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Vulnerability is not weakness: Breaking the silence around mental health

“Hi, I’d like to see if I could... take a mental health day...” I said, my voice shaking as I spoke to a Peace Corps medical officer over the phone. 

I wasn’t even sure what I was even asking for. A week before, I had gone through a long-distance breakup and I needed to move forward, as daunting as that was.

Like many people who find the courage to make a mental health appointment, it had taken me too long to admit that I needed help. I thought I was doing a pretty good job of healing until that Thursday morning. I just couldn’t stand being alone in my house. My mind raced with anxious thoughts: Will I be happy again? What do I do now?

My eyes watered as I confirmed my appointment.

Will she judge me for being gay? As I packed, I worried that I’d make the medical officer uncomfortable by explaining my past relationship. I took the next bus to Managua, anxious to see how the weekend would unfold.

I entered the medical office and sat down. I nervously looked around the chilly, air-conditioned room. How much do I tell her? Will she think I’m depressed and send me home?

The medical officer called me in. “I heard you’re not doing very well. What’s going on?” she asked, her voice soothing.

I’d cried before, but I didn’t think I had it in me to cry for an hour and a half. For the first time in a while, I felt as vulnerable as a newborn. Although my face was red and eyes were puffy, I was happy I’d decided to advocate for myself. I just wished I’d come to the office to speak with her before.

I told her everything.

She let me speak for as long as I needed. She made it clear that I wasn’t the first gay person to talk to her. Not by a long shot. At site, it’s always a game of “Should I come out to this person? How will they react?” I thought I’d have to continue this self-preservation game at the office, but I was relieved to let my guard down.

Unlike therapists in the United States, she wasn’t constantly looking at her watch. There was no impending, “Well, time’s up." We sat. We thought. Sometimes, 20 silent seconds would go by... and it was OK.

Char and Jen spending a day swimming and hiking through Somoto Canyon, Nicaragua.
Char and Jen spending a day swimming and hiking through Somoto Canyon, Nicaragua.

That night, my good friend Jen stayed with me. She reminded me of the importance of being present, which has always been a challenge. At breakfast she asked me, What’s wrong with this moment, right now? “You’ve been reading 'The Power Of Now,’ haven’t you?” I said, smiling.

I couldn’t think of pressing problems in that moment. We had unlimited papaya and pineapple. We weren’t drinking Presto instant coffee, but real coffee. I had no complaints.

I stayed in town the next night. It was exceptionally rainy and the smell of the wet ground reminded me of the rare thunderstorms in my Washington state hometown. I listened to country music to further propel my memories into my idealized image of home. I remembered listening to country music radio while driving past corn fields on my way to work at McDonald’s during high school.

I wrote a letter to myself, in which I began to forgive myself.

I’m my own hardest critic and I’ve felt too guilty for not being the superwoman I try to be every day. I acknowledged my own vulnerability and by doing that, I wasn’t being weak. Vulnerability is not weakness.

This weekend reminded me that while mental health can be an uncomfortable subject to bring up, it affects us all. When I told people that this week was hard for me and that I needed help, I didn’t want them to feel sorry for me. I wanted to be honest. By admitting that I was taking a mental health weekend, I felt as if I were normalizing this often-overlooked need. (For more on this topic, check out Brené Brown's TED Talk on vulnerability.)

Taking care of your mind is just as important as taking care of any other part of your body. Volunteers are beyond comfortable talking about afflictions like diarrhea and parasites. When will we bring this nonchalance to mental health topics? When we realize that mental vulnerability is not weakness.