Imperfect steps

“At some point I’m going to have to pull my finger out here,” John Ellis said with a little laugh as he strode down the dirt path that crossed the ski station.  He stretched his arms out away from him like a human plane, weaving back and forth a bit on the trail as he listened to tunes. John should have been ahead of me at this stage in the race, even though we were only 15 or 20 km into the Eiger Ultra Trail. Frequently on the podium at races in Hong Kong, John was suffering from the altitude out here in the Swiss alps. But it didn’t seem to be killing his mood.

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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.

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.