Readjustment after Medical Separation

I’ve been putting off writing this post for a while, because it’s difficult to put into words. But I guess I can give a short story and a long story.

The last picture of me taken at Xitsavi.

The last picture of me taken at Xitsavi.

I was medevac’d in early December from the Peace Corps South Africa, and officially medically separated in January 2014, after 30 months of service.

Short Story:
The readjustment and transition back to America has been really hard. More difficult than I ever would have imagined.

Long Story:
When I left South Africa, I wasn’t overly upset. I was seriously injured and dealing with a newly diagnosed neurological condition. I was sad to leave, but I wasn’t devastated In some ways, I was happy to return to my family and excited to spend the holidays with them after 2.5 years. I was also relieved to receive treatment for both my injury and my disease in the States, where I would have access to an internationally-known neurologist who focuses on CMT (my diagnosis). I would be dealing with physical therapy and leg braces, and I needed to be back in the States.

The start of a garden club at a nearby primary school...the only time I got to work with them before I left.

The start of a garden club at a nearby primary school…the only time I got to work with them before I left.

I figured I’d have to get used to American English, flush toilets, driving, and winter again, among other things. But even after going through COS conference and watching almost all of my cohort COS months previously, I had no idea what I was facing.

You see, medical separation is fiercely different than a typical COS, or even an ET. Most PCVs have weeks or months to wrap up projects, pack, and say goodbye. I had two hours. Most end their service with world travel. I ended mine with surgery, pain, and tears. Most PCVs get to prepare for life in the States again, looking for jobs and finding a place to live. I was on a plane just days after they determined I would be leaving for good.

One of my last days in the village...visiting the homes of some of my afterschool care kids.

One of my last days in the village…visiting the homes of some of my afterschool care kids.

I had no idea the emotional toll of all this.

I have struggled to come to terms with my departure from country. Now, almost six months later, I can finally write about it without dissolving into tears. It has taken that long.

The Xitsavi garden that I had to abandon.

The Xitsavi garden that I had to abandon.

I can look through photos and remember incredible memories, rather than feeling guilt-ridden and intensely homesick. I can read through my journals. I can talk to people easily about my experience in South Africa. The dreams of being back in South Africa have mostly ceased.

I want to be open and honest here, so that if someone else stumbles on this blog in the same boat as me, they can know they aren’t alone. It’s an entirely unique COS, reentry, and readjustment situation.

One of the last pictures of me in South Africa.

One of the last pictures of me in South Africa.

Rather than simply dealing with life back in the States, I have had to deal with being torn away from my job, my home, and my friends, then be sent back to friends and family who just can’t understand it all. Because you can’t understand it unless you’ve been through it.

I’m still readjusting. Every. Single. Day. I still feel homesickness for my life back in South Africa. Just about every single day. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about what’s going on there, my organization and school, and my friends.

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I know my life has been fundamentally changed through my experience with the Peace Corps. I know some things will never be as they were before I left. I have changed. But in some ways, I am still transitioning back. It’s taken longer than I ever thought it would.

-Jen

PS. If you have been medically separated and are experiencing some of the things I’ve mentioned here, feel free to email me at jenpcv (at) gmail (dot) com. Let’s talk.

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Readjustment and Medical Separation

Time seems to fly while I’m at home, and I haven’t posted in a while.

The good news is: I’m finally gaining mobility and a wee bit of strength with my arm, and I’ve been fitted with leg braces, which help a lot with my walking issues.

The bad news is: I am definitively not going back to being a PCV in South Africa. My new official COS/Medical Separation date is 16 January 2014.

Being home has been wonderful, but also a bit difficult. Leaving South Africa in the way I did…little warning and no chance to wrap up projects and say real goodbyes….it’s hard. Nearly traumatic at times. Readjustment to American life was a baptism by fire. It is still. Life hasn’t returned to a normal yet, and my mind is still very much in a South African PCV mode much of the time.

I catch little differences often. Like how I completely ignore the gas gauge and speedometer when driving, since I’ve scarcely driven in the past 2.5 years. Or how I still second-guess which side of the car to get into. I struggled at first to shut lights off when I left a room, because I was so used to living in one room with a light that a scarcely used. And how I often forgot to shut the bathroom door at first, since my pit latrine at site didn’t have one. There are lots of little things like this that I catch myself doing (or saying) which are very much PC/South African/etc. Thankfully, my family is forgiving and deals with my quirks.

I never imagined I would be facing medical separation from Peace Corps. Even after I broke my shoulder, I thought I’d be back at site within the allotted time. Now, I realize that was completely unrealistic. I’m still in intensive physical therapy, and will be until probably March. It’s frustrating that the recovery timeline wasn’t clearly communicated to me while in SA, by the surgeon. But I am very thankful I was medevac’d because I’m getting great treatment here, and am not dealing with an injured shoulder at site. It seems that I’ll be recovering fully, which is a blessing.

I deal with a lot of PC guilt…common among volunteers and exacerbated by the loose ends I was forced to leave behind. There’s not much I can do about it though, besides ignore it.

Now I have to face the “real world” and find some work. I don’t enjoy job hunting, and was looking forward to postpone it until much later this year. However, the real world is knocking!
-Jen

Leaving this Place Better than Before, Part 2

Though I’m not yet leaving South Africa, I am moving from one site to another as I switch from my original assignment to my third year assignment.  In one way, I am finishing up my service and starting anew.  This past week, I attended the COS conference for my cohort, SA24.  Of the 57 of us who came to country, 47 made it to the end of service.  For SA, this is amazing….most cohorts lose far more than we did due to ETs.  45 of us were at our COS conference…two having already COS’d.  And while most of the information given at our COS conference won’t be relevant to me for another year, it was a time for reflection on what I’ve done so far.

Have I really left this place (my old village) better than it was before?

The Village.

The Village.

One of the things that is unique to SA is that just by being in my village for two years, I make a small impact.  Children and adults in my village were able to interact regularly with a white person-one who was learning their language, making efforts to honor their culture, and who tried to help them.  This certainly hadn’t happened to them before.  Children began to change their attitudes: instead of being terrified that a white lady was speaking to them, they began to laugh, then they stopped laughing and greeted me normally.  At the end, children would run up to me, gleefully shouting my name and greetings in English and Setswana.  Adults stopped averting their eyes and speaking Afrikaans to me, and instead happily jabbered at me in Setswana, or tested their shy English skills.  I scarcely heard “lekgoa!” being shouted at me as I walked through the village.  Women would stop and offer to help me carry my things, and men would help me find transport.

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Even if PCVs in SA do nothing else, we change the stereotypes.  We leave our villages a little bit better than they were before, no matter our race.

My host family.

My host family.

Yet there were a multitude of projects I wanted to start, and things I wanted to teach the children.  There were things I allowed to slip through my village, whether through exhaustion, frustration, or simply not knowing how to solve the unceasing problems.  I wanted to do many things: start a girls’ club, host a Camp GLOW, get funding for the garden club, reach out to more home gardeners, significantly improve English and NS scores, start a LoveLife, set up a library, focus more on HIV/AIDS nutrition, engage the community….and many more than I can’t even remember now.  It’s easy to set your goals too high and dwell on the things we failed to do.

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But I believe that every PCV leaves their home a little better than before.  It could well be that all of my projects have completely failed six months from now, and that the people in my village forget my name.  Maybe they’ll start to forget that I was ever there.  But small things will remain: the adorable Grade R who ran to greet me each day might vaguely remember how to plant seeds, my 13 year old host sister might have strong enough English skills to attend university someday, my counterpart may glance at the garden year plan we made from time to time, and the teachers might remember to take the learners outside every now and then and teach in the garden.  Or they might not.

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It was really hard to leave my old village behind.  I had invested a lot of time, blood, sweat, and tears over the past few years.  Even though I saw my counterpart and the Garden Club learners take ownership of our garden, I didn’t want to let go.  I wanted to stay and see what they do next.  But I can’t.  And while I’m hoping to visit in 2014, who knows what the future holds.

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I hope and pray that I’ve left my old village a little better than before.  I doubt I’ll even know if and how, but as long as one little things changed, or one opinion shifted, then it was two years well spent.

Adios, my village.

Adios, my village.

-Jen