We are all warned about culture shock and what to expect when we first arrive on the field. But what about after that first year? What about three years down the road? Or seven? Or ten? What about the frustrations and tears, hurt and stress, internal (or external) cries for ‘home’? What about those days when you will do anything to get.out.of.here?
For most long term humanitarians, I think one of our biggest concerns is getting "burnt out". We all experience it. When you commit to working in developing nations, and when you have a big heart, the country can consume you quickly. It starts to slowly eat away at your social life, your youth, and your bubbly naive self. We come in with such passion and positivism and end up feeling beat down like one of the starving dogs on the street. We are faced with situations on a daily basis that friends and family back home would never even believe, let alone comprehend. And due to that fact we keep a lot of the heartaches to ourselves. We witness horrible things. We are exposed to bitter truths. We get angry and frustrated. The stress forces us to age incredibly. We lose sleep and our health slowly begins to diminish due to exhaustion or being exposed to strange parasites and diseases. Sometimes I wish I had a GoPro Cam attached to me just to show what my daily routine consists of. Most people would need a Xanax just to drive down the streets of Port Au Prince.
So how do you prevent becoming burnt out? You don't. For any long term humanitarian/missionary it is bound to happen eventually. You think "No, not me" or "I'm stronger than that". Stop kidding yourself. You experience it. You go through the hard times. You get stressed. You become bitter. You get depressed. You think about giving up and quitting. You think about how easier life would be if you just return home. You think about how many times you have been cheated or stabbed in the back by the ones you have helped. You get disappointed and let down time and time again. You get tired of asking for funding and support. You wonder if it's worth it anymore. You think you will never make the difference you were hoping to make. You get tired of being lonely or tired of being sick. You are exhausted and you've just had enough. You can't do it anymore.
And then... you pull up your big girl pants. You take a deep breath. And you open your eyes with a whole new perspective. You begin to see beauty where you once saw anger and pain. You embrace that this is your life, you are here for a reason. You are strong. You realize that the malaria, typhoid, Chickungunya, sleepless nights, chaotic days, and all the other obstacles you go through actually are worth it. You have learned hard lessons but they have forced you to do some soul searching. You've found yourself here. They are worth seeing a child that was once so close to death do a complete turn around and become striving and happy. Because you loved them. Because you took that chance. Because you decided not to turn your head. Because you decided to care. It is worth it when you have kids that have been abandoned or abused learn to trust again and you wake up every morning to them yelling "Mom wake up!!!!!". It is worth it watching a rural village learn to show compassion for one another, learn to share, and begin to prosper in ways they never could have imagined. It's the little things that we take for granted when our minds are constantly thinking we have to go, go, go. We never take time for ourselves. We never take time to digest all we have seen or all we have done. We never rest. It always seems to be one catastrophic event after another. There is so much need here. So much that we could be doing. But sometimes we have to sit back and just look around us. Notice those little things that can make you smile and fill up your heart again. Those are the things that will keep you sane. You have to remind yourself that you are human, you are allowed to grieve, you are allowed to hurt, and its okay to cry. Sometimes you have to literally force yourself to let go of the stressors. To take each moment as it is. I find that when I go out onto the streets my face changes completely. I scrunch it up and have this horribly angry look as if I'm ready for a fight. I know that I do this because I have come accustomed to having to barter or protect myself on the street. But sometimes, like when I'm driving through the mountains or along the ocean's shore, I actually have to force myself to relax and to smile.
After returning home for this past year and taking a "break". I began to realize how truly burnt out I was. I was angry and constantly stressed and worrying about the future. I had forced myself to become "hard". I stopped feeling the effects of trauma or dealing with what I had been exposed too. I became somewhat numb to things that would normally break my heart. And although some may think this is a good thing. It is not. I have learned that it is much easier to harden yourself then to endure. But it is necessary for healing purposes to go through the motions. To feel the pain, anger, and frustrations. I think way too many people here have become "hard" just like me. And it is difficult to undo that. Since returning to Haiti that is the one main thing I am working on each day. To become soft again. To love and trust again. To remind myself it's okay to look into the eyes of those on the streets, its okay to feel the hurt, its okay to want to help them and to cry because I can't.
In a month from now I will be once again boarding a plane home. My heart will once again break into a million little pieces. As I sit here staring at my University course schedule I feel terribly sad and guilty. I will have to kiss my 14 little ones goodbye. I will have to spend each and every minute away from them worrying about what they are doing, if they have eaten that day, if they are healthy, and if they are being told that they are beautiful and loved. Right now I don't even want to think about leaving. The thought hurts way too much. But this will also have to be something I will have to endure. However, we all know that I will be back soon enough.