Humanitarian professionals witness physical and mental suffering every day. Indeed, the reason for our presence in difficult places is to help alleviate such suffering; but the exposure, the long hours of work, the extreme environments, and the distance from home take a big toll.
I burned out on my third mission: I was visiting an advanced base when I blacked out. I could not do anything. I couldn’t talk. I just lay down in a random room on our base. I wanted to be miles away from all the responsibilities and the uncertainties of the moment. Breathing was even difficult. My body and my mind just gave up. A colleague found me and reassured me. He told me that such episodes are normal and that it would pass.
It did, but I resigned from that mission a few weeks later anyway. What felt at the time like a failure actually turned into a huge victory. By resigning, I finally did something for myself and not for all the people who admired me for the job/life I had chosen, and who had placed such high expectations on me.
I learned a lot from that experience, and it helped me during subsequent missions in even more dangerous and stressful situations. Looking back, I would have made the same choice again—for myself and for the mission, which always deserves people that can cope physically and mentally with extreme challenges.
As I learned, ups and downs on the job are normal. Colleagues and/or psychological support can help you cope. But at times, one needs to accept that the burden is too much and that it is time to go home (or at least go on a long vacation!).
When you come home, many ask: “What’s your next mission?”. A few, though, are able to see your emotional scars, and they ask instead: “How was it? Are you fine? Are you resting a bit before going out again?”. It is difficult to explain life in the field to someone who has never been on a humanitarian mission; often, only other humanitarian professionals or soldiers can really understand.
Humanitarian work makes you experience the best and the worst of human nature—in others and in yourself. It is the most intense and inspiring job, and I will be out again on mission soon.