Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Scars

I was home for two weeks in late March and early April for my final R&R before I leave Libya on 1 June.  Eric and I had hoped to close on our house, but that didn't happen - process has been delayed and now won't happen until next week, most likely.  (Buying a house is complicated, y'all.)  Still, we had a good time - we shopped for furniture for the house whenever we DO get it, I got to drive around town and cook dinner for friends, and Eric and I went on a five-day vacation just by ourselves for some us time.  We're both looking forward to living together again and having a normal married life - which, technically, we've never had, since I moved away from Turkey right after we got married and Eric never got here.

I realized while I was home just how much my time in Libya has affected me.  On the flight into Washington, everyone else in my cabin enjoyed watching Argo on their entertainment screens; I cowered into my seat, tried not to see the scenes of the embassy takeover, and tried to keep the tears from being too obvious.  I've always had a cynical, somewhat dark sense of humor, but during the trip I made a few jokes that made even my closest friends stop and stare at me.  Things that pass for normal humor here are too much for polite conversation, apparently.  An article in The New Yorker by a famous Libyan novelist and dissident reduced me to sobs, because Ambassador Stevens always had the latest issue - it seemed to be his only pleasure reading out here.  I remember a journalist contacting me last year to tell me what he'd found when he went through the compound in Benghazi - a ton of internal papers and a smoky, damaged copy of the latest New Yorker, still sitting at Amb. Stevens' bedside.  Ever since then, I can't read the magazine without a twinge of sadness.

While at home I also had a good look at myself in a mirror and realized how much weight I've put on in the last few months.  I weigh more now than I ever have in my life.  Grief eating and stress drinking will do a number on your body - I've got stretch marks on my thighs and abdomen from the rapid weight gain.  Since it's not easy for me to replace my clothing due to the slow mail service we have here, I'm stuck wearing things that are less than flattering.  Thankfully Eric didn't marry me for my body - it was never willowy, but it's taken on a decidedly Rubenesque character in recent months.

And icing on the cake, the day I flew back in to Tripoli, I found out a colleague in Afghanistan and several others were killed in an attack on them in Kandahar.  I didn't know the woman who was killed, though many of my friends knew her well from their own stints in Afghanistan.  What struck me most was that she and I both joined State at age 22.  She volunteered for a difficult, dangerous assignment.  There but for the grace of assignments officers go I...  One of my friends from Tripoli who was not able to return here after the evacuation ended up going to Kabul instead, so she had to go through a second "ramp ceremony" for a fallen colleague in six months.  She said it was pretty rough for her, but she's trying to turn her experiences after Benghazi into an opportunity for people in Kabul to talk to her and vent with someone who understands what they've been through.  (A ramp ceremony is when remains are loaded onto a military cargo plane with full honors and returned to the US.  Usually the members of unit or agency to which the dead belonged attend the event; in this case, almost the entire Embassy turned out.)

What can I do about the mental and the physical poor health?  Well, for one thing, knowing that in six weeks and change I'll be home for good keeps me pretty balanced right now.  I can serenely blow off things that used to push me over the edge, because I know that I'll be gone soon.  I've started planning for how I'll eat healthier when I'm back home, with an emphasis on vegetables, fewer processed foods, and fewer grief-induced midnight binges on snack foods.  I am not comfortable using the gym here, but once I'm home I'll walk a lot more (taking mass transit to get to work, increased mobility because I won't be living on a tiny compound, etc), and I hope to start some regular exercise scheme for the first time in my life.  I also want to find a good therapist or grief counsellor when I'm back - one who specializes in military cases or in civilians who've served in war zones.  I don't know how long it will take for me to come to terms with what I've been through, but I don't think I can move on without some substantial lifestyle readjustments and help from friends, family, and professionals paid to deal with me.  I'll bear the scars of this year for a long time to come, both mentally and physically, but I hope that in the not-too-distant future I'll be able to point to them as reminders of what I've survived, not impediments to my daily life.  

8 comments:

  1. I can't recommend a good therapist enough. Being back in the states can seem like it's working to heal the wounds all by itself but get ahead of it. It's worth it. As for the weight, I gained 100 pounds during a tour in Africa that brought with it anthrax and the death of two friends and members of the MSG. It has taken me ten years and a new career to recover. I know you can do better than that! I'm thinking of you.

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  2. You are already on your way to healing, dear. Be patient with yourself. Sending you hugs as you maneuver through your recovery season.

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  3. Oh hannah. My heart goes out to you. Your tour has been 100x harder than expected. I agree with Nomads - you're already on the way to healing, just by acknowledging this. I'm counting the days along with you - DC is so close! Wishing as serene a last six weeks as possible.

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  4. Thanks, y'all - it helps that I have already been through therapy before (when I was 17, dealing with my parents' acrimonious divorce), so I don't have a personal stigma to overcome before I can ask for help. My future boss in DC has been very understanding that I will need some time each week for this, which is encouraging.

    Every week I get a little closer to finding my new equilibrium. I don't deceive myself that I'll still have bad days, but I'm optimistic for the long term.

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  5. And hopefully we can get together to celebrate your being home before we go wheels up?! Thinking of you and congrats on the house!

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  6. Thank you for writing your thoughts so eloquently. Sending my thoughts and prayers your way as you weather this next transition!

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  7. My wife and I watched Argo here in Kabul. It was a great movie, but scenes of an embassy being overrun certainly hit home a lot harder when you realize it could happen to you at any moment.

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  8. Oh Hannah - I wish you all the best as you move forward. What a thing to go through, I'm sure. Thanks for sharing.

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