08/02/2012 07:04 am ET Updated Oct 02, 2012

Clean Toilets And Structured Panic: My Life In Italy

Sarah O'Leary is a homesick, completely isolated writer living on a hill in rural Italy. This is part of her story.

Alone on a hilltop somewhere over the coastal town of Lerici, I prayed that the insanity I felt wouldn't prove permanent. Although I'd never believed in it before, the little bit of Catholic that was left in me was given real consideration to the notion of purgatory.

Over another nasty espresso (Italian coffee preparation is not one of my gifts), I remembered the advice given to me by a neighbor in New York when I was losing my mind over God knows what.

"Clean your toilet."

She was a hard, terse woman from Germany, and I wondered at the time if toilet cleaning was some sort of cultural thing.

"And if you're still obsessing about your bills or relationship or whatever nonsense is happening in that your head of yours, clean the bathtub."

It took many toilets to actually understand what she meant. The focus it took to clean the commode made it impossible to stew in my own emotional mess. And the act of accomplishing anything, especially as humbling as cleaning a toilet, made me feel better.

Though it wasn't like I had pictured jumping into the set of "Eat, Pray, Love" or "Under the Tuscan Sun," I had hoped for days in Italy filled with writing about the Italians I met along my journey. Instead, unable to speak their language or have them understand mine, I was in solitary confinement with the unholy trinity of me, myself and I.

A dear friend and trained psychologist on Skype from the States, concerned by the mudslide erosion of my psyche, gave me a direct "suggestion."

"Every morning, make a list of what you are going to do, and do it." Much like cleaning the toilets I imagined, list making was a task I needed to perform to feel better.

Desperate, I took her advice.

Wake up in a panic.
Every day since I was left in a very large house in a place that would even be considered the middle of nowhere to an Italian, I shoot out of bed in a fear-filled panic. After catching my breath, I begin to deal with the feeling to start my day. If I sit for awhile, maybe 15 minutes or so, it will abate. Espresso and tears seem to help the process along. When I tried to simply ignore the panic and move on, it only made matters worse. If there is an elephant-sized mental malady in the room, I might as well sit him down and invite him for a cup of cafe.

Before finding myself abandoned on a hill in Italy, I was a below average prayer (giving myself low marks in content, length and regularity). Now I use it as a shield to keep anxiety at bay. I crack prayer Jokes to God, hoping that a little chuckle might relieve our shared anxiety about my present circumstance. Most often I throw up the one prayer that calms me most, "God guide me." Speaking with the Big Guy in the Clouds makes me feel less alone, even if scares the bejesus out of the neighbors.

In all honesty, the time I spent alone here is one grand meditation, my brain so overloaded that it's often too blank to carry real thought. Unlike my tenuous meditative practice at home (I typically had a hard time sitting still for more than five minutes), the meditation I found here could go on for hours. As I plod into town, I notice the geckos running across the pavestones, the trees, the sounds, the smells. I concentrate on the movements of my arms and legs, focusing every ounce of energy on the world around me rather than the one in my head.

"You're a writer. WRITE!" For the first time in my life, I had been too stunned to write. I hadn't even considered it. Days in and desperate, I begin every day writing. Humor makes me feel better. I use it to entertain myself, and it works. And when I can't write, I take pictures and record my voice observing the things around me so I'll have more to write about when I get up the hill again.

It might sound strange that someone so in love with pesto, pasta in any form, cheese and sweets indiscriminately would face such a challenge in Italy. I've been simply too stressed out to eat. I hate struggling through my nonexistent Italian with a wait staff that had no idea what I meant unless I pointed and had no way of telling me the meanings of the words I didn't know. I now consider public eating to be an act of courage.

Plan my escape
This is my prisoner's mentality. Even lifers plan their escapes.

Do it all again tomorrow.
Like a page from Nostradamus, I had told my psychologist friend weeks before I left that my voice, not the things I owned or things I've accomplished, was the most important in my life. Connection is, first and foremost, what I live for. Without it, high atop a hill in Italia, I found myself at a suffocating loss.

Hopefully my exchange family won't be too freaked out by their spotless white toilets.