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The Absentee’s Guide to Reentering Society

No matter which alien environment you’ve been living in — prison, outer space, marriage — if you’re not used to it, everyday life can be an intimidating thing to attempt

“We catch lots of crabs, shoot a few rabbits, catch a few trout,” says Rob Fletcher, who has just arrived back in mainland Scotland from the Inner Hebridean island of Jura, where he and his family have been living in virtual isolation for the past four months. Now halfway back to civilization (“We’re still in decompression,” he says, on his parents’ sheep farm in rural Stirlingshire), Fletcher is telling me how in his retreat on the edge of the island’s jutting northern spear tip, where the nearest neighbor is a 40-minute drive away and the closest well-stocked grocery store an eight-hour round trip partly by boat, he had to supplement tinned supplies “with the odd bit of wildlife.”

He was amazed, he says, to find his kids developing a taste for rabbit curry and for the wild goat that roam nearby. “My children aren’t particularly carnivorous, yet every time I went out the door with a rifle they asked whether I could shoot another goat.”

Photographer, Rob Fletcher

With no electricity (so no lighting, no refrigeration, no washing machine, no TV…), the house has been in Fletcher’s family for generations and boasts a rare pedigree in cutting oneself off from society. The great political writer and novelist George Orwell rented it from Fletcher’s grandparents in the late 1940s so he could escape the clamor of his celebrated literary life to focus on what would be his last great work. In a room Fletcher has been using as an office since April, Orwell wrote the classic Nineteen Eighty-Four — the archetypal vision of the individual’s alienation from the constraints of mass society.

As he prepares for re-entry to his normal life as an editor in Edinburgh, Fletcher’s bracing himself for a sharp jolt of culture shock, and there’s maybe an element of the menace of that dystopian Big Brother-regimented cityscape lurking in his apprehension. “I’ve spent a week on Jura before and come back and found it pretty hard to deal with,” he says. And now, in his regular work day in the capital city, he’ll be “going from a desk looking out the same window that Orwell looked out from when he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four — looking out over the Sound of Jura and watching gannets diving down catching mackerel, watching hen harriers hunting voles on the lawn, watching sea eagles considering eating our dog. I’m going from that to a small, windowless box, which I share with two cellmates. That’s going to be quite tough.”

Photographer, Rob Fletcher

Alienation, feeling like a fish out of water, and experiencing difficulties in adjusting to new crowds of people in our lives — these are all relatable, completely natural responses when we undergo a dramatic upheaval in our social circumstances. But why do we have such trouble in adapting, even when those circumstances are completely familiar to us? After an extended break from the norm, why can’t we all just pick things up where we left off?

According to Gary Brown, a marriage and family therapist based in West L.A., it’s partly because “the mind tends to resist change — even if it’s good, sometimes.” This, he says, is to do with what in his profession is seen as the first law of human psychology: “Basically, it states that the mind tends to want to maintain the status quo. Because we get into our proverbial comfort zones, where we feel safe and secure. And in order to adapt to any new situation, we have to get outside of that comfort zone. We believe we have to give up a certain amount of safety, because we’re familiar with the current situation; we trust the current, we know the current.”

Photographer, Rob Fletcher

This aspect of the human condition — our need for equilibrium in our inner lives, and the role familiarity and routine play in finding it — is what underlies many of the difficulties people have in settling back into their former states, “whether it’s someone who’s been in prison, whether it’s someone who’s been on deployment in, say, Afghanistan or someone who’s living in the city and is moving out.”

Parole Conditions

To take the first of those situations, surely the whole point of serving a prison sentence (or at least a big chunk of the point of it) is to see the offender successfully reintegrate into society once their debt has been paid. But if recidivism rates the world over are anything to go by — in the U.S., a Bureau of Justice Statistics report suggests that a fairly staggering 83 percent of released prisoners are being rearrested within nine years — that doesn’t seem to be happening too much.

“I’ve spoken to quite a few people who’ve said when they come out, they’ve found it really difficult to cope with life on the outside,” says Jason, who works for the U.K. Probation Service, helping prisoners rejoin law-abiding society in the north of England. “When applying for jobs, it’s much more difficult to get a job with a criminal record,” he points out, although he also says most of the people he works with do eventually manage to find work in fields where there’s less stigma around jail time (like construction, for example).

Another part of it is that in prison, everything is done for you. “You don’t have to worry about bills, you don’t have to worry about appointments or debts. Even family relationships are a bit more distant. All those things are taken care of. So when you’re on the outside having to deal with all that for yourself, it’s really difficult. The pace of life is so much harder.” When people experience these sorts of setbacks or are faced with the everyday bureaucracy that existing as a free citizen entails, explains Jason, “They can often think, ‘Oh, fuck it,’ and just end up going back to the more familiar lifestyle.” Which might be one reason reoffending rates are so high. “In fact,” he says, “I’ve worked with a few people recently who’ve been saying, ‘I just wish I was back in prison,’ and have even committed offenses to get back there.”

Floundering in the face of day-to-day responsibilities is just one obstacle among many that former inmates struggle with. For the others, Jason lists major alterations in their relationships with family and friends while they’ve been inside; having to find a new place to live; drug or alcohol dependency; mental-health issues (which affect “a huge proportion of prisoners”); and what he calls the “brutalizing experience” of daily incarcerated life. “The rules of social engagement are very different on the outside than they are in prison,” he says. “In prison you can never walk away from a confrontation, because people will see you as weak and exploit you. So people [in prison] will often ramp up a confrontation and use violence. Whereas in the community if you take that approach, you get into trouble all the time.”

Despite all these hurdles, Jason frequently works with ex-prisoners who do successfully build new lives on the outside, and very often it’s a change in circumstances that allows them to adapt to their new reality. Sometimes, he says, “it’s purely about maturing; they’re a bit older and able to see the bigger picture.” In other cases, they might “have a child, or they meet a partner who they’ve decided to commit to, or they get a job. Or it could even be that someone close to them has died, and that might make them think, What the fuck am I doing with my life? A significant life event can focus people’s minds on trying to change and do something different.”

Not to mention, reintegration doesn’t necessarily mean picking up where you left off: “In some ways, the people who are more likely to make it probably don’t reintegrate. Instead, they move away from where they were living before — to a different area where they haven’t got all the same connections.”

Demob Unhappy

A striking indication of just how tough the adjustment can be for some is in the extraordinarily high rates of suicide among those recently released from prison. One study conducted in Sweden in 2015 found that “suicide among released prisoners was 18 times more common than in the general population with particularly high risks during the first four weeks.” It reported that these findings were consistent with other high-income countries “such as the U.S., England and Australia.”

While the difference isn’t so stark, suicide rates are also markedly high among another group who see their entire social worlds upended abruptly. According to a Department of Veteran Affairs report, former military personnel in the U.S. are almost twice as likely to die from suicide as non-veteran adults (although when figures are adjusted for age and gender, that drops somewhat to a 1.5-times-greater risk). And an investigation published by the American Medical Association in 2015 found that among personnel who were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, their risk of suicide increased once they’d left active military service, and it was higher still for those who had served less than four years.

Brown draws some parallels between the experience of release from prison and that of rejoining society after a period of military service. In both cases, he says, there might be an element of stigma complicating the process; for veterans this might be “because the war wasn’t popular, or people might have had different feelings about it,” and since it’s difficult for non-vets to relate to the experience of combat, it’s a “stigma that can lead to a lot of depression, feeling isolated.”

Backing this up, a study led by researchers from Veterans Affairs institutions in 2016 identified feelings of shame as an exacerbating factor in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among former service personnel. Shame, they concluded, effectively drives much of the suicidal thoughts associated with PTSD, and “may be an effective point of treatment intervention to reduce suicidal ideation among veterans with PTSD.”

Brown is convinced that the stress of active service plays a large part in many of the difficulties veterans experience in later civilian life, both in terms of “the horrific things they might have seen,” and that might stay with them long after they’ve demobilized, and “also living in a constant state of readiness and being at a level of hyper-alertness, where you’re looking for the next potential threat” — another similarity with life in prison. But he takes issue with the “D” in the usual understanding of “PTSD.” “I much prefer to think of it as post-traumatic stress syndrome,” he says. “And the reason I say that is that I don’t think for the most part it’s a disorder; it’s just normal people having normal reactions to one or a series of incredible, abnormal events in their lives.” Which is to say that struggling to leave your service days behind is a completely natural response when one set of behavioral norms (those of survival) gets suddenly switched out for another (those of sociability).

Another impediment is mourning the loss of the intense friendships and sense of belonging that often develop in service life. “Going through military service with others is a shared experience that roughly one percent or less of any given population is going to go through,” says Brown (with an even smaller proportion likely to be directly involved in combat). “So it’s very unique in terms of the human experience, and there’s something binding about that.” The loss of that fellowship, “is in and of itself a painful experience, even though you might be happy to be done. Some just re-enlist. After a period of living the civilian life they go, ‘You know what? I loved being with my buddies. I loved being on a team.’”

For Brown, in the case of both veterans and ex-offenders, the missing piece is often formal reintegration programs. In finding their way to a new routine that feels safe and familiar, “It’s necessary to be with people who are having similar experiences,” he says, suggesting group therapy can help them define the answers to a set of questions essential to navigating any major life change: “What are the goals? What’s my vision? Ideally, what would I like my life to look like?”

“In all cases,” he adds, “they’re going to need a social network — and it needs to be pre-planned before they leave military service, before they leave prison.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Jason, who often gets prisoners involved in projects post release to help them adjust, such as violence-prevention or drug programs, but normally finds, “It’s the first time they’ve looked at this stuff. It’s a shame that doesn’t happen more inside, to prepare people for release.”

Cosmic Distance

With one giant leap, let’s go from small steps of social participation to perhaps the biggest abrupt shift in worldview there is. How easy is re-entry for the few pioneers who have spent time as far away from society as it’s possible to get? In his book Endurance, which tells the story of his record-breaking year aboard the International Space Station in 2015 and 2016, former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly presents a rosy picture of a man easing himself back into family life, albeit acknowledging that he was returning to his daughters having “missed a piece of each of their lives that I can never get back,” and with a radically altered perspective on the world and its inhabitants.

His re-entry into terrestrial life began with a splash: A day after touching down in Kazakhstan, he made it home a day later to Houston, Texas, where the first thing he did was take a running jump into his swimming pool still wearing his flight suit. “The sensation of being immersed in water for the first time in a year is impossible to describe,” he writes. “I’ll never take water for granted again.”

Among the other observations he brought back to Earth from his exploits in orbit, he lists a few that seem to hint at a transformation on some deep level, from ex-Navy captain to cosmic hippie: “I’ve learned that grass smells great and wind feels amazing and rain is a miracle. I will try to remember how magical these things are for the rest of my life.” And then, “I’ve learned a new empathy for other people, including people I don’t know and people I disagree with.” But when he talks about suddenly being triggered to remember “the smell of the space station, or the laughter of my crewmates,” you get the sense that there will always be a part of him up there, zipping over the continents at 7.7 kilometers per second.

Spaceflight, by all accounts, seems to effect such a drastic shift in perspective that seeing the world all at once can’t help but change yours. In his 2005 book Moondust, Andrew Smith attempts to track down all the moon-walkers from the Apollo missions who were still alive at the time of writing, and finds David Scott (the seventh man to walk on the moon, now aged 87), admitting to “‘a pang of nostalgia’ when he looks up to the moon and his eye picks out the largest circular marking on its surface, the Mare Imbrium, or Sea of Rains, on the eastern edge of which he spent ‘the three most memorable days of my life.’”

Smith also discovers that at least four of the other Apollo astronauts’ lives took a sharp metaphysical turn following their lunar strolls. Alan Bean (the fourth man on the moon) became a painter, whose work focused on a predictable but understandable subject; James Irwin and Charlie Duke (eighth and tenth respectively) both became devout born-again Christians soon after they touched back down; and most mystical of all, Edgar Mitchell (sixth) is reported to have experienced a spiritual awakening onboard the Apollo 14 spacecraft, which he later described in terms of a yogic trance, “seeing things in their separateness, but experiencing them viscerally as a unity, as oneness, accompanied by ecstasy…” On returning to Earth he founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, dedicated to investigating paranormal phenomena in the realm of human consciousness.

Run With It… or Run Away

All of which demonstrates that, when it comes down to it, a successful reabsorption into the human race is really a matter of perspective. Usually the best way to cope with an overwhelming change, says Brown, is to embrace it, if you can. “You can view it as a very scary experience, which in some ways it will be. But you can also view it as a very exciting opportunity to enter this new phase of your life.”

The ability to roll with the punches in traumatic situations is one of the hallmarks of psychological resilience, and it’s a solution that still applies in the more down-to-earth life-shifts many more of us can relate to, such as the loss of a loved one or the end of a relationship. In fact, according to Brown, just like the bitter sense of loss veterans might feel after being cut off from their service siblings, adjusting to divorce or the breakdown of a long-term relationship is also a kind of grieving process.

Once you get past the initial shocks — of changes in your living circumstances, and friendships and family relationships reorganizing themselves around your new singlehood — “your need for social support is still the same,” says Brown. Just as in other major life changes, talking to others who simply, genuinely “get it” is a pragmatic first step in absorbing the impact: “If you were on the receiving end of somebody rejecting you, or if you ended the relationship, the need for affirmation, the need to grieve the loss,” are key “to adjusting to the new normal.” From there, the goal is to “realize that, okay, one chapter has ended, but that doesn’t mean my life is over, because my relationship is over.”

Crucially, whatever it is that’s knocked you off course into uncharted social territory, finding your way back to steady-as-she-goes doesn’t mean suppressing the distress or trepidation you might be feeling. “In all these transitional situations,” says Brown, real emotional steel comes with “learning to live with the understandable uncertainty and the anxiety that can go along with that uncertainty.” If you’re feeling disturbed because you’re being forced to act outside of your comfort zone, that might well be a good sign. “Of course you’re afraid,” he acknowledges, “just don’t let the fear paralyze you.”

The good news is that, if we can stay focused on it, resilience can come as naturally to us as the stresses it helps address. According to therapist and author Kathleen Smith, “Change gives us an opportunity to live out our evolutionary heritage. Humans are adaptive by nature, so a new environment can shine the spotlight on what we do best — solve problems and find opportunities. Our brains were programmed to do this, and remembering that can help you feel hopeful during a transition.”

Alternatively, you could do the complete other thing and shun the herd entirely — perhaps by holing yourself up on the remotest part of a blustery island, and working through your alienation by writing a story about the savagery of a society you can’t relate to and demands you fall into step. There are, after all, certain benefits to being a recluse. On Jura, says Fletcher, there might be zero laundry opportunities, and “you’d think there’s not that many things to do, but there really is a sense of freedom that you can do as you please. Whereas in the city, despite all the cultural attractions on offer, I just don’t feel the urge to do them or the freedom to take them on.”

To Fletcher’s point, if newfound freedom in modern mainstream society feels too daunting to tolerate for some, maybe that’s because the clutter of responsibilities means none of us is really free at all. “Out there, you never have to carry money, you never have to carry keys — you just take what you need, which is a completely different set of essentials.”