GETTING OUT OF AID WORK

This post is a long time coming. And I will likely add more posts in future, as it seems to be a major issue that a lot of us don’t talk about so openly. I’ve been nervous to even start to write about it, as I feared judgement from others. But then I realised that the only person I should care about is myself. I also realised that by sharing my perspectives, others might connect, and that may lead to constructive dialogue. So here goes.

I’ve quit working in international development. After 15 years of working towards my goal, I feel bruised and battered by the experience. Don’t get me wrong, I loved so much of what I did. I still feel passionate about supporting those in need. But I am also exhausted. Burnout is a real issue for aid workers. We spend so much of our time being adaptive, building resilience, and trying to be effective in dynamic and ever-changing environments. It’s no wonder we run out of steam. The number one mental health issue for women is PTSD (trauma) and bullying for men. Yet there is this expectation to ‘keep calm and carry on’.

In other posts, I’ll talk about my past and my experiences, but today, I’d like to focus on the present. I read a great post recently by Alessandra Pigni and Janet Gunter, entitled A quick guide to getting out of aid work”. If you haven’t already, take a look at their thoughts. They discuss the challenges of making that leap, from life as an aid worker, to the next phase. For some, it’s a slow process, moving perhaps to a position in headquarters, or back in the ‘Global North’. For others, it’s diving into consultancies, but being based back home.

For me, it needed to be a complete change. My anxiety and PTSD symptoms were such that I needed a change of scenery. After almost 10 years overseas, I moved home to Vancouver to be close to family. I was married, now I’m not. I was in a diplomatic position, now I’m not. On their post about quitting as leading, Alessandra and Janet talk about how “the problem is that we equate quitting with failure, with lack of resilience, and with weakness”.

Keeping this in mind, for me the change has been hard. So much of my identity was wrapped up in being THAT person. You know, the one at the party where when you say where you’ve lived or what you do, people say “OH WOW!”……that leads to a slew of questions, some educated, some now. But there’s always something interesting to contribute. I also felt like all my hard work, my Oxford degree, my prestigious position, would somehow be meaningless if I gave up my aid worker career. All my life, I’d worked towards this goal, and then when I reached my potential, I didn’t want it anymore. I couldn’t find a single person in my industry doing a job I aspired to do in future. I used to, but my passion was gone. And so, returning to Canada, I felt I was returning without my identity.

Since I’ve been home, I’ve been struggling to find myself. I know about culture shock and re-entry. I know that it’s of course logical that I won’t have much in common with my childhood friends anymore, many of whom live far away now and are raising families of their own. I’m back in the city, working far from that life. I know that change takes time, and that it’s normal to feel exhausted. Going to start a new job is always tiring. Adding on recovery from my past trauma, new country, new city, new life – it’s a lot.

What I didn’t expect was to feel so disconnected from the present. I feel like I’m living in a dream. Like my feet aren’t really touching the ground. It’s like my soul splintered into two. One is so happy to be home, grateful, cheery. I’m moving on with my life and aware that eventually the dust will settle. The other part of me carries this dark weight. Every moment I think about how I am privileged to have the ability to come back to Canada (or the UK) at my own will. And that so many people live in poverty because of the way the world is set up – enabling richer countries to flourish, while others are exploited.

Of course, rationally I know I shouldn’t think this way – I was born where I was born. People around me who I confide in say “yes, but you made a difference in your own way. You dared to go to places none of us would dream of, be proud of yourself”. While I could agree, I feel this is a very stereotypical response. They are trying to be supportive, yes. However, for me, I view this like passive ignorance. Not anyone’s fault – why would the world want to live in a place where we are constantly considering the cost of our choices on others. It’s simply easier to be blissfully unaware of the cost of our position.

And so I struggle. I struggle to find others who view the world as I do. Thank goodness for my partner, I am lucky to have met my soulmate, who thinks the same as me. On the other hand, I feel alone the rest of the time. Where do I start? Where do I look for peace to quiet my mind. And honestly, should I quiet it and pretend that life is great again? What about all the people I’ve left behind, who are stuck in their cities living the realities that prevent them from seeking safety, education and a good standard of living?

This, is the cost of my career in international development. A fragmented soul. I am not sure of the next steps – do I try to rebuild? How do I reconcile the past with the present. How do I move forward? I feel forever burdened by this weight.

I would love to hear from those who have been through this.

Much love,

Ella

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