taming the emotional hydra?
September 11, 2007 2:51 PM   Subscribe

So, how you do contend with massive, hemorrhaging, overwhelming emotion? This is also sort of a LDR question too.

The specific situation, not entirely essential for the questions -- On Thursday, I will move into a difficult living situation with nuns in a village in Malawi. The nuns speak little English; I speak little Chichewa. I will have access to a phone, with middling poor reception, and will be able to talk with my fiance (who I miss agonizingly already) daily. I will have internet on a more or less weekly basis. My duties, theoretically, entail assisting in the village health clinic, but there is also a secondary school. I want to get as involved in both of these as my Chichewa will allow; at present, this doesn't mean much since I don't speak it very well. That will change. But nonetheless, I'm already seriously questioning my judgement in taking this venture, mostly as regards leaving my fiance. (He is totally supportive, and I have stayed stateside while he did similar ventures of his own, so I should not feel too much guilt, although I do. The timing seems wrong -- he is engaged in a superdemanding graduate program and this year, when I am leaving, is actually one of his less busy ones).

It just seems silly and selfish to leave the one I love and who loves me for people who don't know whether I live or die, and would not be affected either way if I did. Arising from all the presently-experienced grief, fear, and pain, and the anticipated futility, powerlessness, and frustration, are my overwhelming, appetite-destroying, sleep-forbidding emotions.

Specific questions:

- How do you cope with overwhelming feelings that destroy your ability to reason? (My reason tells me this will be an unmatched growth opportunity for me, allow me to see world realities as few people in developed countries do, etc; that I will see my fiance soon (in three months), with maybe another 4-6 months apart afterward, but that this has been done before and is really not going to be all that awful, etc). I tell myself all this, but nothing registers. How can I get excited about this amazing opportunity I have again, and stop focusing on all the missing pain? What can I do to beat back my emotion and be comforted by my reason?

- Any particular advice for coping in circumstances in which you can neither understand nor be understood easily, specifically in third-world villages? Anything I can do to cope better with the inevitable social and emotional isolation?

- Most importantly, your very long-distance relationship tips? The fiance and I have done this before, and it's been rough, never fatal. I have good reason to believe it will be better this time, but it's so damn HARD! Does anything make this better? We do all the letter-sending, phone-calling, joint-activity business that we can, given the 8000 mile and six timezone separation. I need more emotional LDR management tips than practical ones.

I do apologize for the probable incoherence of the actual questions.
posted by bluenausea to Human Relations (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
it sounds trite, but take it one day at a time. i can't really address your relationship questions, but i do know that no one who loves you would ask (or want) you to pass this up.

as for getting over the emotions, my strategy is to get busy and stay busy. also, be patient with yourself. it's easy to be overwhelmed by the unknown, but the more time passes, the less unmanageable it will seem. sometimes you just have to wait it out.

i find that when i'm in a really crappy place, it helps to just tell someone else. you don't have to explain it in detail--i think just saying you miss someone back home is enough. they may be nuns, but they are also women, and they will understand.

i hope you feel better. i know it must suck right now, but if you can just hang in there for a little bit, i think you'll be glad that you did. and remember--if it just sucks too much, you can go home. you might feel guilty, but that option does exist. good luck and best wishes!
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:04 PM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

I admire you. Your question reads as a laundry list of perfectly natural anxieties related to jumping headlong into the unknown - honestly, I wish I'd been as adventurous, intrepid and open to new experiences before I'd settled into what is now a very satisfying, committed life. Attack this opportunity to learn, grow and become a different person. Your fiance loves you, supports you, and your individual growth and life-changing experiences will only serve to enrich your life together when you come home.

My SO and I dated long-distance for a year and a half before I moved to be with him. We had our ups and downs while living across the country from one another, but the best advice I can offer is to completely give over to the unknown and have no expectations. Live in the moment to the best of your abilities, write, e-mail, IM and telephone as often as possible, but live your life to the fullest while you're separated. That way, when you do finally come home to each other, there's plenty to talk about and share outside of the requisite "Good Christ, I missed you terribly!"

Again, have the time of your life. It's going to be really hard at first, I would imagine, but you've got major guts and it will become an exhilarating chaos after you adapt. And you will. Enjoy yourself and learn as much as you can.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 3:11 PM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

My experience is that the hardest moments are just beforehand (when you are saying oh man, what was I thinking, I'm unqualified, what if there is a disaster, did I remember to pack any underwear, what if I blow it...) and after a few months there. Once you begin, things are fine because you are too busy with language and remembering names and treating your foot infection and learning your new job to be unhappy, but after a while you have breathing space, but you don't really know all that many people yet and so you feel lonely, and that is another low point. (There is actually a standard chart of the emotional ups and downs that go along with those kinds of cross-cultural experiences, but I couldn't find it with a quick Google search.)

One thing to consider is that, even though it is you that is freaking out right now, the next year will probably be much harder on your partner than it will be on you. You will be in a neat place, learning new things, and having a stunning experience, even when it is tough and miserable. He will be stuck at home, doing the same-old same-old, and will probably worry about your safety and your happiness.

I would suggest that in addition to your phone calls (which might fall apart if the phone company workers go on strike, or there are landslides, or when the electricity gets shut off during the dry season) and postcards and telegrams, that you write very detailed descriptions of your life there for him. Sort of like a journal, but with a reader other than yourself. Mail them as letters if you want, or just keep the notebook for when you see him.

About the sense of isolation: there will be a bunch of days when you are exhausted and your stomach hurts and you've been being polite to irritating people all day and all you want to do is curl up and close the door and read a book. And sometimes that is what you need to do to not go crazy. But it is by walking out that door and trying one more time to talk with someone that you end the isolation. And I'd suggest keeping an eye on how often you go out drinking beer with the other expats in the area -- it can be a really nice break from being immersed in another culture, but if that's all you do then you are just reinforcing the barriers between you and the local people.
posted by Forktine at 3:20 PM on September 11, 2007

How do you cope with overwhelming feelings that destroy your ability to reason?

Don't try to get over it, or "tame it" into non-existence, just feel what you feel and accept that that's what you feel right now.

Which is entirely easier said that done. But repressing or suppressing emotions tend to just make them more stubbornly present and increase their attention-whore ways.
posted by occhiblu at 3:48 PM on September 11, 2007

Re: Malawi: Take salt (and maybe other spices if allowed) with you. A friend was with the Peace Corps in Malawi a few years ago and she said the food was so unremittingly bland that it drove her nuts. Also, take engaging and fun books, a deck of cards and rules for some games, and a multivitamin, if allowed.

The idea of writing a journal/letter to fiance is excellent. Hang on to it rather than trusting it to the postal service there. (Send other letters too, but keep a copy of your journal)

This is the anxiety before jumping off the diving board. You've made a choice, now you just have to edge your way down the board and jump. I know it sucks to be in the in-between place, before you jump, but it will be good and it will be short. Think of comparable 3 month periods in your life before -- short, right? And once you come back it will be that time you spent in Malawi, which even if it's frustrating and lonely, will be pretty amazing for its differentness.

As for how to defeat this anxiety, the only way is to get busy doing something else. You can't talk yourself out of being nervous. All you can do is commit yourself to some other project for the weeks until you go (helping parents clean out garage or finish family albums? find Chichewa resources and work on that?), and not allow yourself so much time to feel overwhelmed.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:56 PM on September 11, 2007

I stand behind all the advice to stay busy, not that you'll have a choice. Much like your anticipation of your Chichewa skills improving through immersion, that is the very thing that will probably distract you from your crippling emotions. EVERYTHING in your surroundings will seem entirely new, and your mind will be engaged in finding the familiar amidst the new, and getting acquainted with the unfamiliar.
Try to let your sense of wonder and love of life, which you obviously still posess if you're taking on something like this, be forefront in your mind. Something that helps me with missing someone terribly is to perform a sort of emotional alchemy, and turn that awful ache into something like a source of comfort (or maybe pride?), that you have that person thousands of miles away, quietly supporting and loving you, and patiently waiting for you to get back. It doesn't stop you from missing them, but it stops it from hurting in the same way. That person, and your feeling for them, is your strength.
posted by SixteenTons at 4:54 PM on September 11, 2007

I would seriously consider not going. A relationship involves a degree of compromise, and above all it involves physically being with the person you love. In your place, if I loved him, I wouldn't risk the separation, "unmatched growth opportunity" or not. Listen to your gut feeling, there's a reason it's there.
posted by londongeezer at 5:00 PM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

I disagree with londongeezer. The gut feeling doesn't mean one option is the wrong one, it just means both options are so wonderful that it's not easy to pick one over the other. You wont regret moving away, especially once you're back together. It's not just a growth opportunity for you, but for the relationship as well.

As for what to do when you're there with only a little language, my only experience of that is in the order of a few days, not a few months, but I found that small, physical games are wonderful ice breakers with children. Thumb wars, that hand slapping game (gently, of course), giving them shoulder rides then pretending you can't see them, small magic tricks, aeroplane rides (you lie on your back, feet on their stomach, then lift them up on your legs so they're 'flying'). All of these are very simple, easily understood by children, and if they're anything like children from every other part of the world, they'll love you for it.

I don't have specific advice about the adults, but hopefully once they see how well you're getting along with the children they'll be even more ready to welcome you.

As far as the LDR goes, what helped me was this thought:
"I miss her, I love her, my life is sadder without her in it. But I prefer by far to have her far away, to be missing her like this, than to not have her at all. Even though this hurts terribly, it's a wonderful hurt that comes from a wonderful love."
posted by twirlypen at 5:50 PM on September 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

How do you cope with overwhelming feelings that destroy your ability to reason? (My reason tells me this will be an unmatched growth opportunity for me, allow me to see world realities as few people in developed countries do, etc; that I will see my fiance soon (in three months), with maybe another 4-6 months apart afterward, but that this has been done before and is really not going to be all that awful, etc). I tell myself all this, but nothing registers. How can I get excited about this amazing opportunity I have again, and stop focusing on all the missing pain? What can I do to beat back my emotion and be comforted by my reason?

Try to keep yourself from wallowing/dwelling on the pain and difficult emotions, as much you can. One thing that helps me is to come up with a "mantra," a specfic phrase to repeat to myself every time I feel my thoughts going along an undesired path. Something like "This is a once-in-a-lifetime, world-expanding experience and I am grateful to have this opportunity"... or whatever works for you.

Don't expect the words to sink in at first. Just memorize them and make a habit of repeating them word-for-word every time you notice yourself drifting into unwanted thoughts/emotions-- more to distract yourself from dwelling on those unwanted thoughts than anything else. That's the primary purpose, but over time you may find the pleasant side-effect that you start to believe what you're telling yourself.

Good luck and have fun! I'm excited for you...
posted by EmilyClimbs at 7:46 PM on September 11, 2007

I am a former international development worker (I know sub-saharan Africa but not Malawi - I know people who went there) and most of your fears are unfounded. Your biggest enemy is going to be boredom. Things will move slowly, you won't have many options - it won't be hard to live your day-to-day life. Pay attention to your surroundings, and remember the basics of survival (food, water, shelter and you'll live)- people have been in that region since the dawn of humanity. I will make only a few notes on this front - take your health very seriously and pay attention to things which look very minor like cuts and scrapes (for god's sake use a mosquito net even if the Africans don't), control your drinking, and remember you are in a region where the majority of adults have HIV/AIDS - you will see people die from it.

I doubt you will be socially isolated. In both my overseas postings, I had to deal with a considerable amount of celebrity which resulted in a lot of social invitations and attention. Sometimes this is negative *remember your sense of proportion*. You will probably find you seem to automatically know all the right people, but you also have great potential for getting caught in scandal. I know you said you are in a romantic relationship, but expect to be popular and you will get offers - even if you don't attract this attention normally - remember my health advice and be damn careful. I had relationships in my overseas postings, and sometimes I find it very difficult that we have lost contact.

More on relationships - I look back on my time in-country very fondly, but I can't say for a second that the experience didn't change me *a lot* . The eyes you see the world with will change, maybe drastically - quite a few things will never feel the same. I am trying not to be melodramatic, but with all the fame and adventure that goes with international development work you trade off parts of your life. I missed a lot of things at home - my dad looked shockingly older when I returned, I didn't know the names' of my cousins' children or their new spouses, my cat died, there were friends I could no longer relate to, my first visit to a grocery store in North America after returning was bewildering, I found the weather too cold for years after I returned, It was hard to take the manufactured chaos of western business seriously when I seen people living with so little, and my hometown took on an entirely different feel. I doubt you will have many troubles in Malawi, you will expect a faraway country to be weird and you'll find a way to adapt; coming home is the hard part. You can't count on things to feel the same again.

Read up on cultural shock and reverse cultural shock. You'll experience it. A good international development agency should train you ahead of time to deal with it - if you know its normal it will be a lot easier.

International Development work makes for a good life - at least briefly I felt pure, and the rest of the time I felt like I was an adventurer and trying to accomplish good things, and I knew good people (remember its going to be hard and things will move slow - there is a good chance you won't be able to accomplish much). If I could figure out a way to save enough money to care for myself as an old man while working on volunteer stipends, I would spend my life trying to help people in poor countries. Just remember that the trade off is that there are things about you that will change and parts of you will leave and never come back.
posted by Deep Dish at 10:42 PM on September 11, 2007

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