I recently learned that there is a RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) Portal on the Peace Corps website and that there is a place for Returned Volunteers to share their stories about what service was like for them. This is what I wrote:
My name is Catherine, I’m from Asheville, North Carolina, and I arrived in South Africa to serve in the Peace Corps as an education volunteer on July 4, 2013. My story is not the typical Peace Corps story as I did not complete all twenty-seven months of my service. In fact, I only completed five months of service before I was medically evacuated and seven months of service total before I was medically separated from the Peace Corps. I would describe how I felt when I arrived in South Africa as furiously happy. I had never felt more alive or more passionate in my life. I was finally living my dream of helping other people and truly making a difference. I didn’t feel homesick, but I did feel something else that I still can’t quite put my finger on and have never felt since. Everything was new and different. There was no one I had known for any length of time with me. I was completely and totally out of my comfort zone. I had traveled to Kenya by myself once before, but it was only for two weeks. Knowing that I would be in South Africa for twenty-seven months made this feeling entirely different. I imagine there aren’t a ton of people outside of Peace Corps Volunteers and RPCVs who understand the feeling of being thousands of miles away from home with no access to your family, support system, or existing friends and knowing that you have to adapt and make new friends and create a new support system.
I was mentally ill before the Peace Corps, but I was stable on a medication regimen I had been on for a while. I had suffered from depression and anxiety for over a decade by the time I left for service with it sometimes being under control and sometimes being at the forefront of my life. I became depressed not too long after arriving in country, maybe a month later. I expressed suicidal thoughts to a close PCV friend who was adamant that I contact the PCMO, but at the time I refused. They were nothing I hadn’t dealt with successfully a hundred times before and I was terrified I would be sent home. Some days I would do ok, but other days I was so depressed that getting out of bed felt like a monumental chore. During PST it wasn’t as bad, but once I got to permanent site, the depression set in like a black dog laying on my chest.
My favorite memory of Peace Corps happened during PST. I decided to go on a walk through my village one day and I ran into some children playing in the street. They asked what I was doing and I explained that I was going on a walk. They asked if they could come with me and I told them that it would be great if they wanted to come. A few children quickly became four which quickly became six which, by the middle of our walk, became something like twelve children walking through the streets of my village with me with all of us singing and dancing, primarily to the Sepedi version of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.” The experience was pure joy. The children were so happy to be playing, singing, dancing, and laughing with me and I was so grateful to them for sharing their time with me and making me feel like I belonged in their home. My host family during PST was equally amazing, laughing with me, letting me help cook, making me delicious fat cakes, and treating me like a real member of the family.
I don’t really have any proudest achievement from serving in the Peace Corps because I didn’t really achieve anything while I was there aside from lasting five months before finally caving and going home. I helped partially set up a library in my school, but it was with books the previous PCV had gotten donated. I was supposed to start helping the ladies that ran a bakery in my village, but I got pulled into Pretoria by medical before that could happen. I guess the thing I’m most proud of is that I gained the trust of many of my students and helped them to understand that there are adults out there who care about them and won’t just use them to get chores done. In my village, I saw a lot of children (and women) being treated very poorly and it was very frustrating to me. I wasn’t always the most kind or the best friend I could be to my fellow PCVs (I think the mental illness had a lot to do with that), but I worked hard to treat people I encountered in my village well. The children knew that they could talk to me about anything and I would treat them with respect and I am very proud of that fact. In return, I was honest with them and did my best to describe my experience of depression to them.
My permanent host family was great, but I don’t think they were quite sure what to do with the depressed and confused American girl who showed up on their doorstep and wanted to be left alone all the time. All I wanted to do was be alone in my house binge watching Breaking Bad or talking to my American family and friends. I feel very badly about not becoming more involved with my host family and I feel as though I disappointed them or let them down somehow by not being well enough to fully integrate the way their previous Peace Corps Volunteer had. I think it’s worth noting at some point during this story that, by Peace Corps standards, I was sexually assaulted twice during my stay in South Africa with a third event that was questionable but undoubtedly uncomfortable. One time a stranger grabbed my butt, one time a stranger grabbed my hand and kissed it repeatedly while asking me to marry him and wouldn’t let me take my hand away, and one time the Vice Principal of my school did something during a handshake that meant something very dirty and inappropriate. The PCV who had previously been at my site had been male and, to my knowledge, was not exposed to the sexual harassment and assaults that I was while visiting another PCV in his village, in my community, and in my school. Peace Corps service as a young female is very different than Peace Corps service as a male or as an older woman. Or at least it was in South Africa.
The same friend who tried to get me to call the PCMO back in August or September finally convinced me that I really needed to and on October 20, 2013, I called the Peace Corps Medical Office to explain to them that I was terribly depressed and having suicidal ideation and that it had been going on for a few months. Peace Corps Medical told me to pack a bag and make my way to Pretoria that very day, which was good because I had been missing school and going in late because I just couldn’t face leaving my little house. While there were many wonderful and beautiful moments of Peace Corps service, the truth is that every PCV I talked to before I left for Peace Corps service was right when they told me it would be a huge roller coaster ride. Anyway, getting to the Peace Corps Headquarters was a trial in and of itself because I couldn’t get the taxi I had paid to take me there to take me there even though it was only a few blocks away. I eventually got there but my appointment with the psychologist had to be pushed to the next day.
I stayed in Pretoria for a month, seeing the psychologist very frequently and eventually seeing a psychiatrist who changed my medication from Celexa, an antidepressant which was obviously no longer working, to Cymbalta, a different antidepressant that I had never tried before. Over the course of the next week or two, I became incredibly irritable. I was staying at a hostel with other PCVs who very kindly kept inviting me to go do things with them, but all I wanted to do was binge read books on my Nook all night and sleep for part of the day. They were all trying to be nice to me and I was largely a jerk back if memory serves correctly. I was hypomanic, but I didn’t know it. Eventually, I found out a large group of children was going to be coming to the hostel. I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle being around them in my state and requested that the Peace Corps move me somewhere else to stay. They agreed that I could move to a bed and breakfast with one other PCV.
That day I swam and laughed and socialized with the owners of the B&B for hours. They were lovely hosts and I found everything they had to say so interesting. That night, I started three new “30 day challenges,” took a shower at 3AM, sang and danced around my room, and only slept for an hour before waking up feeling wide awake for my medical appointment with Peace Corps that morning. I couldn’t stop moving or talking. When I arrived at Peace Corps Headquarters, I found out my appointment had been moved to that afternoon, which was bad because I already knew by then that I was manic, which meant that my diagnosis had changed from Major Depressive Disorder to Bipolar Disorder. I took Ativan (which was prescribed to me to use as needed) to try to calm myself down, but I could not physically stop moving or talking. The other people I saw that day could hardly get a word in edgewise and I really hope they know and understand that I wasn’t myself at all that day.
I saw the PCMO that afternoon and he agreed that I was manic, which led to a whole string of phone calls to headquarters in Washington, D.C. and my parents back in Asheville, NC to decide what would be the best treatment option for me. I was told that I could go to an inpatient unit in Washington, D.C. or go back to my home of record to see my Primary Care Physician. I earned my M.A.Ed. in School Counseling and my B.S. in Psychology before leaving for the Peace Corps, so I knew that I could not be forced to go inpatient as I was not a danger to myself or other people and I said as much to the PCMO. I spent the next two nights at the PCMO’s house while Peace Corps drove a friend to my house to gather some of my things. I was not allowed to go pack them myself and I was not allowed to go say goodbye to my host family. Those are the only ways in which I feel the Peace Corps handled the situation poorly. Otherwise, they were very on top of things and took excellent care of me. A PCMO from a different country flew in to South Africa with one of their PCVs and she volunteered or was asked (I’m not entirely sure) to escort me back to my home in Asheville, NC. At the time I was a little resentful of having a babysitter, but in retrospect it was good to not be all alone in a foreign country while having my first manic episode.
After arriving back home in Asheville, I saw my primary care physician who referred me to an Intensive Outpatient Program for people with Mood Disorders. I was in the program for probably four months and went to group therapy three hours a day for three days a week. It was in this program that my therapist and doctor suggested I get a dog for emotional support, which I happily did. River, an Airedale Terrier, gave me a reason to get out of bed when I couldn’t fathom moving an inch and gave me a reason to keep going when all I wanted to do was give up and die. For two and a half years, I cycled between mania, depression, and mixed episodes frequently and viciously. I thought I would never get a break from the illness, but I finally did when a friend of mine and I decided to visit the UK for two and a half weeks in September of 2015. The first morning I woke up in London, I felt like myself for the first time since my first month in South Africa. This mental stability would last for some months, but unfortunately I developed a blood clot on the flight back home and had a pulmonary embolism a few days after arriving and was therefore mostly bedridden for several months due to the pain in my leg. When the pain in my leg finally started to abate, I started having symptoms of mania again but the psychiatric nurse practitioner I was seeing insisted that I was just anxious. I ended up in the hospital for a week a couple of months later after behaving out of character, acting recklessly, and spending money like it was going out of style. When I got out of the hospital, I began a different Intensive Outpatient Program at the hospital where I’d been most recently treated and my doctors, therapists, and I decided that it would be a good idea to train my dog as a psychiatric service dog.
Because of my illness, I have not had a career path post Peace Corps. Since I developed my illness while serving in the Peace Corps, my medical expenses related to my Bipolar Diagnosis are covered by the Department of Labor and I receive a monthly stipend as I am unable to work. I have compiled over 50,000 words worth of my journals and blog entries and hope to turn it into a memoir to help other people with my illness. Writing is helpful for me and it’s something I can do without leaving my bed on the days I feel super depressed. I’ve also written three (as yet unpublished and unillustrated) children’s books about my service dog, River. It is my hope that I can find a way to make a small difference in someone’s life, since I wasn’t able to spend the full 27 months in the Peace Corps and make a difference that way. I was medically evacuated about five months from the date I arrived in South Africa and I was medically separated about two months after that.
Serving in the Peace Corps is beautiful and wonderful and strange and hard and the most fun and most difficult thing anyone could choose to do with twenty-seven months of their life. Or at least, I assume so, only having spent five months of my own life doing it. Other Americans should join the Peace Corps because it is an experience unlike any other and has the potential to bring so much joy (along with the frustration, of course). If someone is interested in making a difference in someone else’s life or in learning about another culture or in learning another language, there is no way as immersive and as rewarding as serving in the United States Peace Corps.