Hannah Steffe, 130 YinD
It has taken me a while to work up the nerve and energy to write this post for reasons that will hopefully become apparent to you throughout this narrative. Within this article, there are things that may be disturbing to some, so I will not be offended if you stopped reading now. In all honesty, this story may not have a happy ending, but hopefully it will give at least one person the peace in knowing that they are not alone in their struggles. So bear with me as I attempt to give you a glimpse into the last seven months of my life here in the central region of Thailand.
When I thought about writing an article for Sticky Rice, my mind was immediately filled with endless ideas. I had not written about my life here since pre service training and I felt that I owed it to my blog readers to put something, anything, out there. Things that have happened to me in these several months since I have been living in Thailand would make for easy stories to write about. Going to a beautiful national park in the mountains, seeing all the volunteers in my cohort together for the first time since we started our lives without each other in March, my new life at site; they all seemed like things I could go on and on about if I felt inclined to. But there was an undercurrent, an ever-present pull of those things that had happened that essentially, I was afraid to write about. I was afraid that if I put it out there for everyone that I would worry my family and friends at home, break down the “tough girl” facade I had built up in pre-service training, and inevitably be hit so fiercely by my own words and truths that I would second guess my place in this country.
I had hit two of my biggest lows of service by my seventh month of being here, and little did I know, there would be another one on its way. Flashbacks of having my hand broken by a foreigner in a club racked around in my head, my “tough girl” mind unable to stifle them as I lived for three months with a cast, and then a splint, as a constant reminder. Knowing that inside, I was being beaten down by my anxiety; the anxiety that had never been debilitating in America, but had now manifested itself into panic attacks and severe jaw clenching here in my new home, tore me apart slowly. I felt alone, I felt weak, and most devastating of all I felt like I didn’t know myself anymore. The person that I had once believed I was, seemed to be no more. All that seemed to be left of the girl I once knew was an anxiety-ridden shell of the “tough girl” with the addition of a broken hand.
Those scars were fading though, and I felt like I was on an uphill climb, halfway through my eighth month in country. Things felt as if they were picking up for the better. I had made Thai friends that invited me out on weekends and I had gotten into a routine in my community that felt familiar and sustainable. I was exercising every day and managing my anxiety to the best of my ability. I was okay—I was surviving. And then it happened, I tripped and tumbled head first backwards down the path I had just fought to ascend; scraping open almost healed wounds and collecting new ones.
It started on a Sunday in mid August when I hadn’t seen Mario since the morning before, which was weird, but not completely unusual. On Monday I still hadn’t seen him so I began to look. I looked in the water well next to the house that he had once fell into while on a run with me and I asked people around the neighborhood, but no luck. I reasoned in my head that he would return soon and with that I went on my daily run. Halfway through, two boys who live on my property called to me, standing next to a large pond. As they looked down into the water at something that was obscured from my view by the brush that separated me from the water, it hit me like a train. My breath hitched and my arms and legs propelled me forward, even when my mind protested and screamed at me to run the other way.
“Is it a dog? Is it Mario?” I called to them in Thai, my voice breaking as I asked. Their responses confirmed my worst fears, and soon, I was standing next to them, looking down at the water-bloated body of what had once been my dog. The hair completely gone, red patches of blood visible beneath the skin where capillaries had burst, and gashes in its’ neck where maggots now festered. I mechanically picked up a shovel that sat a few feet away and struggled to turn the thing in the water over, desperate to determine if it was once a male or female. The smell was putrid and the site of the dog’s underbelly only confused me more. I went for help, telling my host family members in a language not my own, that this horrible thing had just happened, wishing for someone to embrace me with a sympathetic hug. The most assistance I received was my host sister looking at the animal in the water and insisting it couldn’t be my dog because it had remnants of black hair on its back and my puppy was mostly brown.
The belief that it could not possibly be Mario continued for a week. The body of the dog sat in the pond for four days, conveniently made visible to me on my ride to and from work after the brush had been cut away that Tuesday morning. As it sat in the water, I received insisting words from people that it wasn’t him and he was just off with a dog girlfriend somewhere. My anger built as my confusion grew over the fact that no one seemed to give a crap about what had happened, this thing that was breaking me so deeply. I felt like I was going crazy, trying not to break down crying in my office and almost screaming at a student who howled like a dog and told me it was my puppy when he was drowning. I felt like I was in The Upside Down (hope you get the reference), or one of those awful dreams where you’re screaming in people’s faces, but they just look right through you. I was utterly alone in my grief, the kind and consoling words that I received from friends in other places unable to penetrate the wall of this parallel universe I was in.
Mario, my sixth month old puppy that had been given to me about two and a half weeks after I moved to site, was dead. For weeks I had dreams of his death and of his return, all of which I awoke from feeling utter loss and sadness. He was the one thing that I felt I had full control over when my life was in a constant state of unknown. Mario loved me unconditionally and, according to my eleven year old host niece, I was his mother, so yes, if it wasn’t already obvious, my love for him was unwavering. But here’s the weird thing. Life moves on. You don’t hurt any less when you think about the cute little face that your puppy had and the way he followed you everywhere you went, but you simply don’t think about it as much. I know this journey of grief, I have lost pets before, but boy, is it freaking hard.
I had to pull myself out of those pits of despair, reevaluate the anger I held towards people in my community that couldn’t help me, didn’t say the right things, didn’t feel sad with me, because they simply didn’t know how to. I had to push myself forward, open up to those close to me about the vulnerabilities that had surfaced when my hand was broken, when my anxiety reared its ugly and confusing head, when my dog died, and when I simply struggled through a day or week here. I have not found a profound and fault free way of fully blocking life’s punches. I do not think such a thing exists. Instead, I have continued to build on my ability to absorb those punches and mold them into something that, right now, works for me. The only constant is change, and there is no doubt in my mind that I will need to make adjustments to my ways of dealing with life’s dilemmas in the future, just like I have had to do in the past.
Ten months ago I possessed the ability to deal with things, things that were hard in that stage of my life. I had not yet been faced with the new challenges that Peace Corps service has thrown at me and will continue to do. I am now grasping for a way to deal with my current state of things and sometimes I feel completely lost in the process. But this is my point—I need to be malleable, I need to be okay with the unknown and build from it. I need to adapt my way of dealing in order to survive. A coping mechanism that worked for my testing anxiety two years ago in college will not help me combat the new stresses I face in my present life. The pride I had that kept me from seeking outside help must now be set aside. My aversion to yoga will need to be broken down. The laziness that once kept my butt glued to the couch needs to be turned into determination to exercise. The amounts of alcohol I once consumed in social situations must be lessened. It has never been more apparent to me how desperate my body and mind are for positive attention and nurturing. Now is my time to be good to myself.
I am once again taking new steps. I am trying new ways of living. I am finding the little things that make me comfortable and happy. I am accepting that it is sometimes okay to not be okay. I am then pushing forward and adapting my self-care so that I can eventually be at peace with where I am. Because wherever that is, I will know that I gave it my all, and did what was best for me to get there.