by Lauren Neal
No one can prepare you for re-entry, not even your closest friends and family who have walked alongside of you through this season. Neither can a countless number of books and podcasts nor accumulated hours spent in therapy. Oh, or copious amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and rum (Barbancourt to be precise).
Re-entry, often disguised as the word “transition” (but dear Lord, if you ever catch me using the t-word just slap me across the face), is like re-birth. But this time, you’re not a screaming, crying infant; you’re a screaming, crying adult, and you come out of the womb with the expectation to walk and talk, and spell out your 5-year-plan to the acquaintance you run into at the grocery store, not out of interest, but out of obligation. Except you’re tongue-tied and heart broken and wondering how to choose from the umpteen flavors and brands of ice cream that will actually remain frozen in the trunk of your car on your ride home.
That’s a funny word now. Well, no. It’s not really funny at all. It’s actually rather frustrating and confusing and debilitating because the aisle, where you’ve just experienced this uncomfortable encounter, feels foreign in spite of its familiarity. Former normalities just don’t feel normal anymore. I personally envision home as this imaginary place where I could somehow supernaturally pull Haiti’s coastline up to the border of Cincinnati, along with all the other places that have claimed the people I love, and squish together my two houses and merge together my two lives and live happily ever after, together. But alas, that seems like a rather lofty task and unfortunately, Ohio’s geographic coordinates might prove to make that an unfeasible reality.
So now, I’m stuck holding a basket full of overpriced luxury food items in a grocery store smack dab in the middle of the Midwest, trying to muster up the strength to tell said acquaintance that I, in fact, have no plan. Yep, you read that right. Zero plan. Talk about an utter disappointment. (If you’re reading this and realize we’ve had one of these encounters, don’t worry—it’s not you, it’s definitely me).
After recovering from my conversation, I get in my car and turn the key in the ignition, and drive back to my residency in a mere three minutes, all without hitting any potholes or laying on my horn five times or receiving the middle finger accompanied by a slew of profane Creole expletives. Then, I park and I climb the stairs of my apartment only to feel the rush of the air conditioner as I open the front door, a reminder that Haiti is so far away. Finally, to ease that hole in my heart, I reach for the ice cream pint, a trusted emotional remedy, and eat it straight out of the carton because, come on, ice cream fixes everything (at least momentarily).
Dessert aside, it’s been a whole year and a half since I returned from Haiti, and yet I still feel caught in the phase of re-entry, filled with a million questions.
Who am I?
What is my purpose now?
Does anyone even care about me anymore?
Why don’t people ask?
Do they even know how hard this is?
Will I be stuck in Cincinnati forever?
Will I ever live in Haiti again?
When will I get over this?
You know how when you come back into the United States after being abroad and you go through customs, there are those TSA security guys who do one final check of your passport, like a just-in-case precautionary measure? They typically ask you where you’ve been and why you’ve been there. And after they’ve confirmed that the photo and information on the passport is, in fact, you, they’ll close your little book of adventure stamps, your pass to international freedom, and hand it back to you as they proclaim, “Welcome home.” Two simple words, yet unparalleled gravity.
While I lived abroad, this expression delighted me. It was exhilarating like I’d just accomplished something genuinely extraordinary. But on December 20, 2017, this once uplifting gesture felt numbingly defeating. Soul-crushing. An audible end of an era. Welcome home. Home? Where is home now? Little did I know then, as I held back tears in the international quarters of the Atlanta airport, that it was only the first of many comments to come that would provoke feelings of failure.
No one can prepare you for re-entry. No one can prepare you for when you’ll feel the emotions or why you’ll feel them. (Thank God my computer monitor is large enough at work to shield those moments of vulnerability.)
There’s no formula. No step-by-step guide. No “Re-Entry for Dummies.” No 5 Ways to Conquer your Re-Entry for Ultimate Success articles or webinars (is it just me or is there a list for everything now?).
The intensity of a purpose-filled life was so real. The thrill. The excitement. The notion that every day was new. Don’t get me wrong. Even now, in Cincinnati, Ohio, every single day has purpose, and I’m such an advocate that every twist and turn, every choice and every missed opportunity, is woven into chapters to form our individual journeys and collective stories, each uniquely whole.
But it’s just different now, and in a way I struggle to articulate. There are high-highs and lower-lows. As an introvert, I often choose to hermit myself because sometimes I feel like my presence can be a burden. They don’t want to hear about Haiti again, right? Bless my sweet friends who put up with my tireless venting.
Many days, I feel like I’m aimlessly treading into an unknown abyss, like I’m moving forward but with no real direction. The precision of my former “calling” has now all but dissipated entirely, and I feel like I’m piecing together a puzzle with no resolve.
I miss my life as I dwell on the memories and scroll through social media. I forget about the stuff that ultimately led to my burnout and romanticize the good and wonder, was it really that hard? Though I know in my heart that yes, it really was that hard.
Now, even after a year and a half, I spend my short commute to work vocalizing my need for a grateful heart, praying that God would help me to get through another day, that I might find contentment right where I am, hoping his hand will guide me as I piece together this complex puzzle.
Throughout this season, I’ve, no doubt, experienced significant, life-giving healing and restoration thanks to a community of people who have carried me when my feet could not support the weight of my body. But it doesn’t discount those moments of pain and struggle and grief. Sometimes, the guilt and the deep wounds I harbor inside unexpectedly surface to remind me that perhaps this process will last a lifetime.
Sometimes, I go to happy hour and I shop online and I eat ice cream out of the pint and I enjoy my life.
Sometimes, I wallow in self-pity and I feel overwhelmingly discouraged and I cry and I loathe my life.
Yet, in spite of all of that, God is sovereign. And I choose to trust that his purpose always prevails even when my hope grows dim and my faith is distant.
It’s okay to feel all these things at once and it’s okay not have everything figured out. It’s okay to trudge through the barren wasteland. And when you’re tired, it’s okay to stop and to sit and rest. And then, it’s also okay to fall flat on your face and sob uncontrollably. But, on the other hand, it’s okay to be happy and to feel proud of your progress, to relish in the small victories and to forget about the pain. After a long season in the desert, it’s okay to feel rehydrated and refreshed. And finally, it’s okay to question and doubt and feel angry about former theologies and beliefs you once had, the same ones that even led to your second home in the first place.
My friend, wherever it is you find yourself, let me shout it from the rooftops: It. Is. Okay.
And next time you’re in the grocery store and you have one of these awkward run-in’s, give yourself a little extra grace. Whether it’s been a week, a month, a year, or ten years, you have the permission to feel exactly what you are feeling. The departure from your second home doesn’t devalue or diminish your love and affection for it. It just makes the separation that much more difficult.
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to reach out when you need to, to share the feelings weighing on your heart, and to confide in those who have loved you along the way. They may not may understand all the pieces of your story, but they’ll remind you that you’re not alone. Because after all, we’re in this together.
Lauren Neal is a writer, a photographer, and a recovering missionary. Though her heart is in Haiti, her feet are planted in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she’s learning to pick up the pieces of a new life. An introvert, she enjoys spending time with her family and close friends. And of course, on occasion, she indulges in her favorite, Graeter’s mint chocolate chip ice cream. You can find her online at www.laurenneal.com and on Instagram.