loneliness, an unavoidable peace corps companion

I’m still sorting through pictures and thoughts about Turkey.  That post will come soon enough.  However, upon landing in my cottage a couple of days ago, my thoughts have moved quickly off of what feels like a dream of water-pipes, Ikea, cheesy bread, and Turkish hipsters.

I’m home in Armenia, and after arriving here on Sunday, the first days of the week found me hosting Danelle, a new volunteer who arrived this summer and now works at a kindergarten and at a children’s NGO in a small town by the Georgian border.   We spent some time comparing our experiences which led me to recall how I felt around this time about a year ago.

A year ago I was considering going home.  After a couple of months the previous spring working for an organization in Kolkata slums, I came into Peace Corps not expecting to enjoy it.  I originaly gave myself six months to either love it or leave it.  This time last year I wasn’t sure if I was loving it and told a friend I would go to our All Volunteer conference and would make a decision afterward to stay or go.

Around this time last year, I took this picture:

I actually found it a couple of days ago when sifting through files, looking for something to submit for our volunteer photo contest, something for the category “I, Volunteer”, something that was supposed to shed light on ‘the volunteer experience’.

I was sick then, as I am now.  I had a sore throat.  I hadn’t slept through the night for days.  I would wake up at night, the freezing air sitting heavy on my cottage without the threat of central heating.  I’d turned on Friends.  (I explained to a fellow volunteer, “I watch television shows so much more than movies here.  I used to prefer a movie alone at home.  But now I’m watching Friends because, as lame as it sounds, I like that fact that when I turn off my computer at night, I know I’m going to hear the same voices in my living room tomorrow.)

That night, without a flashlight to look in the mirror, I felt a flash of brilliance and whipped out my Canon for a shot at my tonsils.  Despite being equipped with a Digital Macro setting, the Canon didn’t do the trick but instead gave me pink, cavernous blurs, a slobbery abyss to stare at and wonder if indeed I had strep or some kind of something growing on my stinging throat.

I was in a state of loneliness I had never reached before.  My Armenian community was trying, but at the time I was still hoping for something akin to movie nights, late night taco runs, or long kitchen chats that, often without our full appreciation, keep our souls afloat.  I was longing for social structures I understood.  I was longing for a place that felt like a comfortable fit.  I was longing for a friend that could take a look down my throat and tell me how sick I might be.

I have since, of course, come to feel quite at home here.  I treasure my landfamily.  On Kelly’s first night here my coworkers were holding a party for work birthdays in August, and during my toast to them, I could hardly hold back tears saying how proud I was to be able to introduce Kelly to my Armenian friends.  I will likely be sitting in Texas this time next year wishing for a khorovats with friends and whispering to myself those Armenian phrases that have been stitched into my soul fabric. The tables have turned, and I know I’ll be in Texas wishing for some Armenianess, wishing, for example, that I could walk into a neighbor’s home on a whim and sit down to warm smiles, good conversation and a steaming cup of coffee.

I am so thankful that I can say, “I love it here.”  But my time in this place has surely not been without its moments of profound loneliness, and as I begin to round the homes stretch of my term of service in Armenia, I think I’ll be hoping to find out how all of this, the bright days and dark moments, have shaped me into the person I will be in the years to come.

10 Comments

  1. Great post.

    Loneliness won’t kill you, but in an era of 24/7 “connectedness” it may feel even more terrifying to leave behind the familiar for the new and unknown. I agree that the lessons you’re now learning will stay with you for the rest of your life.

    I think being very alone in a foreign land and culture forces us open, however uncomfortably, to new people, ideas and hospitality. I think that, in itself, is valuable and important. It’s far too easy to otherwise stay within a tight circle of people and ideas that comfort us and confirm our ideas and prejudices.

    I doubt anyone can have this experience and come out unchanged, and without becoming more compassionate. Which is a good thing!

    1. I know back home I was bothered by all the ‘connectedness’, the constant availability. But you’re right, foreign cultural emotion does open up some soul doors and forces you to take a look around in the rooms you didn’t know you housed. Thanks for the encouragement.

  2. Hi B ~ I read your tale…and I remember the woe – in you and me and other PCVs throughout our time. Armenia is perhaps a broken land from so many trials over the years. The spirit walks a bit heavy here and we have taken that on. The education we have received in trade is amazing…but some days feel too hard pr too far away from home…I agree with this idea your friend mentioned that we are living in 24/7 connectedness and maybe that is not natural or healthy. Some RPCVs have expressed feeling that their time is demanded of them constantly on cell phones and email and the way their very best friends expect them to respond immediately drives them bonkers. If we can meld with teh pulse of the coming winter and sailo our ships humbly I think we will make it to the shore of next summer – perhaps carrying enough gratitude in our hearts and minds to revoluntionize our own lives back in the USA – or wherever ;) xo,z

  3. I gotta say, there’s an interesting amount on lonliness in being an RPCV. I have the ability to be constantly connected with everyone, through phone, internet, and geographic proximity, but lack a connection through shared experiences.

    It’s the opposite of being a PCV.

  4. lisa hines

    Oh brent, we are 7 days away from thanksgiving and I’m thinking about u all the time! I miss u even more this holiday season! I’m happy for u that u are so happy in your world there, but I have to tell u it makes me a little sad that you don’t miss us and texas as much as u did. But I know u will always be happy doin what ur doin now and I want that for u. I miss u and love u! Lisa

  5. It’s 12:30 AM and I just did a Google search for “Peace Corps blogs + loneliness.” What a special find! Almost a year into my PCV service in Thailand, my mind seems to be going to that I-think-I’d-like-to-go-home sort of place. And the loneliness I experience here is difficult to sum up for friends and family back home. But you touched on it perfectly. I think what keeps me here, however, is feeling that my world is opening up in ways it never would back home. Despite being extremely connected back in the States, the same appears to be true here as well–my American friends are still too busy living their lives to stay in touch. From this experience, I have found out who my two best friends really are and love them beyond words. I also love my Thai landlord’s family, who welcomed me at site like an eldest daughter. If I didn’t have a community of people who care about me here, I’m not sure it would be possible to stay. And so I struggle with my loneliness, text my PCV friends for support, write, and then put my loneliness to bed and face what the day brings tomorrow… Thanks for blogging. (Nice tonsils by the way).
    Eliza

    1. Keep your head up! It’s good to know that this experience is so similar for PCVs no matter where you are. I’m glad you love your landlord’s family (I call mine my landfamily). I find that it’s my relationships with Armenians here that keep my soul afloat when I get really down. I’m glad you found me and thanks for the response!

  6. […] couple of posts ago I wrote about a time here in Armenia when I didn’t even have a flashlight-wielding friend to stare down into my sickly […]

  7. Do you have advice, or have you come across advice on the web, about how to survive/cope with loneliness as a PCV ?
    My 22 year old daughter has applied to join the PC, and in her recent phone interview with a recruiter, the recruiter was unconvinced that she would be able to cope with the loneliness. My daughter has already spent two six-month periods out of the country, away from her family and friends, studying abroad & doing overseas internships, but apparently that isn’t considered enough experience to serve as proof that she’ll be able to take the lonely days for a whole two years.
    How can she know, or we (her parents) know, or the recruiter know who will “make it” and who will get lonely & discouraged and “wash out”? What can one do to psychologically or practically prepare for loneliness? One can’t choose a host family or know who in the local community one will or won’t “click” with, any more than you can pick your boss or coworkers when you accept a job in the U.S.
    So… do you have any advice to help her have a good experience in the PC & beat the loneliness monster?
    – Carol

  8. Lisa Bevell

    Hi Carol,
    I saw your post on this blog and had to reply. I am a PCV currently serving in Southeast Asia and I can tell you that I struggle with loneliness everyday. You raised some good points—one cannot know how he/she might perform under stressful circumstances. You just can’t. I think your daughter has the added challenge of interviewing over the phone. My interview was in person and there’s something to be said about reading another person’s facial expressions and body language. Your daughter is already a seasoned global traveler. I think she should stress this and talk about how she coped with homesickness whilst on previous trips abroad. She is also fortunate to have a loving, supportive family who believes in what she wants to do. This should be noted to her recruiter because a support system is one of the ways PCVs cope with loneliness. Mostly we rely on our fellow PCVs, but staying in touch with friends and family is important. Another thing I did was to enroll in the Worldwise School (WWS) program prior to leaving for training. Being accountable to a group of school kids back home helped me temper my most sarcastic thoughts. This also meets Peace Corps’ Third Goal of bringing the experience home to America. Practicing good self-care, such as getting enough sleep, eating as best you can given the harsh circumstances, and exercising are effective mood-lifters. Ultimately, what worked for me was staying connected with those I cared about. I talked with or sent humorous text messages to my fellow PCVs. My best friend in the USA sent me weekly e-mails. I made certain my in-country mobile phone had Bluetooth capability so that I could always send e-mails home via wireless network because having access to technology was sometimes impossible. I also Googled PCV blogs, such as this one Bread to be Eaten to find support. I wrote, sent postcards, or audio recordings to my WWS schools—even when THEY didn’t respond. I think it’s important that your daughter stress that she is confident in her ability to face the unexpected. She can’t and won’t know the challenges that await her…but she has to be open and confident in herself that everything in her life has prepared her to go forth and deal with it. Providing her recruiter with examples of prior struggles is helpful. I think her confidence and enthusiasm will come across over the phone. Good luck to her. Getting asked to serve in the Peace Corps can be long, frustrating process. She’s lucky to have your support throughout it all! All the Best! Lisa

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