Much like the Five Stages of Grief, the stages outlined below do not represent a linear process. You can be in Stages 1 and 5 at the same time. You can jump from 2 to 4 and then back to 1 in the span of a day, week, or year. The Five Stages of Grief were developed by a psychiatrist, and were originally meant for people who are dying, not for people who are in mourning. The Five Stages of Re-Entry, on the other hand, are a purely non-scientific write-up based on my own experiences coming home from DLTI, short-term immersive travel, Hillel retreats and trainings, Milton Marks Neuro-Oncology Family Camp, Camp Kesem, and other retreats. If these ring true for you, please let me know. If they don’t, let me know what’s missing. Wishing my DLTI friends a smooth re-entry – only 196 days till we are together again!
Stage 1: Exhaustion
You step off the plane and into your bed. More accurately, you step off the plane, get your luggage, ride home, greet your family, and then get into bed. But in this stage, bed is the target, the be-all, end-all, the ultimate desire. In truth, the exhaustion hit long before you stepped onto the plane, and it feels more like confusion than anything else. You’re at the airport, and for the first time in a week, you interact with people who don’t know your deepest secrets. You resist the urge to tell the Starbucks barista about that one traumatic thing you experienced 10 years ago. You call someone from home to explain what you just went through, but despite your best efforts, you just say “amazing” a lot, because you don’t have any other words yet. And because you’re exhausted, and the only thing that makes sense in this stage is your bed.
Stage 2: Reliving
You wake up and you’re not sure where you are, but you know that your friends are not with you. You get on Facebook and Instagram before you even get out of bed and you relive your last week by looking through everyone’s pictures and videos. You read poetic reflections written by friends who have found words to express the experience. Others are still saying “amazing” and not much else. Almost everyone has posted something along the lines of “Where am I? Where are you? Why aren’t we singing together?” Confusion is part of this stage as well, but since you’ve already woken up in your own bed, the confusion is mixed with the first tinges of longing (stage 3). You check in with your retreat friends, you respond to every picture (even the one where it looks like you have five chins) and you sing along with your videos. You don’t sound as good as you remembered. This may be because your voice is still shot from your week away, or because your voice isn’t the same when you’re singing alone. It’s probably both.
Stage 3: Longing
You’re definitely not on retreat anymore. You’ve gone back to work. You remember the stresses of the rest of your life. You desperately wish you could run back to the middle of nowhere, where nothing mattered besides your own learning, growing, and community-building. But you can’t. The digital memories bring you joy, until you have to stop looking at them, to face a responsibility you avoided on your retreat. Call a credit card company. Book a doctor’s appointment. Respond to another email. Bore someone else with yet another story about your experience. Begin counting the days until your next immersive. This is a long stage.
Stage 4: Acceptance
Some parts of your life outside of the retreat do not suck. You did miss your family and it’s nice to see them. You also missed your favorite coffee shop/coworker/hiking trail/food/etc. You’re connecting with your retreat friends often, and are reassured that they haven’t forgotten you. You’ve gotten more sleep. You’re relocating your routine. You miss everyone, but you’re learning how to live with something missing, and that’s a really important skill to develop, right?
Stage 5: Integration
You’ve found some words to explain what happened. You begin to share them, not only with your friends from your immersive, but with family members, friends from home, and even professional contacts. You figure out how you might replicate some of the lessons you learned in other contexts – for those you teach, or in your own life. You set goals based on your experiences – some of them are unrealistic, and you’ll never reach them. Some are attainable, and when you reach them, you’ll remember your immersive experience, and will likely go through stages 2-4 again, but rapidly, or all at once. When you successfully bring something you learned on retreat into the rest of your life, you reach out to your friends again, and celebrate the moment. You remember why you went on the immersive experience to begin with, and use the tools, skills, and ideas you learned to enrich the rest of your life.
You achieve temporary enlightenment, and it feels, for lack of a better word, amazing.