Hamster on a wheel


Familiar feeling?

I told my colleague today about starting this blog. She asked about how much time I’d taken off, what I’d done, when I’d started working again. We’ll get into that later. She also commented on how hard it is to change pace when one is used to working in high-adrenaline contexts: Before I left my country program, there were so many things to do each day I could never fit them all in–but if I didn’t get them done, there would be serious consequences. Now I look at my planner and it’s not even full.  I nodded. It reminded me of the hamster wheel.

When I first decided to leave work, someone who knew what they were talking about told me, Adrenaline is like a drug. You’ll need to wean your body off of it, because it’s addicted to adrenaline now. Your body will resist. But you’ll get through it.

She was right.

Six months later I was away from work, sitting on my couch, in the middle of winter, and I could FEEL my brain RUNNING. It felt like someone had opened my head, inserted a shiny metal wheel and then introduced a very fit and energetic hamster onto it. I wanted to fuel the hamster, I wanted to fill it up on news from Syria (my last deployment) and reports about ISIS taking Ar-Raqqah (near one of our health clinics) and ‘marching’ towards Iraq (the newest unfolding crisis in a long list of crises there) and long commentaries on the origins of ‘extremist groups’ and Facebook feeds from friends still working and living in the region and… you get the idea.

The hamster was burning up the wheel, running so fast that flames were practically shooting off its cute little feet. A few things helped.

1. Don’t be afraid of your hamster

A body in motion stays in motion… and your brain is probably used to running at top-speed under a lot of pressure to get critical things done very quickly. Even if you are no longer physically in such a situation, the momentum created by months or years of operating in these circumstances means that your body and brain will likely continue to function as if they are still in that environment, at least for a little while.

Know that it is normal. Know that you are not crazy. Know that you can always seek professional help or advice. Hopefully your employer/aid agency offers resources for doing this (that will be the subject of another post!).

I found it helpful to first realize that I had slowed down enough to notice the hamster wheel, and that was an achievement in itself. I didn’t do anything with it for a while, just noticed it. Watched it run.

Then I got curious about it. Where did this hamster come from? How long had it been there? My brain had been on that wheel for so long it had become “normal” to me, so while the hamster seemed like a newcomer she had actually been there for a while. And she didn’t bite. And she was tired.

But I couldn’t pluck her off the wheel and tell her “Stop!” Nope, I had to be patient with her. It takes some time to slow down when you’ve been running so fast for so long.

2. Consider a news-hiatus or ‘sabbatical from violence’

As I shared, my hamster’s fuel of choice was news. I have always been a news junkie, but noticed that when I spent lots of time reading up about current events in places where I had worked, it only made me feel worse. I used to channel my shock and outrage into motivation for venturing off to try and *do* something to stop these horrible things from happening, or at least to mitigate their effects. Now they were still happening and here I was doing nothing (or so I told myself). I found it particularly hard to read stories about sexual violence or torture or other forms of abuse, issues that I had worked on directly.

While at work, I met an amazing woman who was a domestic violence advocate in the US for many years. She told me about working at a violence hotline in the ’80s, in Brooklyn, pre-cell phone, when getting a page on her beeper from a woman in crisis at midnight meant she had to run down to the nearest payphone, at the corner of her block, to call that woman back.

She did this for over a decade, then decided to take a break: she took a ‘sabbatical from violence’ for one full year. No working in violence. No reading about violence. No watching violence. I loved this idea and took it to heart.

As she said – it doesn’t mean you have abandoned those who experience violence. It means you recognize the effect violence has on all of us who work around it/with it/in it, and you are taking the steps necessary to be strong enough to continue this kind of work, if you so choose.

3. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em:  Go running!

Sometimes the best thing I could do was get up off the couch, put on my running shoes, and go for a jog. For me, running has always been more of a mental than a physical pursuit. I love jogging outside, where the wind and the views and the feeling of moving forward through space are great antidotes to the internal feeling of running in circles.

Even the illusion of forward movement on a treadmill is helpful, and usually a more realistic option for those still in the field. In Darfur, I propped my laptop in front of the broken-down machine in our compound, bought during a time when we were barred from exiting the country, you had to use the grip from your shoes’ rubber soles to start the tread moving and keep it rotating. I would run in this sole-slapping way while watching bootleg episodes of “Battlestar Galactica” until the electricity cut out, or until 30 minutes passed, whichever came first.

In places where I absolutely could *not* run outside and didn’t have access to a treadmill or a gym, colleagues introduced me to the likes of Shaun T’s “Beach Body Insanity” or Jillian Michaels’ videos. Of course, everyone has their own barometer for what’s possible: a friend in Gaza ran countless circles on the top of his apartment building, which was only about 20 feet in diameter, while preparing for a marathon.

For those who can’t or don’t run, lower-impact exercises work just as well. The point is to move, to stretch, to connect with the feeling of being in your body, of what it feels like to have an arm, a back, a foot. Movement is an excellent way of bringing the body and mind more into synch, and of coaxing the hamster into a more sustainable pace.

Finally, don’t be afraid to arrange hamster play-dates.

One of the most difficult aspects of learning to slow down after sustained periods of hyper-vigilance can be dealing with feelings of loneliness or isolation. We may have been hosts to crazy-making hamsters, but at least we were surrounded by others running at the same pace! It may seem like they can ‘handle it’ and we can’t, or like we should keep our hamster-exhaustion a secret.

I have found that talking about it, asking how others have dealt with similar feelings or episodes in their life, and sharing my own experience have been powerful ways of creating a community that supports and respects this process. Don’t be afraid to arrange some hamster play-dates.

What is your hamster like?  What have you found are effective ways to slow her down?  What do you do when you feel him speeding up? 



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