Four and a half years ago, my life dramatically changed. I was home on winter break during the second year of my undergraduate studies. In that season of life, I attended a small liberal arts school in Southern California, and was personally really struggling. My freshman year had been mostly incredible, particularly in regards to my collegiate soccer career, but this second year seemed to be the complete opposite. People who knew I was struggling nodded their heads in a seemingly collective understanding of this concept called the “sophomore slump.” But, to me, it felt heavier than a somewhat gloomy, otherwise normal phase.
By the start of the winter break of my sophomore year, I was told I needed to take a medical leave of absence from school. They told me I had this thing called anorexia nervosa. An eating disorder? No, not me. Depression? No way. I mentally shut out what people were telling me. Laura, you’re really sick. Laura, you need help. Laura, you need to go back to school. Laura, you need to stay home. Laura, Laura, Laura.
I wanted to go back to California at the end of break, but something in my gut kept gnawing at me. Don’t go back, it seemed to groan. I wanted to return to classes, to my soccer team, to my freedom of not being monitored by a team of doctors and psychologists. I was ambivalent, though, because somewhere in the depths of me I worried that if I returned to California, I just, I didn’t know if I would make it.
One day that winter break, though – I don’t even remember where I was or what I was doing – I had this image come to my mind. I was dancing – maybe frolicking is a better word – regardless, I was blissful and I was in the middle of fields and fields of yellow wildflowers. It didn’t really look like any Colorado meadow I had previously hiked through; it wasn’t a particular place I knew of, but it brought with it an overwhelming, indescribable peace. I wanted to be there, the image that was placed in my mind, and I knew wherever that was wasn’t in California.
I decided to take a semester off from school and move back home with my parents. The subsequent months were the most healing and the most transformative of my life. In the years since, this image and all-encompassing sense of peace returned only once again when making a weighty decision in regards to my soccer career. Since then, I can recall the image and the feeling, but only as a memory and not with the same transcendent experience.
Why do I share this story in a blog about Bosnia?
I share this because the backstory explains why on our first excursion to Lukomir at the beginning of our summer, I nearly collapsed on the trail, weeping. We rounded a corner of a mountainside overlooking epic views to see fields and fields and fields of yellow wildflowers. I wanted to weep. This is what I danced through, I thought. This is where I saw myself. This is where I need to be.
I first learned about this Global Practice Bosnia (GPB) program during my undergrad studies at DU. The founder of the program, Peter Van Arsdale, was my professor at the time and told us about this group of students who travel to Bosnia for the summer. I thought, THAT is what I want to do, but not in my dreams did I imagine I would be here four years after taking his Global Humanitarianism class.
When I started my graduate program last fall in International Disaster Psychology, I asked my director if the GPB program could be an option for me, even though it was housed under the Social Work school and there were different requirements compared to those for my program. Somewhat surprisingly, the process for approval was seamless, and my musings of studying and interning in Bosnia became a reality.
As I continued trekking through those fields on the way to Lukomir, I remember reflecting on how incredibly aligned life felt. I was ecstatic with anticipation for this summer. My soul was peaceful. I knew I needed to be here.
I stare at this photo now, and I do weep. As is evident from previous blog posts, this summer has been one of the most trying times of my life. I don’t write that statement sensationally, but out of pure honesty. The places of atrocity we visited, the narratives of suffering we heard, the accounts of injustice we witnessed – it often feels too much to bear. Personally, I experienced frightening and damaging situations I will be processing and healing from in the months to come.
And yet, I don’t think about my time here in Bosnia as toxic, as a failure, as anything but growth. I look at this photo and still know I am where I need to be. The growth of this summer will also be something I will be processing and engaging with in the months and even years to come. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities my internship afforded me, for the deep friendships I have developed with my group, and for the bonds that were created with a few specific Bosnians. I truly encountered kindred spirits here. And, I believe, if it weren’t for the many tears, the sleepless nights, the liters of crno vino, the phone calls home – if it weren’t for the multitude of hard things, the depth to which people have let me know them – and reciprocally so – would never have been reached.
I have grown to love Bosnia, and more so to love these people I now consider intimate friends. I feel ambivalent. I want to leave; I want the plaguing pieces that feel like a nightmare to go away. But, at the same time, I would give a kidney to be back on the trail to Lukomir, running through fields of yellow wildflowers with my Bosnian family. I feel as though the sinews of my soul are entwined with them, and my heart aches in anticipation of our departure.
I wrote in one of my first blog posts that I didn’t love Sarajevo, but I thought I would. Oh, how little I anticipated the extent to which this place, this country, these people, this summer would enrapture me. Who knows, one day I may return.
Psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck begins his book The Road Less Travelled stating, “Life is difficult.” I hold on to this truth. I don’t expect to have an easy life. I have encountered enough stories, even at my young-ish age, to see the ubiquity of suffering. I hope, though, that my story, my experiences, my desire to listen can cultivate a deep, mutual understanding with the people I meet. I hope to be a small haven of peace where a conversation over a double espresso or Bosanska kafa can offer some perspective, empathy, and even hope for future frolics in fields of yellow wildflowers.