Dealing with chronic pain in the best of circumstances is difficult enough. But when situations worsen, or there are no options available to manage the pain, it can bring depression and leaves immune systems wide open to all the viral and bacterial infections that circulate. In Japan, Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) often attend multiple schools, co-teaching up to 6 classes per day. They often have a long commute on overcrowded public transport, which is commonly over-heated in winter. The pain medications available in Japan are of the weaker types - paracetamol, aspirin and ibuprofen. Medications commonly used in Australia, New Zealand and the US with codeine or acetaminophen are illegal in Japan, contrary to the advice I was given by the Japanese consulate in Melbourne and the JETAA before I applied and was accepted into the Japanese Exchange Teaching programme, and placed in Fukushima.
I was there to teach, so I prioritised teaching ahead of everything else. I cooked and ate healthily, and kept to a reasonable schedule (most of the time). However, I constantly caught most viruses in each of the schools in which I taught. Unless I had no voice, I continued preparing activities and lessons, running classes and occasionally attending the English club at one school. I got through, with a fair amount of pain and illness, until the magnitude 9.0 earthquake happened.
The constant shaking (500 magnitude 3 or higher earthquakes in the first week), was completely nerve destroying. Wondering if the building would hold, if the cracks at school would destroy the classrooms, if things would fall on you while shopping was very stressful. There was no water for a week, and the lines to collect water were initially hours long. Basic foodstuffs did not return to the supermarkets for a week. Unfortunately, on top of that, the nearby nuclear plant was so unstable and had leaked radiation with the explosions following the tsunami. Initially, there were no English resources to track this emergency. I became very familiar with Google translate, checking reported radiations levels several times a day. I knew it would greatly affect food produced in the local area, and was appalled that the shops were so slow to label their sources (and promoted the local food so strongly). Not being able to use the split-system heating at home resulted in flares that rendered my hands and feet useless. The kerosene heaters in the schools gave me migraine-level headaches, so I refused to use one at home.
The decision to end my contract with JET early was not an easy one. I gave plenty of notice, and the JET programme had many additional teachers from the tsunami devastated coast who were able and willing to replace me. The teachers were extremely supportive, but the government was not. The stress of that decision, coupled with not being able to afford my planned trip to Australia, and the unexpected end-of-contract costs for utilities and services, and a final underpayment has left a very bitter taste, and longer-lasting health effects as I struggle to settle into another foreign country (where this time I know nothing of the language).
Even though it was a huge struggle, even though my health suffered terribly, even though my weight increased (because of the lack of exercise and the terrible lunches served at schools), even though I am still coming to terms with the stress and dealing with the continuing after-effects of going through such an earthquake and disaster, I would not change it. I found my limits, my strength and my determination. And I know this will serve me well in the future.