A while back, I came to the realization that once I left Ethiopia, my experience in the Peace Corps would not just suddenly end. It has been a strange journey that will be with me for the rest of my life. But in a very literal sense coming home would be, in some ways, just as big of adventure as leaving. This point was proven when I arrived home and time and time again people would ask, “What is it like being back in America?” I found that I had no real answer.
When I first arrived home, I would not delve to deeply into how it felt being back. My stock answers (sorry if these sound familiar) were, “America is weird” or “seeing family is great”. If I felt particularly uninterested in talking about the storm going on inside of me, I would mention food, which without fail always brushed away the possibility of the conversation taking a serious turn.
When you join the Peace Corps, they give you a booklet that’s mostly for your family and friends. Among other things, it talks about the emotional process of coming home. I remember reading it and scoffing. It said that the Volunteer would likely be depressed and unengaged upon returning. I laughed and thought to myself, “if I ever manage to make it through 27 months in some far off country, I will be nothing but ecstatic when I finally come back home.” Peace Corps wins again.
When I came back home, I had no idea how I felt. There were huge highs and crippling lows. My flight home was Addis Ababa to Toronto and Toronto to Raleigh (where I stopped for a few weeks to visit my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew). When I touched down in Toronto, I felt so out of place. The process of going through customs was confusing under the best of circumstances. I was not able to smoothly find my terminal because I had forgotten the perks of English; I had perfected drowning out background noise (the overhead speaker giving important announcement) and did not even glance at items in print (helpful signs). There were so many food options that I became overwhelmed. I ended up getting a bagel and finding an out-of-the-way corner where I could eat alone. I knew my time in Ethiopia was over, and yet was not ready to be back in America. Those feelings temporarily subsided when I arrived in Raleigh. Seeing my loved ones reminded me there were advantages to being back in America. And yes, the food is pretty incredible.
Those highs and lows were the tone of my first months back. It was amazing to see all the people I had missed, and yet there was a bizarre time limit within those meetings where once crossed, I just needed to get away. This left me unmotivated to see people. Unfortunately, it’s hard to explain to someone you haven’t seen in two years that while you did indeed miss them, you are not ready to see them. Because what happens when all the excitement dies down and you’ve reconnected with all the people from your past? When you’re no longer someone who just came back from Peace Corps Ethiopia? When do you become just another unemployed 26-year-old living at your parents’ house?
Now, you might be thinking, this kind of sounds likes depression. And you would be absolutely correct. My first two months back, I was horribly depressed. I was stuck. I could not go back to Ethiopia, but I could not get my mind away from it. I was homesick. I missed Asella. I missed Tilahun. I missed Abel. I missed silly nights at Girma’s. I missed bayanets and coffee. I missed my teachers (well, some of them). I missed sitting in a café reading for hours. I missed shop owners and veggie ladies. Essentially, I missed my home. And the thought that crept into my mind as I was spiraling in this nostalgia was the harsh fact that I would never see most of those people again. That I could count on one hand the amount of times I would be able to return to a place that means more to me than I could ever express.
I tried to stay busy by looking for a job. I decided the best way to get over Ethiopia would be to charge ahead. As you might imagine, job searching was not the best way to fix depression. I very quickly reached a breaking point. Despite the face I was putting on for others and the lies I was telling myself, I simply could not move forward. Peace Corps offers three free sessions with a therapist once you get home to help with “readjustment”. As I started down that process, I realized that therapist or not, what I needed was someone to listen as I worked through the chaos in my head (I think the phrase I said most often my first two months back was “I am somehow feeling ALL the emotions”). So while my boyfriend, Eric, was probably just excited to see me after 27 months apart, what he really saw was a disaster. He deserves an award.
After a ridiculous amount of talking, I realized that in my mind, moving forward meant moving away from Ethiopia. If I was able to get a job and be successful, Ethiopia must not have meant that much to me. I would forget about it all and become the same person I was two and a half years ago. It would be like Ethiopia never happened. This manifested itself in delightful forms of self-sabotage. After all, I honestly believed a step forward was a step further from Ethiopia (seriously, Eric deserves a medal). Once I came to understand all this, I was able to genuinely start moving forward. I applied to jobs that created a similar sense of passion as Ethiopia. I put an emphasis and priority on specific skills I learned in the Peace Corps. And I’m pleased to say this week I start a job I am pretty thrilled about that would have been impossible without my last two years.
But the truth is, I still fear the day it will be as if Ethiopia never happened. Yet what becomes of my experience and the affect it has on me is entirely up to me. It can mean as much or as little as I want it to. It is up to me if I go back to visit (spoiler, I will). It is up to me how often I talk about it or make Skype calls to my loved ones back in Ethiopia. It is up to me to make Ethiopia an integral part of my life that cannot be ignored or forgotten. And that is what I intend to do.
As a result, I am finally at a point where I can write this blog entry. I know how silly that might sound, but this has been on my “to-do” list for three months. It became a representation of my time in Ethiopia truly coming to a close. But that’s okay. I am ready to move forward with my life and start a new chapter. That does not diminish or take away from Ethiopia. It does not mean it somehow didn’t mean anything to me. That I’ll forget it ever happened. I am more optimistic about my future than I ever have been. There is a mysterious path before me that I am excited to follow. When I think about where my life is now and where it would be without my time in Ethiopia, I would relive all the low points to be where I am today.
This is never how I envisioned my last entry. I assumed it would be a beautifully worded summation of my time in Ethiopia. It would detail everything the experience meant to me and wrap everything up in a nice little bow. But, as I’ve learned, the Peace Corps never really ends. While it will always be a part of my identity, at this point, I cannot fully fathom the affects this experience will have on my life. All I can say is, I am a better person than I was two and a half year ago and that is thanks to the Peace Corps. It changed my career path. It changed how I see the world. It fundamentally changed who I am. I once said that the Peace Corps completely broke me and built me back up into a person I am much happier and prouder to be. That still rings true. It was the hardest and best thing I can ever imagine doing in my life.
To everyone who read this blog, I can never thank you enough for your interest and support. I hope it was mildly entertaining and that, maybe, you learned something about the very small section of the world I called home for two years. And if we ever meet up, I would love nothing more than to talk (until you literally have to stop me) about my time in Peace Corps Ethiopia.