By Dan Ryan
“Hi, is this Daniel? Yes, I have some not-so-great news.”
The 202 area code that popped up on my screen had already sent my heart plunging into my stomach. After almost a year of dealings with Peace Corps headquarters, I knew good news was never delivered over the phone.
“Unfortunately, we are not able to medically clear you for departure to Nicaragua at this time as a result of mental health concerns.”
My departure was supposed to be in a week. The night before, I had gone shopping for all the supplies my sister, herself a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua, had recommended I buy. I bought a heavy-duty flashlight. That’s really when it hit me. In the months leading up, departure had been so abstract. Holding the gear in my hands made it feel real.
My thoughts were racing as I listened, unable to speak, rooted to the spot while this woman so casually waved away my life plan.
“I quit my job for this. I’ve been working to get in for over a year. They can’t be serious. They can’t be serious. This is a horrible mistake. They can’t be serious. They can’t be ...”
“You stated in your mental health self-assessment that you have dealt with anxiety and depression," she continued. "As a result, you aren’t eligible to serve.”
I had written that self-assessment a year ago. Why didn't they tell me then? It had to be a mistake.
“My thoughts were racing as I listened, unable to speak, rooted to the spot while this woman so casually waved away my life plan.”
“However, you’re welcome to reapply next year to a new program, and we’ll wo—”
I hung up on her. She had told me all the information I was interested in hearing, and I was done with the conversation.
Within the hour, I removed myself from social media — from Facebook to Snapchat. I felt a burning humiliation at the prospect of explaining myself online to a few hundred people I knew to varying degrees. I had already posted that I was leaving, in an effort to see as many of my friends as I could before I left. The sharp pain of having my biggest dream so casually dismissed consumed my thoughts, and the embarrassment of eventually having to explain on social media why I was not in Nicaragua was the laugh track in the background. I shut it all down, ran and hid.
For whatever reason, there was one person in particular I felt like I needed to call. After graduating, I had continued seeing the girl I started dating towards the end of college. She had become one of my biggest sources of happiness in those unsettled post-grad months, and my first instinct was to go to her when I had terrible days.
During the October after graduation, she left to teach abroad for a year, saying “I love you” for the first time only the day before she left. But those feelings faded soon after her arrival. She froze me out quickly and found someone else. We hadn’t talked in months.
So I just sat on my floor and stared at the wall for the rest of the afternoon.
☐ ☐ ☐
When I had walked across the stage to receive my diploma, I had no concrete plan for post-grad life. I knew the Peace Corps was on the horizon for the following spring, but in between, I felt adrift and uninspired. I traveled a lot and worked a couple of odd jobs, but I made no serious effort to start a life or build a career.
All the while my Facebook account, before I shut it down, was a reminder that I was seemingly the only one of my classmates who didn’t have his life perfectly in order.
There was everyone who had worked hard in college and “deserved” to succeed — it seemed they had all been rewarded with great jobs and wonderful friends right away post graduation. And then there was me: a failure with nothing and no one to blame.
Then, two months before I was supposed to depart for Nicaragua, I began traveling around the United States, updating my social networks as I went. A beautiful picture of a mural in San Francisco, a silly photo from a bar in Seattle, scenes from beaches in Hawaii, brunches in New York, cornfields back home. Following along on Facebook, it probably seemed like I was having quite a bit of fun. But everywhere I explored, my ex-girlfriend stayed on my mind — thoughts of her like unwanted and pushy traveling companions.
“I’m back on Facebook now, but if you were to try to revisit that horrible month of my life on some form of social media, you would find no record of it ever happening.”
I poured myself into preparing for the Peace Corps, hoping my departure would allow all that to fade into the rearview mirror.
When I got the call saying that the one thing I was looking forward to had been cancelled, I woke up every morning afterwards to my own everlasting “Groundhog Day.”
The first emotion I felt daily during that post-apocalyptic month was regret. Not so much regret at how I’d handled the last few years of my life, but regret that I’d woken up that day — every day — to the same sad reality.
I opened my eyes, laid in bed for an hour or two, ate breakfast (or lunch, depending on how late I’d slept), showered, half-heartedly played “Madden,” feverishly scrolled through job boards, hated myself, ate dinner, rolled a few cigarettes, polished off a bottle of whiskey and went to bed. Rinse, repeat.
I was stagnating, and being trapped with my thoughts 24/7 did a lot of psychological damage.
☐ ☐ ☐
“So how’d you wind up in San Francisco?”
The question I’m asked most often these days is a tough one for me to answer. I usually smile, and sometimes I can feel my eyes widen, unintentionally, as if I were about to embark on an oral reading of “The Iliad.”
But usually I just say that that I applied to a million jobs and found one in San Francisco at a mental health nonprofit, and jumped at the chance to take it.
I’m back on Facebook now, but if you were to try to revisit that horrible month of my life on some form of social media, you would find no record of it ever happening. As far as Zuckerberg is concerned, I graduated, bounced around the U.S. for a little while and washed up on the shores of San Francisco, happy, motivated and focused.
Dan Ryan is a nonprofit worker in San Francisco.