I remember all the dogs at the Dar es Salaam airport. Usually people don’t travel internationally with their pets, but in the spring of 2020, nothing was normal. The dogs were restless in their cages, but the rest of us stood unusually still, tense, our faces strained from lack of sleep, frantic packing, a thousand unknowns.
I remember the recorded British voice that politely reminded everyone every five minutes: It is not permissible to bring plastic bags into Tanzania. In a dark humor, I thought, How about infectious diseases?
Just a few days earlier, we got a call in the middle of the night telling us to book a flight as soon as possible. Many in our community were making the same decision, but it was even more significant for us. We had planned a year earlier to relocate to the States in the summer of 2020. So this early, frenzied departure meant leaving a life of sixteen years with no closure, no dignity, no RAFT.
The memories of these moments in March 2020 are sharp and vivid, as if they happened three days ago, not three years.
In the five days before our departure, I can picture myself lining up my kids’ baby shoes, carefully saved for so many years, and taking pictures of them before handing them off to a friend. I remember making broccoli beef for my last meal in the crock pot I’d owned for 12 years. I remember how our feet echoed on the empty marble floors of the Ramada hotel restaurant on the night before we left.
I could list thousands of tiny, minuscule details of those five days. My focus was razor-sharp. My emotions were not.
Other than a couple of bursts of despair or panic, I went numb during those five days. And then during the long, unpredictable journey to California. And then during the next three months when we lived like vagabonds, trying to hold together our jobs in Tanzania while applying for new ones in the States.
If you had asked me how I was doing, I would have told you I was okay. I wasn’t happy, and sometimes I was decidedly unhappy, but I didn’t fall into a depression. I got out of bed every morning. I wasn’t crying all of the time. I wasn’t having panic attacks. I wasn’t having nightmares. Well, not many.
I am task-oriented. I did what I needed to do. And big feelings were not on the agenda.
But I was not okay, and that fragility manifested in unexpected ways. Suddenly, I had an aversion to anyone outside my immediate family. I didn’t want to see anyone. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, even people I normally would have been thrilled to be with. (Pandemic restrictions made this easy.)
Another A Life Overseas writer asked me to be on a podcast of people who were evacuated because of the pandemic. A little voice in my head said, “You like things like this.” But a bigger, louder voice said, “No. No. NO. Not even an option.” The big voice didn’t give me a reason. It just bullied me into saying no.
I stopped writing. I went months where my mind was mostly devoid of anything to write about, even though it was usually the best way to process my feelings. It was like my emotions froze, and I became a robot.
I was trying to adapt to a new life, and I was restless and impatient. I wanted to feel productive and meaningful again. But I had no energy, no creativity, no mental space. I could only focus on what was directly in front of me. I was frustrated that I couldn’t do more, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t. I thought I was fine. I knew I was sad, but I thought I was handling our transition well.
I wasn’t. Not really.
About a year and a half after our arrival, my brain and body decided to shut down, and I stopped sleeping for ten days. I finally got help. I told the urgent care doctor, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I know what anxiety feels like, but this is different. It’s like I’m on overload and can’t get my pulse to slow down.” That admission was the beginning of feeling better.
I’ve been back three years, and it’s taken me that long to figure out what was happening inside me during that first year and a half. I only see it now in hindsight.
There are times in life you know you’re a mess; the pain or the fear is big and consuming. Every moment of every day feels like a fight. (I’ve had seasons like that, and this wasn’t one of them.)
But other times, you don’t realize you’re in a fog. You are coping quite well. You are doing what you need to do. You don’t realize your soul is actually withering. Then one day, the sun breaks through the clouds and triggers a distant memory: Oh yes! This is what warmth feels like.
This is what it feels like to be creative, my mind brimming with ideas.
This is what it’s like to live without a constant sense of being overwhelmed.
This is what it feels like to be happy.
I didn’t recognize that I wasn’t doing well until I started to feel better, and to remember what it feels like to be fully alive.
Today, I love being with friends and meeting new ones. I’m doing seminars for small and large groups. I was a guest on a podcast. My brain comes up with way more things to write about than I have time to get them out.
I don’t think I anticipated the jarring effect the transition would have on my body, mind, and soul. Or that it would last as long as it did. Seeing this in myself has given me empathy for others around me who are in transition: the new parents, new empty-nesters, the immigrant. How can I show them grace? How can I help to bring light into their fog? How can I walk alongside them for as long as it takes, knowing it will probably take longer than anyone anticipated?
But also, I want to remember to give myself grace the next time. To be more patient with myself. To remember that some of the hardest parts of life must simply be faced a day at a time until they get better.
This morning at church, a song unearthed a sweet memory of Tanzania, and I cried. For what I left. For what I’ve missed. For what I’ve gained. For how far I’ve come.