When I worked at an University, I used to give a power point presentation to study abroad students about culture shock to prepare them for the phases of transition people in new cultures often go through. Over a twelve month period, there is often an upside down bell curve with four phases: the honeymoon phase, culture shock, adjustment and acceptance/adaptation. My partner and I reviewed it before moving, so we could recognize symptoms when they start to occur.
We have now been here just over two months. Thanksgiving was two days ago and this week was my first week at work no longer in training. Most of our furniture has been delivered, and I commissioned a local artist to create a painting to cover the giant hole above our fireplace meant for a TV. It is slowly starting to feel like home. I love it here, I really do. I am beyond grateful about the way things have fallen into place. We also live in a country pretty similar to the one we left, so I’m sure the level of culture shock we will experience is far less than if everything were different.
While I still feel one foot in the honeymoon phase, I’m starting to notice other things too. Like how hard it was to find pumpkin in the springtime to make the tradition I have of baking a pie each year for Thanksgiving. Or how odd it was to work on two days traditionally associated with family and travel. How it felt to have a lovely dinner with someone I love, but no other family or friends around to share it with. Thanksgiving is not a holiday here, so the usual reminders and fall festivities are missing. These were all expected things, but I’m starting to notice the things from home that I miss. How easy it used to be to order anything I could possibly ever want from Amazon and have it delivered in two days. I’m still waiting on the rug I ordered over a month ago to arrive! I’m also generally tired of buying things. I didn’t think I’d ever say that last sentence, haha. I’m craving a routine and normalcy again. I miss my friends. All of this to say, I think I might be stepping into the culture shock part of the process (I also realize how privileged I am in even being able to write this paragraph and the first world problems contained in it).
Work is different too. One of my educational practicum sites in school was on the Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity (NGRI) ward of a state psychiatric hospital. It was a locked down forensic unit where patients had committed serious crimes, but they had occurred while experiencing severe mental illness and didn’t always know what they were doing. My dissertation research was teaching shame resilience to women who had committed drug related offenses and had a history of complex trauma and substance use. They had been allowed to participate in a rehabilitative program instead of serving traditional prison sentences. While I didn’t know I would end up working at a general population men’s prison, I am not surprised I ended up on the forensic side of things again. I am a huge proponent of rehabilitation and education if we want people to make changes.
I was passionate about my dissertation topic because internalized shame (internalizing the belief that oneself is “bad” or as Brené Brown puts it, “deeply flawed or unworthy of love and belonging”) is often the byproduct of experiencing trauma or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). In my experience, when we believe we are bad, we make all kinds of decisions and life choices that we may not make if we knew at our core we were worthy and valuable. Part of this is often to escape from or dispel the underlying emotional pain.
No matter what environment I work in, I notice that some people who struggle with severe mental health issues often have histories involving trauma or ACEs. Regarding ACEs, humans suffer when they don’t experience loving caretakers that protected, nurtured, and provided for them (and oftentimes were the ones that hurt them) or even if they had great caretakers, traumatic events can have major long lasting effects without needed supports. Having an entire society tell you you are “bad” because of the color of your skin, person you love, or culture you came from would also be considered a traumatic event that spans over time. I haven’t even mentioned the systemic affects that have arisen from this, which continue to affect people in negative ways. People who experience these things often learn to survive any way they can and aren’t always shown how to manage emotions in healthy ways or engage in behaviors that don’t harm themselves or others. Some of them are angry at a society that has treated them poorly or the hardships experienced by those passing on inter-generational trauma. Once we believe we are bad, no matter where we got it from, we may go a lifetime without realizing that belief may not actually be true. The research correlating shame, trauma and mental health is vast.
The population I am working with now is no different. My heart goes out because most of the people I see in prison are the ones who grew up in poverty, violence, addiction, abuse and/or neglect and/or experienced a lifetime of racism or colonization. It doesn’t excuse the individual actions that got them there, but it means they need to learn what they were never taught (or unlearn what they were) if they are to be expected to engage in the world differently. We have entered into my soap box now, so I digress, but I am a huge advocate of education and rehabilitation to a group of people, who in my opinion, are the reflection of a society that has issues that need to be addressed, not individuals who wound up here solely because of their own decisions. They are a reflection of the larger culture that shaped them.
That being said, there’s a lot of adjustments in working in this environment too. I have to be more aware of people who may try to manipulate me, or those with antisocial personality traits. I’m a female surrounded by men, and am learning how to navigate situations that don’t always feel comfortable. It’s a shift to work with perpetrators (who may also be victims), rather than recipients of traumas, as I often have in my past. Some of the crimes are hard to hear, but I have to hold my personal reaction in one hand, while keeping empathy and an open heart when I work clinically with the person to try and help them affect positive change. It’s a different space. I love it, but I have a lot to adjust to.
In the culture shock bell curve, everything is sunny, bright, shiny and new in the honeymoon phase. During the culture shock/adjustment phases things dip lower and become more realistic. The shiny is still there but not as pronounced; the dark spots become apparent too. With time it all levels out and you reach adaptation. From this place, you become “bi-cultural” and can embrace the culture you came from while also finding yourself in the new. At times I wish the honeymoon phase would last forever, but upon reflection, maybe I don’t. The necessary dip that comes while seeking ultimate balance is the path I’d rather choose. If I’ve learned nothing else in life so far, there is no skipping the hard parts. There is only embracing them and knowing that life consists of ebbs and flows, darkness and light. It is in embracing them all that balance is achieved.
Until next time.
Author’s note: Due to privacy agreements and the nature of my job, I am speaking in generalities I have observed from personal experiences/observations, literature I have read, or other sources that I have accumulated knowledge from thus far in life, not solely information I have experienced in this current position.