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Michelle Gartner
The Other Side of Letting Go

The Other Side of Letting Go begins shortly after I turned fifty-one and joined the Peace Corps. The story opens with a walk through the Botswana desert and a search for a reliable internet connection. While walking through the desert I’m brutally attacked by two African men. Joining the Peace Corps is my final act of leaving, escaping a life impacted by my sweet loving mother turned manic schizophrenic. The attack sends me on a journey through PTSD and paralyzing depression where getting to the other side takes acceptance, compassion, forgiveness, and faith, my mother chose Faith as my middle name. My story of what it’s like for a fifty-year-old in the peace corps explores the Botswana culture and mental illness with vulnerability, humility, and humor.

It is a gray drizzly morning in Mahalapye, Botswana. Homecoming 2014, the largest festive season party has just ended and the morning sun begins to illuminate the clouds. I’m walking on a footpath at the bottom of a dry riverbed staring down a bull while navigating stagnant water infested with parasites. On the other side of the river, two men appear in front of me walking in my direction. I stand my ground and resist their advances. Only after I’m knocked to the ground do I give them what I decide they can have and fight desperately to keep not only my dignity, while lying flat on my back, but some of my possessions. Festive season is in full swing, and unbeknownst to me, so are the robbers and thieves. And their targets are often Peace Corps volunteers.

My journey includes navigating cultural differences, bucket baths, farm animals, and trauma. It opens the doors to the experiences of a fifty-one-year-old volunteer and the family dynamics that enabled her to explore another world and survive a brutal attack. When attacked, I defy my Peace Corps training and fight the men even though we are trained to yield, we are The “Peace” Corps after all. But being peaceful goes against the theory of the cognitive therapist I’m assigned to, Zambomba (Zimbabwe) law enforcement, and U.S. Department of State security officers. They all believe that yielding to any kind of attack only perpetuates the problem. I learn from two members of the U.S. Department of State that Peace Corp volunteers have become targets all over the world.

The attack leaves me with extensive physical and emotional injuries and launches me into a battle with PTSD. I experience feelings of shame and denial then fall into a deep depression and contemplate ways to put an end to those feelings. This propels me into a world where I wonder if I can make it through to the other side. The stories of my past and my present converge when I’m faced with my own mental illness. Botswana’s fatalist culture helps me to accept my imperfections and in turn accept my mother for who she is. I’m able to let go of wanting my mother to be the person she once was and embrace the beauty that she bestowed upon me.

My mother left me with a legacy of abuse, mental illness, and the ability to see and appreciate the wonders of the world and its people. In one of her more lucid moments she told me, “It’s up to you to break the chain.”

Through a career in the motion picture film industry, I wrote stories about the graphics and editing software I supported at Kodak, Avid, Adobe, AutoDesk, and others.

I’ve dabbled in journalism for the Sierra Sun, The Union, and Tahoe Daily Tribune focusing on social issues and the environment. Technical writing for software and website user experience is what pays the bills.

During my first year of being a journalist, three of my articles won a California Journalism Award for public service.

Short stories based on the characters I met in Botswana and my parents love story are in development.

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