A Guide To Mental Well-Being in the Boonies

By the time this blog post goes up, I will be at the eight month of my Peace Corps service. Soon, I will be enjoying my first vacation since being abroad (super exciting—even our own Sophie is gonna be there!). Honestly, that vacation couldn’t come soon enough. This adventure that I have been on has been amazing, but when you are constantly ‘on’ and have no escape, it wears on you. FYI, this post is more about self-care overseas, and strays from my usual topic of people I’ve met.

So, at some point in February, my whole good vibes only parade came to a stuttering halt. Like, almost out of nowhere, I felt myself slipping into the abyss of anxiety and depression. It’s a very fun ride *dripping with sarcasm*. Until then, I was excited and open-minded and the whole experience of being here was hard, but most days I could get my mind right and keep plowing forward. Maybe it was missing Christmas and New Years’ and a few birthdays of close family members, but for some reason, the six-month mark just turned me sour. Nothing could pull me out of it.

Fast forward to just after my birthday in March, and I’m beginning to become overwhelmed with homesickness, pressure at work to do something and yet not having anything to do, trying to organize independent housing in my village that was taking way too long, encountering some long-term health issues for which there is no doctor I can see, and finally losing my appetite for any and all local food. It was a lot, and for about a week straight I was constantly in panic attack mode. I think that my mind could not believe how much negativity had made its way inside my head that it just went off, exploding in panic several times a day.

I’m stuck in a predicament with no real solution in sight (my country does not have any doctors or resources for dealing with mental health, let alone therapy). After weeks of trying to talk things out with Shaun, and Peace Corps, other volunteers, friends, and family, I knew that I needed to just start taking more initiative in taking care of myself. Since I live overseas, in a country with very little in terms of the self-care I am accustomed to back home, here is a list of what you can do to help yourself out of the deep dark abyss, even when your usual comforts are far, far away.

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1. Writing

This is one that has helped me through anxiety and depression since I was seven. The things I make sure to keep stocked up on at my village are notebooks and pens (if I am lucky, a fully charged laptop!). I write out what I am feeling and often find ways to rationalize what I am going through. It is almost like playing a game of solitaire—you lay it all out in front of you, and sort through the cards until you end up with a solution.Sometimes, I try to focus the writing, and work on my novel, character development, and plots.

I also find it comforting to personify my anxiety. For example, I might write a short story that makes my anxiety into a big monster that the protagonist must defeat in battle. If I can write about taking down whatever is making me feel like crap, I can almost feel empowered to do so in real life. Plus, it acts as a small escape from the day-to-day, a gentle exercise in creativity that can improve your quality of life.

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2. Learning a language

I have always had some sort of language app installed on my phone, ever since smartphones became a thing. Currently, I have Pleco (Mandarin Chinese offline dictionary), and Duolingo(many languages available). In college and high school, I studied Chinese for a collective three years. Besides being a fascinating language, I love that I can spend hours writing and re-writing Chinese characters. Some are intricate, some simple, and it usually can get my mind off of things, especially since there is so much to be learned one word at a time.

Languages force you to think differently and give you a new way to express everyday things. Sometimes, there are hidden gems of wisdom and punnery in other languages that English simply does not have. It is enlightening to say the least, and then you get to feel smart and cool and like a more badass version of James Bond when he whips out a different language in enemy territory.

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3. Play an instrument

Now, I’ll start this by saying that I am not very musically inclined (I’m a great dancer, though). I played the piano when I was little, did the choir/chorus thing in middle school, tried my lungs at the sax and annoyed the crap out of my family before buying myself a ukulele on Amazon. This purchase happened about two years ago when I was in the deep dark pit of depression and also very short on cash. A small ukulele on sale on Amazon spoke to me late one night, and a few days later, it came in the mail. Suffice to say, that four-stringed musical wonder got me through the second half of a bad year.

Of course, I brought that uke with me—her name is Mimi—and while I don’t play her often, she is one of those things that can bring me up just a bit on the darker days. Honestly, how can you not be happy with a bright red uke lying around? Other Peace Corps volunteers have gotten guitars locally or brought harmonicas from home. Luckily, the country I serve in is very musically inclined, so instruments are available locally at relatively inexpensive prices. Oh, and when you do play music, get super into it. I’m talking headbanging, stage dancing, crazy voices, anything. Unleash the beast, as they say.

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4. Dance around

I spent twelve years training in classical ballet, with a couple of years performing modern and contemporary pieces (with my girl, Gianna!). I also grew up Spanish, so of course, with my Catalonian mother in the lead, we would find ourselves doing the salsa all night at many a fiesta back home. Any and all full-body movement is movement I look forward to and find some peace in. Dance is my version of mind-body union, you could say.

This one is harder to do, because my bedroom is fairly small(hello, bruises from trying to spin and hitting the dresser). I’m already a spectacle in this country, so the spacious front porch, while wide open and tiled, is a little intimidating to break some moves on. So, when I do try to dance around, it takes place in the living/dining room area when my host-family is asleep or away for a while. Being able to express your depression and anxiety and fear with your body instead of letting it fester inside your mind can be very helpful, and you can use all that negative energy in a safe way.

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5. Call yourself out on your bullsh*t

This is something that is more helpful toward the end of a depressed or anxious time or episode. Before you can call yourself out on your bullsh*t, you need to work through it and accept it, but once you’re done with that, and find yourself in a clear frame of mind, you can get sassy with yourself. This has helped me in many ways and often keeps away the dark, negative clouds. Yes, sometimes life is shit and maybe you don’t want to deal with the cards you’ve been given anymore, but I’ll be damned if I just fold without first attempting to be a badass.

When you feel ready, or feel like you are slipping into the dark abyss, mentally slap yourself. Get yourself to snap out of your own mind trap. More often than not, we can train ourselves to overcome negative thoughts. Have your cry, get it out, but then give yourself a shake. This feeling, like any other, won’t last forever. And if it happens to be something you have to live with for a while, know that you can handle it. Don’t get in your own way—set yourself free instead of caging yourself in.

Also—call on your friends and family members who can usually snap you out of it! Build that network of support and let it catch you.

That is all I’ve got for this post. May you find peace of mind and know that even when things are at their worst, you can still operate and get through it. If it takes days, weeks, months, or years, you will make it. Of course, if you have access to mental health professionals, GET IT!!! I wish I had that here. But if you don’t, know that you still have some options.

Peace out,

Marta

Disclaimer: The content of this blog post does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Timor-Leste Government.


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