I landed in Vegas and got into a cab. “Caesars Palace,” I said. I was splurging. Celebrating the accomplishment of what I thought would be the hardest challenge I would ever ask of myself: work with MSF’s Emergency Team for one year.
The lady behind the counter smiled when I asked about the possibility of an upgrade. As she tapped away at her keyboard, it hit me. I had done it. I had run the gauntlet I threw down for myself years ago and was still standing. A bit shaky, a bit gun-shy, a lot overwhelmed and very tired, but standing. I allowed myself a few delicious moments of self-congratulations and let the lights and decadence of the hotel lobby wash over me.
The lady handed me a key. “Enjoy your suite,” she said. “Thank you,” I said, sure I had heard her wrong. Leaving the lights of the lobby, I walked through the casino to the elevators and felt the irony of it all. From devastation and war in the Central African Republic to Las Vegas in less than 72 hours. Funny how quickly life transitions between extremes. I muttered to myself, “You pick Las Vegas for solitude?” But at the time it made sense.
The end destination was mom’s house. A four-hour drive across Death Valley to a small village in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. By request, she would pick me up in a few days, giving me time to get my “first-world legs” back. At Caesars Palace, there would be 24/7 access to basic necessities and no worries about waking up at odd hours, jet-lagged, with nowhere to go. Besides, there in the midst of gamblers and vacationers, no one was going to notice my struggles to regain the social skills I had lost because they would be far too focused on losing theirs.
I opened the door. I had heard the lady perfectly fine. It was a suite. I imagined the parties and characters the suite might have hosted over the years. Fancy men and women drinking champagne and enjoying the views of Vegas from the wall of windows. I could almost hear martinis being shaken, the murmur of intimate discussions, and outbreaks of laughter. There was a master bedroom and bath which put together, were more spacious than most places I’ve lived in. “How many people can fit into that thing at one time?” I thought, looking at the tub. I wandered around knowing I didn’t have the energy to enjoy all that was offered and I was ok with that. Somehow, just having it available was enough. I opened my suitcase and spread clothes everywhere, just because I could. Then I went to bed, believing the hard part was over.
Twelve hours later I woke up feeling anxious. There was nothing. Absolutely nothing or no one that required my attention. I had gone from an environment of chaos where I found nourishment from adrenaline surges. Spending my time responding to the thousands of things demanding my focus then finding respite a few hours each night under a mosquito net. From that to waking up in a bed that didn’t make my body hurt, in a suite that could comfortably accommodate fourteen of the families now living on the fringes of the Bangui airport. Blue tarps, haphazardly hanging over thousands who had lost their homes, serving as their only protection from the elements and ongoing violence. I woke up and saw nothing but silence. No chaos, no adrenaline, not a single demand, zero expectations, and no mosquito net tangled at my feet. “Oh shit,” I thought, “now what?” Then the hard part began. Finding my new normal.
“Three months,” I thought. “Three months, no major decisions, then back to work.” Three months turned into six and with extreme disappointment I knew, I was only human. Tell me I am not the only one who knows this feeling of disappointment.
“So what are you doing these days?” asked those who never quite understood what it was I had been doing before. “Creating a new life,” was my stock answer in the beginning. But when someone responded with an incredulous “You’re having a baby!?” I realized that answer wasn’t going to work. So I began giving the answer that made the most sense to people, “Nothing,” Telling the truth was far too complicated.
Eventually, I stopped counting the months and with many moments of extreme reluctance, I relaxed into the process of reflecting on all that had happened. Sure, it had been hard, but it had also been some of the most rewarding times in my life. The people, the images, the memories clear in my mind but in pieces because everything I had known – known for sure – had been shredded to bits. It would take time to discover who I was now.
Two years and twelve (additional) pounds later, I was ready to return. Back to the field, this time as a human. Back to uncertainty, being uncomfortable, and living out of suitcase. Back to working and living with people that will change my life in ways I cannot imagine. Knowing that going back is a critical part of the discovery process. Knowing that once again, everything I know for sure will be shredded to bits. And knowing that even though I think I’m ready for it, I’m not.