Finding Purpose After a Kidnapping
Hostage US Article July 2022
By Winnie Lee
“I believed my purpose died out there in the desert – but it didn’t.” It has been ten years since Jessica Buchanan was released after 93 days of being held hostage by Somali pirates, and although she has come a long way, it has not been easy. In a recent conversation, Jessica described the last decade as a time of wandering through the wilderness, exploring this new stage of life which she calls “surviving survival.”
Trauma changes a person in fundamental ways. Cognition and brain function are affected, and people describe feeling like a stranger in their own skin. Beliefs once held as truths may no longer apply after a traumatic experience. The concept of safety is no longer a security; home may no longer be home; and the person you were before the experience may no longer be the person you are afterwards.
Jessica’s experience of reintegration after captivity shares some similarities with stories of other former hostages and wrongful detainees. A former hostage who was held in the Middle East and prefers to remain anonymous describes her challenge in returning to life in the U.S. “Being an international worker becomes your identity. After living and working internationally, I felt like a fish out of water when I came home.” When that is no longer your identity—because it was taken from you during an enormously traumatic event—how do you rediscover what makes you feel like yourself again? She went on to say, “Ego gets in the way. I had a unique life, and I wanted a unique life. I wanted to do something different and meaningful. And I did.”
Both of these stories tell of inspiration, motivation, and follow through. These two former hostages had moved to a foreign country during formative years of their lives to build a new life from the ground up. Each followed a desire to do something good for the world, and something different from their upbringing. The anonymous former hostage started her international career as a volunteer, met her husband along the way, and eventually worked in programs designed to improve access to maternal and child health services, clean drinking water, and education. Her path had been self-directed and intuitively purposeful. She was working in partnership with local communities in sustainable ways to make their lives better.
Jessica began as a teacher in Nairobi, Kenya, where she met her husband, and then moved to Hargeisa, Somaliland, where she saw huge gaps in education and general safety. Working with locals on creative solutions, she became part of the community. “I was living out my purpose, and I was good at it. I felt like the work I was doing was really helping.” Surrounded by new friends—both locals and ex-pats from around the world—Jessica built a home and found personal fulfillment. She was proud of what she was doing and imagined raising a family on the plot of land that she and her husband bought together—and still own.
“It’s like driving and then hitting a tree.” This is how Jessica describes the massively life-altering experience of happily moving through life with direction and purpose only to have it suddenly severed by a kidnapping. Things would never be the same again, and eventually, Jessica came to realize that she would never be the same again. The anonymous former hostage says that the bar was fairly low when she first got home. “People were happy when you got out of bed and were able to do a few things during the day. First interactions were often awkward, and I felt I had to convince them I was not completely messed up by my experience.” But at some point, life goes back to normal for the rest of the world, and often, the person who has experienced the trauma is left behind, still struggling to get out of bed and find purpose again.
This is when Jessica began her journey through what she called “the wilderness.” Sometimes going in circles, other times falling down in the mud, she began to explore. When Jessica returned to the U.S., it was familiar, but it didn’t feel like home anymore. At times, even her body felt unfamiliar. With the remnants of an identity that no longer applied, she had no idea what to do with herself. “I didn’t know what I liked, so I had to try so many things.” In that moment, exploring would be surviving.
Loss is something that every human experiences, and how one responds to loss dictates how they will live. For many former hostages and wrongful detainees, letting go of a life they were not ready to leave is not only heart breaking, but also disorienting. Sometimes they never get to go back to say goodbye, to see their old home one last time, to find any sense of closure. The grief of loss can be overwhelming. And concurrently, they have to reinvent themselves in order to survive this new chapter of their lives.
Jessica says that some people thought she was flakey for constantly trying new things while in reality, she was following what felt right and mustering up the courage to pivot when she was heading down the wrong path. She credits writing for much of her healing—and time. “It takes the time it needs to take,” she says. Ten years later, it can still be just as raw as ever. Maybe healing is not about the destination, but about the journey. “This is my life’s journey. Change is proof of life.”
Many former hostages and wrongful detainees think at first that they might go back to what they were doing before—and some do. For others, the experience of a kidnapping creates a critical shift that keeps them from being able to go back. Whether it is out of concern for safety or because they themselves have changed, finding purpose and fulfillment after such a huge trauma is hard, but not impossible.
Humans tend to fill empty space. We want to feel content, and we want it now. It is hugely uncomfortable to be without direction. When we are lost, we can be consumed by the search and we might be grasping, gripping at anything that looks like it will ground us. Sometimes, however, what we actually need is space. Sometimes, it is about slowing down, opening up to what comes, discovering what you attract, and then following what feels right. Things bubble up seemingly out of nowhere, and the next right step is always right in front of you. In fact, this might have been what helped these former hostages find their purpose and direction in the first place.
One of Jessica’s favorite quotes is by Howard Thurman. He said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” As Jessica read this quote to me, she smiled and reminded me that there can be more than one thing that makes you come alive. Uncovering it just takes time and the courage to explore.
Thank you to Jessica Buchanan, kidnapping survivor, teacher, speaker, and to the anonymous former hostage quoted in this article. Each of us is a teacher and a healer.