Leaving in difficult circumstances

Between December 2018 and June 2019 the situation in Sudan was tense as the, largely non violent, protests caused the overthrow of the regime. During a period of confusion and uncertainty when peaceful demonstrators were fired upon, non-essential staff and families were drawn down from the Embassies and International organisations in Khartoum. I was among those who left and the impact on me was significant.

I am happy to share my experiences here with you and happy to discuss if anything is triggered or resonates with you as you read my account.

" We are familiar with the international life: the excitement, challenges, frustrations, dilemmas and opportunities. It’s a mixed bag, especially for those of us not employed by ‘the office’. For those of us who pick up our lives, our kids and ‘follow’ we feel many and often contradictory emotions -excitement and anticipation mixed with loss and grief. A myriad of factors that make our experiences wonderfully fulfilling, sometimes sad and often anxiety provoking. I have thought a lot over my 23 years and wonder what binds this all together and keeps us going. I think it comes down to ‘choice’. When I decide to give up another professional opportunity, another house, another school, another lovely friend or family event – I have complete agency. It is my choice.

So when we are evacuated - I think it’s the loss of choice and the loss of personal agency which precipitates so much emotion and anxiety.

When I left my house in Khartoum during the recent events, I left behind my home of almost four years, my belongings, my friends and colleagues and my husband. Fear, anger, grief, relief, confusion and helplessness washed over me - quickly followed by ripples of guilt and shame. Leaving behind a country that I had grown to love in its moment of crisis was a humiliating experience. This experience was shared with the other people around me and for some the ripping apart of the bonds with their adoptive country left them feeling helpless and overwhelmed.

This avalanche of feelings left us feeling battered and bruised once we got to a place of safety. I crawled into bed for two days and cried a lot. Others felt jumpy, anxious, sleepless, and helpless. Others became obsessed by the news, compulsively checking the internet for updates. All of us felt exhausted, lost, horrified and guilty.

Sometimes it can take a while to realise that one is having a traumatic reaction. For some of us the fight or flight response made the experience highly charged ; others were calm during the process and noticed the effects only later when they were unable to calm down or felt more jumpy and nervous than usual. People react differently to the same situation, and everyone’s reaction is normal for them at the time. Some people feel the effects for longer than others. For those of us who felt more upset for longer we have been able to provide ongoing support and a space to talk. This has felt important as it can be difficult to talk to friends and family who don’t know what we had been through and what we are feeling. Some people felt a little isolated even amongst family and friends, and it took some time for them to reconnect.

It’s hard at the best of times to move on especially when there has been happiness and connection. It was hard to leave in these circumstances. Normally, getting good closure involves the rituals of saying goodbye to networks of people, school, work colleagues and friends. Following the familiar steps of packing the house, preparing the children, planning the move, and letting go again. There was no time for this in Khartoum and so in our rushed departure it feels unfinished. The thread of the story of our lives and how we manage to let go as we move on - feels broken. The events and the evacuation took away our choice - and that is a scary feeling.

Research shows that having a strong and reliable support network is one of the most important protective factors against the effects of adversity. Being able to talk about one’s experiences may reduce the effects of a traumatic or stressful event. It was important for all of us to find that space in which we felt safe enough to begin our recovery from the effects of the onslaught of emotions we experienced.

It can be restorative to simply remember to be kind and gentle with each other; to rest before expecting yourself to get back in the fray. Recovery and resilience are built by taking time to be kind to yourself, talking to others, resting, taking a break, playing, exercising, eating well and sleeping. We build resilience by having a strong network of support, a clear understanding of our agency and motivations, a good set of skills for adapting to change and a sense of meaning which underpins the decisions we make. The experience of being evacuated from Khartoum certainly challenged our resilience and for a while pulled the rug from under our feet making the world feel scary, unpredictable and out of control and that left us feeling vulnerable.

It has taken a while to reflect on this experience and understand the effects of the evacuation on my sense of agency, but as I take the next step forward and agree to another move: I can own that it’s my choice." July 2019