Coming back from an overseas mandate is challenging. Experiencing the abundance of North American society, the waste, the seemingly petty concerns (TTC stalled, grocery store out of my brand of coffee) versus the hard reality of Swaziland (poverty, HIV/AIDS, rampant gender-based violence) I find myself floating. Some days I feel trivial, fluffy and nonessential whereas when I was working with the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse every day I felt I was doing work that was serious, solid, and helpful in the world.
At a recent debriefing workshop at the Crossroads office in Montreal, I found I wasn’t alone. Twelve volunteers gathered to share their reactions to coming home. The exercises were revealing and cathartic. Many people disclosed how difficult it was to speak with friends about their overseas experiences. Friends got bored and often didn’t understand the roller coaster of emotions many of us faced. We outlined our achievements and challenges in a line graph chart. Mine started high with the excitement of a new position, dipped low as I faced isolation and loneliness, and finally climbed back up high as progress (legislative change, positive media response, the organization’s raised profile) was made in my mandate. Other volunteers faced many peaks and valleys. We drew silhouettes of our personal learning, one half of our stick figures were ‘Before’ and the other was ‘After.’ Mine focused on learning patience and new skills such as radio production.
The most important section of the workshop for me was Understanding the Four Phases of Transition. The four phases are Refusal, Resistance, Exploration and Engagement. When I came home I was extremely busy with freelance work – no time to process the prior year. Some days it felt like I had never been away. My subconscious was talking to me, demanding attention, but I consciously ignored it. Lately, I think I have entered the Exploration phase. I am searching for the next steps, the next chapter of my life. But I realize I must process what I’ve been through before I’ll be able to move forward. I’m meeting with old friends and business acquaintances. I’m setting small goals, such as writing certain freelance stories or keeping up my blog. And I’m relieved at something the workshop taught me: Don’t worry about the march of time…remember goals and real interests, don’t feel panicked into accepting a situation that betrays those interests. Slowly, creativity will bubble inside me. The final phase of Engagement is on the horizon. I’m looking into volunteer opportunities locally, I’m searching for new markets for my writing, I’m getting ready to reposition myself to honour the many lessons I’ve learned on this compelling journey.
Letting these feelings out, sharing in a safe space, and contemplating next steps with a group of like-minded people has been very helpful for me emotionally and psychologically. Most importantly, the workshop gave me license to be patient and gentle on myself.