10.26.138:30 AM ET

Disaster-Zone Junkie

In her new book 'Chasing Chaos,' Jessica Alexander offers a poignant, clear-eyed look at the world of international disaster relief and her own addiction to aid work.

A decade in and out of the world’s most dangerous and heart-wrenching humanitarian crises does a number on the human psyche.

In Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid, veteran aid worker Jessica Alexander offers a behind-the-scenes window into the catastrophes that incense us on TV, the ones we cry over when we read about them in magazines, and the ones we’re woefully unaware of, which rarely make it onto our radars. She lives in countries and works with people decimated by war, natural disaster, disease, and governmental negligence. She fears becoming a disaster addict, a junkie—like the ones who never marry or settle in one spot for too long—but she dreads returning home to the old friends who no longer understand her.

The book opens in Darfur in 2005, where Alexander, then 26 years old, hits rock bottom, as one might do when managing operations for a refugee camp for 24,000 people. “I need to get the hell out of here,” she thinks after finding herself so exhausted that she threatens a group of local kids with a handful of rocks. She had taken an abrupt turn into the world of international aid two years prior, after the devastating death of her mother, a fruitless job in marketing in New York City, and an abortive engagement. It’s an Eat, Pray, Love-style beginning to her tale of wanderlust, but the similarities to Elizabeth Gilbert’s ur-memoir end there.

Alexander’s tale backtracks to her grad school internship beginnings in Rwanda and then journeys forward through an emotionally grueling trip to Darfur, a stint in post-tsunami Indonesia, a visit to Sierra Leone, and work in post-quake Haiti. Puncturing the disaster zones are stopovers back home in New York, where she slowly grows aware of the massive chasm between her old and new life and her growing inability to merge the two. “As we worked hard to rebuild other people’s lives, our own were falling apart,” she recalls.

Alexander manages to capture her inward struggle to pin down her motivations for working in a profession that is outwardly viewed as altruistic and romantic, but, to those in the trenches, is more complex. “I didn’t necessarily feel connected to the plight of the Darfurians either,” she writes of her time there. “This was what I needed to be doing for my career; it just happened that Darfur was the place I would be doing it.”

It’s the moments of shared vulnerability that separate Chasing Chaos from other development-industry tropes, and prevents it from getting too bogged down in the shoptalk and wonk of humanitarian relief efforts. The scenes of Alexander kicking back with flatmates in a shared compound, her texting flirtations, a tearful rant to her father at the impossible sadness of it all, reveal a very real person, struggling to find her place and a meaning in what she has witnessed. “Can your friends please stop e-mailing me telling me what amazing work I’m doing?” she vents.

We get to know the ad hoc community that assembles following disaster: foreign aid workers, local employees, and journalists, all of whom live, work, and socialize together. As Alexander gathers her bearings in Africa, she picks up some survival lessons: don’t wear flip flops in the camps “because you won’t be able to run as fast if something happens.” Park the car nose out just in case you need to make a quick escape.

“Life was spent in a cloud of looming danger, the prospect that something could kick off at any moment.” And with this hanging overhead, she learns, most importantly, the things she can do to retain her sanity, from betting cigarette packs in “UN Bullshit Bingo” games at meetings, to devouring the latest celebrity gossip rags as they came in with new arrivals.

The book is sprinkled with little scenes that may seem contrary to the serious nature of humanitarian missions, but to workers, are moments to release some necessary steam. In the daylight, those who run ground operations for the world’s largest relief organizations negotiate with customs and tend to thousands of life-impacting crises—but when night comes, they turn into teenagers. “What happened in Sudan or Chad or Cambodia certainly did not stay in Sudan or Chad or Cambodia,” Alexander writes. They’d party together at compounds of the biggest agencies and charities, invited by emails surreally titled: “War Child Party—Thursday night—festival attire required!” or “Center for Victims of Torture—fancy dress night Friday.” But sometimes, the reality of their location knocked on the door. One night, at a party at an NGO, a rape victim is brought to the door of the office, pushed by her friend in a cart. The NGO employee rushed everyone else out, eager to be the woman’s sole helper. “In the same way that businesses competed for customers, agencies competed with each other for beneficiaries,” she writes.

In an industry where years of slow-moving progress can be reversed in a second, the little victories rouse workers out of the daily struggle to stay afloat. Alexander recalls a Sudanese baby suffering from a horrifying brain swelling, and how she arranged an airlift to a larger city for medical treatment in a series of events and good luck that were nothing short of miraculous.

The book follows Alexander’s spiral into a psychological black hole, as she tackles the love, even addiction, for her work, with the realization it’s destroying her. When the distance becomes too much to bear and she finds herself unable to pull away, her story becomes relatable to anyone who has returned home from a transformative experience, or who sacrificed more for a job than they got out of it—even if that job isn’t managing trash collection in a refugee camp or fighting to prevent a cholera epidemic.

Chasing Chaos is a reminder that happiness is an act of delicate and ever-evolving inner compromise. The book makes you simultaneously want to pack your bags and never leave home.