Furlough sounds relaxing.  It conjures up images in my mind of sipping sweet tea by the pool and enjoying good books.  After working in Indonesia for three years without a break, I approached my first furlough with great anticipation.  I liken the experience of furlough to birth: those that have experienced birth can tell you what it was like for them but they cannot prepare you for what it will be like for you.  So it is with furlough.

The first few days of our furlough were wonderful and full of meaningful reunions.  We were to be home for only 60 days, so everyone in our family was excited and ready for a fun, relaxing time.  We were all like little kids on Christmas Eve: we had no idea what was in the package, but we were dying to open it.  After the welcome-home parties and sweet reunions ended, the realities of furlough hit hard.  I began to discover that I had come home to a place that was not home anymore.  I felt disconnected and weird.

We were living with my best friend Jean; while she was a lovely hostess, we all had a feeling of homelessness.  I could not figure out how to work her new washer and dryer, and it made me feel like crying.  This was a new feeling for me.  In Indonesia I was the one that everyone looked to when they had an issue or a problem.  I was the one who knew what to do and how things worked.  This new world of technology befuddled me, and it made me cry.  They call this reverse culture-shock; while I was familiar with the term, the pain took me by surprise.

My first experience outside of Jean’s home was a visit to my doctor.  I looked forward to drinking coffee at her office because she always had so many different flavors, and I love coffee.  I arrived, checked in, and approached her “new” coffee machine.  After examining it for several minutes I realized that I was not going to be able to figure out how it worked.  Instead of asking for help, I decided to sit down and learn by observing.  I watched several people use the machine, but when I got up and tried to follow their lead I was still not able to figure it out.  This failure produced feelings of inadequacy in me so strong that I fled to the bathroom and cried.  What was happening to me?  This was the most disconnected I had ever felt in my entire life!  I had read about these feelings and responses in my cross-culture material, but now I was realizing how unprepared I was to cope with them.

Another shocking feeling was how I felt when I was surrounded with “options.”  When living in a third-world country for an extended period of time you get used to having very little, and “options” are definitely something you do not have.  I went to the Nike outlet store because I am a runner and needed new running shoes.  I was struck down by the sheer number of quality shoes within my reach.  I inched up and down the aisles, mesmerized by the brands and colors.  When I snuggled my foot into a new Nike tennis shoe, tears ran down my face.  None of the people that I loved in Indonesia would ever know this feeling or feast upon a smorgasbord of shoes like this.  The reality that I could have it all, and that they would never even know what I had, felt like a gut-punch in the stomach.  I scanned the many rows of shoes, and suddenly they represented the shallowness of my culture.  Why did we need so much?  Why were so many options important to us?  I wanted to run back to Indonesia, where people valued one coconut broom that had been passed down for several generations.

These feelings I was experiencing were random and unexplainable.  It was very unsettling to know that at any moment while stateside I could become disoriented and start crying.  This felt particularly weird because America is my home country.  I am an American.  I should be able to handle 47 different brands of cereal!

Most of the information I had read about furlough before coming home was very surface.  One article I read talked about facing a million choices at Walmart, feeling like an alien, and being broke.  What about the real trauma of furlough?  What about the extreme feelings and the breakdowns?  What about the heart-pains of arriving and then having to say goodbye again?  What about the disconnected feeling that you take with you everywhere you go?  The wonderful transformed realities of my life, and the things that God had been doing in me during my three years in Indonesia, seemed to disappear in this furlough state.  I felt lost.

I did live through that first furlough, and have now lived through several more—they do get better each time.  My expectations are more in line with the reality of furlough, and I am better prepared to deal with my feelings.  When I face furlough I have learned to relax, feel what I feel, cry when I feel like crying, laugh at myself when I can, and not feel the need to explain myself to anyone.  I try to set aside time while on furlough that is uncommitted, so I can process my feelings, meditate, relax, read, write, pray, and just spend time reflecting.  This time alone has become my lifeline.  It refreshes me so I can face an uncertain world.

Furlough has actually turned out to be a positive thing in my life.  Unlike my first expectation of fun and excitement, however, I now see furlough as a time to do the important work of resting and spending time with those I love.  I have left the frenzy of furlough behind for the deeper experience of knowing myself and being in community.  The journey of pain and tears to arrive in this place has all been worth it.

© 2013 Thrive.

Questions to Consider:  Have you found ways to leave the “furlough frenzy” behind?  How do you deal with expectations (your own and those of others)?