11 Life Lessons I Learned From Getting Sick and Being Forced to Leave the Peace Corps

It had been my dream since I was 14 years old.

In the midst of doing my history homework, I found it on the internet by accident: the U.S. Peace Corps. An agency whose mission statement was to “promote world peace and friendship”, and which did so by sending idealistic Americans like myself to foreign lands to work on development projects and form cross-cultural relationships. I couldn’t have dreamed up a program which fit my interests better. Adventure? Check. Helping people? Check. Opportunity for personal growth and development? Biiiig check. This program was clearly designed for me, and I spent the next eight years silently dreaming about it and planning to apply someday.

In August 2015, at 22 years old, I finally was granted my wish. I received the coveted acceptance email from the Peace Corps.

When I opened the email, I cried. Not only was I accepted, but the program itself –the Entrepreneurship Education program in Nicaragua — couldn’t have been a better fit. I wanted to teach, I wanted to use my economics degree, I wanted to speak Spanish. But more than anything else, I was just overwhelmingly excited to be a real Peace Corps Volunteer and finally cross this off my Bucket List.

After six months of preparation and waiting, in February 2016 I said goodbye to my parents and boarded the plane to Nicaragua. As I watched the Pittsburgh sun set on the horizon, I couldn’t help thinking about all the things I would learn, the people I would meet, and the ways in which I would grow.

…How funny that life had other plans in mind, which would grow me in ways far grander than I had imagined.

I’ll keep this summary short, because that’s exactly what my experience in Nicaragua was. From day four there, I was terribly, mysteriously ill. I felt exhausted like I’d never been exhausted before. I blacked out every time I would stand up. No matter how much sleep I got, I was indescribably fatigued and always dizzy. My GI system was completely nonfunctional, failing to absorb anything I ate (use your imagination). And every morning I woke up feeling as if I hadn’t slept at all, forced to stumble through my busy training schedule. I was a walking zombie. More details about the actual sickness phase are in this blog post.

After three months of barely managing to pass my training classes and survive each day — not to mention dozens of doctor visits, blood tests, and medications — the Peace Corps doctors finally told me that there was nothing left that they could do to help me. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong, and only one thing was clear: I wasn’t able to be an effective Volunteer like this, and therefore I should go home. Less than 24 hours later, I found myself on a plane back to the US, with no job and no plan, left to sort out the shambles of my life at my parents’ house.

What my life felt like when I got back to the US: pulverized to smithereens.

My time in Nicaragua and the months afterward have easily been the scariest six months of my life, both in terms of health and in terms of uncertainty about my life direction. However, this experience has also been a remarkable teacher, and has sent me on a healing journey that has been simultaneously physical, mental, and spiritual. So, without further ado, I present the lessons I learned from being medically evacuated from the Peace Corps and leaving behind my dream:

1. I am not nearly as positive or serene a person as I like to think I am.

If you asked anyone who knows me even a little bit to describe me, chances are the words “positive” and “enthusiastic” would be in the first sentence or two. It’s a description that I’ve gotten used to, and I’ve begun to take pride in it. But in reality, so much of that persona can be attributed to the fact that I’ve been lucky enough to have a fairly conflict-free life. Sick in the Peace Corps, I suddenly found myself unable to live my fairytale existence anymore. I learned that when sh*t gets rough, apparently I turn into a meditation-hater, a temper-tantrum-thrower, a cry-all-the-time-er. I was irritable and snappy, and I thought about quitting about a thousand times a day. I was the opposite of the Pollyanna everyone thinks of me as. I was a mess. And it was an important reminder that when other people seem to be acting terribly, chances are they’re probably fighting a battle, too. It’s easy to be positive when everything’s peachy. Perhaps the ultimate test of character is how one responds when the storm comes, and someday I hope to be more graceful at weathering those storms.

2. No matter how hard I try, I can’t control everything.

Y’all, I tried everything. From the day I first felt sick, I worked incredibly hard to “make it go away”. First, I spent about a bazillion hours on the internet researching every possible cause, diagnosis, and treatment for what I was feeling. Then, I put every single piece of advice I found into practice. I meditated. I did yoga. I went to bed by 8pm religiously in case lack of sleep was contributing. I made sure to continue exercising and eating healthy. I did breathing exercises every day. I took dozens of different medicines. And yet, despite all of the effort I was throwing at the problem, it didn’t work. In fact, I was so incredibly frustrated by the fact that my efforts weren’t yielding results that my anxiety levels tripled, no doubt making the problem worse. I learned that sometimes I’ve got to give up control of everything except my attitude and how I respond.

3. There’s a difference between perseverance and stubbornness.

Throughout my three months sick in Nicaragua, I repeatedly considered “quitting” and accepting medical evacuation back to the U.S., but I didn’t take it. “I’m not a quitter,” I told myself. “I’m perseverant.” But towards the end of my time there, when I wasn’t getting better, I started asking a new question: “What if it’s irresponsible of me to still be here, risking my health every day?” I started to distinguish a difference between perseverance and stubbornness, and it comes down to the difference between fighting for something (perseverance) and fighting against something inevitable (stubbornness). I had to learn to see this situation clearly — that I had tried as hard as I could, and now it was clearly time to listen to my body and go take care of myself. It wasn’t “quitting”, the verb I had come to fear; it was just responding to an unexpected situation in the best way I possibly could.

4. Sick people deserve empathy, too.

I hate to admit it, but for most of my life I’ve subconsciously disdained and judged people when they got “sick”. As someone who’s been lucky enough to never visit a doctor for anything other than a routine checkup, I pretty much assumed that people who got sick were just screwing something up. They weren’t eating well enough, or exercising regularly, or sleeping enough. They probably drank too much, or were living with too much stress, which of course was their fault and they should sort that out. I took pride in my perfect wellness and saw it as a product of my own efforts. Now, that’s not to say that living healthfully isn’t really important — it is! …but it isn’t everything. It doesn’t account for the fact that sometimes, people just get sick. And regardless, even if someone’s illness could have been prevented, that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve empathy. This experience has taught me a piercing lesson — that no one is invincible, and we’ve got to show up with chicken soup for each other when we hit snags.

5. My health is the most valuable (and fragile) gift I’ll ever receive.

One of the hardest lessons from this experience has been that I am not invincible. I’ve spent much of my life very attached to my health, and to my vision of myself as a supremely healthy person (something I saw as my own accomplishment). Since returning to health, I’ve been thanking god every day for the experiences I’ve been able to have and fully enjoy because my body was working properly. Because my legs could climb that mountain. Because my heart keeps pumping my blood. Because my digestive tract actually absorbs all those nutrients I put in. I don’t have control over any of that. It just happens. And I am so, so grateful for that magic.

6. When someone shares their story with you, believe them.

One of the worst parts of getting sick was feeling like the people around me didn’t understand the magnitude of what I was going through. When a friend said “I think it’s all in your head”, or when my program directors told me that they “have concerns about whether [I] have the ‘emotional fortitude’ to serve for two years.” When someone says they’re struggling, please never undermine them. Instead, validate their story and feelings by being there and listening. Whether it’s a story about the time they were sexually assaulted, or just about how they felt yesterday morning, let them know that you believe them. That they’re not making it up. That this human experience varies widely, and just because you’ve never experienced something yourself, or can’t imagine being in their shoes, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It doesn’t mean those feelings aren’t real. Imagine the world we could create if we would just listen to each other, believe each other, and hold each other.

7. The difference in healthcare quality between the U.S. and Nicaragua is sobering.

Before I left for Nicaragua, people would say, “But aren’t you scared you’ll get sick there?”. I would chuckle and assure them I would be fine, not ever actually thinking I’d ever have a run-in with the Nicaraguan health system. Spoiler alert: I was wrong. I spent more time in a developing-country health system than I ever thought I would — several trips to Nicaraguan diagnostic labs, a trip with my host mom to a local clinic, LOTS of pharmacy runs, and even a stint in a Nicaraguan emergency room. These experiences brought on the stark realization that we have SO MUCH to be grateful for here in America, health-wise. Besides being able to eat kale every day and feed our bodies endless superfoods to stave off disease, here we are able to have advanced procedures and trust that they are done by a knowledgeable medical professional. Funny anecdote: I returned to the U.S. clutching a giant copy of the Nicaraguan hospital’s CT-scan of my head, which I showed to a family friend, who’s a radiologist. He looked at it for a moment and chuckled, saying, “This tells me next to nothing. They completely missed the lower third of your brain.”

……’nuff said.

8. …but Western medicine is FAR from perfect.

When I returned to the U.S., I immediately began seeing doctors and having a million more tests done (including a full-on colonoscopy). When they, too, told me “nothing’s wrong; you’re a perfectly healthy 23-year-old”, I almost screamed. And if there’s one thing that I learned from the extensive research I’ve done into my illness, it’s that there are millions of people on the internet having similar experiences. Some of the people I read about were wheelchair-bound or even bedridden, unable to live any semblance of a normal life … all while doctors told them they were “perfectly healthy”, as shown by all the tests they had done. It seems that these tests — and Western medicine at large — have some giant holes — holes in which people like me and others are seen as “completely healthy” by doctors’ standards, while we feel the furthest thing from it. I can promise anyone reading this that my body was very sick. We need new ways to look at health more holistically, treating the patient as a person rather than merely a series of tests that don’t show the whole picture.

9. Stop waiting for the “perfect moment” to do something you want to do.

When I was in Nicaragua, one of the top items on my Bucket List was to go “volcano boarding”, a thrilling activity for which Nicaragua is famous. I was lucky enough to spend my Practicum Week in León, the home of volcano boarding. We had a free day at the end of Practicum Week and I considered going, but when another person in my group wanted to go to the beach, I decided to do that instead, figuring I’d wait until I could come back with “all my closest friends” and have “the perfect volcano-boarding experience”. Of course, we all know that second opportunity never came for me. Lesson learned — when opportunity knocks, let it in!

10. Any experience is worthwhile, regardless of its length.

One of the reasons I was so afraid to leave the Peace Corps was my conception that somehow my experience “didn’t count” if I didn’t spend the entire two years there. In my head, it would be as if I hadn’t gone at all. But just because I wasn’t there for two full years doesn’t mean those three months weren’t full of growth, learning, and impact. In fact, my dad pointed out that perhaps there’s even a “marginal diminishing return” to experiences like these, in which I probably gained more in the three months I spent there than I would have gained in the next five. I can affirm that this is likely true — I received intensive Spanish classes and achieved professional proficiency; received a crash course on the culture of Nicaragua; got to form relationships with incredible Nicas and volunteers alike; and learned all about what it takes to teach entrepreneurship to rooms full of 60 rowdy high-schoolers, among countless other experiences. These three months were the most chock-full of learning in my entire life (except maybe when I was an infant). I will forever be grateful to Peace Corps, Nicaragua, and myself for allowing myself to have these experiences, regardless of whether I was able to continue for the rest of the two years.

Looking forward now, into the foggy abyss.

It’s been a little over two months now that I’ve been home and healing, and I’m excited to report that I’m feeling much better. I’m finally beginning to search for a job again, to get back into the groove of my life.

For all of you who are asking, “So what was it?????? What was wrong with you????”, I unfortunately still don’t have a nicely packaged answer. I still can’t say “yup, it was a parasite”, or “I had Zika!!!”. But I can tell you my own hunch:

For my whole life, I’ve tried so hard. At everything. Without even realizing how hard I was trying, and without realizing how much I expected perfection of myself. And because the Peace Corps had been my dream for so long, when I arrived in Nicaragua I was trying harder than ever at everything. I was trying hard to be the “perfect Trainee” and impress the directors. I was trying hard to fit in with all the new people I was meeting, my future group of friends. Trying hard to gain my mom’s approval for being there (which I think I knew I’d never get, but I still was trying). Trying hard to have the “perfect experience” I had wanted so badly for so long. In hindsight, I think the enormous stress from trying so goddamn hard finally became too much. No one can endure those kinds of self-expectations and feel good every day, and my body just broke down.

So, one last lesson:

11. It’s okay to not be perfect.

It’s okay. You are trying so hard. Give yourself a break. Allow yourself to fail at something. To say, “Today, I think I need to just stay in bed.”

To be a human.

To love myself, in all of my imperfect glory.

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This article was originally published
here as part of my Peace Corps blog, sophia en nicaragua. Follow more of my adventures at http://www.sophiaciocca.me.