Re-entering your country can be as difficult as adjusting to a new one

Picking a new toothbrush should be so simple, but Elizabeth Logan felt completely overwhelmed.

Surprisingly, that overpowering feeling came from returning home. Logan worked in Ghana for five months in 2009 with Engineers Without Borders. Being a petite blonde female in Africa presented its challenges, but the tension she felt upon returning home was difficult to deal with.

“After that first month (at home) I really started to realize the disparity between the two worlds I had been living in,” Logan said.

Logan wasn’t alone in feeling uncomfortable at home. She was experiencing re-entry shock – a psychological condition which experts say is both under-diagnosed and under-treated.After travelling abroad many people experience shock when they return to their home country.

Photo illustration by Jocelyn Doll

Julia Piwek, who recently returned to Calgary after volunteering in South Africa said, “For the first week every time I went to the washroom I was like ‘Yay, toilet paper!’ and I would tell people and they thought I was weird.”

Stephen Gwynne-Vaughan worked abroad for 20 years, with CARE Canada. He returned to Canada, permanently, on Sept. 2.

“In Kenya you say hello they say hello, and that is polite and normal,” Gwynne-Vaughan recalls, “maybe it is due to the climate but us Canadians are pretty cold that way.”

The psychology

Nan Sussman, a psychologist specializing in the condition at The City University of New York, defines re-entry shock as a sense of confusion, exclusion and frustration one feels upon returning to their home country.

“Despite being back in a familiar country with your native language, you feel disconnected, uncomfortable, no longer similar,” Sussman said.
The discomfort comes from the internal changes to the individual, how their family and friends have changed while they were gone, or how their home country has evolved in their time abroad.

“What often happens is that people misattribute their discomfort,” Sussman said, “because there is very little recognition about the need to provide re-entry counselling, awareness or acknowledgment that re-entry shock happens.”

As a result of re-entry shock, she has seen people quit their jobs, families relocate to new cities and couples end their relationships. They didn’t realize what they were feeling was re-entry shock so they blamed something else.

Often travellers aren’t warned that they might feel culture shock when they return home. “Part of what makes re-entry shock so psychologically distressing is its unexpectedness,” Sussman said.

The immediate change

Logan, Piwek and Gwynne-Vaughan didn’t experience anything quite that dramatic.

Gwynne-Vaughan spent a half-hour picking out coffee at a grocery store. Piwek often thought sadly of the orphanage she helped when she was in Africa.

Logan said she eventually reverted back to her old life. But she remained in contact with counterparts who shared her experiences. Sussman said that this is important.

“People are just not interested in the details (of the trip). They will give you five minutes and that’s it,” Sussman said.

“One thing I try to tell returnees is to find other people who have been away or had a foreign experience because they become a cohort for you, someone who understands your experience,” she added.

“It was interesting to see how all of us dealt with different things,” Logan said. “It gave me more perspective.”

jocelyndoll@cjournal.ca