It finally hit me. Just now. A month after my last full day away from home.
It started with a bright blue Facebook message: an invite to the $1 Burger night at a local bar that I had been meaning to go to for ages with theater friends that I regret not getting to know better back in high school. My heart fluttered at the opportunity to go out and have fun, but the rest of my body was frozen stiff. In my head, I hopped off my bed, touched up my make up, and headed for downtown. But my body sat still, letting the noise of my suggested American-music-to-get-back-into playlist wash over me as a sharp pain hit deep in the center of my chest.
It was a surprisingly familiar feeling. It was the same mind vs body battle that I fought constantly as a younger teen that prevented me from ever going out, but then made me regret and hate myself for missing out on fun opportunities. I had almost forgotten the feeling; these past few years I had been much better, and I did not want to start another vicious downhill cycle. So a voice in me screamed.
“Elise! Take a mental health day. Stop and take care of yourself.” That’s when it hit.
I thought my new reality would come in waves. At first it did, when I would scroll down through Facebook and see Fellows’ posts of their final picture additions to their gap year albums. The longer I scrolled, the deeper my heart ached, but I missed them— it was worth it. I loved that I could go back and share a bit of their lives through their pictures, their memories.
So why don’t I have any pictures posted? Why haven’t I shared anything? I gave up social media as my 2018 New Year Resolution, but even before then I had been reluctant to post. I thought that if I cut social media out, I would cut out that subconscious need for online validation and gratification that the adults tell us will ruin our happiness. The validation of proving where we’ve gone, the likes on the single story view of our experiences, the comments telling us how good we look and how much we are missed, the constant presence of a higher and higher number of clicks from people who aren’t actually there. So I cut it all out.
But then I realized that I wasn’t gaining anything by doing nothing. In fact, cutting out social media actually backfired. By telling myself I was not allowed to seek validation from outside sources, I had also led myself to believe that I was not allowed to validate my own experience. By keeping it all locked up in private photo albums that I can barely bring myself to look at and sort through, by not trying to explain or caption the events so that others could understand, I myself could not.
I remember one of the exercises we did, way back at Welcome Week when we first arrived in Brazil, was to shout into the circle what we needed in our cohort, and shout out what we were to give up or avoid. I shouted in, “honesty with ourselves and others”. It fit well with all the other virtues that were being put in, like generosity, compassion, empathy. But it’s a lot easier said than done. Months after that moment and I still struggle with being completely honest with myself. Not because I mean to deceive anybody, but because it’s easier to pretend that everything is okay, when it really isn’t.
The day after I got home from my GCY journey, I immediately went back to work. I only meant to visit my old work place to say hi to my coworkers and ask if there were any openings for the summer. I needed money, I spent it all in Brazil. But after waiting just a short while, I was trained to be a barista, a completely new position that I didn’t even know I wanted, or needed, yet. I’ve been working full time, eight-hour shifts daily for 9, 10 days in a row before getting weekends off. I often come in hours early to cover for co-workers because there was no one else to come in, and I couldn’t stand letting them work sick.
But really, I couldn’t let myself not work. I thought I needed structure to help me find my roots. Instead, it’s just helping me glide on by without diving deeper, allowing my worries to constantly be someone else’s. My worries are the regular’s Celery, Chard, Kale, Apple, Lemon, Ginger juice, but with less celery and more ginger. It’s the lawyer’s Caramel Mocha on Soy Milk. It’s the 5 gallons of lemonade, 5 gallons of ice tea, and 7 gallons of cucumber lemon water for the catering event that needs to be prepped ASAP. It’s the old lady who yells at me for not putting out a new freshly brewed pot of Nicaraguan Medium Roast Coffee.
My worries are not about who I became these past couple of months. It is not what I went through. It is not validating my experience. I do not complain about my long hours and work weeks. I do need the money. But I use my work to distract myself. I allowed myself to be too busy to process and accept the end of my Brazil/GCY experience. And it’s a lot more than just dealing with the fact that I’m no longer living on an island in southern Brazil, like I have been telling people. It’s dealing with the changes in me contrasted to the static sameness of home.
For example, in relationships. They are complicated, to say the least.
My family dynamic at home, so the same, but so different. My siblings are shut off from me, too busy with high school work or their video games to spend time with me. My parents, like before, work. So I am forced to retreat to my own room because where else, since everyone else has locked themselves up.
My Brazilian family, who I feel I have yet to properly thank for the experience, love, and care for the past months, are so close through WhatsApp and Facebook. But I still cannot bear to reach the distance of 5000 miles and hours time difference and the disconnect of what I think I feel and the words I lack to understand and communicate them. And although I’ve had months to sit at the dinner table, always at the same spot across from my mother, in between my grandmother and brother, with the same mug of coffee everyday, I have yet to realize my place with them.
My incredibly different groups of friends. My close bunch spread out on opposite sides of the country and all around the world. My old friends, some who’ve returned home, and those who are still finishing up finals in college. My maybe more-than-friends, who knows.
I trained myself in Brazil to be fully here, in the moment. Fully present in what I’m doing when I’m doing it. And like the social media cut off, it backfired. I have yet to process my relationships because I don’t allow myself to be full there. I have to be here, working, fighting the daily fight and not looking at the past, it hurts too much, but also not looking too far in the future. I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know what I want to expect.
My relationship with food has changed too. I’m not hungry. I don’t know why. The food is the same as before but it’s different. It’s not rice and beans and meat and salad, like I had everyday in Brazil. But it’s not bad. I just can’t eat it. Not because I don’t want to, but who knows. It may be the antibiotics that I am taking, that I feel are slowly making their way through my insides, clearing me of anything and everything that made me Brazilian.
Invalidation. It is what leads me to reduce 7 months of my life to a 15 second blurb of “Oh, Brazil was amazing! I worked with wild animals, lived with a host family, and became fluent in Portuguese. I lived in Florianopolis, an island in the south! I can’t wait to go back!”
I am lucky that I have Noah, a GCY India fellow and friend from high school, so we can slowly unpack our experiences together. With discussions over our best memories with our best friends as we munch over the healthiest IHOP, or as we walk through neighborhoods so familiar here, but so distant there.
But there’s still so much.
I cleaned my room when I got back. Reorganized, hung up my brazil flag, put all my GCY stuff, my post cards, my acceptance package, my Portuguese textbook, my journals, the collection of random papers and drawings and notes and memories, all into a little bag and on to the top shelf of my closet. Tucked away. For later.
I only listened to Portuguese music. I thought that if I blasted my favorite McKevinho or 1Kilo, I’d still be there. I’d retain my Portuguese, it would bring me back to fun nights with friends. But it’s just background noise now.
That’s it. That’s the honest truth. No deep discoveries on culture shock of revelations of changing my life around.