The Question Nobody Asks When You Return from Time “Off”

I am just a few days into my return to Chicago after a month away. Both feet are now firmly planted in this city that I call home. I should feel grounded. I should feel relieved. Happy to be back.

Instead, I feel dizzy, disoriented and confused.

But I’ve been here before. More than three years ago, I returned to Chicago after nearly six months of circumnavigating the globe on a career sabbatical. The same thing happened then when I came home: dizziness, disorientation, confusion.

There was no sinking back into the “old” routine then, just as that won’t be the case now. I have experience to draw on. When you go on a journey like I have, you don’t come back the same person. I’ve spent time away questioning, pondering, learning, growing … and shedding pieces of my story that no longer serve me. A lot has happened, even in the relatively short month that I’ve been away. It’s been a full lunar cycle. Now it’s time to take these new parts of myself and see how they can fit into life in Chicago — if they can fit.

More than three years ago, nobody warned me how challenging it would be to return after being gone for what seemed like a eighty lifetimes. And unfortunately, most people don’t understand this part — the struggles that come with recalibration and reintegration after serious time away. Like anything else, you don’t understand unless you’ve been there yourself. It’s not like returning from your run-of-the-mill vacation. That sort of reintegration can happen in a day. What I’m (again) experiencing is something way more, and I need time and space to process.

Yet, I’m already getting asked, “What are you up to now?” and “What next?” I’ve only been back for three days. It’s a jolt to my system, this pressure to immediately have to move forward when I’m still trying to figure out what just happened.

So here’s my PSA to friends and family who interact with someone who’s returned from serious time “off”: Please don’t press your loved one about the future; instead, ask how they are feeling in the present. Help them navigate the now rather than inspire stress over what’s to come.

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