College 101 Dedicated Feature Life

This is why you should study abroad – I went to Madrid

I’ve always been a little hesitant and unsure of myself. When I started telling people that I planned on studying abroad for the Fall 2019 semester in Madrid, I could tell that they were worried. I mean, how was I going to survive alone? I wasn’t fluent in Spanish, I didn’t know anyone else that was in my program, and I don’t exactly have a plethora of common sense – I’m more book-smart. I think that part of it was that they didn’t want me to get my hopes up. Studying abroad could be a really great experience or a really terrible one, and there wasn’t room for anything in between. 

But, I was determined to prove them wrong. I always have been. Ever since I was little I’ve always felt that people saw my capabilities as one-sided. I could do this but never that. To me, it seemed like an expectation thing. No one expected me to be so independent and sturdy, especially when I appeared in front of them as fragile or sensitive.

The truth is that I had never been given the chance to prove myself in this capacity. The second that I took too long or wasn’t doing something precisely the way that someone else would, they took over. And, as a result, I became apprehensive, kind of shy, and extremely nervous. 

However, it turns out that I was right. I had been largely independent all along, and studying abroad was a great idea. I slowly realized that I could do anything I set my mind to, even this, all the while holding on tightly to my emotional tendencies. I learned a lot about myself while basking in the Mediterranean sun. 

During my time in Madrid, I met people and made connections in ways that are indescribable. I don’t know if it is because I finally found myself in a situation in which I was free from implicit restraints and boundaries or if I became a product of my surroundings. But, I am sure of at least one thing, that being that I was entering a moment in which I was young enough to still have the ignorant belief that nothing mattered, but also wise enough to know that everything mattered much more than it had ever before. There were so many things, and so many people, clawing at me and insisting for my attention, and I finally let go.

For the first time I acknowledged the positivism of this sweet, even blissful, point in my life—one that I may never get again. So, I gave in to the extremities. In doing so, the whole world opened up. I found security in empathy, I learned about ambition, self-awareness, and I felt genuine longing for the first time. I spent days dancing in streets that were once touched by Goya, Ernest Hemingway, and Velasquez. I read poems by Pablo Neruda on the metro and I ate TONS of churros con chocolate.

What I found to be the most pivotal about my experience in Madrid, though, would be living in a home-stay. This is where I spent the most time, had the most laughs, and learned the most about myself. The day after landing in Madrid I met my host family and moved into their home. While they didn’t speak any English at all, and whatever Spanish I did know I forgot the second I opened my mouth, we managed to work through it. 

I knew I wanted to build a relationship with them, but before I could do that, I had to conquer my own confidence battle. I had to remind myself that yes, they were strangers with whom I would be living with for months, but I was also a stranger to them. Frankly, we were all in the same boat. Eventually, I got used to their habits, learned their family traditions, and studied their culture until I felt like I belonged there. They made me feel like I was as much a Madrileño as they are.

At dinner, my host parents would always ask about my day, my classes, and if I was up to anything fun. On the weekends, they would recommend countless restaurants or art museums to my friends and I, and then ask me if I liked it the next day. They even comforted me when I felt overwhelmed or insecure. What I appreciated the most, however, is that they actually listened to my stories, which I am sure that I told in broken Spanish, and always seemed interested.

We really grew to love and care for one another. In those four short months I am sure that they watched me grow exponentially. I truly became myself and started to feel comfortable in my own skin. Plus, I came out being able to speak and communicate in Spanish light-years beyond my ability from when I first arrived in Madrid. 

My memories from this time in my life are whole, and they always will be whole. I’m finally able to show off my independence and I’m never turning back. This just goes to show that a little bit of introspection and determination could go a long way. Of course, I was scared to be alone and so far away but I knew that it was what I needed.  Once I convinced myself to just rip off the band-aid my possibilities for personal growth became endless.

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Love Life Stories

When I was living with a seizure disorder abroad, I had to learn how to find the beauty in everything

It was my second year in Spain, the year I was hunting for poetry in everything.

In August of 2014, I had a grand mal seizure on the floor of my parents’ living room while I was home visiting. My neurologist diagnosed me with temporal lobe epilepsy, and two weeks later I was back in Madrid where I had a job teaching English.

My first year abroad had been idyllic, but now I was returning on an anti-seizure medication with a laundry-list of possible side effects. They included irritability, drowsiness, depression, mood swings, poor coordination, muscle tremors, and short-term memory loss. I experienced all of them.

[bctt tweet=”It was my second year in Spain, the year I was hunting for poetry in everything.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Before moving to Madrid, I imagined myself as the protagonist of a coming-of-age film who “finds herself” in Europe. I hoped I’d have tumultuous love affairs. I hoped my life would resemble the movie Before Sunrise, or maybe a Henry James novel.

Instead, I found myself struggling to navigate a foreign medical system. 

I needed a Spanish neurologist to prescribe me medication with fewer side effects, but first I needed a referral for a specialist, an overnight EEG, and approval from my private insurance company for the procedure. This process took eight months.

In the meantime, my muscle tremor was so bad that I once dropped a full glass of orange juice in the break room of the school where I worked. The glass shattered on a table in front of all my coworkers. I stared at the shards, paralyzed with embarrassment. Before I could explain, my brain went from calm to hysterical. I ran to the bathroom to cry in private. I was aware that my emotional response was disproportionate to the event, but still unable to console myself.

It didn’t matter how much I exercised or meditated. I had three moods: irrationally angry, despondent, and giddily talkative. In a perverse way, I liked being able to pinpoint the cause of my problems. I’d always half wished for diagnosis more specific than “depression.” Now I had a tangible neurological condition, but the solution was completely out of my control.

At 23, I had never thought much about my health before. Now I had to be vigilant about taking care of myself. I had to get enough sleep every night. My doctor sternly instructed me not to have more than one glass of alcohol at a time, perhaps unaware of Madrid’s culture of staying out til 7:00 am every weekend. I tried to go out, but I never knew what to say when people asked me why I wasn’t drinking. I could either be purposefully cryptic, which led to more probing questions, or I could overshare my entire medical history. Now that someone told me I couldn’t do it, all I wanted was to get sloppy drunk and make reckless decisions.

[bctt tweet=”In a perverse way, I liked being able to pinpoint the cause of my problems” username=”wearethetempest”]

To cope, I told myself that I was having an “experience.” Each morning I took two metros and a bus to get to the tiny village where I worked. On my commute, I would see a piece of graffiti on a brick wall stating in black spray paint simply “HOW TO LOVE.” I heard the Ecuadorian buskers’ flutes in the metro warp into eerie coos the farther I walked down the platform in the afternoons. I watched the sun rise and set over fields of yellow flowers and herds of sheep. I thought over and over again about “HOW TO LOVE” and who had written it but could never find the words to explain why it felt so beautiful to me.

There is a rare side effect of temporal lobe epilepsy known as hypergraphia, or the intense desire to writeIn the months following my seizure, these phenomena kept reappearing in my life. I read about it first in my obsessive googling of everything related to temporal lobe epilepsy. Then I started seeing articles on my favorite publications about curious cases of people who never wrote poetry until after they had a seizure, who suddenly started keeping meticulous journals, or people who couldn’t stop writing the same word or phrase over and over again on sheets of paper. 

I filled up shelves worth of journals in Spain. I began and abandoned poems. I thought of lines everywhere, wrote them down, repeated them over and over again to myself. I don’t know if this was hypergraphia. I’ve been a compulsive journaler since 1998, but I liked the idea that a surfeit of electrical activity in my brain could endow me with a superpower.

With every irrational mood swing, I decided “this will be poetic one day.” I had no evidence that my compulsive journaling was anything other than circumstantially related to my condition, but I survived by telling myself there was a reason for all of it. 

[bctt tweet= “With every irrational mood swing, I decided ‘this will be poetic one day.'” username=”wearethetempest”]

In February, the insurance company finally approved me for the overnight EEG.

On Valentine’s Day, a nurse glued multi-colored electrodes to my head while No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” played on the radio. I wondered about the effect of a song I’d been obsessed with in middle school on my brainwaves. The nurse’s soft voice sounded through a microphone in another room. She instructed me to hyperventilate, close my eyes while bright lights flashed, read aloud, and do math problems. I was in a sci-fi movie and it was all taking place in my second language. I journaled in my hospital bed, wondering again whether my thoughts had an effect on the test.

[bctt tweet=”I was in a sci-fi movie and it was all taking place in my second language. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

It’s been almost three years since I’ve had a seizure. In the first year following my seizure I spent a lot of time staring out bus windows and thinking about ‘HOW TO LOVE.’ The second year, I made a lot reckless decisions as if to compensate for having taken such good care of myself before.

This past year has been spent readjusting to my own culture and finding out how to make my life interesting without the built-in poeticism of a city like Madrid. The inability to control my emotions disappeared as soon as I switched medications, but my desire to make things from my pain has remained.

Now, I think I finally figured out what ‘HOW TO LOVE’ means.

It means I figured out how to love my circumstances, even as I felt helpless, by finding beauty in someone’s ugly graffiti scrawled across a brick wall in the middle of nowhere.