THE BLOG
08/02/2011 10:18 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2011

Coping in the Peace Corps

I am a big fan of the saying, "No matter where you go, there you are." I have found it to be true personally, as well as in those around me. Peace Corps reminds me of this adage frequently. The experience of moving to another country to volunteer has a way of stripping you naked, forcing you to look at yourself without as many distractions or escape routes that are present in the States. Fortunately the experience also provides a ton of downtime to work on any issues a person wants to change.

I think it's important for me to start with some full disclosure. I am a huge fan of coping mechanisms! What? You haven't heard that before? I really am. Sometimes I obsess over where coping comes from, what parts of the brain are at play, and why people react the ways they do. I develop large sociological theories on coping and try as hard as I can to psychoanalyze myself as much as possible. This topic is always a huge hit at parties!

There are a lot of changes to deal with when serving in the Peace Corps. During the first 2-3 months volunteers go through pre-service training. This training includes meeting all of the other volunteers, living with a host family, going to school 8 hours a day, trying to learn a new language and adjusting to someone else making the schedule. Volunteers often get homesick for a myriad of reasons. After training, volunteers leave their new friends to be alone. They have to adjust to a completely different job, house, village, a regional culture, making new friends and missing everyone back home. Towards the end of service there are more worries about what's next, adjusting back to life in America and leaving the place you lived in for 2 years.

Throughout the 27 months of service there are a lot of ways a volunteer can cope with these changes. Some negative examples would be constantly complaining about challenges rather than taking action, drinking, drugs, isolation, obsessing over negative experiences, fanatically watching American movies or shows on a computer instead of being social or focusing on everything being missed back home. On the converse side there are positive examples like building friendships, learning about the culture, talking to friends/family when times get tough, exercising, writing, painting, or being active in the village.

Luckily I started learning about coping mechanisms early. It was kind of a necessity for my survival and later became a career choice. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with anger control problems and psychotic features when I was 16. During my senior year of high school I was hospitalized for attempting to take my own life. I took a leave of absence two months into my freshman year at American University due to a relapse with bipolar disorder and was hospitalized again. Over the next 4 years I battled major alcohol abuse, severe anger control issues and immense self-hatred. Eventually I found a way out of the darkness and was able to return to American U. to finish my degree.

Thus, for a long stretch of my life I was pretty much incapable of handling change. During my late teens and early 20's my brain was hard-wired to follow really unhealthy coping mechanisms. Anxiety-packed nights filled with mind-racing thoughts would flow into periods of sleeplessness/mania for 4-5 days at a time. I turned to alcohol as my steady coping strategy to shut my brain down and try to sleep. Soaking my emotions with liquor usually drove me into depressive episodes that inflamed my self-hatred. Anger would poke its head out occasionally to add to the storm. I lived in this steady pattern of hell until I realized how close I was to killing myself.

I stopped drinking and for the first time took an honest look at my life. My sobriety stripped me of the avoidance pattern that had become a dangerously comfortable habit. I put myself in a very disciplined pattern to better determine how I was coping and why. When I say disciplined, I mean it. I woke up and went to bed at the same time every day. I stopped drinking caffeine, starting exercising regularly, and ate as healthily as I could (I love cookies a little too much). I worked with a therapist and found support from the people closest to me. After a couple of years, the old pattern wasn't as necessary. I was able to love myself, relax, sleep, and drink socially. I was able to enjoy parts of my life that I never thought possible.

Needless to say, Peace Corps is interested in these parts of your life during the application process. Transition can often be one of the biggest triggers for mental health issues. For my medical clearance I had to submit letters from mental health professionals that treated me, an examination from a psychologist who had seen me last and provide written answers to 8 questions on coping mechanisms. Some people think this is a bit tedious/invasive, but I get it. Peace Corps wants to ensure that the people who serve will be ok and have access to help should the need arise.

As I prepared to come to Botswana I tried to mentally plan for the changes that would happen. I made it through the 2-month training period filled with adjustments that in the past would have been major triggers. During this process my brain surprised me. The first chance I had to drink alcohol, all of the new pathways I had built years ago put up their little red awareness flags. It was like they were saying to me, "Hey idiot, this is a big change. Stay aware. Adjust the way you need. Don't mess this up." I listened to them.

Although I thoroughly thought about the challenges I would face in Botswana, I wasn't prepared for changes at home. About 5 months into my service my dad called and told me that my mom had breast cancer. The old pathways that were ingrained in my brain for so long made a mad dash to the forefront. I immediately wanted to drink. I pictured myself putting my hand through a door. But, I didn't do either. I sat down. I cried. I held my wife. I talked to my brothers. I wrote an e-mail to my friends who immediately called or sent their love. I talked to new friends and co-workers. The lessons I learned mixed with the support from others guided me to the healthy coping I needed.

It's unfortunately common to get depressing news from home during service. My mom got treatment and the cancer went into remission, but a lot of volunteers deal with death and terminal illness. It can be hard to do that from so far away. I am lucky to be serving with my wife, but let's be honest, Peace Corps service strips an individual to their core -- think about what it does to a marriage! That's a whole different blog. Let's get back to the individual.

Whether a person joins the Peace Corps with some experience of trying to learn about him/herself or begins that process during their service, coping mechanisms are vital. During my time in Botswana I have been faced with difficulties at work and in my personal life that have led me to grow in ways I didn't think possible. Some experiences will take years to process. At times volunteers want their challenges, thoughts, and emotions wrapped into a nice little bow of understanding. However, acceptance and self-understanding take a lot of time. It's a constant work in progress. The beauty of Peace Corps service is having the time to change and grow personally, while working in a village and inspiring those life-changing lessons in others.