Opinion: Post Expedition Syndrome

Opinion: Post Expedition Syndrome

Post Expedition Syndrome, in short PES. I made up this combination of words the other day just before reaching Buckingham Palace and the end of another Expedition. I felt it even coming before I had made it to the end. This is one subject of exploration very few explorers want to talk about, but after chatting to quite a few who are spread all over the world, I know I am far from the only one going through this quite disturbing time. The reason nobody want to talk about it is because it is mainly dominated by the darker forces of life. Like sadness, emptiness, pure exhaustion, loss, fear of the future and a sense of not belonging to the normality of modern society.

Sure, when I reached Buckingham Palace and met the rest of my family, and the following two days was some of the happiest in my life. But already at the airport and especially when taking the train back from Copenhagen Airport to Malmö, it was all on. I wrote this in a small note to my Facebook friends:

Back in Sweden…..and you know what…don´t laugh Georgia Villalobos I miss England and the kindness and helpfulness, because after taking the train from Copenhagen to Malmö, what can I say…the Swedes are such a unhelpful bunch of assholes sometimes….we had four big pieces of luggage, a stroller, two toddlers…people didn´t even move their feet to make it easier for us to get on the train and not one, not one single person offered to help us…amazing! This would never, ever happen in England! Thank God we have great friends in Malmö, like Karolina Jeppson and David who are putting us up until we know what to do….otherwise I would have returned to Moss Side!

These so called sourswedes (sursvenskar) as my friend the writer Lasse Berg calls them are the worst of the worst. They´re so incredibly self occupied, spoilt and scared of being talked to…my God!

I am off to bed….I´d like to do a documentary about these Sour Swedes (sursvenskar), but it would be incredibly depressing.”

There´s no doubt there´s quite a lot of truth as regards to the sourswedes, as many other Swedes also noted as replies to my angry note, but most of all, this was a pure sign of PES. Pure exhaustion combined with the fear entering into to this complicated world called normality. It causes loss of patience, anger and just a big wish to return to the known world of exploration.

I think it is really important we start discussing this issue because there´s a lot of people who have to suffer the consequences of PES. Like my own family. Even though my wife is the most tolerant of people, after being away from her for two months, the same applies to my oldest daughter, they want to be with you, they want a functioning family and when one has lost all physical and mental energy, this is a very demanding task. Because there´s no doubt, even though I can´t scientifically prove it, that a year on an Expedition, equals 5 normal years. A doctor once told me this after I had returned from 2½ years cycling in Africa. And I´d like to included our year in Moss Side into the Expedition picture. That is the physical and mental damage involved. I am not complaining, just stating a fact for other explorers and those involved with this life, for better understanding. And this is a feeling coming even though the Expedition has reached its target. I can´t even imagine the extra feeling of loss if those goals haven´t been reached and it is a failure in one´s own eyes.

Even though the England Expedition was far from being one of the hardest I have done physically, we averaged about 8 miles (around 13 km) and we walked every day even though some was strolling only around in a city, I´d like you to note that we were 24/7 ready to film, talk to people and figure out things. Plus that Dana is still a toddler with all that included. So, as a whole it was a hard Expedition in my eyes. Yes, Dana is sort of suffering from a light PES. She is very needed for mummy and fed up with dad! Or she is punishing me for not being on the road. The future will show what it was.

So, how do I feel right now? I feel utterly exhausted, I don´t know how to get my act together and just feel I don´t belong anywhere. I have no idea how I would feel if I didn´t have this extraordinary family. Probably much, much worse.

I have written this for others involved in this odd life, and their family and friends, to read to understand and realize that it is is very common. Even though nobody wants to talk about it. Only time, patience and rest is the cure.

Dana just woke up, I need to change her nappies. Her mum and sister are out sorting things out. We are staying with friends right now, our flat is in somebody else´s hands still for awhile.

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* If you have time to kill after reading this, why not check the photo album from Expedition England to remembering the easier life on the road.

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10 Comments for this entry

  1. I do like it when somebody is brave enough to cover this subject. It’s such a natural experience to slump after weeks and months of vibrancy, hard work and focusing on a goal. Then, without that goal to lead you forward any more, the chemistry stops.

    Exhaustion, missing the ‘road’ and, crucially, the biological effect of remaining stationary (our hormones take a hit and effect our energy levels, motivation, happiness) is hard to deal with, partly because the way you’re feeling makes it hard to deal with anything.

    I’ve played with lots of different solutions to this over the last decade and a good combination is accepting that rest is necessary, at the same time as having a less energetic goal to focus on, and to do it all in a new – not familiar – place.

    For me, the returning to somewhere I know after having such a wild, colourful experience makes the world seem grey. Friends are still doing what they were doing before you started. Nobody cares what you’ve just been through. It’s as though you’ve moved on and they haven’t.

    Oh, and keep writing. Getting all of these feelings and happenings down on paper (or screen) is good for two reasons. It’s therapeutic and cathartic, and it’s nice for others in your situation to learn from how you’re dealing with it.

    Keep it up Micke, the sun rises soon…

  2. Mikael…I definitely understand what you are feeling, as I experience similar emotions, after being out on the edge, close to the REAL life. Being Scandinavian, driven, probably doesn’t help us Keep on keeping on and enjoy the “little things!”

  3. Peter Syme says:

    The only cure if you can call it a cure is to start planning the next one. I often swear when I get back from a trip that I will spend a year at home but it never works out that way. Ever. As always it is the families that suffer from our often selfish ways and addiction to travel and adventure.

  4. Erden Eruc says:

    Thank you for writing this. I don’t think our PES is any different than that of soldiers returning home from war. PTSD they call it, I have adapted it as PESD myself. There is no cure to it but to return to the expedition life, it seems.

    One outstanding feeling of mine is that of a deep sense of failure so dark that I wanted to end it all during the circumnavigation phase in Africa and a few times post expedition. I had set myself up for that with high expectations, starting out with a nonprofit to serve society with educational and charitable goals. I would be happier now had I just done it for my own joy.

    This may never be voiced properly. Nobody wants to hear of my sadness for their lack of interest, we are all supposed to be perfect specimens of humanity, paragons of determination and inner strength having achieved our dreams… One cannot story such dark emotions publicly; they are supposed to be only spoken behind closed psychologist doors.

  5. Jason Lewis says:

    If you go away long enough there is no coming back. Home will always be somewhere other.

    Agree with all the other comments, especially the recommendation to write by David C. This is what I was advised to do by a doc. Helps to externalize the crap, get it out of your head and render it less in control of thoughts/emotions. They use for returning military and cases of ptsd.

  6. Jeff Willner says:

    Brother,

    I think it is very genuine and reflects how you feel right now. It’s the worst thing to end an expedition only to have nothing. The antidote is to go into something that has a schedule and its own demands. For me that was a very demanding job as a consultant. That is not to say in the first six months I didn’t think about quitting almost every day. Because the regular world seems a bit pointless. After all we are doing this stuff to make a salary – when the thing you are most passionate about is out there in the world.

    My advice for explorers who are finishing an expedition without something ready for them is … make a rigorous plan for the next 6-8 weeks with a hard schedule. Every day get up, work on organizing journal, organizing photos, editing (if there was filming involved), etc. Of course one must work with your family. But if that schedule can be a job, with fixed hours, and has high importance – then there is a sense that the expedition continues but in a different way. This is the stair step down from the expedition and into ‘real life’. It is the halfway house for we explorers who are addicted to the open spaces. We may be home, but at least our minds are out there still, going through those memories, making sense of them. I think when one has a chance to do this, the expedition itself becomes more important. Because the its insights are not lost to the every day cares, but have a chance to fall lightly and be recorded.

    At least now is Africa!

    jeff

  7. Tanya says:

    Känslan av att “vara hemma”.. jag tror den längtan ställer till det för många. Den gör det emellanåt för mig med, efter fem år i Jemen känns detta alltmer hemma, samtidigt som mitt liv här på många sätt är en främlings. Träffade en man, just det du känner honom också, Khaled Fattah, som ju inte ens vill uttala “hemma”, det blir för stort och kravfyllt. Jag förstår honom eftersom “hemma” förväntas vara en plats som man kan innantill och älskar mer än andra ställen, där ska man vara en “äkta” sig själv. Visst är det fint om man får uppleva just det, att allt det man lär känna av sig och vill dela med andra finns samlat och kan plockas fram just på en plats. Att de som står en närmast finns där och så vidare.
    Men författaren Mohsin Hamid slog sönder just den föreställningen och sa i en intervju att alla är migranter, också de som bor vid samma park hela livet. När den åldrande mannen ser ut genom fönstret är världen en annan än för 50 år sedan. Och han känner sig på så vis som en främling i den nya tiden. För allt fler måste “hemma” nog vara ett slags pussel. Jag tänker på en vän som sa att doften av Sanaas regn är hemma för henne, men det är också Kista i Stockholm, där hon har man och barn. För mig är den mjöliga doften av nybakad “kadam” (en halvmörk brödfralla som kom till norra Jemen med ottomanerna) hemma, men också nattkall gräsmatta med maskrosor och svidande salta kallsupar i Adriatiska havet. Jag är hemma både med vänner i Jemen och Sverige, liksom annanstans. Hemma blir nog mer av just ett brokigt pussel för många. Vi hittar bitar på olika platser, skapar oss nya hem, och får lära oss att leva med saknaden efter de vi lämnar.
    Den saknad du nu känner efter dina senaste expeditionsveckor kan du kanske dela med vännerna i Malmö. De vet, tror jag, vad det är att bära på tomheten som följer efter en avslutad passion. Om inte så kanske det hjälper att tänka såhär, väldigt enkelt, vilket då och då funkar för mig: Nu är jag låg. Men det går över. Och sen kommer maten att smaka gott igen, och vinden blir frisk och det ska kännas roligt att vakna på mornarna. Tills dess får jag uthärda.

    And with that said, I am very much looking forward to your new movie :D

  8. leon McCarron says:

    Really interesting, Mike – I think the filming side of it is especially exhausting mentally. I think everyone who makes expeditions a part of their lives would agree. I guess though that it’s unavoidable – it seems to happen every time, and eventually fades. Perhaps just an occupational hazard?!

  9. I empathise with your description of PES… however I can’t say that I feel it these days. My first big expedition failed by many definitions of the word, and in order to come to terms with that I spent some dark times redefining success and failure. One of the ways in which I did so was to stop attempting to compartmentalise experiences. If you tell yourself that you are on a fulfilling expedition one day and you are living a normal life the next, you are creating your own disunity. But if you see it all as part of the same messy experience of life, it makes it that much easier to balance things out.

    The side effect, of course, is that my expeditions now tend to be ill-defined, goal-less, experimental, even if I have to shape some meaning around them afterwards in order to explain them to others. But that’s fine with me.

    +1 writing about it. In private. For a while now I’ve been using 750words.com on a daily basis. It’s a very useful tool.

  10. Hello Mikael Dana & Georgia, So glad that you have completed your journey seemingly without mishap. I was worried that it would prove to much. I haven’t read all of your exploits due in part to a mishap of my own. Hoping all is well with you and your families. Regards. Margaret & Albert.

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