In life after trauma, we survivors tend to fall into 1 of 2 groups: (1) those who recognize they have the symptoms of trauma and (2) those who tend to be in denial. Below, we've provided a teensy glimpse into what these two types of survivors might be experiencing . . . .
Just When the Nightmares, Hallucinations, and Flashbacks Dissipate, Depression Sets In
When you've experienced a traumatic incident and, especially, when you've left the field with PTSD, you may feel a range of emotions. You may feel more alone than ever. You may feel unable to return to work . . . ever. You may begin to think that your only choice is to change careers. Yet, that very thought is likely to leave you tossing and turning, wondering how in the hell you can change your career path now, having such a unique professional experience and a clear track bound for retirement in the same sector. This can be extremely confusing and depressing. You may find yourself exasperated and full of tears. Please, please, please remember: YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
In fact, there are many of us, who have had the same sort of experience. We too spent years relishing in our lives as aid workers, indulging in every cross-cultural experience and exchange we had, thriving on the excitement and stimulation of frequent travel and deep immersion into countries, cultures and languages that differed from our own. Then, our lives changed abruptly. In one moment, our lives were turned upside down. We were evacuated from the field, only to find ourselves disoriented in our home countries - places that were no longer familiar or even comfortable to us, often surrounded by people who couldn't fathom the kind of experience we'd had or even begin to understand the difficult transition to "normal" life we were forced to make.
This can set in a range of emotions - from loneliness and depression to frustration, anger and sadness. Don't expect these emotions to go away anytime soon. They may be constant or they may disappear only to reappear months or even years later. For some of us, the ups and downs associated with PTSD can last a lifetime. Now, don't let that discourage you! Learn to understand your traumatic symptoms with the help of a therapist and work together to diminish and eventually overcome or, at least, manage them. We've been there. And, yes, we've been to therapists too. Unlike a decade ago, we don't feel a need to whisper "therapy" in public either. We are proud of the underlying reason we have prioritized our therapy: We recognize the critical need to take care of ourselves, and we believe in emotional health as much as physical health. So, our advice to you is to not shy away from therapy but embrace it. Research shows that the sooner you start therapy following a traumatic incident, the sooner and more likely you will heal. We are evidence of this too!
Trauma? What Trauma? I'm fine.
Sometimes, survivors of traumatic incidents may be surprised by how well they handled the event or simply not know what else to do but carry on with their usual routine.
Carrying on with life can be healthy, especially when trying to emphasize routine. But, when carrying on means a) ignoring or denying the effects of a life-altering incident that could have resulted in your death, or when it means b) returning to a conflict zone or another environment that could re-traumatize you or trigger traumatic symptoms, something is not quite right.
So, if you are finding yourself thinking "I'm strong" or "I'm fine" and, then, propelling yourself back into the field, even back into a conflict zone, it is probably in your best interests to reflect carefully. You may THINK you're fine, but chances are your subconscious disagrees. It's a good time to look inward and focus on yourself and, in so doing, try hard to distinguish between what you truly NEED to be healthy and what you WANT because it feels most comfortable following year-after-year-after-year in the field.
Or, it could be that returning to work (but not necessarily the deep field) is precisely what you need to aid in your healing process.
The recovery process will be different for each person and will depend largely on his/her past experiences and perceptions of the world (and his/her own place within it). It may be helpful to speak to friends or colleagues about your experience and to obtain feedback on how you seem to those who know you best. Note that, sometimes, you may seem fine but, in reality, not be fine at all. You may not have any detectable symptoms or symptoms may not appear until you are confronted by particularly stressful situations or environments. You may wish to speak to other survivors for their firsthand thoughts. But, most critically, it's important to speak to a trauma specialist and gain insight into what you're experiencing and the healthiest approach to facing and overcoming your trauma. It takes time but, if you survived a traumatic incident, you can certainly survive the healing process! So, take care of YOU!