencing a necessary chapter of your life; a chapter that needs to be felt, understood, and accepted.
This fear has run its course in the weeks leading up to my departure for orientation. I leave for Zambia on August 29th, and I am terrified. But as you now know from this blog, fear is no stranger to me. And I have begun the important and necessary process of accepting its existence. Ultimately, I want this blog to be a testimony to how I am relishing the challenge and embracing the fear.