This Is What Post Natal Anxiety Really Looks Like

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As my not-so-little baby boy approaches 10 months old, I feel I’m finally ready to share my story of experiencing post natal anxiety; in the hope that it will help anyone currently suffering with the invisible illness. That’s not to say that I am fully recovered, as there’s always something to worry about when you’re a new mum, but I’m hopeful that the ugly part is over.

I’m sharing my story to help raise awareness and end the stigma of this terrifying illness. Reading other people’s experiences really helped me in my own journey to recovery. Just knowing that I wasn’t going through it on my own was the most comforting feeling in the world. I would read the same stories over and over to reassure myself that I wasn’t going crazy’ and that other people had been through the same thing as me and come out the other end.

Post natal anxiety is honestly the scariest thing that I have ever faced. No physical pain or fear could even come close to the sheer terror I felt in the months after my son’s birth. Not even the birth itself!

Being afraid of your own thoughts is terrifying. You have nowhere to run when your own mind is turning against you. Everything I believed to be the essence of ‘me’ was suddenly being tested and scrutinised.

Two words have haunted my mind since the birth of my child:

‘What if…….!?!?!?!’

These two words broke my heart. These two words were the start of a horrifying thought that I would later convince myself would become real, just by the mere fact that I had thought of it.

If you’re reading this now, and you’re in the midst of post natal anxiety, please remember that a thought never hurt anyone. A thought isn’t dangerous and doesn’t mean you’ll act on it. Your anxiety levels are very high; making you cling onto every thought as if they mean something very important, but they don’t. The fact that you’re scared of your thoughts is a clear indicator that they are driven by anxiety.

I’ve always been a very anxious person, but I’ve never taken any medication or had any therapy for my anxiety. I would always pass it off as being part of who I am:
‘It’s just me’ 
‘I’m a worrier’ 
‘I have weird phobias’

Nobody would ever guess I have anxiety as I’m outwardly confident and sociable. But absolutely anyone can suffer from a mental disorder.

Growing up I had a phobia of vomiting or other people around me feeling / being sick. I would become hot, sweaty and shaky if someone at school said they felt sick at class – at the time I didn’t realise that this was a panic attack. If I saw somebody vomiting it would play over and over in my head for days or even weeks.

At uni I developed a phobia of public transport or being in any situation, such as a lecture, where I couldn’t go to the toilet if I needed too. I would involuntarily cry, shake and sweat before going on a bus or entering an exam room.

I would never let anxiety stop me from achieving anything, and despite quietly suffering with this mental disorder, I graduated with a Masters Degree.

I am a firm believer of facing my fears, and decided to volunteer abroad in 2015, to conquer my anxiety; by travelling to the other side of the world and putting myself in situations that I knew would make me feel anxious.

I think the best thing to do when you’re suffering with anxiety is to talk about it. A problem shared is a problem halved. Even if I’m at a meeting in work, with professional people, there’s no embarrassment in saying that ‘I prefer to sit near the door as it makes me feel less anxious.’ It’s no different than asking to sit near the door because of a physical disability. If it makes you feel more comfortable and less anxious it’s definitely worth a shot.

In the past few years, as I’ve tipped into the wrong side of my 20’s, I’ve also developed a fear of death.

So it’s safe to say that I should have seen post natal anxiety coming. But I didn’t.

It was nothing like I had ever experienced before. It made me feel like I was turning into a monster. At the beginning I had no idea that it was ‘just anxiety.’ I believed that the terrifying ‘what if…’ thoughts about my baby were real. Any ‘what if’ thought suddenly felt dangerous and as though I could potentially act on it.

I should also add here that I had a somewhat traumatic birth, which didn’t set me off on a good foot. My 16 hour labour, which started with me doing happy dancing around my bedroom, ended in an emergency c-section and a pressure ulcer on my bottom from not being turned,whilst having an epidural, and waiting to go into theatre.

I was unable to sit up or lay on my back to establish breast feeding. I was barely able to sleep for the first month. It wasn’t how I imagined my first few weeks with my new baby; perched on an air cushion in agony trying to breast feed.

Previous mental health issues and a traumatic birth can all contribute to developing post natal anxiety and depression.

The anxiety didn’t start until nearly a month after giving birth. Just as I had started to get the hang of caring for my new born baby I had my first ‘what if…’ thought that paralysed me with fear and made the atmosphere around me instantly shift.

I won’t go into detail about my thoughts during this time in case they are triggering for those reading who are suffering from post natal anxiety. 

After having a scary thought about my baby it followed days/weeks/months of:

‘Why did I think that?’
‘That would be the worst thing that could possibly happen’
‘I’d have to run away or end my life if that became true’
‘Why did I think that?’
‘A good mum wouldn’t think that!’
‘I’m losing my mind – I’m going to turn into a monster’
‘I can’t tell anyone what I just thought as it’s so awful they might take my baby away from me.’

From that moment on I couldn’t turn my mind off. The thoughts were deafening with no way of turning the volume down. I was no longer living in the real world but a dark cloud of anxiety and fear.

I didn’t dare tell anyone about the thought I had had, incase they thought I was a terrible person, so I let it gnaw away at me; analysing every detail and searching deep into my soul for any signs in my past that I had been a terrible person, or would become a dangerous person.

I was constantly on edge for months. I had flashing images accompanying the scary thoughts in my mind. Any news stories would sound in my head for days afterwards. The harder I tried not to think about the ‘what if’ scenarios, the more I thought about them.

I started to become depressed from the constant nightmares playing on repeat in my mind.

It was only when I started thinking ‘Maybe I wasn’t ever meant to be a mum’ that the relentless chatter in my mind stopped momentarily, as I felt like I had read that exact line in a pregnancy text book.

I began to realise that I must have some form of post natal depression.

I confided in my good friend google, and felt a slight relief that I wasn’t losing my mind or going to turn into a monster, but actually, I was incredibly ill.

I had many symptoms of post natal depression, anxiety and OCD. I became obsessed with reading about these illnesses online and finding blogs of people who suffered with these conditions.

If I ever started verging on a panic attack I would pull out my phone and read some comforting lines from a blog.

Please be warned that some blogs can be more triggering than comforting. Some bloggers go into detail about their thoughts which can then play on your mind – hence why I haven’t gone into detail here.

Some days I would have a break through and be anxiety free but other days I would fall back into the dark hole of anxiety and depression. Because the thoughts kept rearing their ugly heads, I took this as a sign that they were real and I was going to act on them.

The thoughts would come in waves. Not every day was a bad day, but I’d always be on edge waiting for the next wave of horrifying thoughts to take over my head.

For me, the crippling doubt and reassuring myself was the most debilitating part of the illness. I could never be 100% sure that it was anxiety and that the thoughts wouldn’t come true. There seemed to be no way of knowing for certain that I wouldn’t act on these thoughts; which was so distressing.

After being reassured by a post-natal mental health doctor and attending an 8 week support group, I still wasn’t convinced that I wasn’t dangerous.

I truly thought I would never be my old self again.

I had such a supportive family and the most understanding partner I could ever wish to be with. He never gave up on me and was never phased by anything that came out of my mouth.

The perinatal mental health team were outstanding. I was so embarrassed about telling the doctor about my thoughts. I sat with tears rolling down my cheek as I began to let him into the deep darkness of my mind. He just smiled and told me he’d heard it all before and it was classic post natal anxiety and depression. I wasn’t a monster, I was just very anxious, and sensitive, to any passing thoughts.

He explained calmly, that after having a baby, my anxiety levels were raised but because there was no real threat to my baby I had turned on myself; wondering if I would ever be a threat to my own child.

You would think that being told this by a professional, that the anxiety would instantly go away. But it didn’t. I still needed constant reassurance. I was put on medication to help ease my anxiety and attended an 8 week support group with other mums suffering with post natal mental health disorders.

I met so many incredibly strong and brave women in that support group who were all pivotal to my recovery. We still meet up and talk most days, months after the group has finished. I’m sure we will be friends for life as we all know the ins and outs of how each other’s minds work.

I didn’t initially want to be put on medication, as I was scared about the potential side affects, but when my baby turned 3 months old I decided I needed to take them. There’s no shame in needing help and taking tablets to get better.

Despite suffering with this exhausting illness, I didn’t let it hold me back. I went out to baby groups most days, took my baby swimming and went on several holidays. I did everything I would have done if I hadn’t been ill, because I was determined that I would conquer my anxiety, and continuing to do ‘normal’ things was the only way I knew how to face my fears.

Although sitting in a baby group with a smile on my face, whilst having scary racing thoughts about my baby, sometimes made me feel like a psychopath, I pushed through; determined as ever to be a ‘normal’ mum and not let the thoughts defeat me.

If you are reading this now, and you are suffering with post natal anxiety or depression, just remember that you are not alone. A thought is just a thought. You are ill and your anxiety levels are making you feel as though your thoughts are going to lead to actions; but they won’t. Confide in your loved ones and seek help from a professional.

Today I am celebrating being over 3 months anxiety free. Don’t get me wrong, I still have bad days and waves of anxiety, but the dark cloud of anxiety has passed. I feel like my ‘normal’ self again with a ‘normal’ level of anxiety.

I’m sure I will be looking over my shoulder for a long time to come, but I am on the road to recovery. I will stay on medication for up to another year, to make sure I don’t have a relapse, but I have the tools and the support to get through the bad days and I’m feeling stronger than ever.

Having post natal anxiety and depression has ultimately made me a better person and a better mother. I now know how my mind works and how to manage my anxiety. I never knew how strong and brave I was until I experienced post natal anxiety.

I take much better care of myself now; both physically and mentally. I have an amazing network of supportive friends and family who I’ve never felt closer too. I am more mindful and grateful for the little things that make me happy.

If you are suffering with scary thoughts after giving birth, please don’t be embarrassed to get help from your health visitor or GP. They will not take your baby away from you. Confide in someone you trust. You will not act on your thoughts. The  very fact that you are afraid of your thoughts is the indicator that they are anxiety driven.

You will come out the other end I promise you.

Here’s a little list of things that helped me recover from post natal anxiety that you might find useful:

The main thing you need to do is distract yourself from the thoughts and keep your mind busy focusing on something else. This might seem impossible at first but you will get there in the end.

  • Confide in someone you trust.
  •  Read information about post natal mental health illnesses
  • Attend support groups
  • Read stories of other sufferers
  • Take Medication for anxiety or depression – the potential side effects will outweigh the way you are feeling at the moment
  • Read about Mindfulness and practise it at home.
  • Recite positive affirmations ‘I am a good mum’
  • Keep a mood diary
  • Exercise
  • Cook
  • Clean
  • Take long walks
  • Be in nature
  • Look at old photo albums
  • Go out to baby groups
  • Meet up with friends

Post natal anxiety and depression is a very real and debilitating illness. Let’s #Endthestigma

This is what post natal anxiety really looks like:
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VSO ICS Love Story

VSO ICS Love Story

‘The Story of us’

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Gazing into my baby boy’s big baby blue’s and thinking to myself ‘you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for volunteering in Cambodia!’

One mundane morning in November 2014 I took the plunge and signed my anxious-self up to become a volunteer overseas with VSO ICS.

I was looking to do something spontaneous and that would help progress my career in the Third Sector. Only a few short days later I received an email inviting me to an interview assessment day!

After a successful interview I attended a training weekend in January 2015 and that’s where I first laid eyes on him.

I’m not sure if it was the 20+ cups of coffee he had drank that morning, or if he was genuinely the most excitable and life loving person I had ever met, but I instantly wanted to get to know him more.

After the training we added each other on Facebook and talked every day in the lead up to our placement. As the big day approached I wasn’t sure what I was more excited for; volunteering abroad for three months or seeing his happy face again.

We sat next to each other on the 18 hour plane journey to Cambodia and by the time we arrived I felt like we had known each other for years.

We were both passionate about the work we were undertaking at our separate organisations and put 110% into our active citizenship days. It was refreshing to meet somebody with a great work ethic and such a zest for life.

We spent the entire 3 months laughing, singing and generally loving life when we were in each other’s company. He helped me through my low days where I was filled with anxiety and made my time volunteering in Cambodia an experience I’ll never forget.

When we arrived back in the UK we continued to travel together and spend weekends fundraising for the charity I work for.

He decided to move out of his home in Reading and move in with me in Wales to continue our adventures.

Volunteering abroad doesn’t only offer challenges, adventure and the chance to make a real difference but it also enables you to meet other like-minded people that you would never have had the chance to cross paths with in your day to day life. It brings together people from all over the UK.

We promised our Cambodian Counterpart’s that we would come back to Cambodia the following year. We both booked off 3 weeks from work for September 2016 but as the year went on we found out we were expecting a beautiful baby boy!

It’s now 2 years later and I’m now sat Gazing into my baby boy’s big baby blue’s and thinking to myself ‘you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for volunteering in Cambodia!’

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Work Placement Project Impact Case Study

Project Impact Case Study
PYD VSO ICS Cycle 4

PYD

Introduction to our community
Stung Treng is a province in the North East of Cambodia. The population of Stung Treng is 111,734. Stung Treng town is the most populous area of Stung Treng province in which other residents live in rural communities and villages. The majority of the population work as farmers or sellers at the market and in the villages.

Stung Treng is a friendly, quiet country town situated on the confluence of the Sesan River and the Mekong River. It actually sits on the banks of the San River, with the mighty Mekong coming into the picture on the North Eastern outskirts of the town.

What were you doing?
What was the main problem or challenge that you were trying to address?
VSO ICS are working in partnership with Peace and Development (PYD) in order to empower women and youth in Stung Treng with new skills and job prospects to secure their livelihoods. PYD works closely with local community based organisations, such as the Women’s Development Centre (WDC), to achieve their aims.

PYD’s Mission Statement is:
Promote gender equality, social justice, the equitable redistribution of resources, freedom to exercise basic human rights and the improvement of life quality among men and women living in poverty and disadvantageous situations.

PYD’s Vision is:
Paz Y Desarrollo wishes to be valued and well-known for promoting gender-fair and sustainable communities where women and girls can fully exercise their rights to the full and participate in the process that concerns their development.
The main issues we addressed, throughout our three month cycle, were women’s rights and empowerment; the women of Stung Treng, and Cambodia as a whole, are still underrepresented and unequal to men. PYD and VSO ICS believe in equality where men and women have the same rights and job opportunities. We also addressed the problem of limited training and access to employment opportunities for women and youth along with creating sustainable resource materials to enable the WDC to continue providing these services after our cycle has finished.

Our team has contributed to PYD’s main objective of empowering women and youth by:
• Conducting an awareness raising workshop, ‘Youth Leadership and Empowerment through Participation’, at a local school to 86 students.
• Educating young people on job seeking skills by conducting a ‘Job Skills and Interview Techniques’ workshop at a local University to 35 students.
• Empowering local women with opportunities to up-skill themselves and become more employable by raising awareness in the community of the free professional and vocational skills training courses held at the Women’s Development Centre by holding three community workshops in PYD’s three target communes; Thala, Samkhouy and O’rey.
• Creating sustainable resource documents on business planning, CV writing and interview techniques for the Women’s Development Centre to use after our cycle has finished.
• Offering help and support for writing a CV and Cover letter by providing Drop in sessions to help students perfect their CV and apply for professional jobs.
• 18 English lessons over an eight week period to empower participants with new English language skills.
• 16 Computer lessons over an eight week period to empower participants with new computer skills.

What steps did your team take to address any problems?
Our team spent the first few weeks planning English and Computer lesson courses and creating resource documents for the women’s development centre. A problem became evident when reviewing the previous cycle’s resource documents as the information wasn’t relevant to Cambodia and had been copied and pasted from a UK website. We decided to complete these resources from scratch and translate certain documents into Khmer when we felt necessary.

Once we had planned the lessons we created marketing materials and advertised these lessons at the local University and at the Women’s Development Centre.
We conducted eight weeks of English, Computer and CV Drop in sessions over four days a week. The English lessons were very well received and we were asked to add an extra session due to popular demand. Unfortunately, no participants attended any of our CV Drop in sessions and we would like the next cycle to look into this – we believe the term ‘drop in session’ is not used in Cambodia and this may have deferred participants from attending. Despite this, we have created the ‘how to write a good CV and cover letter’ documents for the next cycle and the WDC to carry on this work.

We created a questionnaire to survey the three target villages: Samkhouy, Thala and O’rey. These questionnaires were useful for us to find out how much the people in the villages knew about PYD, VSO ICS and Women’s Development Centre along with interesting findings about domestic abuse which is another objective of PYD.

We found that none of the communities knew a lot about VSO ICS, PYD and the Women’s Development centre so we decided to conduct workshops about the services of WDC and the importance of learning new skills in all three communes.

We also planned two other workshops: ‘Youth Leadership through youth empowerment’ and ‘job skills and interview techniques’ for the local high schools and colleges.

A problem we found was that due to the timing of Khmer New Year and The Kings Birthday we had to keep rearranging our workshop dates and ended up conducting all our workshops in the last few weeks which was quite stressful and tiring – especially for the Khmer volunteers who were presenting the workshops.

What changes did you see as a result of your teams work?
We surpassed our objectives with an extra three workshops during our three months. As a result of our work we have seen participants and staff members improve their English and Computer skills along with empowering young people with leadership skills and job seeking skills. We have raised the profile and promoted the services of the Women’s Development Centre in the three target communes that PYD work with and at the local University and High Schools.
All volunteers on our team have improved their communication, presentation, facilitation and event management skills that they can take home and utilise at work/university.

What has your team achieved during your placement?

Training:
Our team focussed on employment and job seeking skills training for the local community. This included creating sustainable training resources; a template business plan; English lessons; computer lessons and CV drop-in sessions.
We surpassed our training objectives by conducting a ‘Job Skills and Interview Techniques’ workshop at the local University to 35 students and holding 17 English lessons, 12 computer sessions and 7 CV Drop-in sessions.

Resource development:
We created sustainable resources that can be used by the WDC in order to support people from the community with CV writing; interview techniques and starting up their own business. We have also created a ‘Job skills and Interview Techniques’ course and English / Computer lesson plans that can be used after our cycle has finished.

We surpassed our resource development objectives by creating a 4 hour ‘Job skills and interview techniques’ workshop for WDC. We conducted this workshop at the local University with 100% participation satisfaction. We also created a ten page business plan template; Cover letter templates and ‘how to write a CV’ document and an interview techniques document which wasn’t asked for us in our objectives.

Awareness Raising
We conducted 4 awareness raising workshops. One workshop was raising awareness of youth participation and leadership and three workshops raised the profile and promoted the services of PYD and WDC.

We surpassed our awareness raising objectives by conducting a ‘Youth Leadership through Empowerment and Youth Participation’ and Three ‘WDC Services promotion and the importance of learning new skills’ Workshops in the three target communes; Samkhouy, Thala and O’rey.

Short Term outcomes
Our PYD VSO ICS Cycle effectively raised awareness of the free professional and vocational training courses available free of charge at the Women’s Development Centre.

Local youth and women now have more understanding of the professional and vocational training opportunities that are available to them free of charge, at the women’s development centre, through our three community workshops in the three target communes to enable local youth and women to learn new skills and become more employable in order to secure their livelihoods.

Long Term outcomes
Our PYD VSO ICS Cycle feel that over the long term youth and women in Stung Treng will have improved access to alternate employment and know how to access vocational and professional training courses in order to upskill themselves and become more employable in order to secure their livelihoods.

Build Bright University

Miss Aspey

Community Workshop

Awards

Awards

Team Leader

Debrief

Community Action Day Photos – Hygiene and Sanitation

On Sunday 10th of May 2015 we set off at 6.30am to raise awareness of hygiene and sanitation at Samkhouy Primary School in Stung Treng Province, whilst also donating hand made benches and learning resources to the school. We spent the morning playing educational games involving soap and buckets of water with 100 children; painting benches for their playground area and providing new books for their library. This was a successful and enjoyable morning that will hopefully make a lasting difference to the children of Samkuoy village.

Transporting  hand made benches to donate to the local school

Transporting hand made benches to donate to the local school

Samkhouy Primary SchoolSamkhouy Primary School, Stung Treng Province

Donating books to the local schoolDonating books to the local school

Educational demonstration on hygiene Educational demonstration on hygiene and Sanitation

Educational Game with soap and waterEducational Game with soap and water

Educational Game with soap and waterEducational Game with soap and water

Painting the benchesPainting the benches

Painting the benches

Painting the benches

Painting the benchesPainting the benches

Finished BenchFinished Bench

    

Personal Development – Life begins at the end of your comfort zone

ICS Personal Development Case Study: Holly Aspey
* Wales, United Kingdom * Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) International Citizens Service (ICS) * Securing Livelihoods Programme – Cycle 4 * Stung Treng, Cambodia * Peace and Development (PYD) Partner NGO *

Tuk Tuk
Tipping over to the wrong side of 25, during my ICS VSO volunteering placement, I considered myself to be already somewhat ‘personally developed’. Improving my public speaking or presentation skills wasn’t something I had signed up for after five years at university and hosting several large scale events at my current workplace. Before applying to volunteer overseas I recognised myself as a confident and self-assured young(ish) person that had the skills and passion to help others in less developed countries, but I had never even anticipated that this programme could develop me on a level that I wasn’t sure would ever be possible….
I have always been an incredibly, irrationally anxious person. At 19 years old I became too anxious to attend lectures at University for weeks on end and petrified of public transport. I would automatically burst into tears and involuntarily shake if somebody tried to take me on a bus – and as I didn’t drive at this point that was pretty much every day. I knew this fear was completely stupid and out of my control, leaving me feeling very frustrated and embarrassed, but it was starting to shape my life and I knew I needed to take control of it.
As the years have gone on, despite only last year having to get off a train three stops before my station to prevent myself from freaking out and embarrassing myself in front of my new boss, I’ve been able to cope with my anxieties much better by putting myself into situations that made me feel anxious – facing my fears. Applying for this overseas volunteering programme 7,000 miles away from home was the final hurdle.
I know a lot of friends and family doubted thought I’d ever actually get on the plane and fly to the other side of the world – especially knowing that there would be a nine hour bus ride awaiting me at the other end. My commitment to fundraising and desire to volunteer abroad helped to keep my mind focused and gave me an incentive to not back down. I’ll admit, there were a few tears and a slight twinge of embarrassment before I stepped foot on that bus from Phnom Penh to Stung Treng (as the oldest volunteer I shouldn’t be crying over going on a bus – nobody should be crying about a bus journey full stop), but I made it to Stung Treng with a huge smile on my face and no tears in sight.
I honestly never thought I would have it in me to embark on a journey like this; travelling to the other side of the world and spend hours in Tuk Tuks and mini buses to visit different parts of the country. I feel that I can finally control my anxieties and I should never let anything hold me back from doing something I feel passionately about. This experience has actually changed my life. Spending five hours squished into the back of a mini bus travelling to Siem Reap, like a sardine in a tin can, thinking to myself ‘look at me now, mum!’
I’m excited to return home with a new outlook on life and not let anything hold me back. I doubt many other ICS VSO Volunteers will feel this ‘personally developed’ over sitting on a bus for nine hours, but for me this is the most significant personal transformation and without this experience I would still be sat at home wondering what could have been. Being an ICS VSO volunteer has brought out my determination and motivation to succeed in life and be the best person I can possibly be. You cannot let your fear of anything hold you back – Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.

Ten things I have learnt so far as an ICS VSO Volunteer in Cambodia

We’re now over a month into our three month placement in Stung Treng, Cambodia. Problems have been faced, conflicts have been resolved and emotions are running high. Here are ten things that I have learnt so far as an ICS VSO Volunteer in Cambodia:

Washing up by hand

1. How to wash my own clothes by hand
Something I definitely take for granted back home is being able to grab a load of dirty clothes and shove them in the washing machine or load them into my mother’s arms. Washing a week’s worth of clothing in Stung Treng is a morning’s work and somehow you still never manage to feel truly clean or stain free.
2. Never wear white in Cambodia
I’ve learnt this the hard way. Luckily, most of my clothing is only from charity shops or Primark (if I’m feeling like splashing out) so I don’t mind too much if I end up with a once white, now orange blouse. But if you’re packing for your volunteer placement in Cambodia I would highly recommend avoiding white clothing. The orange dust roads really seep into anything light that you wear and there’s nothing you can do about it.
3. Patience is a virtue
Patience is something that I fortunately have a lot of but it has already been tried and tested on a daily basis here in Cambodia. Never underestimate the difficulty of working cross-culturally with people who speak a different language and live in a different world to you. It’s a completely different pace of life than back home in the UK that you need to learn to adapt too relatively quickly. Tasks that would normally take you ten minutes at work back home may take up your whole day here.
4. Age is just a number
I was so concerned about working with people 8 years younger than myself before starting the placement but I’ve come to realise that age really doesn’t matter out here. Whether you’ve been in uni for five years and have a career or whether you’ve just finished your A-levels and taking a gap year; we’re all in the same boat facing the same difficulties. You don’t need specific skills or experience to become a VSO ICS Volunteer, just the passion to make a difference.
5. You can’t ‘Make a difference’ over night
Don’t expect to volunteer for three months and eradicate poverty in Cambodia. Fighting poverty and improving livelihoods are massive international development objectives that are ongoing processes – just be happy to be a part of it.
6. You are stronger than you think
I’m thousands and thousands of miles away from my friends and family living in a house with tarantulas, lizards and a family that barely speak my language – but I’m coping, so far.
7. You can’t please everyone all the time – and that’s OK.
When you’re working in a team of 20+ people from different countries, cultures, ages, education etc. you’re never going to be able to please everyone all of the time and that’s OK. Problem solving and conflict resolution are amazing skills to practice utilising on a daily basis.
8. Money can’t buy you happiness.
Despite being a poor country, I’ve never met such happier people than in Cambodia. Money really can’t buy you happiness you just need to appreciate what you’ve got.
9. A jar of Nutella can last a month
I’m astonished that a jar of Nutella can actually last a month – rather than a night.
10. My life revolves around the internet
One day Stung Treng had no wireless connection – I felt disconnected from the world. I couldn’t do any work as it involved internet research and I couldn’t message any friends or family back home. I felt so alone. It’s scary how much my life revolves around the internet and how futile the connection here is – I’d advise anyone that’s about to embark on a volunteering placement in Cambodia to unlock your smart phones and buy data bundles in case you encounter a wifi-less day of doom.

A Saturday night in Stung Treng

When my surrogate mother invited me to a party in Stung Treng on a Saturday night I had my reservations. It’s unusual to see any lights on in any houses after 9pm let alone a disco ball. Typically, people who live in Stung Treng wake up early when the sun rises and head to bed when the sun sets. There is no night life. No drinking culture. Or so I thought…
I should note here that the family that I am living with are not your average Stung Treng family. My father, brother and sister are all teachers and my mother used to run the downstairs of the house as a restaurant. They have a beautiful brick-built home, unlike the majority which are wooden stilt houses, with all the essential commodities of a UK home albeit feeling like you’ve walked into the 90’s on entrance, but for Stung Treng I feel I am living in luxury.
Nervously, I agreed to attend the party and waited anxiously for Saturday to roll around. On the evening my mother appeared from her bedroom looking absolutely stunning with a made-up face and a lace detailed dress. I looked like a typical tourist with a long patterned dress and bum bag. My mum just laughed, shook her head and offered me a pretty floral dress to wear instead, which made me look more the part. As we all headed towards the infamous ‘party’ I tried to brace myself for whatever outcome could have arisen from such a bizarre prospect of a party in Stung Treng.
In the middle of one of the poorest provinces in Cambodia sprung a surreal blend of extravagant elegance. A house-warming party that I instantly mistook for a wedding due to the grandiosity. Hundreds of round tables covered in gold cloth and decorated with an array of traditional Cambodian dishes with free beer and soft drinks scattered around. All the women looked glamorous in stylish sequined dresses. Talented vocalists took the stage to entertain the audience during dinner with the aid of huge speakers and lighting systems.
People danced in front of the stage with a camera crew recording their moves. It had a holiday resort feel to it, but despite the obvious beauty there was still traces of the everyday problems and lack of education and development that I see in Stung Treng.

People throwing litter onto the floor and under the tables as though it’s a normal way to discard rubbish. Young children in dirty torn clothing worked as part of the waiting team and clearing away dishes. You can paint Stung Treng in all the gold you like but the major problems will always seep through.

I spent the evening with aching cheekbones as the only way for me to communicate was through facial expressions and hand gestures. I loved the sense of community spirit that ran through the entire night. Back home in the UK, if we suggested to the neighbours that we were going to have a huge party in the street with a lighting show and massive speakers I’m sure most would be hesitant to agree and the police would be phoned for ‘breaching the peace’ after 9pm.

Stung Treng, although poor and underdeveloped, is one of the friendliest and community orientated places I have ever had the privilege of living in. I’m happy to call this strange new place my home for the next three months and I hope to be able to contribute my time and skills to make a difference to the problems here.
Our ICS VSO team are considering conducting a Community Action Day (CAD) on raising awareness about litter and trying to influence the authorities in Stung Treng to provide more bins and means of rubbish disposal. It seems to be an overarching problem throughout Cambodia that can only be solved from the top. No amount of litter picking days will stop people littering. We need to educate and raise awareness. I will keep you updated – thanks for following my journey 🙂

My Cambodian Mother

Party

Party

Litter