The Pre-Departure Panic

It started about a week before I was due to board my flight to Colombia. I’d get in bed and try to sleep, but find myself lying awake, my thoughts racing and heart pounding. All day long I’d feel anxious, fears and worries playing in my head like a radio station I couldn’t turn off. Concerns that had felt small one or two months before departure began to loom large, and the list of things I worried about began to feel nearly infinite.

One thing I began to worry about in earnest was my placement city, Medellín. During the application process with Greenheart and Volunteers Colombia I had requested to be placed in a small or mid-sized city that is off the beaten tourist track. I requested this because I really wanted to learn Spanish and to learn about Colombian culture by living and socializing with Colombians, rather than with other gringos. I was also excited about the challenge of living in a place that was totally different from what I am used to, and making do without all the comforts of home.

Once I learned that I would be placed in Medellín, I researched it online and read many wonderful things, yet there were also a lot of things about this placement that worried me. A big, modern city popular with expats and tourists was very different from where I had been expecting to live. Would I be able to find Spanish-speakers to live with? Would it be harder to meet people and make Colombian friends in a big, busy city? Would it be too easy to give in to the temptation to hang out with mostly gringos? With Medellín being so modern and cosmopolitan, would I even feel like I was living in Colombia?

The fact that I would be teaching full time also began to really sink in and make me truly terrified. Though for several years I had been teaching ESL classes to adults in Chicago once a week a volunteer basis, I felt woefully unprepared for the task of teaching a room full of students 5 days a week. How would I possibly fill the time?

I also became more and more anxious and depressed about being away from my my family and friends for so long.

My dad passed away in February, and while he was sick and after he died I often regretted bitterly all the time when I was younger that I could have spent with him and didn’t. I would give anything, now, to talk to him again, to ask him the million questions that I have come up with since he got sick, to ask his advice about everything possible and write it down carefully for when I need it.

“And now you’re voluntarily leaving to spend a year away from the people you love?” I asked myself, horrified. 

These dark thoughts and many more circled in my mind like vultures, flying around and back again, until I could think of almost nothing else.

The mind is a funny thing. Here I was on the cusp of finally living and working abroad, something I had always wanted to do, and as the date of my departure crept up I began to doubt myself more and more. I became convinced that I was making a huge mistake, that I was crazy, that this would be a disaster.

“Do something every day that scares you!” I told myself. “You regret the things you don’t do, not the things you do!” “Nobody ever regrets traveling and seeing the world while they’re young!” Yet such encouragements and platitudes, though I firmly believed them to be wise and true, did little to dispel the dark clouds in my mind. I knew it was just normal anxiety making small concerns seem huge, but I couldn’t stop it from happening.

In the end, I found that the only way forward was just to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to remember that I have always felt terrified before making big life changes and yet I’ve always been fine, and to have faith that it will get better in time.

I am sure that one day I will be looking back gratefully on the amazing experience I had in Colombia and laughing about how silly I was to worry so much – even though it sure didn’t feel that way before I left.

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