I just spent a long weekend in Minneapolis. Eight years after my sudden departure from the city, I returned for a visit with my dear friend and former roommate. This friend is the one who refused to be a rescuer for me when I was begging for yet another unhealthy outlet for my emotional distress. She is now a close confidant, someone who has taken major steps in her own healing and who has walked alongside me in my own rebuilding.
It was strange and lovely to be back in a city I loved. It is also bittersweet to see my old neighborhood, now ravaged by the recent reactions to George Floyd’s killing. Several buildings I used to frequent are gone, from the Walgreens where I picked up my prescriptions to the post office I frequented for mailing gifts to loved ones, to the Indian restaurant where I attempted again to like curry. Many of the spectacular vintage stores where I bought most of my furniture did not survive the pandemic or the uprising.
Yet the old, long rows of houses remain. I remember long walks down each block, trying to keep track of the streets I had not walked yet in order not to repeat myself, thinking as I passed each house of how I might change or improve the curb appeal if it were mine. I approached the home we rented together, not getting too close, so as not to disturb the landlords who still live next door and risk awkward conversation. My friend and her husband still live in that neighborhood in a quirky fabulous bungalow with squeaky floors and a large back yard full of vegetable gardens.
When I got back from Haiti, I decided that in order to follow up on the extreme work I had just left, still wracked with guilt about leaving the children and citizens, and completely unsure of how to re-integrate into American society after my experience, I had to choose another extreme population to serve. I had met a pediatric resident from Minnesota during my last few months in Haiti and discussed Pediatric Palliative Care with him. I had thought about it for quite a while as I was charged with beginning a Palliative Care program in the hospital where I served in Port-au-Prince. I jumped at the chance to take a position at a well-known program at a pediatric hospital in the Twin Cities. A big move after a big move was a heck of an undertaking, but I left Michigan thinking that I could handle anything after I’d just lived in a developing country for two years.
What I soon learned, after such a big shift, and as I re-entered the American health care system in a specialty dealing with life-limiting illnesses, was that I was not only unprepared for the work, but that I was lost between two worlds. I thought that I could throw myself wholeheartedly into another adventure after two years overseas in the midst of both fast and slow traumas. My head spun on a daily basis as I dreamed and ruminated and sensed and remembered. I tried to digest the new experiences of visiting patient homes and absorbing their daily struggles as I sat in clean, structured homes with heat and running water and separate rooms. The battles these families faced were different than the chaos of abject poverty. But the vulnerabilities and pain were similar. Facing a completely uncertain and unknown future, grief and pain and the closeness of death were now present where hope and joy and normalcy were before.
I moved from temporary housing with an old friend, to a permanent home in the middle of an established neighborhood as the summer became perfect and verdant. While I settled in, a friendship I had counted on and craved was starting to break. I was dependent on this friend while I lived in Haiti, and I shared some of my deepest fears and thoughts with her. I planned to continue this friendship and treasured the connection we had, believing that she understood and could support me.
What I did not count on was that we had both changed dramatically while I was gone, and that the desperate need for connection and familiarity I felt was not in her capacity to offer me. What I thought was honest relatability was experienced differently by her. As the summer continued, and as I tried to reach out in the midst of my whirlwind of emotion and find common ground with her, our friendship completely fell apart. It felt like a sudden shock to me, even though I had feared it for months.
Reverse Culture Shock is real. I would argue that re-entering into our society is harder than the adjustment to a different culture or country. I could not reconcile thoughts, fears, or traditions within myself as I went grocery shopping, completed my activities of daily living, went to work with dying children and tried to find a church family. I felt not only that this was not my city, but that nowhere could be my city. I was good at my job, but the demands of such intense work, coupled with the emotional turmoil of processing a singular adventure and the dissolving of a close friendship, served to spiral me into anxiety I had not experienced before. I have been on anti-depressants for many years, but this crippling anxiety, fear, insomnia and nights of rumination over small and large things consumed me.
The day after my first patient’s death at home, after a night of being awake until 4 am, I went on a retreat for former volunteers from the organization I had served with; soon into the weekend I realized it was too soon for me to begin unpacking any of my memories. The differences in volunteer experiences were too much to handle. It was another sign to me that there was not a safe place for me to be vulnerable or to share any of my story. My family and the friends I attempted to open up to could not relate to my memories or sense descriptions. It was simply not in their paradigm.
The repercussions of my lost friendship continued to beat at my fragile heart. I spent days and nights wondering what was wrong with me, that I could not pull myself together to handle the myriad of elements of my life, how I could continue to meet the demands of my job, who I could possibly find to confide in, how might I rewind the last several months of my life and make some different decisions.
The autumn turned into a dark winter. It was a massive shock to me to go from a winter where the low was 80 degrees, to a winter where the low was between -20 and -40 degrees. The days were short and gray, and the nights were cold, isolating, and full of terror. I agonized over memories and received reminders of every lie I had believed about myself in years past, particularly in friendship and capacity to love. The calm exterior I strove to maintain and the confidence I attempted to exhibit in my work began to shatter. I had no reserve of objectivity. I began to take everything, small misunderstandings to honest errors, as a sign that I could not function in any healthy ways. Getting out of bed in the morning took massive effort. My thoughts were drowning me.
I was seeing a therapist, who stated that she was an expert in trauma work. I poured out my heart to her every week and began to revisit some of the hardest memories in a controlled setting using a method to address trauma. However, I soon learned that this therapist was not actually trained in the methods correctly and the traumas I was working through became more vivid.
I reached a point on a freezing cold November day, after several nights of no sleep and the dread of the day weighing on me, where I thought I could not go on. I saw no way out of my state of being and began to plan a way to end my pain. I could not think rationally and stumbled through a home visit with a patient in attempts to act normally. I sent a cryptic message to a friend out of state, and by the grace of God she read through my words and responded by demanding my roommate’s phone number. Not wanting to be a burden, I ignored the phone calls that came through but listened to the voicemail message pleading with me to call her back. Pulling over to the side of the road on my drive back into town, I burst into tears and sobbed while sharing my despair and my plan.
I expected to be met with anger and to be told what a burden I was, how inconvenient it was for my busy roommate, a physician rounding in the hospital that week, to take time to contact me and reason with me. I expected to be told that I was a disappointment and to get myself together. I expected to be told I was not worth loving.
Instead, I was met with compassion, care and concern. I was listened to, validated and given space to express whatever words I could muster. Together we made a plan to get me through the day and I was given a deadline to return home. Dinner was picked up for me, and my two housemates were home to greet me. I was given a contract to sign by both of them, who informed me that if any further thoughts of despair or suicide entered my head, I had to contact them immediately.
We all signed that contract. Through the shame and embarrassment I felt at having alarmed them, and with trepidation about what to do next, I sat with them and had a gentle evening.
More darkness was to come, about which I will elaborate in my next blog post: Learning My Value Through Serious Illness. But I spent this past weekend appreciating the beauty around me, walking through old places and standing on the bridge over the Mississippi observing the beginnings of the color changes.
My beautiful friend and former roommate tells me she has forgotten the darkest days of our relationship, as we have both come so far since then and have walked through much healing together. I stayed on the Minneapolis side of the river, as the St. Paul side holds the trauma of a broken relationship. I have reconciled within myself how wounded people wound people, and that some losses cannot be repaired. We imperfect humans love imperfectly, and the false masks we wear must be removed in order for truth to do its work. This was a most necessary unraveling.