Be Calm (or, How to Cope in the Peace Corps: 24 tips from an introvert)

Humura.

Be calm.

Have I mentioned Peace Corps is the hardest thing I’ve ever done?

It’s isolating and exhausting—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Half the time it’s incredibly rewarding, and half the time it feels thoroughly futile, and on top of everything, you can’t buy a pint of ice cream when you have a bad night. After over a year of this, I think I’ve become something of a pro at coping.

From one anxious, introverted PCV to you, here 25 things I’ve found essential:

  1. Keep some clothes that make you feel most like yourself, even if you can only wear them inside your house. In any country with rules about your wardrobe, Peace Corps comes with some identity disconnect, days where you feel like you’ve dressed up as someone else for so long that you can’t remember who you are underneath. Give yourself a break sometimes. I keep a handful of tanktops, short dresses, and leggings on hand. (And honestly half the time I walk around my house in my underwear.)
  2. Exercise regularly, even if it’s only a few minutes a day, even if you hate it while you’re doing it. Exercise really does release chemicals that help regulate your emotions and make you feel better, even if you don’t feel them at the time. Plus, with the total change of diet and lifestyle, Peace Corps makes a lot of people’s bodies change in ways they may or may not like. Exercise gives you control over your own body.
  3. Figure out the easiest ways to eat a balanced meal at site. It’s no walk in the park trying to get a balanced meal; I’ve never paid so much attention to my protein intake or craved vegetables so often before in my life. Figure out not only what’s easy to get at site but what takes the least effort to make. Get into routines with your food. Keep yourself nourished.
  4. Stay in touch with people who refresh you. Pay attention to which people don’t drain you when you talk to them, which people make you feel heard and supported and encouraged. Talk to those people.
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  5. Take lots of photos, even if you don’t share them, and look back on them from time to time. It’s fun to look back on where you’ve been. It’s encouraging to see how far you’ve come, to remember the good days and to see that the bad days ended. Plus you’ll want to look back on these in the future, when you’re back in the world of delivery pizza and fast internet.
  6. Keep lots of water bottles full of potable water so staying hydrated isn’t a chore. Dehydration is sneaky, and it ruins all sorts of things about your life, from your energy to your mood to your health, and there’s nothing worse than having to haul water and wait for your filter before you can quench your thirst.
  7. Write down the small successes. Record the moments that make you feel good, the small events that make you glad you came here, the little things that feel like you’re not failing. Keep that list where you can read it sometimes to remind yourself that you’ve done things right and made progress.
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  8. Play music in your house, and have impromptu dance parties by yourself. Trust me. It makes you feel better. You may look ridiculous (I do; my cat has told me so many times), but a few minutes of spinning and bouncing and swaying will get your heart rate up and put a smile on your face, even if it’s just because you’re laughing at your silly self.
  9. Keep your kindle charged and loaded. You never know when you’ll need a book, whether it’s during an unexpected wait because scheduling doesn’t exist in your host culture (hey there, Rwanda), on an lazy weekend afternoon, or while your rice is boiling.
  10. Figure out the things that make you feel most like yourself and make space for them in your life. For me that includes keeping a few physical books on hand, making time for lingering over coffee in the mornings, and keeping in touch with writers groups whenever my internet works.
  11. Figure out what you can control. Maybe it’s your diet, maybe it’s your hobbies, maybe it’s your bedtime. For me it’s my workouts and writing events like NaNoWriMo. Even if it seems insignificant, it’s something to hold onto when it feels like everything in your life is spinning into chaos.
  12. Stock up on toilet paper, pepto bismol, and ibuprofen. Trust me. You do not want to be stuck at home with endless diarrhoea using notebook paper because you can’t walk into town for toilet paper.
  13. Keep snacks on hand for emergency coddling on bad days. Hoard your care package goodies—I keep an “emergency American food” trunk in my kitchen—and pick up treats for yourself when you visit a town. Save them for the days when you need a little extra love.
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  14. Keep a makeshift clothesline easy to set up indoors for rainy laundry days. It’s bad enough having to run out in the rain to collect your month’s worth of laundry off the line without having to leave it all in a sopping pile while you try to figure out where/how to hang an indoor clothesline.
  15. Always round off a list of complaints with one good thing. Don’t pretend everything is fine when it’s not; air your grievances and acknowledge your frustrations, but don’t end there. Force yourself to find something good that happened during the day, the one thing that went right or at least wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. Even if all you come up with is, “I don’t have malaria,” that’s something. (I’ve had those days. They’re real.)
  16. Make some physical spaces yours. The corner seat in the local tea shop, that one walk with the pretty views, the living room of that neighbour you really like—wherever it is that you feel comfortable, make yourself a little home.
  17. Sleep in sometimes. Or I guess if you’re not a night owl like me you could go to bed early sometimes. Or do both. Sometimes I go to bed by sunset because lying down sounds nice. Give your body and mind a break. Rest.
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  18. Journal. You don’t have to write sweeping paragraphs, but write something. Dump your anxious thoughts when your mind is spinning at night. Bullet point the ideas that feel strongest or the details that seem most important. Write lists of events or aspirations or moments that made you laugh. Skim your old entries sometimes; see where you were and how far you’ve come.
  19. Make your living space as comfortable as possible. Shell out for the nicer couch cushions, buy some soft blankets, keep the milk and sugar for your coffee within reach of your armchair. Protip: it is worth it to buy a slightly more expensive lightbulb that will actually brighten your whole house. So many things in your life will be uncomfortable in Peace Corps. You have to make your own happy places.
  20. Take self-care days. Do whatever it is that replenishes your spirit. For me, it’s staying in my PJs and refusing to answer my door. Maybe for you it’s travelling to the nearest town to have a meal that you didn’t have to prepare for yourself while squatting on the ground. Whatever it is, give yourself a break. Don’t check your email, don’t work on projects, don’t worry. You can tackle your M&E and your action plans and your problems tomorrow.
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  21. Always know what you’re looking forward to. Whether it’s an international vacation or just some down time on the weekend, you should always have something on the horizon, some rest stop where you can get your breath, have a drink, and do some self-assessment before you dive back into the turmoil of life.
  22. Keep flashlights and headlamps all over your house. There’s nothing worse than losing power in the evening and not being able to find your flashlight. I’m speaking from experience here. I’ve given up at five in the evening multiple times because I couldn’t figure out where I’d stashed my flashlight.
  23. Define ‘successful’ your way. Let yourself be unhappy sometimes. You’re not a failure if you don’t love your site, your counterparts, or your job every single day. Decide what you want success to look like and work toward that. Never mind what everyone else is doing or what the VRF says. If you are at your site, getting out of bed, walking out your door, making an effort to do your job, you’re a good PCV.
  24. Tell yourself, just one more. And then one more. Take one step at a time, one word at a time, one breath at a time. You don’t have to do your whole day, project, or service at once. Right now you just have to take one more breath. And then another.

 

 

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Isolation

“Also, I left my headphones on my couch, so now what do I do if I hate people?”

You probably understand the frustration underlying that text and the sense of camaraderie in my friend’s immediate reply: “I have no good solution for that, sadly.”

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Headphones are more than a convenient gadget to me and a gazillion other people—probably including you. They’re not just a nice way to get my Panic! At the Disco fix when I’m in public and can’t blare “Hallelujah” for everyone else to hear. They’re my safe place in a crowded waiting room, my sanity in the chaos of a subway station, my sensory anchor in a sea of abstract finals-week concepts.

In many ways, these flimsy rubber earbuds build a safety barrier between me and the world. They save me from having to make eye contact. They protect against mindless small talk. They lock me into the task at hand when ambient conversations tug at my attention.

But they also isolate.

And in a lonely world full of synthetic relationships, perfunctory “how ya doin’?”s, and long-distance Facebook friends, isolation becomes a real danger—especially for introverts and/or shy people. It becomes a vicious cycle: we’re surrounded by people and pummelled by stimuli every moment of the day, thanks to work, classes, and social media, so we retreat into solitude—but because all of that social stimulation is surface-level, we’re people-weary and yet soul-numbingly lonely at the same time. So we venture into the chaos of crowds, only to reemerge, still exhausted and still isolated.

I noticed this paradoxical near distance one evening as my flatmate and I sat on neighbouring couches in the living room, both sipping tea, both doing homework—both sealed by earbuds into individual cocoons of music. We sat within arm’s length of each other for several hours without once engaging.

To speak—to share an experience—became an intrusion that required pausing music, removing an earbud, emerging from a private world.

In a moment when we could have shared the companionship of background music and quiet presence while we studied, we instead chose to lock ourselves away. For either of us to fill the room with music would be to invade the other’s privacy and convenience—an infraction of the worst kind in a culture where, somehow, steady individual comfort has taken the place of dynamic interpersonal relationships.

I still carry my earbuds everywhere I go. I plugged them in to shut out voices on the bus this weekend, and I will turn up the volume to seal my private world around me in the science building this afternoon.

But in the quiet of my flat, with my flatmates nearby, in those shared moments of doing homework and washing dishes and stealing chapters of recreational reading…in those moments, I leave the earbuds out and leave myself open.