Bringing Myself Home After Travel
The almost-year I spent abroad was, simply put, an unraveling — of beliefs, identities, rigidity, all of it. My first, major global experience was also my first time being on my own; I took a gap year between high school and university and worked in Peru, Costa Rica, and Vietnam, and then, solo-traveled throughout France.
The most mind-blowing part? For the first time in my life, I had total, unstructured freedom to do whatever and go wherever I wanted, with almost no tether, and no safety net to speak of. As someone who had spent too many years to count on a mindless hamster wheel of habitual achievement, this seemed to be both the best idea and perhaps the most delirious.
Unfortunately, the self that I was finally able to explore while abroad didn’t fit in a suitcase so well; it arrived home in misshapen bits and bobs. Trying to reintegrate all the parts of me I had built over the past year once home was like putting together IKEA furniture without the instructions, with a blindfold on, and that one tiny screw that holds the entire thing together actually isn’t included.
Home Through the Prism of Abroad
Back ‘home,’ I didn’t recognize myself. When I was abroad, I felt like this competent, cosmopolitan adventurer. Back in the States, I was dismayed at an abrupt return to childish, self-destructive patterns I thought I had long outgrown and to a family unit that had somehow closed in around the space I had vacated all those months before. Trying to contort myself back in was like trying to force an earring through a hole that has spent too long without it: painful and in vain.
My emotions were even more foreign than the changed dynamics of the supposed-to-be familiar; the disproportionate repulsion and rage I felt at mere billboards on the drive home alone was my first of many clues that ‘this’ (whatever ‘this’ was) would be more than just something to ‘get over.’
I was completely disoriented by feeling so many…feelings, that frankly didn’t feel like they were mine at all. I had the impression of a frustrated, mute toddler pounding her fists on the floor; I didn’t have the words to express what was going on, I only knew that it DIDN’T FEEL GOOD AND I WANTED TO MAKE IT STOP. As you can imagine, that approach didn’t go so well.
I was also (un)lucky enough to have my re-entry happen at a particularly salient transition period in anyone’s life: leaving the nest…and then returning to it. I was renegotiating my relationships with my parents, trying to come into my own, and in general, just going through what seemed like one life-upending change after another.
After the highs of adapting to so many new spaces, my old life seemed like a black hole of boredom and solitude in comparison, and I took that despair out on anyone and everything that had had a place in that past self. I was murderous with how I needed “her” to die to make room for the new me. She wouldn’t die, though.
Reconciliation with Myself
I never set out to do ‘re-entry,’ specifically; I processed it in a roundabout way: through the lens of a young-adult identity loss, in therapy sessions focused on healthy strategies to cope with change, and through the slow, daily work of sifting through emotions that were suddenly abundant and loud — all things that are noble goals of re-entry work, only I wasn’t aware that was what I was doing. That I was able to process re-entry without knowing reinforces just how universal a concept it is.
Re-entry isn’t only about reflecting on a specific global experience, at least, not after a while. I came to realize it’s more about understanding your experience abroad as a vehicle for change, and distilling what you learned into essential components of what a good, meaningful life is to you.
I realized going abroad wasn’t really about teaching English lessons or shoveling poop or thriving on a hardy diet of art museums and cheese (all of which I did in copious amounts).
Processing re-entry became a reckoning with all the selves that had been dormant for so long (Creativity! Play! Curiosity!).
I realized that during my gap year, I hadn’t been constructing new identities, so much as reacquainting myself with the original ones.
Being abroad placed me in a challenging physical space, absent the oppressive barriers of familiarity and habit. Processing re-entry placed me in an equally-challenging mental space that operates independent of the physical; it was there that I could make room for my old selve(s)’ official return and permanent residence.