Liz in Sudan

Following five months of unrest in Sudan, in April 2019 President al-Bashir was forced from office. What followed was a period of confusion: international organisations moved some staff and their families out of the country, and later moved some back in. But on 6th June, the government moved against peaceful protestors. With the potential for further violence, most international staff and their families were then evacuated from Sudan. One of our therapists LIZ PYCROFT was amongst them…

If you live it, you know it. This international lifestyle has excitement, challenges, frustrations, dilemmas and opportunities. It’s a mixed bag for those of us who are employed by an international organisation. We pick up our lives, our kids, and we ‘follow’. We feel many (often-contradictory) emotions: excitement and anticipation, mixed with loss and grief. A myriad of factors make our experiences wonderfully fulfilling, sometimes sad and often anxiety provoking. Over my 23 years of living in 7 different countries, I have thought a lot about what binds this all together and keeps us going. I think it comes down to ‘choice’. When we choose to give up another professional opportunity, another house, another school, another good friend or family event – we have agency. 

So when we are evacuated, I think it’s the loss of choice and the loss of personal agency which precipitates so much emotion and anxiety. 

When I left my house in Khartoum during the recent events, I left behind my home of almost four years, my belongings, my friends and my colleagues. Fear, anger, grief, relief, confusion and helplessness washed over me - quickly followed by guilt and shame. Leaving behind a country that I had grown to love in its moment of crisis was a humiliating experience. This experience was shared with the other people around me and for some the ripping apart of the bonds with their adoptive country left them feeling helpless and overwhelmed. Some said things such as “I don't think it is possible to understand how upsetting the experience is until you go through it. I felt sad for the life we were losing and for the crushed hopes of a country we had grown to love.”  And “I felt it was not right, we had the privilege of being evacuated, I felt like I was betraying my friends leaving in this way.”

This avalanche of feelings left me feeling battered and bruised. Once I got to a place of safety, I crawled into bed for two days and cried. Other people felt jumpy, anxious, sleepless and helpless. Others became obsessed by the news, compulsively checking the internet for updates. All of us felt exhausted, horrified and guilty. 

Sometimes it can take a while to realise that one is having a traumatic reaction. For some of us the fight or flight response made the experience highly charged; others were calm during the process and noticed the effects only later when they were unable to calm down or felt more jumpy or nervous than usual. People react differently to the same situation, and everyone’s reaction is normal for them at the time. Some people feel the effects for longer than others.  For those of us who felt more upset for longer if was helpful to support each other.  This has felt important as it can be difficult to talk to friends and family who don’t know what we had been through and what we are feeling. Some people felt a little isolated even amongst family and friends, and it took some time for them to reconnect.

It can be emotional at the best of times to leave a country, especially one where there has been happiness and connection. Getting good closure involves the rituals of saying goodbye to networks of people - work colleagues, close friends and national staff and following the familiar steps of planning, packing up, and letting go. There was no time for this in Khartoum and so in our rushed departure it feels unfinished.  The thread of the story of our lives, and how we manage to let go as we move on, feels broken. The events and the evacuation took away our choice - and that was a scary feeling.Some key staff had roles and responsibilities, but I didn’t and so I felt like a problem which had to be solved. That undermined my agency and affected my resilience. 

Research shows that having a strong and reliable support network is one of the most important protective factors against the effects of adversity. Being able to talk about one’s experiences may reduce the effects of a traumatic or stressful event. It was important for all of us to find that space in which we felt safe enough to begin our recovery from the effects of the onslaught of emotions we experienced.

It can be restorative to simply remember to be kind and gentle with each other; to rest before expecting yourself to get back in the fray. One person advised:“Treat yourself as if you are needing some intensive care - because you are”. Recovery and resilience are built by taking time to be kind to yourself, talking to others, resting, taking a break, playing, exercising, eating well and sleeping.

We build resilience by having a strong network of support, a clear understanding of our agency and motivations, a good set of skills for adapting to change and a sense of meaning which underpins the decisions we make. The experience of being evacuated from Khartoum pulled the rug from under our feet making the world feel scary, unpredictable and out of control for a while. It made us feel vulnerable, not just to the physical effects of conflict but vulnerable in our choice to be there. 

Recovering agency, feeling able to make a choice and reflecting on the factors which bolstered my resilience have left me able to face the next move, my eighth, in the coming weeks. They say that if you drink from the Nile then you are destined to return, in the meantime I hope I grow to love my new home as I did my last.