Volunteering to teach underprivileged children in the Indian desert was one of the defining travels of my life. That experience has shattered my concept of reality, which will eventually lead to my experience with mild Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
To read Part 1 of the experience, click here.
The Place of Women in Society
Widows, in a patriarchal society like India, are shunned by society. They have no status, respect or rights. In some extreme cases, they are considered to be the cause of death to their husbands due to bringing bad luck.
As such, widows are excluded from the employment market and no employer will take them in.
How will these widows, usually with younger children depending on them, provide for their family?
This was a plight shared by Govind, the founder of Sambhali’s Trust. At the age of 15, Govind’s father died and suddenly his mother became an outcast in the community. Determined to help with the plight of women and the most vulnerable of society, Govind founded Sambhali’s Trust.
We visited a village whereby the widows are taught basic microfinance lessons, to help them start their own sundry shop. This allowed them to have basic form of income and support their children, instead of pulling their children out of school to earn an income for the family.
I woke up one morning with a few itchy red dots on the soles of my feet.
The itch spread rapidly, that soon enough it covered the entirety of my feet.
It kept me awake at night, and by the third sleepless night I was losing my mind.
I tried everything to get rid of it - hot water, cold water, heat rash gel, traditional creams, antibiotic pills (I was desperate), to no avail. I knew I had to get medical attention ASAP. So my host sister took me to the nearby health clinic.
When we got there, we saw a long queue of patients, but no doctor. She asked one of the ladies in the queue what was happening.
"I have been waiting for the doctor for two days. He only comes from Jodhpur twice a week."
"So when will he come next?"
"Hopefully sooner rather than later. My daughter’s fever has been getting worse that she has started vomiting blood. I’m not sure if she can last another day…"
That’s when I realized the futility of this wait.
I asked my host family to take me back to the city, but they said we had to wait for the van that will only come in a few days. I made several calls back home to my parents, begging them to save me, buy me a flight ticket home, anything, to get me out of this mess that I got myself into.
I’ve never felt so helpless in my life, than this exact moment. I was losing my sanity, but there was nothing I could do about it.
Only one option was left, I had to toughen up.
I wanted an adventure, right? Well, I got what I asked for.
Medical Help in Jodhpur
A week has passed, and the end of our stay in Setrawa Village arrived.
A van took us back to the city, and sent me to a dermatologist as soon as we got to Jodhpur.
The dermatologist took one look at my feet and instantly knew that I contracted contact dermatitis, a form of allergic reaction from something I came into contact with.
I recalled that I stepped into mud whilst walking around a lake and concluded that that must have been the contaminant.
Note to travelers : Always wear covered shoes when walking in unknown places
He prescribed me with antihistamines, and told me to take two pills a day. I took six.
The itch cleared up within a few days, and soon enough I was back to normal.
Or was I?
Settling Back Home
I returned back to college in Australia feeling amiss. I’ve just had an adventure of a lifetime, but why was I feeling horrible?
Family and friends were asking me how my trip went, but I couldn’t seem to talk about my experience.
I managed to fumble up a few words before changing the topic. Soon enough, I was avoiding any social contact because I didn’t want to have to answer any more questions about India.
I locked myself up in the room, had my meals alone, skipped classes and even ghosted friends who wanted to catch up. There was a turmoil inside me, but I didn’t understand what was going on.
It wasn’t until a good friend of mine, a medical student specializing in psychiatry, came to pay me a visit. As we had been good friends for years, I had no trouble opening up to him.
Within minutes of talking about my trip, I started crying my eyes out.
In between my sobs, I told him how I felt guilty about being back in my comfortable heated room, with 3 meals a day, when I saw how children there were sleeping on the streets, with barely enough food to eat.
It could have been me, you, or anyone else. It was by pure stroke of luck that I was born into a life of privilege instead of them. And that allergic reaction was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I couldn’t even help myself, let alone help them. I felt so helpless.
He listened patiently, before giving me advice that has powered me through, till this day.
He taught me the difference between sympathy and empathy.
The Slight Difference that Made All the Difference
With sympathy, you feel sorrow or pity for their conditions, because you are looking at their circumstances based on your experiences. You are imposing your own set of expectations, which stems from your socioeconomic background. Sometimes, it can be overwhelming and you get stuck in that feeling of pity. This doesn’t help solve anything.
But with empathy, you see their circumstances in context. You put yourself in their shoes. If you grew up in India, without access to electricity, education or healthcare, and it was the only world you knew, you wouldn’t feel sorry for yourself. In fact, you would probably have quite a happy life.
Both stems from compassion, but in this context, empathy is more useful. Empathy allows you to strip your expectations out of the experience. Only then you can focus on how to help improve the situation.
My Experience with PTSD
After some convincing, I checked myself into the psychologist’s office at university. I was diagnosed with mild Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and was prescribed a few sessions of therapy.
The psychologist encouraged me to talk about my experiences more, to open up to friends and family, no matter how hard it is. She assured me, that the more I talk about it, the easier it will be.
And true enough, it did.
I cried less the more I talked about it. And 5 years later, I even shared my experience on stage to a bunch of college kids.
And that’s when I truly understood, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.
Sometimes, a life of adventure will lead you to bite off more than you can chew. You will find yourself in circumstances you never expect to be in, physically, mentally or emotionally. Don't be afraid to ask for help and reach out!