Gaslighting 101

Has anyone else felt crazy lately? Does the daily onslaught of (not) fake news, blatant lies, and spinning of the truth coming out of Washington have you questioning reality? If so, you’re not alone. Rates of post-election stress have risen for many Americans and the masterful manipulation of the truth coming out of a White House that lives in an alternate reality has led many, myself included, to question their sanity. This phenomenon being used to destabilize our conception of truth and reality is called gaslighting.

Gaslighting, as defined by Wikipedia, is “a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity.” The long-term goal is essentially brainwashing as the targets cease to believe what they know to be true and succumb to a world of alternative facts and realities all the while questioning their own sanity.

As every post-election ethics violation, conflict of interest, sexist/racist/homophobic/xenophobic cabinet nomination and baffling executive order was announced, I started to not only lose hope but also in my lowest, most confused moments wonder if I was crazy. I wasn’t, I was just allowing myself to be influenced by gaslighting.

We have all been subjected to gaslighting at some point in our lives. Yet for me it wasn’t until this presidency and the increase in popularity of this term that I connected the dots to how gaslighting had been a theme in my life since I was young. Recently, I came across an old birthday message from a stepsibling that a friend pointed out was the quintessential definition of gaslighting. Suddenly, I started to see that gaslighting had been prevalent in my family system for years.

Let me give you some background. My parents split up when I was 14 years old. Just a couple weeks after the separation, my mother went headstrong into a relationship with the father of my middle school frenemy, simultaneously convincing me that this relationship was a good thing and that his daughter was a good friend and not my enemy like I had once thought. As my mom’s relationship progressed and our families merged, we became a household without boundaries or consequences. Merciless mocking and dinner table tantrums were normal. Disrespect was blatant and demeaning jokes at the expense of other family members were the prominent form of family humor. Our parents didn’t set boundaries nor did they hold people accountable for their inappropriate behavior.

It wasn’t until I was was in my freshman year of college that I realized how dysfunctional life at my mother’s house had been. I went back and asked her and her husband to create a safe space in their household by setting boundaries and holding people accountable for their behavior. Their response was a request for me to just accommodate the behavior and not cause conflict. They stated that they wouldn’t intervene so as not to displace any of his children. To clarify – boundaries do not mean displacement they just mean not tolerating inappropriate behavior. In making that choice; however, they actually displaced my brother and I as we no longer felt it was safe to stay in the household. Upon naming the dysfunction, my brother and I were blamed for leaving and accused of avoiding conflict when in reality we were just setting boundaries. As the blame continued, I eventually cut off contact with my family/step family as there was no space for my needs, my voice, or me in the family system. Yet on my 21st birthday I looked down to my cell phone and found a surprising message from one of my stepsisters who I hadn’t heard from in a couple years.

Oh my God! Somebody wanted to talk to me and hear my experience and try to work to move forward! Blinded by hope, I momentarily forgot that the sender was my stepsister whose prior indifference to me was demonstrated by a refusal to get up from her seat to greet or hug me when I came home for my first break from college. No desire to see me had ever been expressed previously and my leaving the household years before hadn’t prompted so much as a response from her. With all that being said, was the message suspicious? Yes. Did I see it? No.

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After calmly and respectfully responding and naming the truth, her true intent for reaching out became clear as she delivered the best kind of birthday present my family can give – a mind game.

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Wait. What? Where did this come from? What did I do? Did I say something? Oh right…gaslighters don’t like hearing the truth as they live in their own reality.

Everyone was mad at me? Cool. If I really still cared about that I would have continued to give up parts of myself to appease everyone’s fragile tempers. But obviously I’m over it. She apparently wasn’t, as her message was proof enough of that. And this olive branch that she claimed to extend? It was more of a Trojan horse, disguising her attack with seductive words as is common in gaslighting. Just to be clear, while I did choose to leave the household, it was because behavior like this was both normal and acceptable. For that reason, I do not want anyone to forgive me as I do not believe I need to be forgiven and will never apologize for standing up for myself. The choice I made to leave actually bettered my life rather than screwed it up, despite my stepsister’s declaration, but gaslighters tend to project their situations onto others so I’m actually wondering how she was feeling about her own life. Anyways, it’s not my place to speculate, all I know as that this message was crazy.

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“I’ve never spoken like that to you before in my life.” False. “Don’t pretend like I’ve been bullying you forever.” Discounting my experience. “You don’t just get away with what you did without being bitched out by someone.” I don’t know what I did, definitely nothing to warrant this verbal attack. “You only want to be babied.” Projection. I’m fine with boundaries, I’m fine with discussions, I fine with rational conversations about the impacts of behavior. This is none of those things. This is gaslighting.

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Again – projection! Who is the one here that has no idea how to solve a conflict and runs away from serious conversations? Not me.

Three years have gone by since this message and I have not heard from her since. Maybe she finally really is over it. Or maybe she just realized that her gaslighting doesn’t work on me anymore.

This is what gaslighters do. They suck you in with flashy words and then pull out the rug from under you once you are hooked leaving you questioning your sanity and wondering how you ever got into the situation in the first place. My stepsister did exactly that. She lured me in feigning hurt and confusion and once she sucked me into her story, lashed out. It is a means to manipulate and control people and I wasn’t having it anymore.

The reason I am sharing this is to show a humorous, somewhat dumbed down version of the crazy making that is coming out of Washington. Should we not stand up to this behavior, it will continue. Gaslighting starts at home and in your communities and in your relationships. My dad and Maureen consistently say that changing the current state of our country starts by changing our own relationships and how we behave in our every day lives. If we back down from conflict, normalize destructive behavior, and give power to the untrue then gaslighting and the current state of affairs will continue. If we stand up, like I did with my stepsister, then gaslighting loses its power. Instead of normalizing this behavior, which may have been part of your conditioning like it was for me, perhaps we could find the courage to call out and refuse to participate in gaslighting. And then our country will have a chance to return to sanity rather than dangle on the puppet strings of a cast of master manipulators in our government.

Want to learn more about gaslighting? Here are some resources.

Donald Trump is Gaslighting America

11 Signs of Gaslighting in a Relationship

You’re Not Going Crazy

 

The Lost City

I was going hiking in the mountains! Or at least that’s what I thought…Since arriving in Colombia last May, I have had Ciudad Perdida, also known as the Lost City, on my list of places to visit. Ciudad Perdida is an abandoned city in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on Colombia’s coast hidden away for over 350 years until its recent discovery in the past several decades. Known as the Machu Picchu of Colombia, it was recently opened to tourism by way of a four to six day trek through a mountainous jungle. As teaching fellows started planning their trips for a weeklong school holiday in October, I knew I was going to do the trek.

My original plan was to complete the trek in June, but of course, I was too sick then to walk down the street let alone up a mountain. This time, though, unlike last, I was healthy and ready – or so I thought. But something wasn’t right. I was clear about wanting to go to the coast during the school break and clear, within myself, that I wanted to travel on my own due to my general aversion to large groups and love of solo adventures. But one thing was tripping me up – I wasn’t the only one going to the coast. There was another group, or several groups, of fellows who also had similar plans during the break. Given this knowledge, I felt a pressure to join them and was afraid of saying, “Hey – so we’re going to the same place but I think I’m going to break off and travel on my own…” out of fear of what they would think and that they might eventually, upon return to our normal post-vacation lives, abandon me, leaving me friendless and alone. The Ciudad Perdida trek, however, was the perfect opportunity to do my own thing. Suddenly, it went from being something I solely wanted to do for myself to something I wanted to do to get away from others. I needed space but was too afraid to ask for it.

Then, rather than being upfront and honest about my thoughts, I disconnected from myself. The first sign of dysfunction was obvious, I didn’t sleep well the week leading up to the trip. Of course I ignored the insomnia and excused it as a case of nerves for the upcoming challenging and unfamiliar adventure. What I didn’t realize was that in my head, I was turning the trek into a thing, an escape, and getting very, very attached. So when it got cancelled for reasons way outside of my control (aka a hurricane) the day before I was supposed to leave, I was hit with serious disappointment but even more than that – panic. Because, like the city, I too was lost. And I’m embarrassed to admit it but I had been using the city and the trek as my excuse to get found.  Somewhere deep inside me, I hoped if I did the physical hard work to hike to the city, the emotional work would follow. I was banking too much on external circumstances to do another reset after disconnecting from myself once again.

What was clear, most of all, when I processed my disappointment regarding the cancellation is that I had expectations. And got attached. And in my mind I turned this hike into a journey to freedom. Freedom from resentment I had for myself for not using my words, caring about what others thought and letting that influence the way I lived my life. I thought that walking away from the group to embark on the trek would be following my own path. What I didn’t realize is that I was childishly running away and hiding behind an excuse – the trek – to avoid using my words and owning my needs.

I don’t know why but I told myself that at the top of the mountain in the place where the city used to be, I would find myself and my voice. This challenging journey to the Lost City would bring struggle, clarity and eventual relief and rewards. And maybe it was true. But I didn’t need a hike to do that. Nothing external could get me to the places I needed to go myself. In addition, I couldn’t use it as an escape either: a trek away from the boundaries I needed to set and away from the fears I had of being abandoned. Rather than trekking to independence, like I thought I was doing, I was running away to hide in the mountains. Of course it got cancelled, the Universe was laughing at my insanity.

The hike was cancelled. And now I two plane tickets, an eight-day trip and absolutely zero plans. What to do next? My wonderful mother and father had wonderful advice. Do whatever you want. Maureen reminded me that how things proceeded going forward was up to me. I could make the vacation great or I could make it terrible. It was my choice.

So the next day, I set off with zero plans, zero itinerary but with the very, very clear feeling that I wanted to travel on my own. I told the group I was going to do my own thing and, for what may have been the first time in my life, decided to spend a week living day to day in the moment and without plans.

And do you know what that led to? A spontaneous bus ticket to a little pueblo by the ocean where I swam in the sea, saw snow and floated down a river in the middle of the jungle. A spur of the moment ticket purchase to the Colombia/Uruguay World Cup Qualifier soccer game because, fuck it, why not? It led to sleeping outside in a hammock in Tayrona National Park as I listened to the ocean crashing around me and, later, a long overdue dance party in Cartagena. I’m not going to lie…it also led to some serious crises of confidence, tears and a very hard lesson or two. But overall, it led to me falling asleep nearly every night with a sense of joy in the center of my heart because I knew that I was waking up each morning and following it. It led to me asking myself every day what I wanted and listening, for once, because it’s not like I had other plans.

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The HIGHLIGHT of my Colombian experience so far

It led to me being alone. And loving it. And once again wondering why, if being alone felt so good, did I keep settling for anything less fulfilling?

But more importantly – why did I keep abandoning myself, my wants and my needs to try to prevent others from abandoning me? What was I so afraid of? Few things could be worse than continuing my self-inflicted torture where I kick and scream internally while sacrificing myself and my needs to try to fit in with others and not miss out. What I need to do is accept our differences and letting them be them and me be me, instead of wishing one of us was different and staying hooked.

This fear and pattern, like many that I have, stems back to childhood where I acted out of fear to avoid my mother’s punishment and threat of abandonment. The wound started then and was later ingrained deeper as the Hunsickers entered the picture and my mom continuously chose their needs over my own. As I started to realize the inequity in the household, connect with myself and try to live in authenticity with the needs that followed, problems started to arise. The closer I got to myself, the further I got from my mom. Every time I stepped out of line, whether it be at the age of eight or the age of 18, I was upsetting the balance of our relationship. If I offset it too far I was afraid she would be gone. And eventually she was – but in retrospect, I’m not really sure she was ever even there. If she were, there would have been no consequence to me connecting with myself, having my voice and asking for my needs. If she had been there, there would have been no threat to losing her to anyone. If she had been there, I would not, too this day, live with the irrational fear of being abandoned because it never would have even been a threat. And if she had been there, I don’t think I ever would have been lost in the first place. There would have never been a need for me to disconnect from myself.

There are two problems with the fear of abandonment. One – anyone who does not support your in your needs, your voice and your quest to find your true self should not be in your life, and thus when and if they leave it should be a blessing – not abandonment. And two – the only thing worse than being ‘abandoned’ by others is abandoning yourself. And by living life leading up to this vacation trapped in that fear of being abandoned by others, I did exactly that: I abandoned myself.

After staying confined within this fear for the majority of my life, I clearly had some work to do to break that pattern. Unfortunately, no trek that I set off on to run away was going to help me reconnect. That would have been just too easy. Instead, I had to follow Maureen’s advice and do whatever I wanted.

Thrilled after a 5:00 a.m. wake up for the sunrise in Tayrona National Park

After leaving the group, I went off on my own adventure. And each day as I checked in with myself, I slowly started to reconnect. I found a little bit of myself as I made the decision to spend the night in Palomino rather than go to a group beach day in Santa Marta and a little bit more as I silently floated down a tube on a river in the middle of the jungle the next day. Another part of me was found as I took on the overwhelming city of Barranquilla, driven by my determination to make it to the soccer game. I reconnected every morning when I set an early alarm to walk the beach during the sunrise, and particularly, during one 6 a.m. beach walk where I, for the first time ever, stood on sand and stared at snow.

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Best of both worlds – beach and snowy mountains (in the distance)!

Little parts of me started to reconnect through every decision I made during the trip. I took ownership of the week and now I need to do it for the rest of my South American experience. And my life. That is when I will truly find myself: when I can wake up everyday, check in with what I want to do and what makes me happy and do it rather than being so concerned about the others opinions and their potential to abandon.

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Tubing through the jungle in Palomino

I had no right to be looking for the Lost City. What I needed to spend my time on was the lost Lucy. The little girl that years ago locked herself up to please others and tried, at all costs, to avoid being found and rejected. I need to remind myself that the only way to cure my fear of abandonment, and end my pattern of trying to please others, fit in and resisting setting boundaries, is by not abandoning myself, which ironically means not trying to please others and actually setting boundaries. While in many ways I succeeded during this trip, there were also times that I failed pretty miserably. But that is life and life is learning.

I disconnect and reconnect from myself on almost a weekly basis. I have surges of power where I take charge and then flickers of doubt where I recline. But now I am aware of it. And the moments where I lose myself feel more uncomfortable than they used to because at least now there is some sort of connection. For so many years there wasn’t. Up until recently, life was lived in complete disconnection and constant fear.

On this vacation, I wanted to go looking for something that was lost and in turn, be found, but to do that, I envisioned trekking through the wrong jungle and facing the wrong obstacles. My trek is internal and can be embarked on now matter where I go.

When I ran into the ocean in Palomino, my first surge of freedom during this vacation, I started laughing as I was consumed by relief and realized how far I had come. I was swimming in the Caribbean Sea, despite my childhood fear of oceans. I was living abroad in a ‘third world country’ despite just about every path I was expected to follow as a child by my family. I was probably, at this point, speaking more Spanish than English and tapping into a long repressed gift and love of language. These were my choices and the path to follow them appeared because, at some point in time, thanks to the wonderful support of Maureen, my dad, Marae and Charlie, people who would never abandon me, I started to connect. Despite the times that I faltered, I was making my own decisions, living my own life and reconnecting. Despite everything, I was making progress.

What Does It Mean to Be Lonely?

I haven’t posted in a while. And that’s because I haven’t written in a while. Instead, I have been meeting new people and spending time with old, I’ve been working and working out. I have been traveling on the weekends, settling into a new apartment, exploring Pereira’s downtown and slowly going crazy. These past several weeks my calendar has been full, which I thought would have been a good thing, until I woke up one day completely disconnected from the joy I had been so in touch with just a month ago and realized that it’s not.

At one point, in the midst of this chaotic schedule, I stopped sleeping and spent a week running on a 1:00 – 5:30 a.m. sleep schedule. At first, my students laughed at the bags under my eyes and my excessive yawning in class. By the end of the week, though, they were coming up to me asking if I was tired. And then if I was sick. And then if I was okay. I said yes, I was just having trouble sleeping, and thought nothing more of it.

One Friday night, I was sitting with a new Colombian friend in a bar. I told him I had had a good week but hadn’t slept well. He immediately jumped in and explained to me that insomnia often has emotional roots. What was really going on? “Nothing,” I explained, “I’m fine.” Fine doesn’t work for Colombians. They see through every single excuse and they aren’t afraid to tell you. Different issues I had been dealing with throughout my adventures flashed through my head. Family? No. Being out of control? No. Having my voice? No. I was lost.

“Lucy,” he said, “you are away from your family, your friends. Do you miss them?” I laughed as I translated his Spanish words in my head and scoffed at the idea that homesickness could be what was troubling me. “No. I mean yes, I miss them, but it’s normal for me to be far away. I’ve lived away from home for five years. This isn’t new. I’m not lonely. That’s not what this is about.” He assured me he was there if I needed to talk more. I thanked him for his offer and changed the subject.

I continued the evening feeling agitated. The feeling carried over into the next morning and bled into the evening and the following day. Finally, on Monday, I started the morning with a meditation focused on resistance, something I had tried earlier the previous week as I noticed my heightened agitation. Nothing had come up in previous sessions – most of the time I dozed off because I hadn’t been sleeping, but that day, something did.

Writing. I hadn’t been writing. That had been my main form of processing over the past several months and by pushing that aside I had stopped reflecting. I had been staying busy in almost an addictive way as an attempt to avoid a truth that I didn’t want to accept. Something told me the activity that I was avoiding the activity that I needed to do so I dragged myself to a coffee shop that morning and as I sat down, alone for the first time in what felt like forever, out of nowhere, I began to cry. All at once, it hit me. My friend had been right. I was lonely.

That is what I had been afraid to admit. I was surrounded by foreign teachers who always wanted to hang out and had spent the past week (or several weeks) with a schedule packed full of activities in an attempt to make Colombian friends. All of that should have equated to feeling being connected to others but guess what? It didn’t. I was still lonely.

The views in Medellín, Santa Rosa and Manizales, which were some of the only benefits that came from staying excessively busy. 

My brain spun to find answers to the situation that didn’t quite make sense. Maybe I was missing the connection that I had with my family and a couple of close friends at home? The people here were still new and so was the city. I hadn’t yet found a best friend, a ‘person’ here. I told myself I needed that. But that kind of connection doesn’t just happen right away, I reminded myself. It takes time to build up and develop a sense of understanding and a sense of trust. I hadn’t been here long enough. I wasn’t at that place with anyone. But I was trying so hard find a shortcut to make that connection happen.

So then I changed my story in my head, I was missing a true connection with others, and went down that mental tangent. And then, of course, as I was spinning that story, simultaneously listening to Apple Music on shuffle, a song popped up that I’ve never heard called You’re the Cure, by Farewell Milwaukee. A small voice appeared in the back of my mind. And I started laughing. And then I swore. And then I called my mom, Maureen, because she always knows what to say.

On the phone I purged my whole story about being agitated and feeling lonely and not having a best friend and being alone to her. She listened, with her impeccable ability to see right through 10 minutes (or more) of me talking in circles and find the main point, and responded with a statement that hit the nail on the head. “Lucy,” she said, “often times we feel lonely when we disconnect from ourselves.” So I paused as her message lined up exactly with the coincidentally accurate song from minutes before. Thanks to her wisdom, in less than a minute, everything was clear.

I had spent the several weeks 110% disconnected from myself. I traded my precious writing time for coffee meetings. I traded my decompression time after work for extended conversations in my apartment’s kitchen – afraid I would miss out on something by recharging in my room. I texted too much in an attempt to fill my calendar with plans. I didn’t read. I didn’t write. I didn’t breathe. I acted out of impulse. Out of fear. I was so afraid to be alone.

So now, I have a confession to make. It might be startling. It might go against everything you think you know about me. You might, like many people before, not believe me. But I need to be honest.

I am an introvert.

No, this does not mean I am “shy and reticent” person like the dictionary wants people to believenless you consider someone who runs around downtown Colorado Springs in a leopard print onsie shy. Instead, what it means is that I need time alone to recharge so I don’t go insane. Introverts, rather than getting their energy from outward stimulation, like large groups of people, get their energy from themselves. Even with that knowledge, instead of honoring that part of me, I kept exhausting myself in a desperate attempt to not be physically alone. I kept running the track in my head that told me if I was alone then I would miss out on something and not get the full Colombian experience. I keep comparing myself to those who live their lives doing everything they can to avoid being alone whether they are simply extroverted and enjoy it, or like me, are running scared.

I need to remind myself that the best 48 hours of my life were spent on a beach, alone. Some of the best weeks of my life were spent traveling through Spain, alone. And some of the most powerful months of my life have been spent bouncing from country to country and city to city, this year, alone.

Being alone does not mean that you are lonely. It just means you are by yourself. And these past weeks have reminded me that you can feel lonely even when you are not alone. For me, I often feel less lonely alone than I do with others, especially if there isn’t a true connection. Welcome to life as an introvert. Because really, like the song said, I am the cure, I have to be my own best friend whether or not I magically find a person here or not. And even if I am fortunate enough to find someone with whom a relationship is effortless, I still need to continue to be my own best friend.

In the meantime, I have to stop hoping that quantity of social interactions will, by process of elimination, lead to quality. Forcing friendships, forcing a full calendar, and resisting my much-cherished Lucy time is not healthy because, as an introvert, it is harder to spend countless hours being with somebody just to numb the feeling of being alone than it is to actually be alone.

I miss my family and my close friends. I miss people who I knew, without a doubt, had my back and whose back I had as well. But more than anything these past few weeks, I have missed myself.

So while my friend was right that I was lonely, the cause was exactly the opposite of what he had been thinking. My kind of lonely didn’t fit the definition, “sad because one has no friends or company,” which, in case you were curious, is how the dictionary defines loneliness. I was lonely because I was trying to do too much, meet too many people, have too many plans. The solution for my current state was the exact opposite of what the definition said I was lacking. I needed to be alone.

I need to fully accept, and embrace, my introversion because it is who I am and there is nothing I can do to change it. An extrovert’s costume will never fit me, as much as I sometimes I wish it did. I need to reconnect with myself. I need to read, because I love it. Meditate and do yoga, because it calms me down. And most importantly, write, because more than anything, it helps me process. I need to breathe and live my life and take breaks and recharge and give myself personal days every once in a while, because, really, new friends, a country filled of adventures and a full calendar just aren’t enjoyable on an empty tank.

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My view upon arriving in Marsella, Colombia

With this new realization (more like a reminder of an old realization), I woke up one morning, grabbed a book, a journal and my headphones and hopped on a bus to Marsella – a little pueblo that I had heard of but knew nothing about. For the first time in two months I was adventuring alone again. A few speed bumps aside, the day was wonderful and a fantastic reminder that some days, and some adventures, are just better spent alone.

The Right to Grieve

“Lucy, do you remember the boy I told you about on the first day of class? The one who played guitar?” My co-teacher asked me. With his strong accent I couldn’t quite understand him. “Guitar?” I asked to clarify and mimed playing one. “Yes,” he said, “He died this weekend.” I stopped. And stared. Hoping that just like the word guitar the word died was lost in the confines of his accent. I didn’t misunderstand. I heard correctly. Daniel Felipe, one of the students I had gotten to know best during my time at school, was dead. He had been killed in the streets. I stood up, walked to the bathroom, locked the door and cried.

Colombia is changing, of that I am certain. It is no longer the murder capitol of the world nor the country ruled by cartels. Incidents such as this aren’t normal anymore. At least that’s what a friend here said. These types of killings, at this age, are rare, unless you live a lifestyle that invites it. Which he didn’t. So it was random. And for that reason even more tragic. There are so many times I have forgotten where I am because this does not feel like the ‘third world country’ that I was warned about entering. Much to my surprise, I have felt safe. And yet with this incident I was hit with a harsh introduction to reality.

While I have had a few encounters with death in my life, murder is something that is completely foreign to me. The thought of a ninth grade boy getting killed on the streets is something that I can’t fathom. Not in the bubble that, up until this point, has been my world. When explaining what happened to my fellow foreign teachers, I said, “This kind of stuff just doesn’t happen in the States.” And then I paused and backpedaled as my privilege smacked me in the face because it does. It is happening now in cities across the U.S. There is violence. There are murders. There are tragedies just as senseless as this one. It happens in the world, it happens in the States and it happens here.

One of my first weeks in Colombia during a cab ride, the driver, upon learning I was from the U.S., warned me about the violence in my country and passed on his condolences. My world was not that world. I have been sheltered from the violence and for that I am grateful. But now here I am exposed to my first tragedy, living side by side to the dangerous streets that I never crossed growing up and feeling uncertain as to how to move forward. I didn’t know how to react after becoming distinctly aware of my privilege or how to navigate a situation that is so unfamiliarly tragic surrounded by people who have seen it before.

I was uncomfortable admitting my sadness, hence the reason I locked myself in the bathroom and refused to leave until the last bit of red had faded from my swollen eyes. I didn’t feel like I had a right to the tears. I was not Daniel Felipe’s friend, nor his family. I had only been his teacher for a month. My tears hadn’t been earned by years of knowing him and yet it was clear that after only a month not only him, but all of my students had had an impact on my life. Outsiders couldn’t see their impact though. So as Don Orlando, the school coordinator, made the formal death announcement to the students during the last ten minutes of my final class, I tried to hold back my tears. This wasn’t my school, this wasn’t my country. I was a guest in all of it. Because of that, I told myself that I had no right to be impacted. And yet there I was, mentally willing my eyes to serve as barricades for the tears trying to burst through, afraid that my students, or my co-teacher, would see me crying and afraid that they would wonder why.

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One of my ninth grade classes

“El estaba una victima del violencia en nuestra pais,” Don Orlando said over the loud speaker. He was a victim of the violence of our country. His body had been found that morning in an abandoned street. He had been robbed and killed walking home the night before. He played five instruments and the rumor was that he was murdered for one of them. Around me some students cried, others were silent and some poked each other and made faces as if this was not a big deal. I still held back my tears. It was only when I rushed out of school at the end of the day and started sobbing on the street corner that I really allowed myself to let go.

In talking to friends this past weekend I told them that I adored my students. I told them about my students who had had babies and then returned to school. Their commitment to their education was impressive. I told them about the older tattooed boys who waited outside school to pick up my students, their girlfriends, on motorcycles. A foreign feeling of concern and protectiveness for these girls passed over me every time I walked past these unfamiliar boys. And even before he died, I told them about Daniel Felipe. One day in class he took me through his sketchbook showing me the beautiful drawings that he had spent months pulling from his head to put on paper. He showed me pictures of his instruments and told me about an upcoming performance of his in the city. I told him that I was planning to go. I am sad that we will both miss it.

What I told my friends was true. I adored my students. But it wasn’t until days after our conversation when this happened and one of them was lost that I realized that I really, really did care. Deeply. These kids, who I had been so hesitant and resistant to teach due to their age, were amazing. And I loved them. And I am so sad that one of them is gone.

And yet I still felt like I didn’t have a right to the sadness.

But who owns sadness? Who dictates who gets to feel what and, in bad situations, who shares what percentage of the pain? Unfortunately, in our world, there is more than enough sadness and grief to go around. Grief cannot be owned, divided or scaled. Sadness is just sadness. Grief is just grief.

You have a right to all of your emotions. To your happiness, to your joy, to your sadness and your pain. You have a right to feel. And to cry. And to experience whatever emotions you need to experience. Feelings are feelings and one of the few things in life to which everyone is entitled. But for some reason, I was having such a hard time allowing myself that right.

The next morning was surprisingly harder. I woke up fine, went for a run, ate breakfast and started to process in the only way I knew how: writing. And then I got a text from my mentor. My normal classes, with my normal students, were cancelled that day for the funeral. She asked if I could come in to work with the younger grades. Contractually, I was not obligated and emotionally I was not capable, however, I fell into my people pleasing pattern and was afraid of claiming the sadness that I felt but did not feel like I had earned so I responded, “Yes, of course,” even when every part of me was desperately yearning to say no.

For the rest of the morning I cried. Relentlessly. I kept telling myself that there was no reason for me to stay home instead of going to school. Clearly I was ignoring the evidence that was flooding down my face and drowning my clothes. I imagined myself riding the bus to school and sitting through five classes with students who I didn’t yet know all the while trying to pretend like everything was fine. It felt like torture. Despite that, I was still planning to go in because I was so used to stomping on my feelings while soldering on and, in this case, too ashamed to admit my sadness to those who I thought deserved it more.

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A poster made by Daniel Felipe and his classmates presented to me on our first day of class

In the midst of my resistance, I called Maureen who helped me realized that I was allowed to be sad, what happened was sad, and that I needed to take care of myself in whatever way I could. On my way out the door to school, still crying I might add, I ran into Rowan, another foreign teacher. He walked towards me and gave me a huge hug. Then, he told me what I hadn’t dared think myself: I didn’t have to go in today. With his words, and the coaching of Rob, another fellow, I called my mentor and shook as I explained that I was affected by what happened and needed to take the day off to take care of myself. Upon admitting my sadness and owning my grief, I melted onto the kitchen floor in a puddle of relief and tears.

My students are incredible. And if I love them, which I do, then I can celebrate them, worry for them and, in the most tragic of circumstances, mourn for them. And even if I didn’t have the privilege of knowing or loving them, I could still mourn for Daniel Felipe, the incredibly talented ninth grade boy who was senselessly and tragically killed in the street. Everyone has a right to that sadness.

We’re Off to See the Minister!

Finally, I was healthy and my adventure was nearing its transition point from solely exploring to settling in a city and starting to teach. Pereira, Colombia, my home for the next five months, was nearly a week away. First I just had to get through the Ministry of Education teaching orientation.

Orientation was an introvert’s worst nightmare. Eight days of 10-hour long trainings combined with sharing a room and incessant small talk as I attempted to find friendship in a never ending crowd of new faces led to little to no alone time. The contrast between spending nearly a month isolated in a quiet apartment as I recovered from being sick to suddenly being surrounded by 250 people made it even worse. The first night, I sat at a table with strangers, looked down at my plate and ate. My social skills completely escaped me and even asking a simple question such as ‘what is your name’ seemed to be intrusive. I had no idea how to behave.

As the days went on my social skills returned and I went from silence at meals to starting conversations as I slowly re-immersed myself in society. The lack of connection became less daunting and, slowly as the small talk faded, friendships began to form. Once I hit that point, orientation became pure entertainment.

When signing my contract to spend five months teaching in Colombia, I never expected that I would be essentially signing my life over (in black pen, of course*) to the Colombian government. Obviously, that is an exaggeration, but during the first day of orientation I was shocked to see that a blood test was on my schedule. I knew I would be giving up a lot of my time and energy to my future school and the Colombia Bilingüe project but I had no idea that I would have to hand over a part of my body too. In disbelief, I prepared for yet another medical procedure in this country that already had so much of my blood.

Days were long. Really long. Training sessions were MANDATORY and went from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Breaks flew by and free time in the evenings felt essentially non-existent. Mid-way through the week long session all of the new English teaching fellows were scheduled to attend an event with the Minister of Education who was responsible for the Colombia Bilingüe program’s huge success. For those who don’t know, Colombia has set the goal of making the country bilingual by 2025. One of the ways they are trying to reach this goal is by bringing in hundreds of native English speakers to partner with Colombian English teachers in public school classrooms. We were huge part of this program and excited by the chance to leave the hotel and shake up our normal training schedule…until we learned that we had to leave the hotel at 5:30 a.m. At this point, we were all already exhausted from meeting hundreds of new people, full days, and long nights (for those who chose to extend their social festivities into the evening). As a result, the news of an early wake up call was not a welcome announcement. Breakfast started at 4:30 that morning and fellows congregated in the breakfast tent, lining up in unseen proportions behind a very distressed hotel waiter who controlled the coffee. At 5:30 we gathered outside with our groups and waited for the buses to come. That took awhile. Then we got to the hotel. And waited. Again. Upon arrival, we were locked in the presentation hall and prompted by an energetic MC to cheer when he called out the various continents from which we came and the placement cities to which we were going. As you can imagine, 250 young adults who had been dragged out of bed at 4:30 in the morning were not too enthused by that idea and so responses to his calls were hilariously non-existent.

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Somewhere between 6:30 and 9:00 a.m. – do we look like crossing guards?

Another hour past and it was clear that there really was no set time for the Minister to come. She would arrive when she felt like it. In the meantime, we would continue to be ‘distracted’ be the extremely caffeinated MC. To top it all off, we were all dressed up in grey t-shirts and matching neon green Ministry of Education vests. Are you picturing 250 irritated and sleep deprived crossing guards? Because I’m pretty sure that’s what we looked like. In addition, we were supposed to have memorized a song to sing during the Minister’s entrance. I’m not sure if anyone actually looked at the sheet of paper with the lyrics but I’m certain that no more than 10 people were singing during the opening processional once the Minister finally arrived.

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Finally, minutes before 9:00 a.m. (four and a half hours after we left the hotel) she arrived. From there, the celebration was wonderful and it was inspiring to see Colombia’s steps towards change.  With the recent peace agreement with the FARC, Colombia has ended its civil war that has been going on for over 50 years. Its education budget is also, for the first time, higher than its defense and military budget. It is clear that Colombia is not the Colombia of the past and the one that so many Americans, and people around the world, are scared of. Colombia is changing.

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Pereira, Dosquebradas and Santa Rosa fellows meet Gina Parody – the Minister of Education

Despite the early morning festivities, the afternoon continued on as usual. Clearly it was more important to fit the training in than to take care of the wellbeing of the fellows. So before we knew it, we were back in class.

Days went by as usual, chock full of training sessions that were interesting and helpful but coupled with little to no breaks, completely useless. As the week went on people started to get sick, and tired, and just fed up in general. Attendance at the sessions started to waiver as people realized that once you signed in for the morning or afternoon sessions you could just disappear to the bathroom and never come back. Those who stayed in the sessions essentially tuned out (or at least I did). In class activity times turned into social sessions and during lectures, phones decorated the room like Christmas lights, completely bright and totally shameless. I, along with at least one other Orange Group member spent one session setting up Pokemon Go. Imagine my disappointment when I realized that the whole point of Pokemon Go is that you actually have to go…my plan to sit and play during class was quickly squandered. Unfortunately, the regional coordinators got wind of the skipping habits and, on the second to last day of training, decided to put their foot down.

By the last few days of training, we were all tired and desperate. Desperate times called for desperate measures. In the middle of another endless session one fellow attempted to leave early and, upon realizing that for the first time there was a regional coordinator sitting in the hall ensuring that no one left, decided to brainstorm a more creative exit strategy. So what did he do? He jumped out of the window. In the middle of class. I’m not kidding. Despite having very unsuccessful decoys that included me and two other girls in class, the teacher never found out. Moments after he successfully climbed up and squeezed the last of his body out of the very small window, we burst into laughter. At that point, there was nothing to be done, all that was left of the boy was his zip up jacket hanging on the back of his chair. To be fair, he wasn’t just bored of class. He along with two other fellows had tickets to a big soccer match downtown that afternoon. Unfortunately for the window boy, though, five minutes after he disappeared, we broke into groups and were allowed to spread out around the hotel to make lesson plans in groups. As a result his two partners in crime were able to walk away from class completely unnoticed and escape to the game.

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The amazing Orange Group consisting of fellows who will be working in various cities in Colombia’s Coffee Region

Excitement to finish orientation, leave the hotel and settle into our placement cities built up throughout the week. Soon enough, it was nearly time to go. 24 hours before we were supposed to leave for our placement cities, no one had been told what time their flight was, where they would be housed upon arrival or the name or location of their school. Welcome to life in Colombia.

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Out celebrating the end of a long week!

When the departure times were finally announced they were once again unwelcome news. Busses left the hotel at 4:00 a.m., 5:30 a.m. or 6:30 a.m.. Fellows in Pereira were assigned to the 5:30 a.m. bus even though our flight didn’t depart until 8:55 a.m. Despite the early wake up call, people didn’t hesitate from celebrating their freedom from orientation and their one chance to explore Bogotá (training ended at 4 p.m. that day rather than 6 p.m.). The next morning, people dragged themselves out of bed at ungodly hours, took advantage of the chairs and floors at the airport for nap time and boarded planes to start their new next chapter in their placement cities.

*In Colombia all documents need to be signed in black pen or else they are invalid. You also need to write legibly and can’t make mistakes as anything crossed out also invalidates the document. We were reminded of this countless times during orientation.

I Am Not My Mother

I have been incomprehensibly exhausted and and relentlessly sick for nearly four weeks. None of it made sense. All I had been doing was sleeping, cooking, reading, and if I was really feeling up for it, walking down the street to sit at a coffee shop for a maximum of two hours or going to a restaurant to watch a Colombian soccer game. How could I still be feeling this bad? It didn’t add up but the exhaustion was constant and radiated out from the center of my being with such force that I was powerless to its will. While I knew that I was fighting a super virus and had some sort of infection, the exhaustion had to be more than just an illness. As weeks went by without improvement, it became clearer and clearer that the exhaustion likely had roots in emotions. I was tired of maintaining my old patterns.

One of my greatest attributes is that I am observant, often times to a fault. I am able to pick up information and cues from my surroundings and use that to act in ways that I think will keep me safe. Or whatever that means. Growing up, this skill was particularly useful in picking up on my family patterns, and through this, I learned how I was supposed to treat my mother. She was supposed to be taken care of, always, especially by her daughter. It was exhausting but behaving this way was better than the consequences of challenging the system. In my family, like many, I was conditioned to pick up on the cues to know how to behave in certain situations and then act accordingly by walking on eggshells. I learned quickly because if you failed at this dysfunctional game, you were punished, shamed or blamed. I could tell immediately when I displeased my mother. There would be a sudden change in the temperature of the room, a look in her eye and a higher tone in her voice. In the background, I could hear the whistling of a teakettle, slowly increasing in agitation and needing to be simmered down in order to avoid a disaster. I could pick up on my mother’s mood from the way she navigated through the kitchen or drove down the street. Any banging cupboards or slamming of breaks indicated that my guard needed to be way, way up. She wasn’t a yeller, not often, but body language was almost more terrifying.

I quickly learned that my mother is always the victim and her power is being pathetic. The perpetrator is always the one who falls out of line and challenges the system. In my family, the world revolved around women who were believed not to be capable of taking care of themselves. Except, they were capable. No one allowed them the chance to take responsibility for their experiences or mistakes. There is no room to grow when you are never called out for your behavior. And if you did call them out then YOU were causing problems, an inconvenience, stirring up trouble to make everyone’s life difficult.

When I left my mother’s house at the age of 19 and changed my role in the family system everything imploded. In asking for my mother to show up for me and my brother I was instantly transformed from the observant, obedient, and appeasing child to the problem child – at least in the eyes of my family. In speaking the truth about why I left, no one felt bad, not for the bullying in the household, not for my mother choosing her husband and stepchildren over her biological children, not for the promises made, and then broken, by members of our blended family. Nobody seemed to care about what I went through. All they knew is that I was upsetting my mom and therefore causing problems. I, the daughter, was blamed and responsible for the current turmoil in the family and my mother’s distress. And I, as the daughter, was responsible for fixing it. For the first time in my life, I refused.

My refusal to fall back in line was not taken well. In an attempt to get me back in the system, and to avoid the truth about what actually happened, my mother was painted as a weak damsel in distress. Rumors circulated and I was told that my mother was devastated at our limited relationship, confused as to the reason and that she would do anything to get me back. I had attempted to leave the system and yet by painting my mom as a victim and believing in her limited capacity, everyone was trying to suck me back in.

I bought into it. Full heartedly. Reluctant reflection throughout my healing crisis made me realize that I am still walking on eggshells. I am toeing the line, afraid of crossing it in fear of punishment. In the back of my mind, with every move I make towards self-liberation, capability and independence, I am picturing my mom’s reaction. I see her fuming in my head, slamming around the house, ticking like a time bomb waiting for the wrong move to make her explode. It makes me angry that after so many years a part of me is still afraid.

There is a part of me, larger and stronger than the fear that is so much reduced from when I was a child, that empathizes with her. I have been there. I know how hard it is to try to break your conditioning and be called out on your shit. I, like many, know the feeling of shame in the center of your heart, the very core of your being, when you realize that you have messed up. I know what it is like to be frustrated, time and time again, as you work to break your old patterns and yet keep falling back into them. I know what it is like and I can relate to the struggle of anyone going through it. My God is it hard. But, what I need to realize is that I am not my mother and I don’t want to be like her – a pathetic damsel in distress. I keep trying to pull away, distance myself from her, let go of my conditioned obligation but it is keeping me hooked.

I. Am. Not. My. Mother.

I owned my mistakes and am working through my shame. I have admitted the ways in which I betrayed my dad and Maureen, threw them under the bus, and kept living my life thinking of no one but me (and my mother who I was trained to give up the last piece of my soul to protect). I apologized to my brother for the times that I bullied him when we were children and am working, consciously, to never fall back into that pattern again. And with my sister, Marae, we’ve talked, several times, about why she can’t trust me. I don’t blame her. And I am working, again consciously, to have my actions meet my words to prove to her that I am someone who she can trust. Honestly, I make mistakes ALL THE TIME. And it drives me crazy and takes me straight back down Shame Lane. But, when I fuck up, I own it (at least most of the time) and take responsibility by changing my behavior. THAT is working on it.

My mother doesn’t own it and therefore can’t change her behavior. She has never admitted that her house wasn’t safe. She has never told me that she understands why I left and removed myself from an unhealthy situation, even though while we were living in the same house she told me several times that she was worried about how Hunsicker children’s behavior impacted my brother.

My mom acts like she still doesn’t understand what happened and I continually fall into the same trap of believing her. I continue to behave in the same way that I was trained to behave since I was born: take care of your mother. Rationally, I know that isn’t right nor normal nor healthy. And yet, the more I mentally distance myself from the behavior, the deeper part of me still feels tied to that old emotional pattern. I hold onto it like a lifesaver floating in the ocean, believing that it is saving me even though it might be better for me to let go and drown. This pattern does not serve me anymore and I choose to let it go. Rationally. Emotionally, I need to find the key to unlock my stronghold grip. It is safe. She is capable and it isn’t healthy for either of us if I keep holding on.

And as I write this, the piece I knew I have needed to write since I realized my illness was not going away on its own, I am starting to breathe again. The exhaustion, tension and pressure that has been consuming my body for the past several weeks is easing up.

Through this reflection, I realized that my mother chose to lose her relationship with her children rather than see the truth and make the changes she needed. I was tired. Tired of my old patterns. Tired to a point where it consumed me in an exhaustion the likes of which I had never experienced. So I sucked it up, processed and started to let go of old stories. I had believed that my mom was not capable, believed that she was trying her best, believed that she really wanted to change. I don’t believe that anymore.

Mom – if you wanted to change you would have held your stepchildren accountable for the way they behaved in your household. If you wanted to change you would have made space for Charlie and me in the house that we grew up in. If you wanted to change you would have admitted that you made mistakes and named them and apologized with all of your heart and stopped continuing to behave in your old patterns. If you wanted to change you would not have allowed the lies and stories spread about Charlie and me in the community. If you had really wanted to change you would have risked conflict with your new family in order to save your old.

If you wanted to change you would have never told me that you have empathy for what I went through in your household. Not after you stood by and watched it all happen without saying a word. Not after watching your children pack up their rooms never to return. Not after your unwillingness to make the changes needed to welcome us back into your life, the life we so desperately wanted to be a part of. I have empathy for you. For growing up in a system that taught you that you weren’t strong, brave or capable. For being conditioned to take care of your mother and then, when you brought me in this world to take care of you, I failed at that job. You paid your dues and were never compensated. I have empathy for your fear of standing up to your husband and his children because he might not like it and leave you. I, too, am afraid of being abandoned and alone. I have empathy for the terror you must feel at changing the patterns that you have lived in for 51 years of your life. I really do. I, too, was terrified to change and I only started when I was 19 years old. I have empathy for you but I do not feel sorry for you anymore. I know you are capable. I know you can do better. But do you?

I felt bad, believing what everyone told me – you were trying and would do everything you could. But were you? You were given countless opportunities to change. Countless opportunities to have Charlie and I back in your life. The more you resisted the worse things got and the harder it would be for you to recover. Each time you talked us out of our experience, discounted the trauma we experienced in your household and tried to trick us (or bribe us) into coming back into the dysfunctional system, you set yourself back. We told you what we needed. Several times and in several ways. We asked you, clearly, for things that shouldn’t be so hard for a mother to give and yet there was always a catch that left our heads spinning and our hearts broken. I do not know if you realize how detrimental it was for you to try to skirt around the issue and walk on eggshells. You tried the easy fixes and it just made things worse. The hard stuff, the stuff that we told you that we needed, was pushed aside. Just like I have done throughout this month-long illness as I resisted my diagnosis and eventual antibiotics. However, when my poor health put in doubt my ability to stay in Colombia, which I so desperately wanted to do, I stopped resisting. And I got better. You, despite losing your children who you supposedly so desperately miss, continue to resist.

I do not know what was said about me to your friends, John’s friends, Maddie, Jack, Caroline and Helen’s friends but I have heard things. I heard that I abandoned you, that I left the house without explanation, have avoided conflict, disinvited you from my graduation and have been, overall, mean. And people believed these things. I, your daughter, was made the villain for leaving your house and removing myself from your toxic household. You have created a world where you are a victim. When I speak my truth about what happened I still get approached, frequently, with excuses like you are trying, you are in pain, you don’t understand. Can’t I just talk with you? Can’t I just explain what is going on? Can’t I just grow up and spend time with you and your family, at least for the holidays? CAN’T I JUST…

No. I am not the daughter who care takes her mother and waits patiently for the time when I can get married and have a husband and children who take care of me. That will not be my life. I deserve more than that and you deserve more than a daughter who sees you as weak, pathetic and unable to take responsibility for your own actions. It is not loving, it is not kind and it is not fair for me to treat you in the way that you conditioned me to treat you. Just like it is not fair for anyone to expect me to fix a problem that is beyond my control. And me continuing to believe that you are not capable of doing anything more than what you have done is exhausting. You may not choose to do it but you sure as hell have it in you.

So I am done. Done believing your stories, done listening to the pleas of your family, done sitting in an apartment in Bogotá exhausted and done being sick. I am breaking free of this system and my conditioned behavior.

Letting Go of Lucy

For some reason, my family likes to name people after the Peanuts cartoon characters. It’s not on purpose, in fact, the Lucy and Charlie naming scheme in the Bell/Hartwell family is generations old and started way before the creation of the cartoon. The coincidence, though, is something I have always found amusing. In my immediate family alone, I am Lucy, my brother and father are named Charlie and had he been a girl, my brother’s name would have been Sally. We might as well have named our cat Linus and our dog Snoopy just for kicks.

There is a shtick in the cartoons where Lucy holds out a football for Charlie Brown. He always goes eagerly and with full trust to the football in an attempt to kick it, but at the last minute, Lucy pulls it away. Charlie Brown subsequently falls on his face. Every. Single. Time. In another strange coincidence, that is how my mother operates. Like mother like daughter, I learned to torment Charlies (my dad and brother among others) just the same way. What a coincidence that my name is Lucy, eh? One morning, still sick and struggling in Bogotá, I woke up dreaming about Charlie Brown and the football.

There is something particularly cruel about asking someone for what they need and then not following through. As children, both Charlie and I went naïve and with full confidence to our mother and assumed that she would support us, follow through, and keep holding out the football. It was consistently pulled away and we consistently fell on our faces.

This was a pattern in our childhood that led to disappointments that I barely remember, however, one incident in particular is clear in my mind. Charlie and I hadn’t lived with our mom in about six months having left due to her refusal to set boundaries in her household. Despite not living with her, we still kept in regular contact. Charlie and my mom came out to visit me in Miami and during one dinner out on South Beach, she communicated to us that she was really committed to keeping our family, the three of us, together even if it meant keeping us apart from her husband and his children. “What do you both need?” she asked us in regards to the upcoming holidays. This was one of the first times we heard these words come out of her mouth. After years of putting the needs and comfort of her new husband’s family above the needs of her children maybe she was changing. We told her that we wanted some time at her house on Christmas morning without the Hunsicker kids. She said promised that she would make it work. We were thrilled. The football was very visibly in place and like innocent children blind and trusting towards their mother, we ran to it.

Over Thanksgiving break I made a quick stop at my mom’s house to say hi. We were sitting on the main staircase in the front hall when she told me that she couldn’t make the Christmas plans work. “Emily (John, her husband’s, ex-wife) won’t change the schedule and take the kids in the morning,” she explained. I was disappointed. After hearing this and informing my dad and Maureen, my dad made a rare call over to Emily. She said she had never received a request from John or my mom asking to change the schedule. Of course she would be willing to do it. My dad, who seldom intervened with affairs in my mother’s household, relayed this information over to my mother. She responded with a phone call to me and clarified. She misspoke (aka lied) during our first conversation, she and John had no intention of asking Emily for permission and they would not displace the Hunsicker kids or make them change schedules even for my or Charlie’s sake. My heart dropped. Charlie and I said what we needed to a mother who said she would do anything to get us, and our trust, back. We ran to the football and, like always, it was pulled away. We fell flat on our faces. I cried for hours that night next to the trust in my mother that lay shattered on the floor.

My mother wasn’t named Lucy but she sure acted like the girl in the cartoon. I learned about the football from her and became a master. Throughout my early childhood, I held the football and without knowing the impact of that terrible power, loved it. I was Lucy, the resident child bully, and my poor younger brother Charlie, like in the cartoon, was always on the receiving ends of my tricks.

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This picture pretty much sums up our childhood…

As children, Charlie and I both loved to act. A common hobby of mine was to put on plays or create movies with my friends. Sometimes I would invite Charlie to join. Years later, I always thought that these were moments that we enjoyed together but this past summer after watching family videos with him, I realized how wrong I was. In the video we watched, we were up at our family cabin putting on a show. My parents were still married and both watching and filming. In one scene Charlie was in front of the stage, playing an air guitar and putting on an incredible show. I barged in front of the screen and pushed him aside. The force of my push led him to fall to the ground. Neither one of my parents said anything. Boundaries didn’t exist in the house and my inappropriate behavior was tolerated. Plus, I was just mimicking what I learned from my mom anyways. The show went on. I stayed in the spotlight and Charlie, having gone for the football and agreed to play with me, stayed on the ground.

He didn’t trust me for a while. Why should he? Why should anyone? Like my mother, my words said one thing but my actions said another. I was Lucy. I was a bully.

This past year, Charlie was a director for University of Wisconsin’s Humorology. He helped write, choreograph, cast and act in a twenty minute musical production to raise money for local non-profits. He put countless hours and immeasurable effort into this production. Conveniently, around the weekend of the performance, I was in the process of leaving my job preparing to visit my parents before transitioning down to South America. Maureen threw out the idea of me stopping by Wisconsin to meet up with my dad at Humorology’s Parent’s Night. The timing aligned perfectly. It sounded like a great idea, my dad would be there and I would be able to watch all of Charlie’s long hidden creativity come to life in an environment in which he was thriving. What an incredible opportunity. However, I checked the flight prices and they were expensive, the routes were obscure and the flights were long. Getting there wouldn’t be easy. I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to go and purchased a ticket to visit Maureen, and later my dad, in Florida instead.

Days after making the decision, Charlie and I talked on the phone for the first time in months. As we talked, my crazy mind kicked in. I haven’t asked him if it is important to him that I go. If I ask him if it’s important then that will be including him and that would be caring. He might say no then I wouldn’t have to go. I have a flight, even if he says it is important I can just use that as an excuse to not go. But overall, it will seem like I care. Honestly, right now as I am trying to write this I am struggling. I can’t even fully remember what I was thinking at the time nor does the thought process make any type of sense. I hope that means I’ve moved past it, that I cleared that pattern, that throughout these past two months my brain has slowed down its spinning just a little bit. I hope I will never play anyone the way I tried to play him, and had played him the majority of my life, again.

Charlie called me back a couple of days later, after thinking about it, it was important for him to have me at the show. Of course, he knew that I already had a flight and understood if I couldn’t change it but, if I could, it was important for me to be there. Perfect! I thought, There is my out. I checked online just in case but, of course, the flights hadn’t gotten any cheaper or any less complicated since the first time I looked. I had a message drafted to him with a bunch of useless rationalizations for a promise that I never intended to keep. I wanted to keep it, I really did want to see and support him, but a part of me, the part that is attached to my old patterns and clouded by a scarcity model, was holding me back.

However it happened, my parents became tuned into the mind fuck that I was currently executing with Charlie, and thank God they did. A conversation with them, where they completely kicked my ass, made me realize the cruel game that, despite thinking I had forfeited, I was still playing.

What message was I sending him? Though he said he had forgiven me for my behavior as a child, he still didn’t trust me. Not fully. Little by little I was showing up for him more but I was still on thin ice, dangerously close to messing up again and irrevocably jeopardizing our relationship. Here I was holding the football in front of him saying that, this time, I’ve really changed, and with the awareness and desire to actually keep it there and support him, but instead, I was getting ready to pull it away and let him fall on his face for the millionth time. Lucy, the generations old bully, still lived inside me.

Crying, but knowing without a doubt what I needed to do, I called Delta and changed my flight. I was going to Madison. I called Charlie to let him know and heard the shock in his voice when he realized I was coming. I don’t really know if he ever believed that I would go.

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When did you learn how to dance like that…?

A week later, I was in Madison watching him perform. This time, nobody pushed him away from the stage. Instead, with his cowboy hat, incredible stage presence and exceptional dance moves that certainly did not come from anyone in our family, he owned it. I got to sit in the audience and watch him absolutely thrive. He put up with so much bullying, from me in his childhood, from the Hunsickers in adolescence, and from our mother his entire life. He hid for so long, afraid to take risks, put himself out there or do anything remotely creative. Here he was, though, starring in a show that he helped create, completely vulnerable and completely shining. I could not have been more grateful to be there for him. This moment was priceless, I could have spent hundreds of dollars more or countless more hours in the airport and it would still have been worth it. The football, while it wavered, stayed in place for the first time in my life and Charlie, though he ran to it cautiously, kicked it and stayed standing.

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Next to the most talented cowboy I know!

My name is Lucy and it will always be Lucy but I will no longer follow in the footsteps of my mother or the girl in Charlie Brown. Like Lucy in the cartoon, I will strive to be sassy, to be bold, to speak my mind, but no longer do I choose to be a bully, nor will I allow myself to be bullied.

***Charlie has been working on some new projects lately check out his latest video The Recordist and his promo.

Next Stop: Emergency Room

“Va a estar cuatro de seis horas para ver el doctor,” the nurse said. She looked at me as if she was trying to scare me, daring me to stay in the emergency room and wait that long. I had no fever, my vitals were normal, and yet I felt horrible. Dammit, I thought, I’m in for a long day.

So far, the day had already been long. After fighting an illness for ten days with worsening, rather than improving symptoms, I decided it was time to get checked out. I had chest pain, a painful cough and a general shortness of breath. Though I had finally surrendered the fact that I was sick, I was still in a hurry to get better so I could get back to exploring. At this rate, that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.

Carolyn, who was generously hosting me in Colombia and looking out for me when I was sick, and I had arrived to the emergency room in Bogotá nearly two hours before. She dropped me off so that I could start the registration process while she parked the car. Approaching the entrance, there was a security guard checking the IDs of the crowd of people congregated on the other side of the doors attempting to get into the waiting room. The guard resembled a bouncer in a nightclub, the kind of club that is strict on IDs with a long line and an exclusive VIP list. The inside of this exclusive club, though, was dirty, overcrowded and definitely not resembling anything of prestige like the crowd outside suggested. Even I, a patient, had a hard time getting through to check in. I had to explain that despite my healthier than most looking manner, I was sick and it was an emergency. I shoved my passport in the guard’s face, kept saying “estoy enferma,” and eventually, he reluctantly let me in. I gave the registration desk my information, took a triage number (there were 70 people ahead of me) and waited for Carolyn. I saw her, minutes later, arguing with the same security guard. I went up in an attempt to explain that I didn’t speak Spanish, which I’m sure he picked up on given my less than convincing plea to enter the ER, and that she was my translator. Had my language skills been better or had Carolyn’s Spanish been worse I might have been alone, and that terrified me.

Thankfully, after registering, two chairs became available. I sat next to Carolyn, holding my little paper slip like I was waiting at the DMV. This is one of the few times in my life that I can honestly say I would have preferred to be at there as it undoubtedly would have been a more pleasant experience. Around me, every inch of the ER was filled. There were crying babies, distressed mothers and elderly people, the majority of whom looked worse than I did. People were collapsed in the chairs and flooding the floor. We continued to sit watching the never-ending list of names appear on the screen above. Finally, over an hour later, the name Lucy Mac, as apparently my middle name, MacPhail, is unpronounceable in the Spanish language, was called. After the less than helpful encounter with the skeptical nurse in triage, Carolyn went to check with admission who assured us that the wait to see the doctor shouldn’t be that long.

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The overcrowded emergency room waiting area

We spent a total of six hours waiting to get seen by the doctor. Initially, we stood, as all chairs were full, and the floor was covered with people, spilled drinks and trash. Eventually, though, I was feeling weak and Carolyn was tired, so we joined the masses on the floor. Carolyn went up repeatedly with my passport to check on my status in line. The number of people ahead of me fluctuated. First there were three, then two then one, then back to two, then three again. Apparently, cases were presented to the doctor in order of emergency and those with higher priority were able to jump the line. It made sense but I knew that despite feeling terrible, my lack of fever and unalarming triage exam meant that my turn would likely never come. Still, Carolyn kept going back. She told them how long we had been waiting, three hours, then four, then five and a half. Finally, the woman in admissions called the doctor to inform him that there was a sick American who had been waiting for hours. My name was called minutes later.

We went through another security guard and down a series of winding halls to the doctor’s office. I explained my symptoms, he asked me questions and Carolyn translated when I didn’t understand. He informed me that he thought that I had an infection and that something was obstructing my lower lungs. He read off a series of treatments and exams that I would go through before leaving, told me to find him if I got lost, and left Carolyn and me at the nurse’s desk. Finally, after a six-hour wait, I felt like I was in good hands.

Carolyn dropped me off at my first stop, respiration therapy, and then left briefly to check in with her son at home. Momentarily alone, I was hooked up to a giant nebulizer where I was given a series of three medications over the course of an hour. As soon as the oxygen tank was turned on and the nebulizer began I felt better. So much better. For the first time in over a week I felt like I could breathe. Though I had spent nearly eleven days in bed resting, this was the first time that I truly felt relaxed. With each exhale my pain faded and my breath got stronger as vapor flooded the room like a dragon breathing fire. It was freaking awesome.

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Loving life during respiration therapy 

Every twenty minutes, the nurse switched out one medication for another, and while my lungs felt lighter and my breathing felt easier, I had no idea what was being put into my body. After an hour, a woman came into the room, looked at me and rattled off a long-winded question in Spanish. She spoke so fast that I didn’t understand and the machine was covering my nose and mouth so there was no way for me to respond. She looked at me like I was stupid and repeated the question until the nurse who had been helping me approached and explained that I was a foreigner. Immediately, her tone softened, and she explained, slowly, that we were going to get my IV.

I sat down in the small room and attempted to start a conversation as she prepared my IV. Carolyn hadn’t returned yet but I wasn’t concerned. All it was an IV and while I hated shots, I knew I could tough it out. “Estoy nerviosa,” I said, “no me gusta…” and then I realized I didn’t know how to say needles. She looked at me concerned and I smiled and tried to reassure her I was fine, even though my confidence in my medical Spanish skills without Carolyn’s presence was falling at the same rate that my heart rate was rising. The nurse couldn’t fine a vain the first time she tried, and then when she did, she couldn’t draw blood. I was poked and prodded, flinching every time the needle struck my body despite her constant scolding to “no se mueven”. Finally, my blood was drawn. She then inserted my IV and started injecting random liquids into it. My whole left arm was cold. I asked if that was normal, she shrugged yes, and continued to inject things through syringes into the tubes in my hand. At that point, my heart rate was through the roof. I started to feel weird sensations throughout my arm and, my overactive mind started to panic. She inserted the last one, held up the syringe, said dolor the Spanish word for pain, and pointed at my lungs. I didn’t put two and two together until minutes later, after settling in the IV treatment area where I met up with Carolyn, I had a laugh attack. I still don’t remember what was so funny. Actually, sitting in the small room with several very sick people around me, nothing was funny. I don’t know what medicine was running through my body as I didn’t fully understand what the nurse had been explaining to me at the time of insertion, but what I did know, and what Carolyn could evidently see, is that I was high. So there I was, the young foreign traveler, having a senseless laugh attack in the middle of the emergency room. So much for not standing out.

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Getting injected with unknown medication

Apparently, at this point, my presence in the hospital was known. I was the extranjero, the foreigner. When Carolyn left the hospital to check in at home, she was warned by our doctor that they might not let her back in due to overcrowding and prohibition of patient guests in the ER. Upon her return, however, there was no trouble. She didn’t even need to explain herself as apparently she was already known as the extranjero’s translator. The front bouncer recognized her immediately and escorted her through the masses outside and the hectic waiting room to the second door into the actual emergency room.

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Hanging out in the IV treatment room

We sat for two hours as I went through the IV treatment and then Carolyn went to find the nurse for my X-Ray. After a while, I went out to wait with her in the hall and realized that the Colombian Copa America soccer game was on in a small open room off of the hallway. Every seat was filled but I edged my way into the corner of the room. I was still hooked up to my IV, wrapped in cords and holding the fluid sack in my right hand, trying to avoid bumping the needle inserted in my left. The room overflowed with sick Colombians, hooked up to IVs just like me, coughing and wheezing but clearly more concerned with the game on the TV in front of them than their health. I was enthralled and momentarily more elated than I had been on the pain medication. The patients in the room were smarter than me. I wished I had thought of coming here sooner.

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Colombian soccer games were one of the few things that would get me out of bed when I was sick

Reluctantly I left the game and went to get an X-Ray. Surprisingly that process was easy. Six hours after finally being admitted to see the doctor we returned to his office. He looked at my test results and rattled off a diagnosis. Viral bronchitis, no antibiotics. He gave me an inhaler to help with my breathing, anti-inflammatory medicine and pain medication. All were to manage the symptoms. The illness was viral so the healing I would have to do by myself.

Carolyn and I left and headed towards the billing station, my IV still hooked up to my hand. I was shocked to see that the bill was barely over $100 USD. In the states, a six-hour ER stay, series of tests and treatments would have cost thousands of dollars. Finally, after paying, the nurse removed my ID and at 11:00 p.m. we were able to go home.

Throughout the day I was grateful. Grateful to know in the States the process would have been faster and I wouldn’t have spent nearly six hour sitting on an emergency room floor, grateful that in all other health situations in my life I have been able to speak English and understand what was happening to me, grateful that, in general, I am healthy and get to avoid hospitals altogether.

Most importantly, though, I was grateful to Carolyn. She had provided me a safe place to stay in an unfamiliar city and welcomed me into her family home. She believed that I was sick and, though I had my doubts about getting it checked out, supported me. She understood the complicated situation of having health problems far from home and the challenge of navigating a foreign hospital and attempting to understand medical terms in a second language. She didn’t leave me, despite the long wait, her children, and countless other things she could have been doing. She stuck with me all day. I was grateful for her patience, her advocacy and her translation.

After 12 hours in the emergency room, I left completely elated, my lungs invigorated, and my mind intoxicated by yet another new experience, though given the long, mostly frustrating day, I am pretty sure I was still under the influence of the hospital drugs. I was comforted by the care of the ER doctors and a diagnosis and mistakenly under the impression that I would get better in a couple of days. Little did I know, I wasn’t even halfway there…

I’m Not Sick

 

I feel powerless. And exhausted. And frustrated. And absolutely exhausted. My body has been fighting viruses, bugs, bacteria, insomnia for nearly a week now. My mind, however, has been waging a much tougher war against my body and against itself. My body is winning (or losing, depending on how you look at it). I am too tired, too weak to do anything and it is driving me absolutely insane.

It started a week ago, in Villa de Leyva, Colombia. On Sunday night, I started shivering uncontrollably, shaking while those around me comfortably sported t-shirts. My appetite disappeared and the thought of food made my stomach turn. I knew what was happening, after months of working without stopping and, now, weeks of travelling without stopping, my body had had enough. I was getting sick.

My entire life I have been uncomfortable with stillness. Action, moving, doing something (even if it is unimportant) feels better than relaxing or taking a day to do absolutely nothing. Unless I have earned it. Go ahead, laugh at me, I know right now that the universe is. I am the only one who is telling myself that seven straight weeks of solo travel to non-English speaking third world countries is not deserving of a break. Well, it was deserving of a one-day break, which I gratefully took in Villa de Leyva after a rough night of chills, hot flashes, fever and body aches. After that day of rest, though, it was time to get back to action. I sat in the Plaza Mayor, relishing in my seemingly renewed health, and decided I wanted to go to Ecuador. It was Tuesday, I would leave for Bogota the next day and Ecuador the day after. Brilliant. Stubbornly, I ignored my dad’s warning from the night before: feel healthy for 24 hours and then wait another 24 hours and then you can make a move. I felt better now and was ready to move on. Stubborn. Stupid. As I write that now, it sounds ridiculous. A week later, though, still just as sick and possibly even more tired, I am still struggling with the act of surrendering and letting go of control.

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A beautiful hike hours before coming down with the flu

It turns out, the night before leaving Villa De Leyva, I got a rare case of insomnia (in the past sleepless nights were a frequent occurrence in my life) and ended up sleeping from 5:30 – 7:00 a.m. Previously, during sleepless nights, I would pass the time by going out for 4:00 a.m. runs or sending random snapchats or text messages that I would forget that I sent until I got strange responses the next morning. I was in Colombia, however, and sick, and so neither of these were viable or safe options. New ways to spend this quasi all-nighter were rudely presented and came with a harsh reminder that I was not in my normal country, living my normal lifestyle, or in my right state of mind. Around 2:00 a.m., I encountered a cockroach trying to eat a mango that I had attempted to peal with a key at midnight the night before after my fever vanished and my hunger made an inconvenient and dramatic reappearance. The cockroach had a similar effect as the scorpion in Costa Rica and led me to leave the light on while humming myself to ‘sleep’ to drown out the sound of it eating through the plastic bag containing the mango. It was disgusting and I kept shuddering wondering how many of its friends were also sharing the room with me. A couple of hours later, under the influence of several melatonin, I came to the delusional idea that I wanted to spend more time with children during my travels (to those who don’t know, kids terrify me). So rather than sending soon to be forgotten text messages to friends back home, I started sending soon to be forgotten emails to Ecuadorian children’s organizations inquiring about volunteer opportunities. It wasn’t until I received a number of email responses from Ecuador in the coming weeks that I was able to put the pieces together. This brief illusion was shattered the next morning as I breakfasted with a screaming child who then threw a spoon at my head. That child-loving phase ended quickly.

Anyways, back to the point, if the delusional thinking and insomnia weren’t signs that I should have taken an extra day to rest, they should have been. My tunnel vision to make the most of my time before teaching prevented me from accepting that I needed more of a break. I staggered over to the bus station and bought a ticket back to Bogota. The bus ride was miserable. I spent the last two hours convinced that I was going to either throw up or pass out. It was then that I started to second-guess my decision to leave so early. Maybe I should push back Ecuador another day, I thought, I’ll leave on Friday. Spoiler alert: it’s currently Saturday and I’m still in Colombia with no ticket to Ecuador (and as I edit this for posting, a month later, the only time I have left my current five mile radius since writing this is to go to the doctor). So take a guess as to how far my planning, trying to control my illness and stubborn thinking got me.

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Feeling miserable after two hours of sleep, but still had to get a picture in the Plaza Mayor before leaving

To my credit, I tried to rest the next day. After hours in bed, though, I went on a walk telling myself that it was unacceptable to stay inside all day while I was in freaking Colombia (completely disregarding the fact that I have SIX MORE MONTHS HERE). I bundled up in sweaters and wandered down the street to a café because I was craving a hot chocolate. I thought I would go read in a café for an hour, drink something warm and then go back to the house. That was my plan. Well, I struggled down the street to the café, my lungs burned the whole way and I felt like I had walked for miles, when in reality it was less than three blocks. I ordered the hot chocolate, and when it arrived, just started crying. I was so, so tired. I couldn’t even read, all I wanted was to lie down. Rather than slowly sip it in an hour, like I usually do, I chugged it, desperate to get back to bed. I got back, immediately climbed into bed and slept for hours.

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My nap time companion

I felt so guilty doing nothing. Fighting a 24-hour bug and sleeping for less than 2 hours the night before (to not even take into account traveling the past seven weeks without a break) didn’t seem deserving enough for a complete day in bed. Completely delusional, I know.

The following morning after my breakdown at the coffee shop, I woke up with a cold. My throat was raw and I was coughing. Still, it didn’t justify taking a full day in bed. Midday, I tried to take a walk around the block. I made it down the steps and around the corner before I felt like I was going to collapse. I turned around and spent ten minutes sitting on a bench, too embarrassed to reenter the house after leaving only minutes before. I was ashamed of being exhausted, embarrassed of being sick and too proud to admit that I needed more of a break.

I can stand up to the Cuban police, sneak myself into Colombia (more to come on that later) and defend myself against hustlers and overeager Latino men but for some reason, I could not admit and truly embrace the fact that I was and am sick. Sick, exhausted and completely powerless as to when I am going to get my full strength back. This lesson may not be as dramatic as the others I have had to learn but, my God, is it hard.

Now, it’s a beautiful day out, the first day with clear skies in a week. So of course, stupidly, I went to a café. My lungs are still burning, my arms are aching, and I am starting to laugh at how fucking stubborn I am still being. SERIOUSLY?! To top it all off, two screaming children just walked in. I’m really, really losing this war…

I’m trying to tell myself that the past week of bed rest and Spanish Netflix and reading hasn’t been a waste. It’s hard. There is a greater lesson in this, like there has been in every challenge that I’ve faced. Surrender. I need to surrender. What I need is to lay down, sleep, drink water and rest. No more pushing myself to do things that I am physically unable to do or trying to go places that I am currently incapable of enjoying. I am not in control. So I will make it to Ecuador, or I won’t. I’ll spend the next month in bed, or I won’t. I’ll go climb a freaking mountain, or I won’t. I have no idea what the next month holds for me but to try to plan, to try to control, to try to heal myself without actually taking the time to take care of myself will not help me. So, Dad, universe, everyone, I am surrendering. I am sick, I am exhausted, I am frustrated and I think I will leave these screaming children and go back to bed now.

The Man on the Road

A tattered red and white Ford station wagon, straight out of drive-in movie, pulled up in front of the house in Viñales. The collectivo, a shared taxi back to Havana, was twenty minutes early. That was new. I hugged Darelys and Rigo, the amazing Cuban couple who had hosted me the past week, then passed my bag to the driver. He threw it in the back as I squeezed myself into the middle row of the car next to an Italian couple. As we waited to leave, Darelys came to the side of the car and grabbed my hands. “Cuídate,” she said, take care.

Slowly, we pulled away from the beautiful green house and made our way around the corner to pick up the last group of passengers. I chatted with the Italian couple and two other Italians who were sitting in the front seat as we emptied out of the car to make room for a trio of French travelers. The driver played around with the jenga board of bags in the back as the youngest and tallest of the three French travelers inspected the car. He turned to the driver, after seeing the open seat for him in the last row, and looked up at the roof of the car. “I would rather be strapped up there than sitting in the back of that car,” he said to him in Spanish. We filed into the car and I decided, given my height, to take his place in the back, in exchange, he carried my bag on his lap.

Finally, with the small car full, overflowing with people, bags and energy, we started on our journey. Latin music was blaring from the speakers as the old car buzzed down the dirt road. The driver was talking in Spanish with the two Italian travelers in front bench, the Italian man was chatting with the younger French man in front of me in English. An older French man sat in back and alternated between French and English while conversing with me, a French woman and the Italian woman in front of him. Languages changed like television channels as everyone in the car familiarized themselves with their fellow travelers. The 1940s Ford contained a quilt of cultures, patched with a various mix of languages, crammed together in the same space all with their own story. Outside, the indescribable green landscape flashed by our window as we cruised through the winding hills. The driver sang to us in a strong, deep voice, his hand tapping to the beat outside the window. Occasionally, he would stop in the middle of the highway to answer his cell phone as cars passed in the lane beside him. Once his call ended, he picked up the speed and carried on like nothing had happened. Throughout it all, we were unphased.

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Our full collectivo back to Havana

My heart was intoxicated by this unique experience and my ears jumped around the car hungrily trying to comprehend the various languages. I reveled in the opportunity to refresh my French and practice my Spanish and comforted by the rare opportunity to fall back into speaking English. With each mile, I missed the beauty of Viñales and the relationships I had made there more and more but, at the same time, I was excited to get started with my new adventure in Colombia. I just had to get through one more night in Havana.

Viñales was my saving grace in Cuba. Its unbeatable geography and vegetation coupled with the quaint, quite town and authentic people made up for my bad impression the country based on my time in Havana. After counting down the days until my departure for weeks, I was suddenly feeling sad about leaving. Looking down at my phone, I was comforted to see a text from a new friend in Viñales. “Me puse muy triste al igual que la mujer de la casa cuando vi que te ibas…que tienes muchas personas en Cuba que te quieren,” he wrote. I understood the message, thanks to my accelerated real world Spanish lessons in Cuba, and smiled. “I was very sad to see you leave, same with the woman of the house…you have many people in Cuba who love you.”

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The hills began to fade as we got closer and closer to Havana. Right as we crossed into the city limits on the highway, the French girl sitting next to me screamed. My gaze jerked upwards trying to figure out what happened. The driver slammed on his breaks the car and began to pull the car over as he pounded on his dashboard desperately cursing in Spanish. I assumed our car broke down until I looked to my left to see a body lying facedown on the road. Next to it was a blue, antique American car with a freshly smashed windshield stopped perpendicular to the highway. Oh my God. I turned to my right to see the young French man covering the eyes of the sobbing French woman as we slowly drove by the body. The tension in the car was strung tight like a rubber band waiting to snap as we all absorbed the scene behind us. Seconds later, fast paced French and Spanish shot through the as everyone tried to figure out what had just happened. The French woman, unable to speak, continued to cry, then raised her hands miming a person coming out of nowhere onto the highway and a car crashing into him. Sitting in the middle seat, she had an unobstructed view of his body being thrown across the highway. I hadn’t seen the accident happen as my view was, thankfully, obstructed by the head of our driver, but I still felt nauseous and on the verge of tears.

Pulled over, we sat in silence processing, the energy in the car still abuzz but now panicked rather than joyful. Suddenly, the driver shouted, “Está vivo,” jumped out of the car and ran across the highway. He was alive.

Cars and ambulances stacked up behind us turning the previous freeway into a parking lot. Occasionally, one of us in the car would dare to glance back to see what was happening but the haunting sight of the man in white shirt and jeans lying on the highway stopped our glances from lingering.

Propaganda on the highway back into Havana

After about 20 minutes, the driver came back to the car in an air of exhaustion. “Está vivo,” he whispered as if he wasn’t sure how much longer it would last. Without another look behind us, we drove off in a heap of exhaust towards the city. There was no more music and the silence congested the air in the car with despair. The driver muttered to himself in Spanish, “Havana es loco. You come here and this is what happens. The people are crazy. Havana is crazy.” His singing had stopped and his reflection in the mirror showed no traces of the infectious smile that radiated throughout our drive in the countryside. As we got closer to the city, the silence in the car got stronger as the noise from outside increased. The luscious green hills transformed into crumbling buildings. The calm highways changed into congested roads. It was hotter. Everything – the air, the energy, the people – felt heavy.We drove through familiar streets, past famous monuments and cultural icons. For the first time in a week, my countdown to leave was back on. Only twenty more hours and then I can leave, I thought. Next to me, the French woman continued to cry.