I haven’t written a blog post since July, and I’ve been trying to pinpoint why that is. First, I figured it was because I had intended for my blog to be a record of my time in Malawi, and since I came home, I shouldn’t make any more posts. But that wasn’t quite it, because I still love writing, and I have a lot to say, so I want to continue blogging.
Next, I figured it might be because I felt like people wouldn’t want to read what I have to say. I know a lot of people subscribed to my blog because they wanted to hear about Africa – my adventures, trials, funny stories, and insights. I was doing something big and daring, and my blog could be a way for people to experience that vicariously. Who would want to read about my normal life back in America? But that still felt like I was selling myself short, because while I do honestly feel like the public interest in my blog will be much lower now that I’m not in Africa, I can take a step back from my self-doubt and remember how people told me that they like the way I write. If that’s true, then maybe some people will still want to hear my thoughts and stories, even if they aren’t focused on goats barging in on dinner or mice scurrying across my pillow. Maybe I can still connect with people over the things that are happening in my life right now.
Then I realized that the real reason I’m so hesitant to come back to this blog is because I’m afraid of being seen as a failure.
I tried something big. I tried to be brave. I told anyone who asked that I felt like I was meant to go to Africa – that I knew it would be difficult, but that I needed to do it anyway. And the thing is, I took that giant leap. I packed up 99% of my worldly belongings, said goodbye to everyone I’ve ever known, and boarded that transatlantic flight. It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. But I did it. I’m proud of that, and I don’t regret it. But I also came home 25 months early. And one of the scariest parts about coming home was wondering what people would think of me. I had tried to be so confident and positive before leaving, even though so many people expressed their concerns. Honestly, I was so afraid of proving them right. I didn’t want to come home and hear people say “I told you so.” I didn’t want to be a disappointment, and I didn’t want pity. Part of me wished I could back up and erase the whole summer – just go back to my normal life and pretend like none of it happened. That way, no one would know that I failed. But that’s not fair, and I wouldn’t trade that summer for the world. It was incredibly difficult, but also incredibly valuable and beautiful and life-changing. I needed it, probably for more reasons that I’m even currently aware of. I’m still trying to process that. But one thing it made me much more aware of was my mental health.
I struggled every single day in Malawi. My heart ached with loneliness, fear, anxiety, doubt, and a host of other insidious feelings. I never fully settled in, and I think I knew from the beginning that I wouldn’t be able to stay. But I’m still struggling nine months after coming home. I still feel intense anxiety every day, I get panic attacks and feel like I’m back at the Lilongwe airport trying desperately to get home, and I feel like I’ve lost all sense of direction in my life. I look around at my friends and see people who are happily married or enjoying a job they love or traveling the world or studying in amazing grad programs – some people are even doing more than one of those things! And while I’m happy for them, I can’t help but compare their lives to mine, and I have none of those things. I’m not trying to elicit sympathy or to sound like I’m complaining, truly; I just want to explain where some of my negative thoughts and feelings are coming from. I feel like I’ve fallen hopelessly far behind and am now watching everyone pass me by and continue on their exciting and fulfilling paths. I desperately want to catch up to them, but everyone who knows me can attest that I’m a terrible runner. I’m 25, living at home, and jumping from job to job because I can’t figure out what I want to do. This is NOT where I thought I’d be at this point in my life. But I’m slowly figuring out that maybe it’s where I need to be.
My thoughts and feelings have been eating away at me for so long. Sometimes they make me physically ill. Sometimes I can’t fall asleep. Sometimes they take my breath away. And sometimes I can’t make myself get out of bed in the morning and face another day. It all just seems too overwhelming. But I finally got help. I’ve been in an outpatient therapy group for the past few weeks that has actually been a tremendous source of relief. I don’t feel so alone anymore, and I’m learning strategies to help me cope with my anxiety. I’ve started taking medicine, too. And I’ve accepted that anxiety will always be a part of my life. It’s been whispering in my ear since I was so little, and it will continue to do so. But I’m learning how to take a step back and separate myself from it. It doesn’t need to control me or define my life, and I don’t want it to. Sometimes I wonder if I could’ve stayed in Africa if I had learned these skills and gotten this medicine years ago. But that’s not a thought I want to dwell on, because it doesn’t change anything. This has been my path so far, and maybe going to Africa was a necessary step towards getting help and learning how to live alongside my anxiety.
I’m still not doing very well. Worries and negative thoughts swirl around in my brain at all hours of the day, I’m searching for a new route through this maze that has become my life, and I often feel like a burden to those people I’m closest to. But I’m also immensely thankful for the people who have been seeing me through this – by encouraging me to get help in the first place, checking in on me time and time again, offering a listening ear and gentle advice, and treating me with compassion, grace, and understanding. With their help, I feel like I’m actually making progress. I feel a sense of pride in the steps I’ve been able to take so far, and for the first time in a long time, I have hope. I may not know where I’m going, but I don’t feel as stuck anymore. Instead of being frozen by the fear of choosing another dead-end path, I’m choosing to try different paths. Maybe I’ll have to turn around again. Some people may view that as failing, but I’m trying to look at it as simply doing my best to make my way through the maze. I know there will be more dead ends. That’s a fact of life. I don’t want to shy away from them anymore. I want to face them head on, and once I reach them, I want to bravely choose to turn around and try another route. Odds are, one of these days I’ll stumble across the right path, and when I do, I hope to be able to look back and be thankful for all of the twists and turns that helped me find my way.