For better or worse, I have never been an anxious person. I rarely stress about anything. From tests, to doctor’s appointments, to sporting events I can’t understand what makes people worry or fret. Occasionally, this habit to ignore the gravity of upcoming events, which might require preparation, works against me.

During one finals’ week in college I was scheduled to have four of my five final exams on one day. I failed to realize how this might be a problem until I was midway through my second of four consecutive exams. Students who have three or more tests on the same day can ask to have them rescheduled so there won’t be a day with more than two exams. I elected not to reschedule and, instead of studying, the day before watched a documentary about an inland delta in sub-Saharan Africa… twice.

The only time I can recall feeling anything close to what I imagine people describe as an “anxiety attack” was the morning I left for the Peace Corps. I accepted my invitation to serve as a volunteer over nine months before I actually left. For the entirety of those nine months I never once thought about Indonesia beyond it being a simple task or errand to be completed in the future.

March 7: Give dogs heartworm medication

March 15: Change water filter

March 18: Move to Indonesia for 27 months

The months of filling out forms, doctor’s appointments, waiting for legal and medical clearance, writing varying types of resumes and aspiration/motivation statements did little to make my inevitable move to Indonesia “real.” That didn’t happen until I woke up at three in the morning on the eighteenth of March to head to the airport.

I might look calm here but, at the time, I was pretty certain this escalator was escalating me towards my death.
I might look calm here but, at the time, I was pretty certain this escalator was escalating me towards my death.
A lot of my anxiety stemmed from thinking about how easy it would be to die in Indonesia. I knew no Indonesian and practically nothing about the culture. I was not equipped to handle life in a foreign land. Every scenario I played out in my head ended with me getting lost, kidnapped, ransomed, and finally murdered. I’m in my fifth month of service and I can’t say I’ve come very close to being murdered or kidnapped, not even once. I’ve been lost plenty of times, however those fall into the category of ‘an interesting story’ more than an actual threat to my life or health.

Dying was a big concern. But as was the sum of all the “little” things which I had failed to properly take the time to consider beforehand. Squatty potties, no toilet paper, the mandi, a rice-heavy diet, malaria and dengue fever, volcanoes, earthquakes, and even terrorists (little by probability).

A significant amount of stress stemmed from thinking about how much I would be missing in America. The weddings, the graduations, the milestones in the lives of my friends and family. “How foolish does someone have to be to think living on the other side of the earth for two years is a good idea?” Pretty damn foolish. I had great doubts about the whole experience being worth what I was giving up.

Between focusing on how ill-prepared I was, and everything I was leaving behind, I did not have a good trip to the airport. However, to my credit—and possibly the detriment of my well-being—I managed to internalize all my intense feelings of stress and only had significant heart palpitations for a little over an hour, my parents none the wiser.

One hundred and thirty days later, sixteen percent finished with my service, I find it hard to conjure up the emotions I went through right before I left America. I have not only survived the past several months, I’ve enjoyed most of it. I have become proficient in the language, adapted to the culture, and picked up skills which make life in Indonesia, less of a challenge and more of a routine.

The past months have shown, time after time, how each of my fears or concerns was misplaced and oftentimes misinformed. I thought the squatty potty and lack of toilet paper would be impossible to adjust to. After three days it was just about the most normal thing in my life, with more normalcy to follow. The heat, absolutely oppressive in Kediri, was bearable by mandi-ing three or four times a day. The language barrier, while difficult, was eased by the inherent friendliness of every Indonesian.

During PST I was very fortunate to have access to a washing machine. It saved me a lot of time when I had very little to spare. Over site visit I found out my permanent family did not have a washing machine. This was it. I was certain the lack of a washing machine would do me in. There was no way I could hand-wash all of my clothes for the next two years.

Upon arriving in Sumedang I put off doing my laundry for a week. I created several potential budgets which allotted varying amounts of Rupiah so as to have my laundry done by someone else a couple times each month. Eventually I buckled and washed my clothes by hand. It wasn’t as bad as I had imagined. I listened to some music, thought about how ridiculous my fear of hand-washing clothes was, and thought about how much space could be saved in a house by not having a washing machine.

Washing my clothes by hand has become one of my favorite things now. It’s a pretty good arm workout, not cognitively taxing, kind of fun, and working out stains is a lot easier when done by hand instead of hoping a machine can get the job done. Maybe it’s not the most fun or exciting way to spend a couple hours, but it’s something not many people in America have the privilege to experience. Upon returning to America after COS, and despite the fact I like washing my clothes by hand, I plan on saying, “Well, when I was in the Peace Corps I had to hand-wash all my clothes for two years,” every time someone complains about doing laundry.

I haven’t experienced the level of anxiety I did the morning I left Oklahoma since coming to Indonesia, and I hope to never experience it again, but it is nice to look back and see how, one-by-one, each of my stressors turned out not to be as menacing as I had first suspected. While it may be “safer” and more “comfortable” to never leave the house, I doubt anyone would argue a life spent shut away from the world is worth keeping a weblog about.

4 thoughts on “Pre-departure anxiety

  1. Yes – to so many things here. I am not a worrier nor ever have been and I keep wondering, when will it sink in? I fly to Chicago for staging in 17 days. Will it hit me at day 10? Day 7? Day 0? I’m curious to see how I handle this but it is comforting to know that even if I do freak out as I’m taxiing down the runway that I’ll be ok because so many others, like yourself, have been ok, too.

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  2. Seems like yesterday when I had the very same anxieties as an incoming volunteer in 1975. I had the pleasure of working in Indonesia quite often as a businessman between 1997 – 2006. Wonderful people. I call it the archipelago of smiles. Hope you like spice. Rendang and Nasi Goreng are some of my favorite dishes, and I make here at home. Good luck. I’ll be following your adventures.

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  3. So much of life is about attitude. You have amazing adaptability. Your anxiety at moving half way around the world is understandable, but your flexibility and positive attitude are admirable. You will undoubtably have a positive experience during your service because you know how to “roll with the punches.” Proud of you!!

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  4. Thanks so much for sharing. I’m sure many of your peers went through the same feelings. I’m glad your folks didn’t know how you were feeling at the airport. It would have even more difficult to see you off. You are a good son!!

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