Disaster response is exciting, challenging, exhilarating, and exhausting. Responders have the opportunity to implement skills drawn from deep experience and long hours of training. Or they can find themselves in environments and contexts that are brand new and end up having very little communication or support in knowing what their tasks or responsibilities are supposed to be. Expectations of what the context of disaster response is like are rarely fulfilled. Crises, by their very nature, are chaotic and stressful. This chaos and stress affects those who respond in ways that are not usually dealt with or processed until the logistics for returning home begin.
Returning home or coming back to your community after serving on a disaster response can be significantly more complex than most people expect. The challenges people experience in this transition can often leave them feeling discouraged, disheartened, and floundering.
Here are the top ten most common expressions of disaster responders’ difficulties upon re-entry into their home communities and tips for how to navigate those difficulties in a healthy way.
1. No one wants to hear about your experience.
Even if your experience has been challenging and is not one you want to repeat, it has had an effect that you will want to share. It is a part of your story that may have changed your outlook on life, political views, or value systems. These are profound changes. People are often disappointed when no one seems interested to hear about all the exciting things you saw or did.
Tip: As you travel home, prepare what you will say when someone asks you how your experience was. Be ready with a brief statement that conveys a willingness to share more without obligating the listener to hear all the intimate details. Watch for the body language signals that indicate that someone is interested in diving deeper or is simply being polite.
2. A critical attitude.
If you serve in crisis response in another culture, even if that different culture is in your own country of origin, there may be other priorities and values that you come to love. This difference of priorities or values can sometimes lead to a hypercritical attitude towards your home culture or the culture you are serving in. When these attitudes arise, it is essential to remember that each culture has its positive and negative effects on its population and the world. One is not better than another. They are just beautifully different. Also, remember that your perspective is narrow. You saw a culture from the perspective of an outsider and a visitor. No matter how long you have lived in another culture, if it is not your native culture, it never will be.
Tip: Rather than foster critical thoughts about cultures, find ways to create opportunities to see the things you value from where you have worked or lived. Healthy culture shifts happen one person at a time within ongoing, affirming relationships.
3. Feeling foreign upon your return.
If you have served on a crisis or disaster response for a lengthy period or deployed on multiple back-to-back responses, you may feel that life in your home community has passed you by. If you served overseas, you might feel like a foreigner in your own country. Your worldview may have changed to the point that you no longer feel that you “fit in.” Feelings of alienation in your home culture are commonly referred to as “reverse culture shock”.
Tip: Give yourself time to readjust. Understand that you have changed, and so has the world around you. It will take some time to decipher how the “new you” will integrate into your home culture. Reach out to those in your community to hear and understand what life experiences they may have had while you were gone. The key to surviving reverse culture shock is mutually engaging and invested in relationships.
4. Feeling out of touch with current events.
You have been absent from the daily life of those around you. As a result, you may feel out of touch with political developments, community changes, and relational shifts that have occurred without your knowledge. Do not be surprised by this. It is normal. You have immersed yourself in a different environment, and the better you have done this, the more you may feel out of touch when returning.
Tip: Give yourself a lot of grace. If possible, give yourself ample time to reintegrate into life at home before engaging in new responsibilities, job roles, or other significant life changes.
5. People cannot relate.
You may find that people have a hard time connecting to what you have experienced. This disconnect can be hurtful as people can seem dismissive of events that you found incredibly impactful. This is not because people do not care, but rather because what you have experienced is so far outside their context that they have little foundation of commonality to relate. The truth is they will never be able to understand because they have not walked in your shoes.
Tip: Seek out and develop relationships with others that have experienced similar things. Maybe this is another crisis responder in your same field or a cross-cultural worker in another context. Crisis and disaster responders can often find commonality with first responders (fire, EMS, and law enforcement). Look for opportunities to sit with like-minded people and debrief your experiences together.
6. Feeling a sense of superiority.
Your experience is so unique that you may feel that you are superior to others. It may seem that your worldview is more well-rounded than theirs. You may think that the shift in your priorities has led you beyond others’ backward thinking. Feeling superior is dangerous for your relationships. It can lead to people not trusting you and portray an arrogant persona that is off-putting. Be careful not to enable these kinds of thoughts.
Tip: Remember that the value of humanity does not change with experience. Remind yourself the path you are on is just a path, and you continue to be transformed as well, regardless of how you have served or what you have experienced.
7. Life now seems boring.
When you were deployed, you may have felt alive; a part of something bigger than yourself, using your gifts and abilities in all the ways you were created for. Everything was new. You immersed yourself in a learning process of culture, language, and environment. The newness provided a consistent stimulus that was ongoing for the duration of your time of service. Conversely, coming home to familiarity can seem monotonous, routine, and boring.
Tip: Look for ways to use your new experiences to make a difference at home. Continue to serve in some fashion. You may find that service to others is what was life-giving about your deployment. Consider starting a gratitude journal that includes all the things you are thankful for within your time of service and within the context of your home environment.
8. Feeling reverse homesickness and loneliness.
You may miss the culture and the people that you served while deployed. Feelings of loss that come from leaving a way of life are normal. It means that you invested in relationships and loved well.
Tip: Take time to remember by journaling or sharing memories with a close friend or family member. Give yourself permission to grieve the loss of a season of life by engaging in the practice of lament. If you have the opportunity to debrief with a trained facilitator, take it.
9. Feeling a sense of apathy or disconnection.
You may have seen things that have opened your eyes to needs you never knew existed. You may wonder why no one around you cares about what is going on outside of their environment. The world can often feel very self-centered.
Tip: Work to bring awareness about the things for which you have developed a passion. Remember that your compassionate engagement with the world does not to stop; it has just changed. Some of the most significant impacts you see may come in opening the eyes of another to situations or experiences beyond their own context.
10. A lack of opportunity to apply new skills and knowledge.
You may have worked in environments where people were incredibly thankful for your skills or just thrilled to have an extra pair of hands and feet to do the work. You may have learned new skills or developed abilities that you have enjoyed putting into practice. As you return to your home community, you may find that these new skills may be undervalued or even unwanted for various reasons. It could be differences in regulation that keep you from employing your new skills. No matter the reason, the grief of this kind of loss can catch many by surprise.
Tip: Continue to look for opportunities to add to your skillset or acquire the proper licensing or certifications that will allow you to utilize your abilities in various environments. Whether the skills you learned will come into play later, or perhaps the principles behind them will be the foundation for future development, you will find that they are not cast aside even if they cannot be used in the same way through this next season.
You may experience many of these top ten or none of them – all of which is normal. If you return from a crisis or disaster response or plan to deploy soon, it will help your transition to the response if you expect challenges to arise. It is often the surprise of wrestling when someone expects things to go smoothly, which adds to the situation’s difficulty. Give yourself time and grace. Do not compare your response to the response of others. People deal with and process through experiences differently. Seek counsel and support from a few people whom you trust who understand the context of what you have experienced or will experience.
The Resilience Resource team is here to help if you find yourself in need of support as you return or prepare to go. Debriefing opportunities and retreats are available as well as online training and resources.
Visit us at www.theresilienceresource.org for resources on this and other topics, or reach out via email at email@example.com or by phone at +1.828.278.8989.