Next week, I’ll be heading back onto the good ship humanitarian, but for the last two months I have been on an extended break. I think the ‘extended break’ is a bit of a perk of the humanitarian lifestyle. Either by choice or design, you end up with a gap between contracts so you have a couple of months to please yourself, or in my case, you have spent so long working without a holiday that you have accrued a massive amount of leave that you need to take or risk losing it. I chose to spend my two months back at home ‘reconnecting’ rather than travelling or generally having fun. Whilst I’m sure that I didn’t achieve the ‘reconnecting’ objective, I feel like I have learnt some valuable lessons for surviving the extended break, which – in the words of Dave Gorman – I would like to share with you now…
- Connect with people you haven’t seen for a while: Whilst this might seem like an obvious one, it is especially effective for one’s ego when you meet up with people that you worked with in the past in a terrible field location. When you have access to regular hot, running water, have been sufficiently de-wormed, and when you can actually eat a vegetable again, people will think you have undergone some magnificent transformation into a decent looking human being, whereas in reality you just swapped your logo t-shirts for a top that reveals you are, in fact, female. Throw in access to make up and Instagram filters, and these people will basically think you’ve become a supermodel.
- Minimise your time ‘working from home’: When you have to be at home for an extended period of time after you’ve become used to living away, relationships with those nearest and dearest to you can become… strained, to put it politely. This has been impressed on me in magnificent fashion since I had to move back home with my parents for two months. It’s fair to say that people from my parent’s generation really do not grasp the concept of ‘working from home’. They think that if you are sat at the house’s only table, looking at a laptop, it somehow means, ‘come and talk to me, let’s discuss the minutiae of the traffic on the local roads, the price of milk and the daily habits of our cats’. This was made even more awkward by the fact that the only table in the house is in the kitchen. Do you know that parents need to drink tea on a half hourly basis? And that whilst the kettle is brewing they need to converse otherwise they will spontaneously combust? I do. I know these things now.
- If in doubt, remember the ‘Fridge Chat’: Along with the festive season come the questions about when you are going to give up your crazy humanitarian life and settle down into something, well, more normal. Or as I like to call it, ‘when are you going to do something that we understand (i.e. buying a house, getting married and popping out a few sprogs) instead of what you currently do, which I don’t understand and therefore don’t know how to talk to you about it.’ I thought that my closest family had made their peace with my lifestyle choices, but the extended break has a way of revealing truths, such as the suggestion from my mum that I move back home for a year to ‘settle down’, and do some office temping jobs if I needed some money. Wow. The ‘Fridge Chat’ is my reminder to myself that people generally stay within their own comfort zones. You might be telling what you think is a cool story of malaria or chronic giardia, but the person listening glazes over and when you’re finished, they say, ‘Hey, I got a new fridge!’ Oh. Well, that’s cool. The point is that most people will not understand what life is like for you as a humanitarian worker, the same way you will not 100% understand what life is like for them when you are not there and how your coming and going also impacts on them. Like Morrissey says, ‘How can anybody possibly think they know how I feel? The only one around here who is me, is me.’ To survive the extended break, you need to cultivate patience and accept that not everyone is going to want to listen to, or understand, tales of your life. Which kind of sucks, but it will mean less arguments if the next time someone tells you about their new fridge, you can tell them it’s a really nice fridge.
- Do not open the door in your brain marked ‘deepest family-based insecurities’: Take it from someone who did, just DON’T DO IT. I know its tempting and you think it might be a doorway to healing old hurts, but trust me, it’s best just leaving it well alone. And if you really must, make sure you have enough money to cover the therapist you will absolutely need to help you shut it again before your next deployment.