Riding an emotional rollercoaster

I’ve never been an emotional person; in fact, I’ve been called cold-hearted more times than I can count. And not only by my ex-boyfriends, either. My family and close friends find “my lack of feeling” incredulous. As a reporter, I’ve witnessed gruesome car accident scenes, interviewed mothers just after the death of their child and visited a teenager who had third degree burns covering most of her body. I never shed a tear. Terminal illness. Long goodbyes. Sad movies. Nope. Nope. Nope.

That was then.

Here, I’ve cried for all the “normal” reasons. And other times for no reason at all. Sad books and movies can now open flood gates I didn’t know existed. The rare sound of a siren that reminded me of home once also reduced me to tears.

Maybe the extreme heat has melted the ice block that once surrounded my heart. Or perhaps the elements have worn my skin so thin, my nerves now lie closer to the surface. Whatever the cause, I now feel everything – deeply.

Living in a different country, especially one as undeveloped as The Gambia, comes with all the everyday problems, and then some. There’s still the fuss about what to cook for dinner except it is magnified by the lack of nutritious options. Tiresome chores can’t wait until the next day otherwise I’d have rats in my house or no drinking water. Work moves at a snail’s pace and it’s discouraging. The glorified wonders of a new culture grow old. Homesickness flows in waves.

Mostly though, I knew that’s what I signed up for – sacrificing comforts of home in the hopes of making change.

But what remains my biggest challenge, my saddest sorrow, is coping with the things I cannot change. There are so many things I see every day that I could never change; ways of life woven so tightly into the culture they will never be unraveled: Corporal punishment in schools, female genital mutilation, child brides, teenage pregnancy, infant deaths, malnutrition, unexplained illness, lack of freedom. I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen it in the people I call “friend,” “neighbor,” “sister” – and it never gets easier to witness.

I knew Peace Corps would be an “emotional rollercoaster,” but in all honesty, the experience would be more aptly labeled “2-year bipolar episode.”

See...I'm not crazy! Here is the actual map of feelings Peace Corps gives to volunteers during training.

See…I’m not crazy! Here is the actual map of feelings Peace Corps gives to volunteers during training. I’m in Month 20 of my service.

But it’s not all bad. Not to mention the personal growth I’ve had, for every depressing or disappointing experience, there is also a positive one. Becoming part of a new culture and family is a joy difficult to describe. I’ll never forget hearing my sister say her first English word, watching thousands of bees build a honeycomb in my brother’s first bee hive, celebrating a new library with teachers and students, or creating bonds with lifelong friends.

The highs and lows of this unique experience can be overwhelming but I guess that’s just part of the ride.

–JDF