Re-learning ‘normal’

I have been in Geneva now for over three months and I think it has finally sunk in that this is my home. That I don’t have to return ‘back’ to the field. That life really is this easy.

However, as I write these words, sitting here in my lovely modern apartment, I have an uncomfortable mixture of feelings underneath my general state of bliss…. No doubt, the overwhelming feeling is a sense of relief to have the chance to rediscover ‘normal’ life. I get to wake up with electricity, walk along the river whenever I please, and if I want to, I can stay out past midnight without breaking any security rules. I have put golf-victor-four-four  and kilo-quebec-four-nine-nine (my previous security call signs) to death, and am free to roam as plain old Stephanie Case. Exact whereabouts unknown – free and insignificant.

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My new home in Geneva. And perhaps a fitting image of old and new lives converging.

But there is no denying the more negative feelings, which creep out when I’m having a quiet moment. There’s the inevitable guilt that comes with confronting and accepting the rather obvious privilege of being able to leave the field when so many others – victims, beneficiaries, national staff – do not have that option. Guilt from feeling like you’ve ‘sold out’ and chosen the easy path. Guilt from not feeling enough guilt. It’s a vicious cycle.

As humanitarians, when we are in the field, we complain until we are blue in the face about all of those stuffy people in headquarters who don’t know what things are really like in the ‘field’… we imagine them sitting around all day in air conditioned offices, eating cake and drinking tea, while we are slaving away doing the real work on the ground. We become immersed in and consumed by the immediacy of our surroundings and anyone outside of that bubble simply doesn’t ‘get it’.

But then when we suddenly become one of those stuffy HQ people, it can be hard to process. For so long, our value, our legitimacy and our identity can be tied up in the intensity of our work. What happens when that disappears? Sure, it is a relief to be able to have regular office hours, to have time for coffee (and cake) breaks and to work at a less frantic pace. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still working hard and I believe the work from HQ is important… however, it can’t feel like anything less than productive when you’re used to being in constant crisis mode. And it is hard to wrap up one’s identity in desk work.

I’ve certainly felt a bit of shame for being so ‘weak’ compared to all of the die-hard humanitarians and human rights workers who are still in the field – the ones who didn’t need a break like I did. And I feel overwhelmed by small decisions and tasks, like paying bills, running errands, and choosing what to do on the weekends (I know, boohoo, right?). Sometimes, rather than embrace everything that ‘normal’ life has to offer, I find myself retreating home, thankful for my little sanctuary and the routine of staying indoors (I’m gradually ridding myself of this habit, thank goodness).  My weekends are most often spent heading out to the mountains in solitude for some serious ‘me time’. I’m used to having so much time alone that it is occasionally a struggle to be social.

During the first month, it was also pretty terrifying to come to terms with the fact that I was waking up without stress.  I figured out for the first time that for the better part of the last five years, I have been chronically stressed. I never thought that the absence of stress would be a hard thing to get used to, but it was unfamiliar. I kept waiting for a meteor to fly through my bedroom window to bring me back to the chaotic equilibrium to which I was accustomed.

As one anonymous contributor noted in the Guardian series, the Secret Aid Worker,”The reality of leaving [the field] is complicated. Aid work is like a drug: the highs get you very high, but the lows can threaten to consume you. Like a drug, too, it is all-consuming, and it is tough to kick the memory of the habit even after you leave it behind.” A recent survey of more than 1000 humanitarians revealed the challenges that people face returning home, highlighting why so many of us stay in such a dangerous and taxing profession. “Some told us that even a short amount of time in the field creates a sense that they no longer fit in at home after their assignments”, wrote one of the professors involved in the research. “This is especially true for those who’ve worked in conflict zones and in emergency relief.”

Ultimately, as much as I loved life in the field, I know that leaving it was the right move – and one for which I’m incredibly grateful. Whether it makes me less legit, less strong, or less interesting is beside the point. It has made me happier. Last Christmas, I was so stressed out and run down that I couldn’t even sit around the dinner table with my family and enjoy a simple meal. ‘Normal’ seemed exhausting. I didn’t know how to interact with the people I loved so much in such a calm and cheerful setting. That was a big wakeup call for me that it was time to get out.

Coming to Geneva has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. I’m not trying to claim it has been difficult. But it is an adjustment all the same. I’m not sure exactly what normal will look like for me in the short to medium term, but I’m excited to figure it out, step by step… and running the whole way.

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Categories: Musings about life

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9 Comments »

  1. I really enjoyed read if this post. You captured your personal journey in a way that is moving and relatable. Thank you for your continued service to humankind. We need more of this in the world!

  2. I am so glad to hear that you are living back in Geneva. Your work in Gaza was certainly important, but I was always concerned about your safety. I will now be able to sleep more comfortably. The work of field-workers is vital and important. But I truly feel that to bring real change and hope to the victims you care for in the field, there needs to be change in the foreign policies of the “developed countries,” i.e., American foreign policy. You can best contribute to changing that, I think, Stephanie, by being back here closer to the centers of power. People back here need to be better informed of what is happening in the other parts of the world. So, in many ways, I think your purpose and your mission has become even more important and even more relevant now that you are back in Geneva. And, I know, that I will be able to sleep easier.

    Dennis

  3. Great post Stephanie. I think that all of us in our comfortable lives should remember to think about those in the field a bit more often and those they are helping, especially when we moan about our first world problems.

  4. Returns are always difficult. This is the discovery of another part of “You”. Indeed, take it a step at a time and enjoy the process. It can be a growing and glowing one.

  5. Thanks for sharing Stephanie. I admire your courage and self-awareness. It’s not easy to recognize stress and the need for a change. Especially when your career involves helping and caring for people. Often times we give so much that it’s hard to establish boundaries between career and “normal” life. There is no normal and there is no finish. The moment should be remembered and the happiness is being there to enjoy the little things.
    I am wishing you the best of everything that life has to offer. I really enjoy what you write. Your adventures are inspiring and always make me want to get out and run. Happy trails!

  6. Great post and happy trails! I have a number of friends who work in your field and have seen how difficult it’s been for some i.e. feeling comfortable walking on grass after years of fears of landmines! I wish you a speedy return back to ‘normality’ and keep up the brilliant work you’re doing both in your professional life and in your running/NGO life!

  7. It is always interesting to learn about the extremes. They teach a lot about our powers of adaptation and the incredible gap between the realities of this world. Beautifully written! Thanks for sharing. (P.s. I keep your blog in my favourites and read a post every so often, I hope that’s not weird!).

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