Look Ma, No Hands!

This is going to be very hard for me, but having a mother who works in the mental health field and having personal family experience with mental illness, I feel I have support from family and friends alike.

I’d love to tell you, readers, that being in the Peace Corps is like saving the world, one day at a time, one lesson at a time, one library at a time. But it’s often not. There are high points, and there are definitely low points, and there are middly points, and sometimes all of these points happen in the same hour of the same day.

Over the past 6-8 months, I’ve struggled on and off with depression. Some of it may have been caused by an illness (schistosomiasis) that I have since been treated for. But I’m sure that most of it is part of a pattern that has been present in my life for at least 3-4 years.

I kept looking for an outside reason why depression was happening to me. There are a couple of major theories about causes of depression. One is the biopsychosocial model, meaning that a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors come into play. Another is the diathesis-stress model, proposing that a preexisting vulnerability is activated by stressful life events, and that this vulnerability can be genetic or learned. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) So basically there are probably a lot of different factors for why I and other people get depressed. There is not just one big answer that’s like, stop doing that thing and you will magically not be depressed anymore! Though that would be much easier.

I kept thinking there was no way I was actually depressed, that there was some illness that I had that was causing depression, and once I fixed that, I would be all okay again.

But none of that is really true. The truth is I have been depressed or had depressive episodes for at least four years now, without major therapy or antidepressants, though I am investigating both now. I believe the reason I’ve been able to keep it at bay has simply been by making myself as busy as humanly possible. By always having somewhere to go, a meeting to attend, an errand to run, a chore to do, I’ve managed to sort of keep it on the outskirts.

But by being a Peace Corps Volunteer, that has become harder. Many people told me when I first came to Uganda that PCVs are as busy as they want to be. While that can be true for certain Volunteers, the progress of many projects and activities PCVs would like to be doing are beyond their control. Whether it’s bureaucracy, anxiety, low motivation, isolation (culturally and geographically) or other types of stress, there is an extreme lack of agency which is not present in middle-class America.

What I mean when I say lack of agency has to do with all the little adjustments or compromises which PCVs (and to a certain higher extent, female PCVs) make when they live in a developing country for two years. These are adjustments which probably most socioeconomically mobile Americans do not have to make in their daily lives, because we have CHOICE:

-must plan travel with lots of extra time built in because public transit takes 2-3x the time of private, and private is usually 4-5x more expensive

-cannot move around after dark due to lack of lights, lack of safe transport, unfamiliarity with terrain, criminals targeting foreigners (especially women)

-must wear clothes which are culturally appropriate to avoid bad reputation

-cannot make too many close male friends in the community for fear they will assume you want something more

-cannot move around without being the center of attention wherever you go (inhibits activities like going for a walk or going for a run)

-if isolated geographically, cannot have in person conversations with people who share your cultural history on a regular basis, thus must be ‘on’ all the time, as in be a good cultural ambassador to your community 24/7 without getting a chance to ‘relax’

I’m sure my fellow PCVs can think of more and I’m sure I’ll think of more even after I finish this post. But I know that these things contribute to my depression. Feeling a general lack of control goes against my basic cultural understanding of my life. My life has been nothing but the choices I wanted to make in America. We all gave up choice to come live in Uganda, but that’s not what we thought we were sacrificing. It’s like we got here and knew that running water, electricity, toilets, and refrigeration would not be there. But what we neglected to realize was that we were giving up control of a large part of our lives to a different culture, not knowing what that would entail.

This is much longer than I would usually write, but I really only like my writing when it’s something difficult and complicated and close to home. I hope this helps my fellow PCVs to know they are not alone, because we do not all talk about it, but most of us feel it at one point or another. I hope this helps my family and friends to know that sometimes (but not always!) when they don’t hear from me for a while, it’s because I don’t want to give them bad news. And I hope that it helps anyone else reading this understand that living outside your own culture is difficult and tasking and exhausting all of the time. It’s definitely given me a different perspective on immigrants in America.

What has helped me so far has been reaching out to friends, physical exercise, keeping track of my diet, and some notion of a routine. I’m coming up out of a low. I can’t know if there will be other lows before I complete my service, but I’m not afraid of the possibility. It’s hard living, but with practice and persistence, I think I’ll be okay. As they say here, mpola mpola. Slowly by slowly.

Note: I realize that some of the adjustments I list are elements of daily life in Uganda and most likely do not induce depression or anxiety in Ugandans. Or perhaps if they do, it’s to a lesser extent. However I would say that Ugandans grew with these things as cultural norms, just as I grew with mine, and it is extremely difficult to adapt to different expectations.