Being held hostage is a life-changing event. Getting home is often not the end of your journey – it is the start of a new one. A new period of recovery and reintegration begins, which can take months or even years. This will at times be difficult – but with the right support and knowledge you can get through it and go on to live a fulfilling life with your loved ones.
This section contains information and guidance to help you make sense of what you have been through, understand what might lie ahead and help you to tackle some of the common challenges faced by returning hostages.
Everyone is different and so is every kidnapping. It is not unusual for positive feelings to be skewed by negative thoughts and emotions. Some say they feel like they are on a roller-coaster of emotions where sudden feelings of shock and panic surface after feeling pleased, free and positive;
Naturally, many hostages are elated when they are released. Regardless of how long you may have been held captive, the real and/or perceived threats are no longer immediate, and your mindset can shift from short term survival to ones about the future.
Unfortunately, negative or confusing emotions include:
- Survivors guilt if you were held with other hostages who were not released;
- Feelings of empathy towards some of the kidnappers; and
- Still feeling captive when being looked after by authorities or when you return home.
These feelings are common amongst released hostages, and you are not alone in them. If you feel any of these emotions, remember that you have been a victim of a cruel and terrible crime that was out of your control, and you should be kind to yourself.
Immediate medical needs
Upon release, you will likely have been given a brief medical examination, but it is important that you have a full medical check-up when you return home. Health issues can arise from pre-existing conditions that have worsened while in captivity, or they can be a result of the conditions you were kept in, the lifestyle you had and how long you were held captive.
You should ask your medical professionals to assess the following:
- Weight/Body Mass Index;
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies, infections, parasites;
- Muscle strength/wastage;
- Dietary and digestive problems;
- Dental decay and hygiene;
- Worsening of pre-existing conditions; and
- Mental wellbeing and signs of mental trauma to monitor over time.
It can take a while to fully recover, so keep an eye on yourself – you will know if things do not feel right. If you receive emergency or private medical care immediately upon release, consider asking the health care professionals to send your usual doctor a copy of the medical reports. This way, if injuries or ailments continue or return after some time, you can seek continuous and informed treatment when you are back home.
There is usually a debrief or period of ‘decompression’ after you’ve been released which will be conducted by professionals and supported by trauma specialists. The aim of this is to give you some time to adjust and, depending on the circumstances of your kidnapping, you may also be asked to recall the kidnapping and time in captivity to assist a current or future investigation.
Some former hostages have found the debrief process to be therapeutic and viewed it as the start of their rehabilitation. Others report that this phase feels like an interrogation and like they are still in captivity. During this time of ‘de-briefing’, do what feels right for you. If you feel like an adjustment would make you feel more comfortable, ask the organisers if that is possible.
If you wish to have some contact with your family, do not be afraid to ask for it. You don’t have to feel isolated and alone.
The debrief is likely to take place at a venue which is unfamiliar to you, such as a safe house or army base. If moving to a place you do not know feels overwhelming, ask about the place in advance so you can prepare yourself, or ask if you can take familiar items with you to make the venue more comfortable.
Representatives from different agencies may want to speak to you. It is important that you have a good rapport with the people who are carrying out the debrief – if you don’t, do not be afraid to ask to speak with another representative.
Take it at your own pace – don’t be rushed and don’t be afraid to ask to take a break.
From our experience, we have found that conducting the debrief soon after the event is much healthier than doing it later down the line. It is common to be asked to recall your experience in detail, which may make you feel like you are reliving the kidnapping. Doing this exercise later down the line can make past feelings resurface, whereas recalling your experience soon after the event may help you to process what happened.
You are not alone in what you feel during this debriefing period. Former hostages have described this period as being ‘surreal’, triggering a variety of emotions, such as: trouble believing they have actually been released; being overwhelmed by the attention they receive; and feeling guilty if they have had to leave other hostages behind. You may also experience mental challenges, which are outlined in ‘dealing with the impacts of trauma’. These emotions are all normal reactions to what you have been through. It will take time for your mind and body to recover.
First contact with your family
Your first contact with your family will be a happy experience, but it can also be challenging.
Your family may be shocked by the changes in your appearance and they may find this upsetting and distressing. You might be overwhelmed to be with people after your period in captivity. You are likely to be tired. Don’t be hard on yourself or on them- you have both been through a terrible ordeal and you all need to take things slowly.