After the honeymoon, former detainees say, comes ‘surviving survival’

Photo for The Washington Post by William DeShazer
Andy Huynh, left, and Alex Drueke, two Americans who were released in September in a massive Russia-Ukraine prisoner swap, pose for a portrait together outside of Huynh’s home.

Jessica Buchanan was on the elliptical at her gym when televisions began alerting news that nearly bowled her over with “vicarious relief.” Brittney Griner, the American basketball star imprisoned in Russia, was being freed in a prisoner swap.

Buchanan does not know Griner. But the former aid worker, held hostage by pirates in Somalia for 93 days a decade ago, is among the few who knew what Griner would be facing: Joyous and overwhelming reunions with loved ones. An onslaught of interview requests. A dawning understanding of the great efforts people back home made to secure her freedom. And, eventually, the lonely realization that captivity leaves an imprint that never fades.

“When you’re watching these things play out and time drags on, you know exactly how that feels,” said Buchanan, 43, who lives in Alexandria, Va. After a person’s release, she added, “what happens is everyone thinks that everything’s going to be fine from now on, because you got through it; you survived. It’s the honeymoon phase. What sets in is what I call ‘surviving survival.'”

The experience of Griner, a celebrity whose arrest for cannabis possession became a high-profile geopolitical standoff, is different from those of many other Americans wrongfully imprisoned or held hostage abroad. But no matter the circumstances, she is now a member of a small club nobody wants to join, former detainees say, bound by the common experience of stolen freedom and an often turbulent reacquaintance with it.

As this unusual society has grown, some of its members have formed advocacy organizations supporting hostages and their families. Some have become foreign policy activists. Some retreat from the public eye. Some rely on each other privately.

“What links us all together is having your freedom and human rights taken away from you in an instant,” said Sam Goodwin, who was imprisoned in Syria for two months in 2019 and has found fellowship with other former hostages.

Goodwin, 34, had lunch recently with Buchanan, whom he considers a friend. He also met in Washington this month with Jorge Toledo, one of six Americans and a permanent U.S. resident released from imprisonment in Venezuela in October.

Goodwin was arrested by Syrian forces while near the end of a quest to visit every country in the world – Syria was No. 181 of 193. He spent one month in solitary confinement and was dragged to court four times, he said. He had no idea anyone was helping him until, 62 days later, Lebanese intermediaries helped secured his release and he was taken to Beirut – and confronted with his elated parents and a sea of cameras.

A day later, Goodwin was back in his childhood bedroom in St. Louis. High school friends, who had seen him on the news, stopped by. The sight of trees delighted him after two months of seeing little but concrete. The presence of his four siblings and parents comforted him.

Captivity deepened his perseverance and gratitude, Goodwin said, and gave him a new life focus: He is now a doctoral student studying the Syrian conflict at Johns Hopkins University and is affiliated with the nonprofit Hostage Aid Worldwide. He doesn’t lead with his arrest in Syria on a first date. But it pours out when meeting other hostages.

“I feel totally comfortable asking them any questions, because I’m coming at it from a place of having a similar experience: ‘Hey, I get it, I’m just curious: What was your food like?'” Goodwin said. “I get that question a lot, but I ask it coming from a different place.”

“What unites us is that we have a place to take our stories,” Buchanan said. “And we’re not freaks to each other.”

Reentry was different for Buchanan, who was rescued by Navy SEALs. In poor health after months sleeping in the desert without her prescription medication, she initially spent time at a military hospital in Italy, participating in a Defense Department reintroduction program that she said “incrementalized” the process. She saw her husband for an hour on her first day of freedom, and just a bit longer the second, in a protocol to avoid overwhelming her.

Soon that support ended, and Buchanan was in Portland, Ore., where her immediate family had rented a house to escape the media masses. Furniture felt great – she remembers turning down a walk just to savor sitting in a chair. She was also seized with urges to run along a river, though she’d never been a runner, captivated by the Pacific Northwest beauty.

Then Buchanan unexpectedly became pregnant, a difficult experience that made her again feel hostage – this time, to her body and pregnancy-related sickness. Anxiety took over her life. She and her husband returned to their work in Nairobi, but she did not feel she could continue.

A decade later, Buchanan is a public speaker, podcaster, publisher and a volunteer with the organization Hostage US. She still thinks daily about her captivity, which she said forced her to rebuild her identity.

“To a lot of us who this happens to, we would all say the same thing: You’re in these places because you’re doing something or working in something you really love,” she said. “And now you don’t have that, so who are you?”

Toledo, 61, is at the beginning of that process. He spent nearly five years in captivity in Venezuela as one of the “Citgo six” – a group of oil and gas executives wrongfully imprisoned by the Nicolás Maduro regime in 2017.

When five of them were released in October as part of a prisoner exchange, they flew to a military base in San Antonio where they reunited with their families out of the public eye. Like Buchanan, Toledo spent 10 days in a military program designed to help detainees adapt, something he said was invaluable.

Toledo, an avid runner before his detention, used to visualize runs during his years in prison. At the base, he rose early and logged just one kilometer before his legs felt weak. But being outdoors, breathing fresh air and seeing the sunrise was almost indescribable. “It was a transition from dreaming into reality,” he said. “Sometimes you ask yourself: ‘Is this for real or is it another dream?'”

When he returned home to a Houston suburb, daily tasks were a source of stress. Driving for the first time “felt like jumping with a parachute,” he said. Making paella, once a relaxing ritual he carried out by memory, felt like a challenge that stirred feelings of insecurity. He finds himself using humor to avoid depressing others, joking to friends that prison had changed him by teaching him new skills: cleaning toilets, washing clothes, doing dishes.

Although he has been free only two months, Toledo said he has decided to begin advocating for other hostages. He has spoken with families of Americans being held in Iran and China and met with other former hostages and detainees, including Goodwin. He hopes Griner, too, will go through a reentry program.

“Investing these few days of your life is going to make this transition better,” he said.

Joshua Fattal, one of three Americans detained by Iranian border guards while hiking near the Iran-Iraq border in 2009, describes his return after more than two years in Iran’s notorious Evin prison in categories.

Fattal said he had to get used to not being imprisoned – he recalls locking himself out of his apartment, because “I hadn’t had to deal with keys for years – everyone else had the keys.” He had to adjust to being in his home country, where for some time he expected strangers to speak a foreign language. Then there was the media spectacle and the realization that his harrowing personal experience had been swept up in large political narratives.

Fattal, 40, stayed connected with his fellow prisoners, Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd, and found some healing through writing a book with them. That allowed him to categorize his experiences as “stories” – the time he played volleyball with a guard, the day he was sentenced to eight years in prison, he said.

More recently, he said, he has been able to revisit the feelings underlying those stories, with the help of psychedelic-assisted therapy, “in a safe and meaningful way.”

Fattal, now the executive director of the Center for Rural Livelihoods in Oregon, said that although he doesn’t actively associate with other former hostages, he feels kinship with others who have been imprisoned.

Although millions of people are incarcerated in the United States, “it’s just such an unknown to middle-class, mainstream America,” said Fattal, who recently met a man who had been released from an American prison. “I don’t know his experience, but I know it’s a real thing that every day is different. … You can’t just sum it up as one thing.”

Alex Drueke and Andy Tai Huynh have offered occasional glimpses into their experience. The two Alabama veterans volunteered to fight in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion. Their unit was ambushed on their first mission in eastern Ukraine, they previously told The Washington Post. Russian forces held them for 104 days, until their release in a prisoner exchange in September.

The men grew close in captivity. But they have approached their return in different ways, said Dianna Shaw, Drueke’s aunt, who serves as a spokesperson for both.

Huynh has sprinted toward normalcy. The 27-year-old is deep in wedding planning and got a job at the Walmart where his fiancee works, Shaw said, as the couple fixes up the home they will share. He is thinking about finishing his college degree.

Drueke, 40, who used to live in a trailer on family land with his dog, Diesel, now has found more comfort staying at his mother’s house, Shaw said, as he wrestles with irregular sleep and an overactive mind. Never one for fruit, he now eats it often, Shaw said, craving the vitamins he did not get on a diet of moldy bread and occasional meat stew.

Drueke, searching for ways to pivot his experience into something tangible and positive, has met with U.S. military officials. He wants to help them better understand of how prisoners of war are treated, which could inform training. But both men, who suffered abuse and malnourishment at the hands of their captors, struggle with fatigue and irritability, Shaw said.

The lessons of a long and twisting road back home may be instructive for Griner, Shaw said, as another family learns to cope with a new normal.

“You have limitations, and you got to give yourself grace,” she said.

Goodwin said he has little doubt that Griner’s reentry – with all the resources at her disposal – will probably be wholly distinct from his. But he has realized through connections with other former prisoners that many elements are likely to be the same.

“There’s this high when you come home, but how do you deal with it for the rest of your life?” Goodwin said. For him, he said, “the network really helps.”