Leaving My Safe Haven

Mackenzie Mahoney in Rabat

As I wake up, my eyes still groggy and tired from my lack of sleep, I feel no different than any other day. I tear myself from my bed, unwillingly, wanting to sleep more, but not realizing that this will be the last time I will do this for the next four months. It still doesn’t hit me. I look at the time and see that it’s 8:45 AM, and I’m late. I start rushing around my house as I always do. I race downstairs to see my luggage hastily packed and strewn throughout my living room and my dogs lying comfortably on a pile of clothes that I decided not to pack. I walk over to my dogs and gently stroke their small little bodies, softly as to not wake them from their slumber. Memories of playing with them flash into my head, and I feel a pang of pain as I think about not seeing them for the next four months. My thoughts are interrupted as I quickly realize that I have now made myself even later than I already was. I continue to rush around my house grabbing last-minute items, my toothbrush, shoes, facewash, and whatever else I may need for the semester.

Before I know it, my dad is loading my things into the car and we’re off to the airport. I spent the entire car ride working up the bravery to eat my breakfast, a lightly toasted blueberry bagel smothered with plain cream cheese. Ordinarily, I would have no problem scarfing that down in a matter of minutes, but today was different, and my stomach was a mix between queasy and exploding butterflies, my palms clammy and cold. Why do I feel like this? The remainder of the ride I spent trying to decipher my body’s messages. Am I excited? Nervous? Scared? Can I really do this? The what-ifs ran rampant, making my anxiety levels spike. My thoughts ran wild as I started to overanalyze everything. And then we pulled up to the airport. It’s time. The time I’ve been dreading yet anticipating for months.

The quest that I have set out for myself while here in Tangier is to push myself to become a new and improved version of myself. Someone who doesn’t shiver in anxiety meeting new people, someone who doesn’t break out in sweat at even the idea of trying something new, someone who doesn’t let her insecurities take charge. To become someone free of her thoughts and excited to try new things and meet new people.

I’ve always been a lover of comfort, just like Goldilocks: not too hot, but not too cold, just right. I thrive off knowing my surroundings, knowing exactly where I am, and what’s to come next. I panic at being thrown into unfamiliar situations but put on a brave face to make it seem like I’m okay.

Mackenzie Mahoney in the desert
Mackenzie Mahoney in the Sahara desert

I was reluctant to study abroad at first, and the thought of living in a foreign place far from home was enough to make the room spin. Immediately I thought of all of the perils. For starters, I’d stick out like a sore thumb, given the fact that my blonde hair and very American features would surely give me away, so blending in would not be an option. I had also heard horror stories about Africa, the ever-present street scammers, the poverty, the crime rates, the corruption throughout the whole continent. I didn’t know what to take with a grain of salt and what to believe to be true, so I assumed it all to be true. How can I ever feel safe in a place like this? Despite my angst, I still decided to study abroad. I knew that it would be good for me to push myself. I knew that I needed to work through this anxiety that has controlled me since I was a child.

Growing up I was insecure, timid, and most of all, unconfident in my abilities. I question every decision I make, thinking it’s the wrong one, overthink everything I say, contemplate a different—a better—response, and overanalyze everything from the clothes I wear to the faces I make.

I remember when I was five my mother bringing me to the doctor’s office one day instead of sending me to school. She never told me what type of doctor I was seeing, or why I was seeing them, but being a naive child, I didn’t think to question

it. “Mackenzie, you can come in now.” I can recall the nurse exactly. She was short, with curly brown hair that cascaded over her shoulders, stopping just above her elbows, and had bright green, piercing eyes. Her voice was sweet and comforting, making me feel at ease while I followed her to the room.

I sat there on my mother’s lap waiting for the doctor, still unsure of why I was even there in the first place. I heard a sudden knock on the door before I saw a tall, very intimidating, man walk-in and put his hand out toward me. “Hi, Mackenzie! I’m Dr. Krause, I’m here today to find out some things about you.”

Why is this man, who I don’t know, talking to me? I began to squirm in my seat, while the room felt like it was shrinking, and the air was thick, making it hard to breathe. My palms were sweating and I could feel my heart rattling in my chest.

“Let’s start with some easy questions, okay Mackenzie?” I nodded in agreement, but really, I was wishing I could escape the sauna of a room. “What’s your favorite color of all time? Pink? Purple? Blue? Any color in the world!”

It was pink, of course, but for some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to answer. I felt my throat swell, stopping any sound from escaping my lips. I didn’t want to talk to this man right now, all I wanted was to go back home with my mom where I felt comfortable. But there I was instead, sitting in front of this strange man who kept pestering me with questions that I physically couldn’t bring myself to answer.

The doctor was persistent, he continued to ask me random questions, “How old are you? What’s your favorite TV show? What’s your favorite food? What do you want to be when you grow up?” Each question he asked made me sink deeper and deeper into the hole of silence that I had dug for myself. I could feel my foot bouncing up and down against my mother’s lap as I anxiously tapped my fingers together. Finally, Dr. Krause, seeing my discomfort, stopped bombarding me with questions.

“Dr. Krause,” my mother said with concern evident in her voice, “I don’t understand it, at home she is her usual loud, crazy, and energetic five-year-old self, but as soon as she’s in public it’s like a switch has been flipped.”

“Laurie, it appears to me that she has what we call ‘selective mutism.’ It’s nothing to be too concerned about, as most children typically grow out of it fairly quickly.”

Selective mutism? What is that? I thought to myself as Dr. Krause and my mother continued to talk about me as if I was invisible to them. They just didn’t understand that I didn’t feel like talking. It wasn’t that I couldn’t, it’s just that I didn’t want to.

My selective mutism continued to dog me, all the way to university. Will people like me? How will I act? Will they think I’m weird?

Given my crippling anxieties, people were surprised I chose to study in Tangier. Even more astounding, for me, was accepting the opportunity to volunteer. At first, in my mind I came up with many reasons that I could use to justify not volunteering, I wouldn’t know anyone, there would be a language barrier, and I’d be too busy with schoolwork and traveling. Despite my desperate efforts in persuading myself to not volunteer, I eventually decided to push myself and sign up.

My first-day volunteering started at the Croissant Rouge clinic, just a short taxi ride away from campus. I donned my navy blue, incredibly scratchy and uncomfortable scrubs, new sneakers, and my bright white lab coat. I felt like a kid on the first day of school. The ride to the clinic was nerve-wracking. I could feel the all too familiar feeling of my palms beginning to sweat, my stomach was in knots, and the air seemed thicker than usual. Here we go. I thought to myself as the taxi pulled up to the front doors of the clinic.

As I walked up to the first floor, I was greeted by three friendly-looking nurses. Everything seemed to be going well until it wasn’t anymore. I followed my assigned nurse into a patient room, under the impression that I was strictly just observing her care of the patient. I soon learned that that was not what she was expecting of me.

The woman began demanding my help with patients, yelling out words and phrases in various languages. Ordinarily, I would have no problem helping out, but the problem was that I couldn’t understand what she was asking of me. She was switching between languages.

Flustered, I tried taking guesses at what she was asking: “Do you want me to grab something? Hold something? Go get something?”

Of course, she couldn’t comprehend what I was saying because of the language barrier, but mostly because, in my state of panic, my words were coming out rushed and slurred. A wave of nausea took over my stomach and I could feel the beads of sweat forming on my forehead. I wanted to leave, to escape to somewhere where I feel more comfortable. Somewhere where I don’t feel anxious.

For days after, I kept replaying the scene in my head. Each time I rewatched it, I would pretend that I was more confident, more self-assured, less nervous. Well, if I had done this…then maybe then I would’ve had a better experience. Or maybe I should’ve done this instead. I allowed my thoughts to run wild for days until I had a thought. I thought back to my Grammie, a woman who exuded true confidence.

When I was younger, I was never very close to Grammie. She lived two and a half, almost three hours from me, so my family and I never visited her too often. The time that we did spend together was something that I’ll never forget. One of the fondest memories I have with Grammie is in her most well-known place—her crafting room. This room was filled to the brim with her crafts, from various colors of vinyl to her painting supplies. I always admired her talent and wished that I was able to do the work that she could so easily make in a matter of just minutes. This craft room became a special place for me, as she would invite me in to help with her many projects.

Mackenzie Mahoney's Grammie
Mackenzie Mahoney’s Grammie at a wedding celebration

The more time we spent together in her craft room, the more I would learn of her strength and courage and independence, a woman who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. She taught me to fight for what you believe in, to not give up when you reach a hardship, and most importantly, to persevere.

In November of 2018 my family and I received terrible news: Grammie was diagnosed with end-stage liver failure. The doctors said she had just three months left. I remember my mom calling me to break the news and my mind immediately going into panic mode. What if I never get to see her again? What will Papa do without her? What will I do without her? This couldn’t be real. Not my Grammie. She’ll push through.

The next time I saw Grammie was Christmas, her favorite holiday. She looked different, like a boat battered by a storm. Her eyes no longer glimmered, and her voice was small and weak. One thing that remained despite the disease that was ravaging her body, was her personality.

“Hi, Grammie! Merry Christmas!” I tried my best to put on a smile.

“Oh Kenzer, I haven’t seen you in so long. How was your first semester of college?”

“It was good, very busy, but good.”

“That’s great to hear, I’m glad.” She said beaming with pride. She was always proud of her grandchildren for going to college.

After a minute of silence between the two of us, I finally spoke up.

“Grammie, can I ask you a question?” My heart began to race.

“Sure thing, honey. What’s up?”

“Are you scared about what will happen to you?” My voice was shaky as I tried not to cry. I wasn’t sure how this question came across, but I hoped that it wasn’t too blunt.

“Of course, I am. I’ve thought about it every day since they diagnosed me. I worry about Papa and the family. I sometimes feel afraid, especially about how I’ll go. But when I get down, I realize that I can’t let my fears determine how I live. I have to live my life to its fullest while I still can. Isn’t that how we should all live?”

Those words came back to me when I returned to Croissant Rouge the following week. I had gone in with a clear mind, a new outlook, and a fresh mindset. I had told myself that my first experience here was just fluke, that it must’ve just been a bad day. I returned to the clinic ready for a better experience. Just like Grammie taught me, I needed to push past my fears and not let them take over.

I felt like a new person as I approached the shimmery glass doors of the clinic. I walked through the short corridor to the entry floor with newfound confidence. As I approached the elegantly designed marble spiral stairwell, I gave myself a pep talk.

As I reached the top of the stairs, I was face to face with the same nurse as the previous week. My knees went weak as I slowly approached the woman. I could feel Grammie’s presence with me. I could almost hear her voice telling me, “Kenzer, you can do this. Don’t be afraid.” This was enough to grant me the courage to greet the nurse. “Salam!” I tried my best to hide my apprehension behind my grin. She gave me a friendly smile before greeting me back. I could tell, already, that that day would be much better than the previous week.

And, it was. I felt more confident in my abilities. I felt like I had finally been able to be myself without worrying about how I come across to others. I was able to brush off any awkward situations I found myself in. I refused to be held hostage by the thoughts that once ravaged my mind.

I discovered all of this about myself by being in the city of Tangier. A city where people are never in a rush, where the cafes are teeming with customers looking for a refreshing cup of mint tea, and a place where you can explore yourself. From the old shops in the labyrinth that is the Medina, to the modern look of the contemporary Marina Bay, Tangier is a place of beauty, diversity, and acceptance. It is a place where people embrace the unknown, try new things, and experience new things every day. A place where difference is accepted, welcomed even, and the overall kindness from the city’s inhabitants is electrifying. It’s a city that will push you to try things you never would have imagined even attempting. It’s a city of hospitality, one that embraces all people.

Tangier is for me a place to explore the unknown, whether it be the unknown of your surroundings or the unknown that lies deep inside of you. The vibrant places of this city change the person you think you are into a person much different than you think you could have become. You learn much more about yourself than you’ve ever done before; you’re pushed to limits you didn’t even know you had. The city will bring a new person out from inside you, and it will be a better, stronger, more confident version of your previous self. This city has transformed me from a shy, weak-kneed woman who, at one point, was afraid to even hail a taxi, to a courageous and valiant woman who doesn’t let silly fears control her actions.

Mackenzie Mahoney is an Applied Exercise Science major at the University of New England.

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