Tips for surviving the ‘extended break’

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.
Survival 2

Just some of the items you might need to survive the extended break… number of therapist not seen in shot (credit: The Division Field Guide)

  • 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.
Survival

It’s always a good idea to have a safe space to run to when needed on the extended break (credit: Roots School)

  • 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.
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The Buffer Break

I’m writing this blog post a little late. And if truth be known, a little pissed. Because I am on HOLIDAY. Not just any holiday, oh no, I am on my first Buffer Break.

There comes a point in every deployment where you just want out. Maybe it’s when you’ve become tired of being the only person in your ‘hotel’ to clean the restaurant tables. Maybe it’s when you want a proper bed. Maybe it’s that if you hear/see one of more of those delightful cultural quirks such as lung-hacking pre- and post-dinner, or a long fifth fingernail for…. excavations, you may commandeer a gun from a local peacekeeper and go Columbine. Or maybe it’s just that you’re really, really tired. Humanitarian work seems to exhaust people like nothing else. It’s not just physical exhaustion bought about from long and active working days, poor diets and lack of sleep enduced by nonstop worries of earthquakes, or bombs, or mice that like to eat your clothes while you sleep or all-the-things-your-agency-could-be-doing-to-save-lives-but-are-not-in-the-donor-contract-and-the-CD-doesn’t-like-it, it’s also mental exhaustion. A friend and I recently discussed the longest we had worked on ‘maxed out mode’; it was an average of 17 hours per day, 7 days a week for 10 weeks straight. Her run was broken by being called to another emergency, mine by malaria. I imagine that the EU would have a field day slapping regulations on those kind of working hours.

Most aid workers know when it’s time to go; we all have our tell tale signs. Your patience reaches zero and you begin snapping with co-workers. Or you lose the ability to concentrate and lack motivation for your work despite there still being mountains to move. Or, like me, your level of casual swearing could qualify you for the navy, or at least Captain Jack’s skipper for sure. You can see it; your once bouncy colleague – known to brighten even the darkest of email induced bad moods – slumped over their coffee cup, calling everyone a twat.

So then go home! Take a break! See your family and friends! I hear you cry. Except herein lies the secondary dilemma; that adjusting back to ‘normal life’ can be just as tiring and painful. You are exhausted and possibly traumatised from what you have experienced, but your family and friends just see their old son/daughter/mate back again and assume you are still that bright-eyed, shiny, idealistic young thing they hugged at the airport, rather than a sleep deprived, worn out, probably hung over miscreant questioning the utility of your entire existence as an aid worker (or you know, on different points on that long sliding scale).  Many of your nearest and dearest won’t understand what life has been like for you and equally, you will not understand how your emotional crash landing back into their lives will affect them. When one aid worker posted on the Facebook group ’Fifty Shades of Aid’ that they found it hard to adjust to being back at home despite good relationships with their family, 33 others quickly identified with them and left 15 comments offering different advice. I can relate to this person’s dilemma. My inability to integrate seamlessly back into family life has resulted in me either hiding in my bedroom or shouting at my mother like a stroppy teenager on a crowded street in Llandudno; neither are options I want to see becoming the norm.

Tesco

The buffer break may result in you missing a browse around your local supermarche – Credit: Telegraph

And so I am taking my first buffer break. The buffer break as a concept is well acknowledged in the humanitarian field, but I like to think I have given it a trendy ‘instagram’ label now (I can imagine the selfies now, ‘me on the beach #bufferbreak #nofilter’ #fuckoff). It is when, instead of going straight home at the end of a deployment, you go somewhere else for a little while to ease gently back into life away from the very worst things that human beings can do to each other, and back into one of family lunches, cappuccinos and haircuts. A few friends of mine have dreamt of setting up a ‘half-way house’ for humanitarians to enjoy exactly this kind of decompression stop on their murky rise up to surface normality. One friend had an amazing idea to set up a resort in Spain, with a range of activities to satiate all manners of coping mechanisms: waterfall diving for those with spare adrenaline to burn? You got it. Massage and pedicure for those knotted from computer based hunching? No problem. Drowning your sorrows in excellently made cocktails for… erm, everyone? On tap! The idea being you can do whatever it takes to shake off those last vestiges of the deployment, helping you feel ready to leave work behind and head home ready for reintegration.

I spent my buffer break doing a mix of all three of the options above. I went trekking and spent some time getting uncomfortably close to a manner of animals that would happily eat me. I also had a massage which ironed out the tangle of knots that were keeping my shoulders hunched up like Quasimodo. I drank too much wine. Alone. And then wrote a blog post (winning). I met people who didn’t care at all what I had spent my last 6 months doing, and were more interested in finding out what my recommendations were for activities for the next day. It was refreshing. It also gave me time to finish off all the obligatory reporting, emails, last minute extra pieces of work that I usually end up having to do at home and keep me with one eye on work, rather than two eyes on my wonderful family and soaking up all my limited and precious time with them.

Tomorrow is the last day of my buffer break; it might be the wine talking, but taking this break in between my two worlds has made me feel more relaxed. Mostly, it has made me feel ready and excited to get back to my family, and back to ‘normal life’. Some people may be wondering how they would know when they were ready to leave the fast-pace of deployment behind and head home. Mine came like a eureka moment when catching up with a friend. I asked her what she was doing, and she said that she was in Tesco buying a sandwich. The first thing that came to my mind wasn’t, ‘oh how dull!’, or ‘hmm, I do really need to get going and finish that report…’ or even, ‘what kind of sandwich?’ It was ‘Tesco! Man, I can’t wait to mooch around Tesco!’ And lo and behold, I am ready to head home.