[Re-entry Diaries] Self as the Original Home

Bringing Myself Home After Travel

The almost-year I spent abroad was, simply put, an unraveling — of beliefs, identities, rigidity, all of it. My first, major global experience was also my first time being on my own; I took a gap year between high school and university and worked in Peru, Costa Rica, and Vietnam, and then, solo-traveled throughout France.

The most mind-blowing part? For the first time in my life, I had total, unstructured freedom to do whatever and go wherever I wanted, with almost no tether, and no safety net to speak of. As someone who had spent too many years to count on a mindless hamster wheel of habitual achievement, this seemed to be both the best idea and perhaps the most delirious. 

Woman wearing a hat and backpack, looking over Machu Picchu, Peru
Looking out over Machu Picchu, Peru, October 2018

Unfortunately, the self that I was finally able to explore while abroad didn’t fit in a suitcase so well; it arrived home in misshapen bits and bobs. Trying to reintegrate all the parts of me I had built over the past year once home was like putting together IKEA furniture without the instructions, with a blindfold on, and that one tiny screw that holds the entire thing together actually isn’t included.  

Home Through the Prism of Abroad

Back ‘home,’  I didn’t recognize myself. When I was abroad, I felt like this competent, cosmopolitan adventurer. Back in the States, I was dismayed at an abrupt return to childish, self-destructive patterns I thought I had long outgrown and to a family unit that had somehow closed in around the space I had vacated all those months before. Trying to contort myself back in was like trying to force an earring through a hole that has spent too long without it: painful and in vain. 

My emotions were even more foreign than the changed dynamics of the supposed-to-be familiar; the disproportionate repulsion and rage I felt at mere billboards on the drive home alone was my first of many clues that ‘this’ (whatever ‘this’ was) would be more than just something to ‘get over.’ 

I was completely disoriented by feeling so many…feelings, that frankly didn’t feel like they were mine at all. I had the impression of a frustrated, mute toddler pounding her fists on the floor; I didn’t have the words to express what was going on, I only knew that it DIDN’T FEEL GOOD AND I WANTED TO MAKE IT STOP. As you can imagine, that approach didn’t go so well. 

A woman training with a horse in Costa Rica.
Developing skills in natural horsemanship with ‘Tarantino’, Costa Rica, November 2018

 I was also (un)lucky enough to have my re-entry happen at a particularly salient transition period in anyone’s life: leaving the nest…and then returning to it. I was renegotiating my relationships with my parents, trying to come into my own, and in general, just going through what seemed like one life-upending change after another.

After the highs of adapting to so many new spaces, my old life seemed like a black hole of boredom and solitude in comparison, and I took that despair out on anyone and everything that had had a place in that past self. I was murderous with how I needed “her” to die to make room for the new me. She wouldn’t die, though.

Reconciliation with Myself

I never set out to do ‘re-entry,’ specifically; I processed it in a roundabout way: through the lens of a young-adult identity loss, in therapy sessions focused on healthy strategies to cope with change, and through the slow, daily work of sifting through emotions that were suddenly abundant and loud — all things that are noble goals of re-entry work, only I wasn’t aware that was what I was doing. That I was able to process re-entry without knowing reinforces just how universal a concept it is. 

Tourists hiking up a mountain located in the Parc National des Calanques in France
Exploring the Parc National des Calanques, France, May 2019

Re-entry isn’t only about reflecting on a specific global experience, at least, not after a while. I came to realize it’s more about understanding your experience abroad as a vehicle for change, and distilling what you learned into essential components of what a good, meaningful life is to you.

I realized going abroad wasn’t really about teaching English lessons or shoveling poop or thriving on a hardy diet of art museums and cheese (all of which I did in copious amounts). 

Processing re-entry became a reckoning with all the selves that had been dormant for so long (Creativity! Play! Curiosity!).

I realized that during my gap year, I hadn’t been constructing new identities, so much as reacquainting myself with the original ones.

Being abroad placed me in a challenging physical space, absent the oppressive barriers of familiarity and habit. Processing re-entry placed me in an equally-challenging mental space that operates independent of the physical; it was there that I could make room for my old selve(s)’ official return and permanent residence. 

About Author

Alexis Dumain is a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying Comparative Literature and Psychology. After graduating high school, Alexis spent time abroad in service-oriented placements through UNC’s Global Gap Year Fellowship. While abroad, she worked in Peru, Costa Rica, and Vietnam, and included some pleasure travel throughout France. In reflecting on these experiences, Alexis realized that the connecting thread of what she loves to do most is human connection and creativity, though she is still exploring what that means in all aspects of her life.