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.

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

Americans Be Crazy…or Is It Me?

Coming back to the States on Medevac has so far been a bit different than the previous times I visited. There’s a sense of finality, knowing I might not go back to South Africa. Instead of simply enjoying the first world life, I keep wondering whether I need to start transitioning back to it. Rather than only enjoying the company of my family and friends, I’m beginning to readjust. To call the USA my home again.

And it’s weird.

I catch myself truly reflection on how different life here is than my life back in the States. More often than not, I find things to be utterly ridiculous and superfluous, I won’t lie. Some adjustments I made in South Africa to my lifestyle seem logical to bring back here, yet wonder if Americans will understand my quirky behavior.

I will admit that I’m thoroughly enjoying my family’s wifi, but I forgot how incredibly FAST it can be. I went to watch a youtube video, and it loaded almost instantaneously. I had opened another window to slowly download another webpage to read while waiting, but almost before I could open the browser window, my video had loaded. I couldn’t believe it. Youtube is way more enjoyable when you don’t have to wait ten or twenty minutes for a short video to load.

I’m trying really hard not to add the unnecessary “u” to words like favorite or behavior, by the way. It might take awhile to remember, so I apologize.

I also don’t fully understand how someone could possibly use a ziploc baggie only once. So what if you put a piece of pizza in there? It’s not dirty. It’s got at least 3 more uses in it. I physically struggle to throw away a baggie, but I know if my Dad saw me saving them, he’d be grossed out.

Though I definitely identify as a bit “crunchy”, or rather an environmentalist, I haven’t recycled in two years. It’s not like riding a bicycle. It doesn’t immediately come back. My muscle memory has been lost. To be fare, I didn’t technically recycle in the traditional, put-it-in-a-bin-on-the-curb sense. I did, however, find a second, third, or fourth use for nearly everything that wasn’t gross-food-trash. Even that was given to my worm farm. Got an old newspaper? Use it like a paper towel to drain grease off food, because I’m not buying paper towels. Got an old magazine? After reading it several times, cut it up and make African-esque paper beads for friends. Got an old rama container? Jackpot, that stuffs as good as Tupperware. But I think if I tried to use newspapers as paper towels, my family would have me committee.

There’s a lot of things in the USA that seem absolutely crazy. I’ve seen photos of a friend’s child’s birthday, and I was appalled at the amount of things that child got. I’m happy for him, but to my eyes it seemed embarrassingly excessive, when I typical child in my village was likely to get a school uniform for his/her birthday, if it was celebrated at all. I don’t know how I will handle the abundance at Christmas. I can’t imagine a traditional Christmas at this point. I’m looking forward to seeing family I haven’t seen in 2.5-3 years, but….I don’t know, it’s hard to imagine the whole gift-giving side of things, and being able to enjoy it fully.

There are a lot of wonderful, absolutely wonderful, things about being home at this time of year as well. Playing Christmas tunes on Pandora, baking delicious Christmas/winter-themed cookies, getting Christmas cards from around the country, seeing a Christmas tree standing tall and proud in our living room, family, eggnog…I haven’t had a Christmas at home since 2010, and the whole festive “feeling” in the air is something I NEVER found in South Africa. When it’s wickedly hot out, there’s no way to feel like it’s Christmas.

But, to be fair, the cold Iowa winter is brutal. I haven’t left the house in two days. I don’t plan of leaving anything soon. 🙂

I still don’t know if I’m going back or not, but time’s ticking and I haven’t seen a single doctor. Regardless of what happens with my Medevac, my Peace Corps experience doesn’t end here. It’s a lifetime experience…the gift that keeps on giving, if you will.

-Jen

Culture Shock….Again

When I decided to extend for a third year, I gave no thought to culture shock.  After all, I had been living in this country for two years, had traveled extensively, and felt prepared for what was coming.  I was adjusted, integrated, and all those other Peace Corps words that meant I generally knew what I was doing.  I wasn’t moving to a new country, so I gave absolutely no consideration to the possibility of facing culture shock.

And therefore, I was shocked.

Seriously, I don’t know how I never considered it.  I mean, I was moving to the other side of a very diverse country.  A new climate, culture, language, job description….basically everything was new, except for the rooster which likes to crow at 3am.  I could have seriously moved to another country (Botswana) with less changes than I face now. No, having to take a bucket bath no longer filled me with trepidation, and I knew how to use the kombis.  But I’ve certainly faced a bit of culture shock in the past two weeks, since moving to my new site.  And I only recently figured out that this was the problem.

On the other hand, I am unreasonably annoyed at the amount of coddling I’m facing in my new village.  I say unreasonably, because I really should appreciate the fact that my new community is bending over backwards to make me feel safe and comfortable.  But after living independently in the village reality for the past 2 years, it’s a little annoying to be told to call someone after a short taxi ride from town to be sure I made it safe, or to be asked if I will get lost when I can see my destination up ahead.  I suppose this might be a side effect of culture shock: being easily annoyed at things I should be grateful for.  But it’s difficult to be treated much like a child when I feel comfortable walking around on my own or cooking food for myself.

I had assumed that moving to my new site would be pretty smooth, but it’s been a rough few weeks.  Part of that is because I thought it would go smoothly….never have expectations in the Peace Corps!  Dealing with culture shock when I’ve been living in a country for two years was unexpected and difficult.  That was compounded by a situation at my host family which means I must move again (at least only within the village).  So while I’m trying to settle in to my new village, I still feel very tossed about and my future seems uncertain.

At least my supervisor has identified a new house for me, and I’ll have a lot more answers come Tuesday next week.  In the meantime, I am enjoying my new Peace Corps life as my culture shock turns into intrigue and curiosity.

-Jen

Changing Gears

I know I’ve been silent the past few weeks…and for a good reason.  Life has been pretty insane here.  I have packed up and moved halfway across the country.  From the flat Kalahari sand to the mountainous forested area of Limpopo.  From deep-freeze winter to t-shirts-and-skirts-summer (til this week that is…finally had to wear a jacket again).

I’ve switched gears in so many ways!

Saying good-bye to my host family and village was incredibly hard.  The only thing that held me together was the knowledge that I’ll be going back for a short visit next year.  I was an emotional mess for a week or so, but I managed to make it though the last, very sad, day in my village without breaking down in public.  My village was my home, and I had been dreading my departure for the better part of two years.  But several things in my last week there reminded me that the time was right for me to go, and my work won’t fall apart soon.  I saw dedication among some of the learners and teachers, and excitement to continue the permaculture practices I had been teaching.  I know some things will fall to the wayside, but I have hope that my efforts for the past two years won’t be for nothing.

Moving to my new site was harder than expected.  I had allowed myself to do something very dangerous-have expectations-and those expectations came crashing down around my head as soon as the PC driver pulled away, leaving me alone in a very strange place.  I didn’t realize how hard the culture shock was going to be….but then again, everything was different: the language, dress, climate, village, food…you name it, it’s different.  I went from teaching in a school located in a very isolated desert school to a highly functioning organization in the “fruit basket” of South Africa.  Instead of being surround by Kalahari sand and acacia trees, I see banana and mango trees everywhere I look.  Literally. They grow like weeds, apparently!

So I’ve been figuring out how to settle into a very different PC life.  Parts of it are much more Posh Corps, and I’m not afraid to admit it.  I do deserve some perks for extending for a third year, right? 🙂  But other things are so blatantly African that it makes me wonder where I’ve been living the past few years.  I’ll be sharing more about my new community and organization over the next few weeks, so stay tuned.

-Jen

Readjusting

Since spending a few week in Pretoria and in the USA, I obviously got out of the routine of village life. I had a nice routine going, and with that routine, life here seemed normal and not too difficult. It was nice, and I was enjoying the slow African life.

Then I went to America, where every other comment was one of the following:
“I couldn’t live without running water!”
“You eat what?! Eww!!”
“What about the spiders? And snakes!”
“You are so brave.”
“I could never do that.”
“Pee bucket? Gross!”

I got used to the cushy, first world life again, and reality hit me when I got back to my village and had to bathe in a bucket in my freezing room. Winter bucket baths are the WORST, by the way. Could be a form of torture.

So, of course, I’ve had to readjust a little. My routine has been flushed down the toilet…errr…dumped in the pit latrine, that is. I’ve forgotten how I did some things, and have had to figure it all out again. It’s a little sad. But now I’ve been back for about a week, and my routine is getting set again. Life is quickly readjusting, and overall I am VERY happy to be back.

I would be MUCH happier to be back if it wasn’t winter. I truly, truly forgot what the Kalahari winter was like. Eish.
-Jen