The Northern Coast

The Northern Coast
The Northern Coast--photo by Zack Thieman

Friday, January 24, 2014

Premonitions and life lessons; a 6-month-post-service update

Today marks six months since the day I left Peru. It seemed like an appropriate milestone to write a post about, and to start I want to tell you a little story.

This story didn't take place in the last six months. It didn't happen in Peru, either. It actually happened just four months shy of leaving the US and embarking on my two-year journey in Peace Corps. I considered not making it public knowledge (you'll soon see why), but after some reflection it seems appropriate.

It was early spring of 2011 in western Oregon, the sky a constant dull gray and days only changing from rain to mist to rain again. I worked at a coffee shop and distracted myself from leaving for Peace Corps by marathon training and keeping my hair a fiery "hot-tamale" red with nearly obsessive straight bangs. Anything, really, to make me feel like I was in control. But those things could only distract me so much. It was as if I was sliding down a hill that suddenly dropped off as a cliff, and I was clutching at anything to keep me in place. And it was in these gray, rainy days as I grew nearer my departure date into the great unknown that I visited a psychic in Portland.

(I could hear your eyes rolling from here. Humor me and read on.)

I went to a reputable psychic, a beautiful and tall middle-aged woman whose clairvoyant powers lay in touch, or clairsentience. And so after sitting in her cozy and warm office with the sound of water trickling through an indoor fountain and a recording of classical piano echoing from another room, she held my favorite pair of earrings and asked me what I wanted to know.

I suppose I could've asked all the traditional questions: questions of my love life, my career, my future family (alright, I eventually did ask those questions too, it was an hour long session after all. But that's not the point). I only went there, though, for one question:

Was I going to be okay?

Peace Corps was something I had wanted to do for years before I actually applied. It was a nagging at the back of my mind, the poking finger that told me I really didn't know my own strength until I'd pushed myself further. It was initially a point of contention with my parents, and over time they gave me their blessing. But then, weeks before I received my invitation to go to Peru, Dateline aired a piece on the ugly side of Peace Corps and sexual assault/rape incidences and lack of support for the victims. Suddenly everything was thrown into question and I almost withdrew my application. I came face-to-face with a very real risk as a woman volunteer that I had refused to address. In the end, despite fears and worries for my safety, I accepted my invitation. And in accepting I felt like I was opening myself up to a whole new world of danger and hurt unlike I had ever known. It was incredibly frightening.

And so even though there is no way that anyone can truly know, I needed to know-- would I be okay? Would I be safe during my Peace Corps service?

She closed her clear blue eyes briefly, peacefully, and upon opening them looked directly into mine and said, "You're going to be fine. You will be safe. You are intuitive, and that intuitiveness will help you take care of yourself and to know when a situation is good or bad. You will meet some of the most amazing people, and they will change your life for the better. The people there will be in awe of how tall you are. They'll love you, and you'll love them. This is going to be a wonderful, life changing experience for you. I see nothing but good coming from it."

I took these words, whether because I wanted to believe them or I needed to believe them, and I held them close to me always. There were times as I travelled or walked alone in the city and had that nervous, alertness that could so easily slip into fear when I told myself, "you will be safe, you will be aware, you will know when a situation is bad." There were days during training and in site when I hated every single person around me and wanted nothing more than to be alone and I told myself, "these could be amazing people that will change your life for the better." When I fretted over arriving in my site and whether I would do a good job, or simply whether I should be there at all, I said, "they'll love you, and you'll love them." This was my mantra. Sometimes I didn't believe it. A lot of times, actually. Sometimes saying it was the only thing that kept me from giving up.

Everything she said came true. And honestly, I don't really care if it was a real prediction or an optimistic guess. I needed it to be true, and it became my truth.

Now, post-Peace Corps, returning home...she didn't say anything about this period of time. Then again, I didn't ask. I never gave a whole lot of thought to what life after Peace Corps would be like, because why wouldn't it just be awesome? Being home with loved ones? Accomplishing a life goal and real-world experience under my belt? The backyard BBQs with fresh cut grass, drinking clean water straight out of the tap, walking down the street without a single eye on me or comment on my appearance....Why would I worry about that time? I knew reverse-culture shock was hard and that I would be sad to leave Peru, but this...this is something no one could've prepared me for. Even after people told me I could flail, I could flop, I could go months without a job, I just didn't know.

I was warned that "coming home is the hardest part." But I never thought I'd be going on six-months of unemployment, unable to even get an interview for office jobs answering phones. I didn't predict that I would feel so worthless and useless while remembering the hard, frustrating, but meaningful work I did in my host-community. I had no idea isolation and loneliness in my own home, in my own country, could outweigh what I felt in a completely foreign land. Adjusting isn't just remembering to put your toilet paper in the toilet, or to shake hands as opposed to kissing. It doesn't have to do with table manners, or the inflection in your voice as you ask for a favor, or showing up on time to meetings. It is learning how to live with who you are now, where you are now, with everything you've come to know and be. It's coming to terms with your beautiful and ugly memories. It's forgiving yourself for the things you can't change about your service, and forgiving those around you for simply not understanding. I spent two years adjusting to a completely different life, with different friends, and it was really good and really bad and utterly life changing. And then literally overnight, I was home. I'm back where I was, but I can't just go back to who I was or what I was doing. I don't know how to fit who I've become into where I am. And I foolishly thought a lot of those simple cultural things would be the only things in my way to readjustment.

And to be honest, admitting all of this is kind of embarrassing, like admitting I paid a psychic to make me feel better about a huge life-changing decision. I hate that this is so much harder than I ever expected and that I haven't figured my shit out yet. I hate that I don't have a job or some kick-ass plan to save the world or really any sort of plan that makes me at least look like I know what I'm doing.

So that's what I'm doing right now. I'm pretty lost, really lonely, extremely frustrated, and trying not to be like Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite, bragging about high school football and stuck in the past.

I've considered going back to the same psychic. I'm ravenous for any sort of consolation, anything to hold onto. I need to know good things will eventually start happening, that I will eventually get a job, that I will serve a purpose, that the dust will settle from this two-year cloud. I know this can't last forever, but when will it end?

I have a feeling I know what she'd say. I can already picture her peacefully close her eyes, and upon opening them look into mine and say, "You're going to be fine."


  1. I LOVE YOU!!!!! You write beautifully

  2. this is amazingly well written. keep writing. and the best advice i've ever gotten from a book: DON'T PANIC. And carry a towel.

  3. Amanda, I know EXACTLY how you feel, you are not alone. Not to steal your thunder, and I'm not saying it the way most people would, or as an oh "I don't understand but I'm here for you". I mean EVERYTHING you said I understand; the emotions, the expectations not met, the loneliness, the unexpected jobless-for-6-months-WTF?! feeling, everything. Coming home and nothing is what you thought it would be... don't get me wrong there were a lot of awesome things about coming home (really good beer for example), but it was just nothing like I thought it would be. Granted my experience wasn't as long as yours, but even now, two years and almost six months after being back in the U.S. form Thailand I STILL sometimes wonder if the path I'm on, the path I chose, is the right one.

    For better or for worse (or both) doing what you did, and living over seas in a country and culture for so long, and so different than what you were used to, that changes you. Changes you in ways you never thought it would, and one see that after going back to the place one started.

    I miss you (and Justin)! Francesca misses you (and Justin)! If you ever want to talk, honestly, I'm here. And it would be nice for me too :).


    PS. As always wonderful story, and excellently written. And sorry if my comment was a little intense. I didn't mean to sound pessimistic.

  4. Such true words, Amanda.

    We never met in Peru (I was a Health 18er - also from Oregon!) but I saw this post on facebook and had to read. I am only 3 months home, but I feel all of the same emotions. It was relieving to read that I am not alone in the feelings of isolation, confusion and loneliness.

    I believe your closing words are so true, it will all be okay, with time. I'm sending good vibes your way, and hopefully we can meet one day in Oregon.

    Thank you so much for writing this. I don't feel so different or emotional now.

    1. I loved this post. I can't tell you how many of my sentences still start with, "when I was in the Peace Corps..." In a way, the dust never completely settles. I ran into an RPCV who said, "it's like we were living in color and now we're in black and white". We didn't have to actively try to feel a sense of wonder and adventure in Peru. It just smacked us in the face everyday.

      You'll get a job soon enough. In the meantime, enjoy not being sleep deprived and stressed. Aprovecha!

      Love you!

    2. Also, it was really nice to read the vulnerability in this post. I appreciate what you're going through.