100 Days Later: The Yin and Yang of Travel Withdrawals and Readjustment

The concept of yin and yang is derived from Chinese philosophy and represents the balance of the universe between the two opposing principles. Yin is the negative, passive, dark, and feminine force, and yang is the positive, active, bright, and masculine force. The interaction between these two principles is thought to maintain the harmony of the universe and influence everything within it. So for every negative situation that arises, there is always a complementary positive perspective. According to this Chinese theory, as people begin to detect the flow of these forces in their relationships, in the seasons, in their food, etc., they become better able to regulate their lives accordingly in order to achieve equilibrium more consistently.

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Just before I was preparing to leave for Guatemala at the beginning of my Peace Corps service, a former teacher of mine from Saint Francis High School commented that I would be “ruined for life”–but in a good way. At the time I didn’t fully understand what he meant. Now after accumulating years of travel experience and living abroad–and then returning back to the United States–I get it.

After four months of backpacking through Southeast Asia from late July through late November, I have been back in the United States for 100 days now (well, technically that plus another month, give or take). I’ve been through this before, the “re-entry” and reverse culture shock associated with integrating back into society. During Peace Corps, we were all warned that coming home is harder than starting service in a foreign country.

The best way to counteract the negative effects of readjustment is to have a plan, to jump into something big right away such starting a new job, tackling a creative project, or attending grad school. This helps to curb the travel withdrawals because one has something to focus his or her energy on and does not have time to get lost in thoughts and feelings of being “lost.” Readjustment Round 1, after returning from Central America, was an extremely stressful and unpleasant experience during which I essentially became a crazy person. Now, despite the fact that I know better than to just float around after returning from a big trip in order to avoid the torture of withdrawal, Readjustment Round 2 has involved lots of floating thus far, consequently forcing the total experience and exploration all of the thoughts and feelings associated with ending one journey and returning to the place from which I started AGAIN.

I believe that anyone who has traveled for extended periods of time, lived abroad, moved to a different place (then returned “home”), or been deployed on military duty can relate to a lot of these feelings and thoughts. I debated whether to include this chapter and decided that the readjustment process after being away is such a critical continuation of the journey as a whole that it very much belongs in the story. And for anyone reading this who is currently experiencing some of the same things, I hope this can offer some reprieve in knowing that you are not alone, influence in acknowledging and accepting that you are exactly where you are supposed to be, and encouragement to just keep moving.

100 days later, my time back in the United States has been a blur. Most days blend so much into one another that my existence might as well be a flatline. Something has been missing. My high is gone. It sometimes feels as if the life has been sucked out of me. The severe withdrawals I have been experiencing make me realize that travel is like a drug for me. I haven’t really wanted to see many people or even talk to them. Holiday season could have come and gone without even phasing me because even in the presence of my family, I was not really present. In the wake of losing access to my drug, my rebellious mind has mostly just been refusing to engage in society.

100 days later, as I reflect on the drug-like effect that travel has on me, I can identify that I became addicted to the euphoria that I was experiencing on a regular basis–almost every other day–while I was abroad. The constant stimulation I encountered kept my senses on high alert, making me feel alive. Looking back, I remember each day vividly. I did everything I possibly could to maximize my high on life. I was sleeping 8 hours per night naturally, eating a very fresh and balanced diet, and staying active so that I could be at my very best every day to readily take on every single moment, letting them all be a part of me and assist in the flow of my journey. I am grateful that I learned it is possible to experience some of the most amazing highs in life without having to rely on or abuse any sort of tangible drug or other empty substances and activities. None of that emptiness can hold a flame to the natural high of traveling and living/feeling/breathing the present moment. I feel blessed to learn this while I am young.

100 days later, I want to run. I have felt so trapped and disconnected, yearning for the freedom and autonomy that guided my journey abroad. As I have not yet decided where I want to live, I have been existing mostly in other people’s spaces under their house rules and on their schedules; while my hosts have all been so accommodating and open to me having my own schedule, I can’t seem to grasp a hold of anything to call my own just yet, and I am sometimes resentful of my chameleon-like behavior. I am restless and have been up in the middle of the night on several occasions, whimsically planning my next getaway–gauging plane ticket prices to Nicaragua and Panama, researching work visa requirements for Australia and New Zealand, and strategizing about how I am going to get to Paris this year.

100 days later, I realize that running is not necessarily the key to my freedom. Instead, I find peace in believing that my freedom is defined by my skill sets and relationships. I am grateful for all the travel experiences that have increased my adaptability and flexibility while growing my network. I have friendships with some really cool, interesting, compassionate, and amazing people all around the world. I have learned to take things as they come and have acquired the tools necessary to approach any situation with an open mind, steady judgment, and grace. I can navigate the globe and make a home pretty much anywhere when I find a way to relate and connect with other people. That is freedom.

100 days later, I am homeless and jobless. I have very little stability and I hesitate to commit to anything because I usually don’t know where I am going to be at any given time, and I am also trying to stretch my limited resources. I do not have immediate access to most of my “things” as they are nicely stowed away. Sometimes I get this feeling that I am invisible and that I will continue to be until I “make something of myself” or pick a path (i.e. get a job, pick a place to live, perhaps even date someone for once, etc.) because there is no way to describe the state I am in according to the definitions that our societal systems have conditioned most people to operate on. Homeless and jobless illicit a negative connotation in this country. Some of my family members and friends have expressed their concern.

100 days later, I acknowledge that the position I am in is entirely a choice and that I am not in a desperate situation at all. I appreciate that traveling has taught me that I don’t need a title, an address, a fancy car, perfect makeup, or designer jeans to MATTER. Traveling with only a backpack allows people to to connect to others organically, share a meeting of the minds, and exchange energy by simply showing up. A person’s “stuff” doesn’t define him, and I understand that in order to have the most authentic relationships and bask in the present moment, there is no need for anyone to dress up and put on a show. Traveling lightly allows people to leave their masks behind and act on the desires of their hearts. “Heartspeak” is “Godspeak” and traveling allows people to step away from all the noise and distractions at home and really get in sync with God and their “heartspeak.”

100 days later, I feel like a failure. I left to travel with the goal of completing the writing project that I have been working on for nearly five years and I came back before it was done. Even some of my long-term supporters allude to the fact that I’ve been saying, “It’s almost done” for over half a year and have suggested that I move on and maybe come back to it later. It is difficult to think of myself as a writer when people keep wondering when I am going to get on with my life, and sometimes I feel guilty that my time is going to my writing and not to my loved ones who have been patiently waiting for me to finish. I am unfocused and easily distracted, and I seem to meet with rejection around every turn I take. Some days I feel so small and weak.

100 days later, I remind myself of how blessed I am and much I have done in my life. I am so grateful for the time I had to travel and write because I accomplished and experienced so much in that four-month span. I am in awe of how travel affords us the opportunity to be whoever we want to be: when I claimed that I was a writer, I was met with fascination and curiosity, not with challenge and doubt–but that was because I took ownership of my identity and purpose. I was on top of the world and felt like I could choose to do anything in my life. I gained so much confidence in my ability to write that I decided it would be something I do always. I knew it would be risky to come home before I finished, but I reminded myself over and over during my last flight of how I had practiced writing so much in the past couple months that I had developed the discipline, ability, and vision to finish. I refer to my writing jokingly as a “destructive passion,” but I am respectful of its driving force inside of me. Each failed attempt to do anything else besides write at this time is just a reminder that God has something else in mind for me than anything I am throwing dice at right now. He graciously continues to bestow gifts of time, space, and other resources in my life that affirm that He believes in me. With those gentle and quiet, but ovbious, reminders, I remember and believe that I am capable to do my part, which is to continue writing, and say, “Thank you for carrying me through when I have been too weak to take steps on my own.”

100 days later, I get irritated when people comment that I have to go “back to reality” now that I am not traveling anymore. What I really want to do is shout, “That was my reality! First of all, MY reality has never been YOUR reality. And secondly, I refuse to go BACK. I’ve moved on so going back has zero appeal. I will not work at the job I had before. I will not live in the place I lived before. And heck, I may not even socialize with the same people anymore!” But instead, I stare blankly or force a half-smile and make a mental note not to discuss my recent travels, path to re-integration, or daydreams of escape so often.

100 days later, I am patient. I feel so blessed to have had so many travel experiences around the world–I have seen, done, eaten, and explored things that the majority of the population may never have the chance to experience. A lot of what I have done exists only as an unreachable fantasy in many people’s minds. I cannot expect people to understand something they have never been through or learned about for themselves, and I realize that all people exist in their own worlds that make sense to them; by acknowledging this, I embrace the freedom to exist in my own world as well. I am grateful for the power that I have to create my own reality. My life for four months was traveling and there was nothing unreal about it: I met real people, ate real food, interacted with real animals, and spent hours upon hours sharing real conversation, experiences, laughter, and even some tears…with more REAL people. This version of reality is forever integrated into the flow of my life. I lived and breathed it therefore it is my reality. It may not look like the person’s next to me, but do any two people really share the same version of reality? In reflecting on this, I remind myself to keep criticism at a minimum and advise others sparingly as I have not walked in their shoes, nor have they walked in mine.

100 days later, I long for community, connection, and something to which I can contribute, but I feel empty and inadequate, like I have nothing to give. I feel like I need to protect my resources right now in order to make them last, but it conflicts with my nature to serve. I am reluctant to take from others when I don’t feel that I can give back so sometimes I retreat from social situations and community circles, placing the pressure only on myself to be independent and self-sufficient.

100 days later, I think of the song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and embrace the cycles of life: To everything (turn, turn, turn), There is a season (turn, turn, turn), And a time to every purpose under heaven. When we learn to set aside our pride and ASK for help, we will likely find ourselves surrounded by an amazing community of people who just want to do good and serve others, not expecting anything in return. I am blessed that some of those people have found me and encouraged me to come out of my self-imposed isolation, showing me that it is okay to graciously accept generosity from others and that I do not “owe them.” The reward is connection. I have faith that the time will come when I will be able to give, love, and contribute wholeheartedly again. I recall the invaluable lesson that all travelers get a taste of–that our presence as human beings is enough, just how we are, even if we show up empty-handed. Money is not the only currency in life.

100 days later, I feel out of place and guilty that I do not really care to be the good daughter/sister/friend/auntie that some of my friends and family expect me to be. One of the most difficult things about re-entry for all travelers returning home is that people remember them for how they were before they left and only know how to interact with the returnees in the manner that they always had before. The problem is that travel inevitably results in accelerated growth and change because the constant stimulation of new people/places/perspectives stretches the mind of the traveler; the returned traveler arrives home with this new set of experiences, inevitably making it so that he or she relates differently to both the world as well as loved ones. I am very well aware that I am not “showing up” the same way I used to and that has resulted in the weakening of some of my relationships and friend circles, but as hard as I try to be interested in certain things or connect to certain people I care about, I cannot force something that isn’t there. I am sad for the loss of connection and frustrated that I am unable to mend all relationships, but I cannot deny the fact that I just don’t fit anymore into some of the spaces I used to occupy before I left.

100 days later, I am open to the concept of “changing circles.” There is a quote I recently heard that says, “Sometimes God will have to change your circle in order to be able to change your life.” There is no denying that I have outgrown the space I existed in before I left; however, I acknowledge that while I was traveling and experiencing my own healing, growth, and change, my friends and family members at home have all been going through constant shifts in their own lives as well. Sometimes life moves so fast that it is hard to keep up with everything and everyone, but if we are patient and accepting of the ebbs and flows, allowing time for both sides to get to know each other again without judgment or expectation, a path to healthy, strong relationships will be forged; it is also important to recognize when to fight to hang on, when to allow some temporary space and distance, and when to cut ties, trusting that God places people along our paths at different times for a reason and will continue to bless us with beautiful relationships along every step of our journey if we are open to it. ALL human beings are capable of adapting, and with enough love, patience, and determination, eventually adjustments can be made to re-establish the equilibrium of relationships that run deep with unconditional love. I am grateful for the family members and close friends who have shown me this and encouraged me to keep flying.

100 days later, I am lost with no direction which makes me unsure where to step. There is a constant pressure to “know it all right now and make a plan” combined with others’ good intentions and great expectations. Coming from a place of love and a desire to help, people make suggestions as to what they think might be best for their returned loved ones–trying to help solve their “issues,” but that can feel overwhelming when nothing clicks or seems to make any sense, especially as the laundry list of suggestions just keeps getting longer and people follow up, wanting to know if their suggestion was helpful in some way. Going into hiding and “laying low” for a bit is a typical way of reacting to the stress of this situation. As time slips away, I fear that my skills are getting “cold” so I had better hurry up and make a decision. And when I drag it on, I am even harder on myself, unforgiving of the dips, thinking that I should be doing SOMEthing to move forward, but I seem to be frozen in place. We are our own worst enemies, of course.

100 days later, I am exactly where I am meant to be. Transition is a gift and I am grateful that I have the resources to sustain me so I can take my time with this particular transition. Traveling refines a person’s familiarity with his or her intuition because it is sometimes the only thing a traveler has to rely on in an unfamiliar land with no directions. By surrendering the belief that I need to be superhuman and asking for grace and patience, I can come out of hiding, stop questioning my purpose, and trust that my instinct will continue to guide me in deciphering what does and does NOT feel right. As I re-embrace my traveler mindset, I rejoice in the freedom I have to be taste-testing so many different “worlds” right now (right here in my own country mostly!), understanding that the “next phase” will reveal itself to me in due time if I remain proactive and open to it.

100 days later, I feel powerless and resentful that I am being molded by my environment. I am afraid that everything I worked so hard for and all the new skills I learned are just going blur into other people’s lives unless I find an outlet to continue practicing the healthy habits I formed abroad. And when I concentrate on what I am afraid of, the fear manifests and I end up doing exactly what I don’t want to happen. I am only one tiny person trying to protect my fragile new skill set from people’s good intentions and great expectations, and I am SCARED that I won’t be able to stay strong in my values and beliefs, resulting in me falling back into a role of being the supporting actress in everyone else’s lives, cheering them on and mirroring my interests to theirs because I do not have the confidence to speak up for my own desires. When I have nothing to stand on and forget who I am, I so easily give away my time to everyone else, put myself in the wrong company, and beat myself up over my “shortcomings.” I am practically inviting in criticism and misery and opening the door for people to kick me when I’m down–which has already happened.

100 days later, I am rebellious and have become allergic to the “shoulds,” expectations, and obligations of society here as I recall how traveling empowered me to shape my world and to play the lead role in my own life story. What I wanted and what I was doing was so clear to me that I drew in the same kind of creative energy and surrounded myself only with positive people. I remember that I have the power to not put myself in situations where I may be treated poorly. Travel can be a great teacher in reminding us that we do not owe anything to anyone and we can walk away at any time–there is always a CHOICE. I am grateful for the time I got to spend learning, healing, and loving myself because when I was the most forgiving of my imperfections, I was able to be forgiving of others and engage in the world with an open, loving heart. Self-care has a positive ripple effect that goes way beyond oneself. I learned to adore my body, mind, and spirit and treat them all with respect, maintaining healthy boundaries; in turn, other people not only respected those things in me, but also felt inspired to honor the life and beauty of their own bodies, minds, and spirits as well. I have never been more comfortable in my own skin than when I was traveling, and in recalling that gift, I want to share it; instead of keeping the new skills and ideas I acquired abroad locked up in a safe place where no no one can mess with them, I embrace the opportunities to exchange ideas and influence all over the world–even at home. The best way to keep those skills alive is to practice them, share them with curious minds, and allow them to evolve and grow.

100 days later, I am suffocating under the influences of the depression and anxiety that run rampant in our society and I am craving the peace that dominated my daily life as I traveled. An anxious person lives life in the future, constantly worrying about schedules, planning, and achieving as much as possible within a limited space on the calendar; there is never enough time and even when he gets a lot done, he is always preoccupied, counting the minutes, and stressing over the next thing he thinks he is “supposed to” do. I don’t want to live like that. On the flip side, a depressed person dwells in the past, not even caring to count the passing days because he is so focused on his own pain and the story of what happened to him. Depression can be debilitating and leads people to believe that they are the victims of some sort of wrongdoing as they cope with the loss or emptiness they are feeling. In an ever-increasing self-entitled and narcissistic society, people are unavailable to love outwardly because they become trapped by their own plight and hardship in life. I’ve lived like that before, too, and it is easy to fall back into that mindset when we surround ourselves with that energy, but I don’t want that anymore either. Trying to figure out how to escape these dark, powerful forces that hold so many people down can sometimes be baffling.

100 days later, I savor the memory of how it felt to be living in the present moment on a regular basis. There was so much space in my heart to soak in everything that was around me, to try new things, and to learn about other people, places, and cultures. Every day was a brand new day to live, laugh, love, and learn. And that is exactly it–living in the present is simple, but we humans tend to complicate things with stories that take up space in our hearts and limit our potential to love and live in the moment. Everyone has a story–we have a past that contributes to our identities and an imaginary future that we fill with grandiose dreams to chase, and we are all constantly growing and changing throughout life, but we do not ever have to to get “stuck” by our stories. Depression and anxiety are normal emotions to experience, and but we get to choose whether those things dominate our lives; granted, some people are better equipped than others with tools and support systems to help get them through tough times, however, I think ALL human beings are capable of overcoming hardship and moving on. Difficulty is inevitable; drama is a choice. This time around in my travels, I learned that I could detach from my story and write whatever I wanted to on my new blank space. We can make ourselves sick, drive ourselves crazy, or let it all go and be rewarded with the gifts of the present: peace, happiness, and a high on life. Do you want your story to happen to you, or would you prefer to write your story and make it happen for you? We can all make that choice every single day.

100 days later, I am unsettled and restless, and I am not satisfied when I think of what might be next on the agenda: Get a job. Find a place to live. Make some money. Have some stability. Work my way up a ladder. Fall back into step with this society. But really?? I wonder–is that really all there is? It can’t be. It doesn’t have to work like that. I refuse to give in to that. I go in circles debating what my next move is going to be, and I think to myself that my teacher was right when he said that I’d be ruined for life once I’d lived abroad. Ignorance is bliss. I’ve seen too much so there is no going back now! I cannot settle for going through the motions–I need to feel something. I want more.

100 days later, I am at peace understanding that travel creates endless opportunity to redesign one’s life and empowers people to turn their visions into realities. I know what can exist because I felt it when I was abroad AND I created it in my life. I was open, free, and authentic, communicating how I felt as I felt it and letting it pass–and all of that came right back to me through the people I met along the way. I connected deeply with perfect strangers for perhaps only a few hours or days, but in my heart, I know that some of those friendships will last a lifetime. I know now not to be afraid of “aloneness” because I spent a lot of time alone and learned that I actually really like hanging out with myself; in fact, I am grateful for the time I had to really explore and embrace my “womanity,” learning to love my emotions, my mind, and my feminine curves in whatever form they show up. When I was completely at peace with myself, feeling whole, healthy, and happy “doing my own thing,” that energy drew in the same kind of people–and even a true romance. I am now convinced that single, intelligent, gentle, independent, kind, emotionally available, masculine men who love to travel and desire to be in an equal partnership with a woman do still exist. (Yep, ladies, these guys ARE out there! They could be sitting across from you or standing right in front of you, or they might literally have to cross your path twice before you take notice, but they are there if you are ready.) I am so grateful that I have had a glimpse of what it POSSIBLE because that is not only what keeps me hanging on, but it is also what inspires me to feel that I am capable of creating this energy anywhere I go–I do not necessarily have to be traveling in order to be true to myself and live in the present moment. In my core, I know I’m okay so I am determined not to rush through this redesign opportunity and to allow God to guide the process. There are no limits. Anything is possible.

Circling back around to the yin yang theory and its representation of perfect balance, I will re-emphasize that opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world; they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. Upon examination of the symbol again, one will notice that the dark side has a speck of light and the light side includes a tiny dark portion which can be interpreted to mean that negative and positive principles are NOT mutually exclusive. Daoist metaphysics (part of the Chinese philosophy) further explains this in that the distinctions between good and bad are perceptual, not real, and therefore the duality of yin and yang is an indivisible whole–both parts are necessary in order to complete each other, but they blend together in such a way that the two function as one.

I appreciate the conflict that the negative forces instigate because it seems to be critical to the development of a positive solution in any situation. I used to think that in order to have one thing in its fullest, I had to resist its opposite, but now I see
that opposites are actually meant to go together as they enhance the potential for what each other can create. Independence is maximized by partnership, and the more independent two people are, the stronger their partnership becomes. There is great freedom in making a commitment. Stability lays the groundwork for flexibility in one’s life. Chaos creates opportunity for re-organization and redesign. Feminine energy is at its greatest when it is complemented by a masculine counterpart, and vice versa.

One hundred days of rollercoaster emotions have taught me to appreciate the timing of when things really start coming together. I may still experience the occasional withdrawal, but the bounce back response gets stronger and faster each time. I guess the lesson here is to really allow ourselves to feel the lows in life–just as much as the highs–instead of resisting them because they are so crucial to the enhancement of our identities and what we are capable of creating in our lives. It is amazing to me that as the fabric of our beings gets thicker, it simultaneously becomes more intricate. This is a principle of life in general, not only as it relates to travel, however, travel tends to have a magnifying effect on emotions and speeds up life lessons to a sometimes uncomfortable pace. Although there can be unpleasant after-effects of travel, it will always be a part of my lifestyle. It is an obsession and an addiction, but ultimately, travel is a nutrient that feeds the soul and a medicine that heals the spirit.

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Always with love,
Alexandra

P.S. “Sexy in Guatemala, Part 2” is coming soon; I’m just still deciding how to wrap up that chapter…

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Common Peace Corps Acronyms

PC = Peace Corps (sounds like "peese kor")
PCT = Peace Corps Trainee
PCV = Peace Corps Volunteer
PST = Pre-Service Training
ET = Early Termination
COS = Close of Service
NGO = Non-Governmental Organization
HH = Healthy Homes, the PC program I am in.
YD = Youth Development, the other program in my training group.

Disclaimer

Anything that is written or views expressed on this blog are mine personally and do not represent the Peace Corps or the United States government.
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