Confessions of a Weary Traveller
Last Christmas I came home from 21 months of travelling feeling a cocktail of these things:
broken, worn out, empty, numb, discouraged, hopeless, bitter
...and I want to talk about that. For my first month in England I busied myself with meeting people and doing errands like visiting the dentist/opticians/hairdressers/doctors. I was sorting myself out and expected to begin to feel normal again by doing life how I did it before I left, but I still found myself feeling resentful when I thought about the travels and volunteering I'd just done. I began to cry uncontrollably at seemingly random parts of my weeks, often at socially inappropriate times. This is called 'emotional outbursts' apparently, and it's one of the symptoms of grief or over exhaustion.
How dramatic am I? Grieving when I experienced no death - I didn't really know that was a thing. But when a counsellor proposed that my feeling overwhelmed was related to grief, something in me exhaled and felt relieved as I inwardly associated with that word. Following that, I spent quite a lot of time assuming that my 'grief' was because I'd met people with traumatic stories and hard lives, and so perhaps in a delayed way I was expressing my hurt for them. In some ways, that was true. But actually, months after my travels finished, I realised that I was also grieving dozens of little things that I felt I'd lost as a result of doing this travelling school. Until I actually sat down and wrote out every loss that I felt (a list numbering 46), I was left with this vague and big (thus overwhelming) feeling of resentment, unsure how I got there or who I was actually pointing the finger at. For much of that struggle, it ended up pointing towards God.
I think one of my downfalls was that I had really high expectations of this school. If you're unfamiliar with this scheme I'm referring to, it was an around the world photography and advocacy school that promised you'd learn to photography as well as how to use media to raise awareness about injustice. (Check out the video here if you want to get a better picture of the school.) To me, it sounded like the best and wildest adventure, and most people reacted similarly and enthusiastically when I told them about my plan. So when I came back from this school (called 'Track') full of sadness, I felt robbed. It felt like there was such fine-print that either I wasn't told about beforehand or I naively cared not to notice (I think it was the latter). It felt like Track cost me things that I wasn't willing to give, an example being that I saw that the world and aid work looked more complicated and ugly than I thought it did and it completely stripped me of my innocence and optimism.
So back to when I came home. I paid for counselling at a debriefing centre in North Wales. I decided not to work and I journalled often, cried often and prayed often. I also talked to a few people about what was going on, and looked through photos I'd taken to try and organise my messy/disorganised/cluttered memories. I've never felt before like I was unravelling and it was unnerving to spend stretches of time not noticing progress, and barely knowing what recovering would look like when it came. After a while, I started reading through my unfinished journal (that I started a year into my travels when I first began to break down) like a novel, and in doing that I noticed the slow progress I was making towards dealing with the feelings I was left with. I'm actually writing this mostly in hindsight, because mostly this stuff feels worked through. The fact that I'm able to type and talk about it is a pretty big deal for me and an indication that things started to get better. I will talk about that, but not yet. For now, I want to give a tiny voice to the cost and pain and exhaustion of volunteering abroad and researching injustice. Don't get me wrong, we had an adventure in five continents that included dolphins and penguins and bungee jumps, but I've also met a heap of volunteers out there who found themselves discouraged and in the boat that I did, and I want the spotlight to realistically encompass that part too.