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Why Leaving the Peace Corps Was the Best Decision I've Made Since Joining the Peace Corps

Well, I meant to write a wrap-up/conclusion earlier, but here it is 5 months later and I'm still looking for the words to say. It's hard to believe I left Cameroon over 5 months ago, and my stage-mates are still there for another 3 or 4 months still! Wow.

So, I ET-ed (Early Terminated) from the Peace Corps after serving for 18 months. Why? I was really struggling on a personal level, which led to me struggling on a professional level, too. Well. And back and forth. Instead of doing productive work or ANY work or much cultural exchange at all, I was fighting anxiety and hiding in my house for days at a time.

What were the biggest factors contributing to my problems?

1. Probably culture shock and lack of integration - I struggled with feeling comfortable in a different culture the entire time I was in Cameroon. From my time with my (wonderful, patient) host family to living in my village, I was never really at ease. I made some good connections but no real friendships. I was absolutely at a loss with how to deal with men there (outside of a few really stellar guys I worked with), besides saying, "No," to everything and avoiding eye contact. (It has taken me months back in America to feel comfortable making eye contact with guys again, jeez!)

2. Lack of structure/job skills/contacts. Well, every Peace Corps Volunteer has the worst road to their village and the worst insect story and the most difficult domain. But I really felt like I had the most difficult domain! For me, anyways. Agroforestry is a pretty interesting project because there is a wide scope of possible projects and work. I have learned, however, that I really like having some structure in my work. Education volunteers are paired with a school, health volunteers are paired with a health center, business volunteers are paired with a microfinance institution, and agroforestry volunteers get… luck of the draw? (And absolutely some schools/clinics/MFIs are difficult to work with or more challenging, and some agroforestry volunteers love the freedom of their assignment). My counterpart was rarely available and my supervisor (who ran an NGO local to my village), well, we didn't get along real well. So. No host institution. No counterpart or supervisor to speak of. This left me with the option of going out to find my own work. I felt adequately trained in agroforestry, but going out in another culture and looking for people to work with was beyond me. Personal shortcomings, yo.

3. I didn't ask for help. Not loud enough.
3a. I was struggling with anxiety back in April 2010 around in-service. I talked to the PCMO. I got off mefloquine and that made things a lot better. But the anxiety crept back. I talked to the PCMO again at mid-service, and it wasn't very productive. The PCMO was leaving the job in a matter of days, I didn't want pills or phone counseling to DC and I didn't express how serious the anxiety was. After that PCMO left, we no longer had an American medical officer, and I didn't feel comfortable talking about mental health with our other PCMOs.
3b. I was struggling with my counterpart back in April 2010 around in-service, too. I talked to my APCD about it and he talked to my counterpart and nothing happened. I brought it up a few other times to no result. What I didn't realize or think about is that I could have gone another step up and talked to my PTO. I was really struggling with finding work, and I didn't know how to talk to my APCD about that (I wasn't very optimistic about talking to him because he was very busy and had done nothing to help with my counterpart problem).

I had several people (PC staff and friends) ask me if I would do it all over again (join the Peace Corps) and what I would do differently. Yes, yes, yes, I would absolutely do it all over again! Joining the Peace Corps was my dream for years and years. While I might be jaded on international development work in general, the dedication of Peace Corps Volunteers (and Staff) and the interpersonal exchanges between PCVs and locals are absolutely selfless, generous, noble, humble actions that work to promote peace, respect and a global community. Y'all PCVs are amazing. :)

Would I do anything differently? Could I have? I don't know. The answer I gave back in March is that, yes, I would join again, but I would probably run into the same problems and leave again. What could I have done to prepare myself better?

1. Volunteer. I really had 2 days of volunteer experience before joining the Peace Corps. I think that I could have benefited from doing more volunteer work and learning those skills like: be outgoing, be confident, ask for help when you need it.

2. Be Picky. I had my heart set on being a Health volunteer, but I was so excited to get into the Peace Corps, I jumped at the opportunity to get in ASAP as an Agroforestry volunteer. I remember my recruiter asking me if I was sure that was okay. I remember shooting off something about, "Sure, I mean, agriculture is like nutrition which is at the base of health, so I am absolutely passionate about it." The health work I did get to do (Girls Camps) was the high point of my Peace Corps service, though, and it was amazing and it let me know that is what I want to do with my life.

3. Be Realistic. I guess I always had this image in my head, that if I were a Peace Corps Volunteer, I would be this archetype of the outgoing, altruistic, perfect person I had in my head. Nope. I am still introverted and I get anxiety and I love structure and when I'm struggling I tend to block people out instead of asking for help. When my Mom was visiting me in Cameroon, she told me, "I think you're brave for joining the Peace Corps, I've always known that is something I would be really bad at." (I think she knew it about me, too, but thanks, Mom, for not telling me until after). I had some unrealistic expectations of myself.

Anyway. I left. Very suddenly. I made the decision and I was out of the country within 4 days. I packed up my house and told my nearest volunteers that I was leaving. I didn't tell anyone in my village I was leaving. I didn't tell Peace Corps I was leaving until I was in Yaounde. It was not a graceful departure and various friends and PC staff had to clean out my house/pay my rent, etc, and I still feel awful about not taking responsibility for that. I was a pretty big wreck. A few friends came to see me off in Bafoussam, and it was bittersweet. I have some amazing friends.

I remember sitting in the bus from Bafoussam to Yaounde and thinking, "Well, at least if I die today (as you worry about on Cameroonian public transport), I can be happy knowing that I made the right decision." And I really haven't regretted leaving. And I'm really glad that I didn't die that day. :)

Yaounde was a whirlwind of paperwork and administration. (My bank account still isn't closed, even though I submitted all the correct paperwork). I got to see a few more friends at the CASE before I left. I had meetings with my PTO and Country Director and they were both just absolutely wonderful and kind. The ride to the airport was surreal, just before sunset through all the neighborhoods of Yaounde. At the airport, they took the snacks I packed, I still think that was bogus, but I didn't really care, I was just a big sigh of relief.

So I've been back in America for 5 months and I'm still figuring out how to answer people when they ask me how Cameroon/the Peace Corps was. It was something! It was eye-opening. It was the experience of a lifetime. "Well, yeah, but…" the person asking inevitably replies. Seriously, I don't know how you expect me to sum it up concisely. Give me a few paragraphs at least. I feel absolutely lucky to have had the opportunity to live in Cameroon for 18 months. Cameroon is a beautiful, vibrant country full of culture(s) and history and wonderful people. I was so lucky to experience the culture as a resident rather than just a tourist. To meet so many amazing people. To learn such a completely different way of life, and to live within it. To have the opportunity to recognize our shared humanity. To have seen such a geographically different part of the world. To have had a chance to see so blatantly my needs, my weaknesses, my dreams for the future. To have worked at an amazing Girls' Camp with amazing volunteers and been able to share some knowledge about health. I really can't say enough what an amazing opportunity/experience it was and how lucky I was to have it. On the other hand, it was absolutely the hardest thing I've ever done and it knocked me flat and I lost a lot. I am still getting back to the good mental place I was at before I joined the Peace Corps. But I am getting there and while I have no desire to be crying in my room in Cameroon for days at a time, I wouldn't change my experience for the world.
To everyone who supported me in my decision and on my return, thank you so much. It has meant a lot to me. There were a few people who said that they respected my choice to leave rather than to stay and do nothing. And I really needed to hear that, so thank you, thank you, thank you.

And now I'm in America. I'm still living with my sister. I'm volunteering at two places (a domestic violence survivor support nonprofit and a hospice), I'm taking a CNA class and I'm applying to nursing school this fall. I feel like I am heading in the direction I want to be heading and it is deeply satisfying. I'm finally raising chickens, I'm learning to play ukulele, I do some hula-hooping and I bike all over the place. I feel safe being outside at night. I am happy.