The Thief of Joy

I don’t know why, but celebrity eulogies make me feel weird. Yet, I’ve already done two of them on my own blog. And it’s about to become three.

robin_williams01_website_image_jwce_standardI’m not going to pretend that I’m the biggest Robin Williams fan that ever lived. In fact, I always thought he was kind of a nut, as much as I enjoyed Alladin and Good Will Hunting. But now that the Internet has exploded about depression and suicide and plenty of misconceptions and trolling on both sides of the modern-mental-illness-perception spectrum abound, I thought I’d chip in.

At the risk of sounding horribly cliché, Robin Williams–who brought so much joy and laughter to so many people–ending his own life as a result of a disease that causes millions of people to lose all hope is a tragedy of the most poignant degree. As has been said many times, it goes to show that depression can affect the most successful, the most wealthy, the seemingly “happiest,” most energetic among us. You never know who could be suffering. It could be anyone, despite how they seem on the outside.

I’m writing this to tell you that that’s me. That I, too, suffer.

If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance that you know me, and you might be surprised to hear this. There’s a reason for that. I’ve spent years and years cultivating an image of someone who has her sh*t together. People have described me as: confident, strong, even arrogant, tough, charismatic, outgoing, smart, driven, ambitious, resourceful, etc. I’m not saying this to toot my own horn. (Trust me. Right now, there’s a nasty voice in my head telling me, “Don’t kid yourself, you are not any of those things.”) I’m saying this to describe how others perceive me, versus how I see myself.

Since I can remember, I was The Smart One. I got good grades in school and destroyed my exams and won every award and succeeded at everything I did. The more success I had, the more validated I felt, and the higher the expectations mounted. I had established that if I looked good to others that I would feel good myself, that I would feel significant, that I would be worth something. This is a contributing factor to the reason why my happiness has been dangerously externally focused for much of my life. Whenever something goes even slightly wrong, I lose it and plunge into a state of panic and suffering. I’m constantly on a fragile precipice between sanity and utter worthlessness. It’s something deeper than insecurity. It’s a tangible feeling, an almost physical space of darkness. And for the longest time, I was in denial about it.

Another reason I’m writing this–in fact, probably the biggest reason–is for my fellow PCVs. As we all know, there is a “Peace Corps culture” where gossip spreads like wildfire, rumors abound, and so-and-so did such-a-thing with what’s-his-face. I’ve come to accept this and it doesn’t bother me anymore. But one element of Peace Corps culture includes comparing ourselves to one another. Like the gossiping, I don’t think it’s done consciously, and it’s certainly not done maliciously either. But it happens, and one day I hope to learn to accept this aspect of it as well, but it simply makes things more difficult while I’m battling my own demons.

Volunteers compare themselves to other Volunteers, staff compares us to each other, Albanians compare us with each other. She was able to start that group at her site, why didn’t it work at mine? He’s so good at the language, why am I still struggling with the most basic things? She’s integrated so well, why do I have such a hard time making Albanian friends? He’s such a good Volunteer, I’ll never be as good as him. We all have these thoughts now and then. But as a PCV prone to depression, I have these thoughts all. the. time. As much as I did in America, but the culture of comparison just multiplies them because of all the additional stress we’re under dealing with a new culture and a new language in a foreign, developing country. Some days–in fact, lots of days–my feelings of inadequacy boil over until I have no choice but to withdraw and consign myself to my bed in the dark, my brain replaying every bad memory I’ve ever had for no apparent reason each time I close my eyes.

Every day, man.

Every day, man.

I have a good reputation in Peace Corps, probably because I’ve gotten so good at making myself look good that people assume I have my sh*t together. Quite frankly, it astounds me, because the little I’ve been able to accomplish here has not been able to reach the standard of excellence I am used to. That’s the thing about Peace Corps Volunteers: we’re all educated, highly qualified, motivated individuals trying to change the world. And in the places where Peace Corps programs exist, things systematically just do not work the way we’re used to them working in the US. We all experience failure. Over and over and over again. It’s an extremely humbling process, and it changes you, it refines you, and ideally, it makes you stronger. But on the days when that nasty voice in my head is particularly loud, it breaks me.

Comparison, they say, is the thief of joy.

And for some reason, many PCVs stay silent about this process. Because many of us are a product of this cycle of accomplishment and success and validation, and to admit that we’ve failed is heartbreaking. We’re not used to failure. We’re not used to humiliation. And the more silent we are, the more alone we feel. Especially when we compare our “failures” to the “successes” of other PCVs. (FYI, I’ll note that it’s very easy to make it look like you’re having a blast and changing the world via Facebook, which only compounds the problem.) And I’ve said this a million times, but dealing with things in Peace Corps is really the same as dealing with things in life in general. Here, the challenges are just more concentrated, more intense. But no matter what stage of life we’re in, there’s always the pressure to put on a good face, to highlight our achievements and hide our challenges. And sometimes, we might bury them so deep that they lurk there, growing steadily, until they consume us when that external validation leaves.

So, I’m breaking the silence. Dear Peace Corps Volunteers, Dear People of Earth: Peace Corps is hard! Life is hard! I struggle. Every day. I think about quitting, every day. I have failed, many times. I’ve made mistakes and I’ve completely blown it on multiple occasions. So if you ever look at me and think I’m any better than you, stop it. If you ever look at anyone and think that, stop it! We all struggle. We all try. And we all fail sometimes.

This isn’t a cry for help. Trust me, I have all the help I could possibly want. Peace Corps has my back, my fellow PCVs have it, my family and friends back home have it. This isn’t a cry for attention or validation, either. Again, trust me: any compliment or reassurance you could give me–“Kate, you’re beautiful!” “Kate, you’re such a good person!” “Kate, you’re such a good Volunteer!”–is likely going to be drowned out by that nasty inner voice of mine anyway. (Working on that.) This is a public busting of the perception that people are infallible, and a public busting of the idea that seemingly functional, normal people or PCVs float through life or through service without difficulty. This is a public busting of the feeling that you are alone.

Break the silence.

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4 responses to “The Thief of Joy

  1. Thank you so much for this! Writing this post was a courageous act, and it addresses some very real factors of life in Peace Corps, as well as home. Everyone who breaks the silence around their own depression is helping not only the folks who suffer from depression, but helps others understand better what it’s really like.

    Beautifully and articulately written!

  2. It takes courage to be publicly vulnerable. Thank you for the raw exposure. I was very aware during my Peace Corps experience that the darkness of depression was nipping at my heels and so easily to succumb to. I made a decision early on that my yard stick would be about making a life-long connection with just one person. That’s it. One friendship that would surpass my two year service. Returning to America was very much, “what did you accomplish?” “What did you produce?”. The Albanian culture taught me about who I’m connected to and how I can contribute to their development. My biggest outcome after two years was nothing that I could measure on a resume.

  3. You are awesome and brave for posting this. It is one of the most challenging aspects of Peace Corps for me. Trying to make myself feel like I am doing something and not retreating into a miserable pile of self-pity and depression. Thanks for posting and keep up the good work. Hope you are having a good summer and that marathon training is going well.

  4. Dear Kate, I read most of your posts on your blog and a few other volunteers because it is very interesting to see your point of view on Albania, and most of the time it is comparing different aspects of the two. But this writing was very touching and I think it breaks barriers of all types of people. It brought tears to my eyes because I deal with the same feeling and struggles everyday, but it also gave me the courage to be more open about my struggles and failures and feelings because it does make space for others to express what they feel and hopefully bring us closer together. So thank you for making that space for me 🙂

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