One of the things that struck me when reading Adam Curle Radical Peacemaker (proper review here) is the insights that came out of his work with former prisoners of war after WW2.
Some years ago, I spent a while on a course called The Freedom Program, which helps survivors of domestic abuse get their heads, and lives back on track. One of the things the facilitators said, is that people coming out of domestic abuse situations have the same kinds of symptoms as people coming out of war zones – they were mostly referring to the PTSD side of things, but it may be a relevant thought.
What Adam Curle talks about in his work, is the way in which returning former prisoners experienced alienation from the rest of society, even from their own families. I’ve heard similar things said about soldiers in all kinds of context, and by former soldiers – that going back to people who have no way of understanding what you’ve been through, is alienating. There’s no way to speak of what happened, and the gaping chasm caused by the experience separates the survivor from the ones who have not been there. Based on personal experience and anecdotal evidence, I think the same things can happen to domestic abuse survivors, survivors of any other kind of abuse or violence in any context, and people who are returning after breakdowns in mental health. It may also be true for people coming back after long periods of bodily ill health.
Compare this to Joseph Campbell’s work on The Hero’s Journey, and Martin Shaw’s more recent work developing that narrative. Coming back is part of the journey, and in his books ‘Snowy Tower’ and ‘A Branch from the Lightning Tree’ Martin Shaw talks a lot about how problematic the return is. I think this is all part and parcel of the same thing.
Sometimes we have experiences that are alien to most of the people around us. Somehow, after those experiences, we have to come back and work out how to be part of a community, a functioning member of society. From the outside we may seem ok, may appear to be doing a decent job of it, but the feeling of alienation is something that goes with the return, and is part of the challenge of returning.
What do we do with this? I’m not sure. Be aware that anyone could have made the kind of journey it is difficult to return from. Listen to the stories and make room for them. Acknowledge the differences and the potential for feeling alienated. Don’t assume we know where other people have been or what it means.
Coming back is necessary. Bringing back something of what happened is necessary. The negotiations between the one who returns and the people they return to, can only be handled on an individual basis, and how we do that, as people who are returning, and as people witnessing a return, is something we’ll all have to figure out for ourselves.