Getting rescued from Somali pirates by Navy SEALs is one thing, but at the end of the day Jessica Buchanan had to save herself.
An Ohio native, Buchanan was an aid worker in northern Somalia when she and fellow aid worker Poul Hagen Thisted were kidnapped in October 2011. With an untreated thyroid condition worsening, she was kept on a starvation diet and slept in the open desert for 93 days. She was rescued by a team of 24 U.S. Navy SEALs, and President Obama phoned Buchanan’s father to inform him on the news of her release.
In the 11 years since her rescue, Buchanan became a mother of two, a New York Times best-selling author, motivational speaker and podcaster. Now with the anniversary of her rescue approaching on Jan. 25, she’s celebrating with the release of her second book, “Deserts to Mountaintops: Our Collective Journey To (re)Claiming Our Voices.”
The book tells aspects of Buchanan’s story, as well as those of 21 other women.
“I think I’ve learned how to rescue myself,” Buchanan told ALXnow on a Zoom interview. “It’s like the hero’s journey, right? Like you go through the whole thing and you learn your lessons and then the last stage of the journey is to complete that cycle and share them. Yes, I was rescued, then I had to figure out how to rescue myself. Now I’m helping other women figure out how to rescue themselves.”
Buchanan hosts We Should Talk About That, a podcast for women that broadcasts from ALX Community in Old Town. She and her husband and two children live in the Alexandria area of Fairfax County.
The book will be available online and in bookstores on Jan. 25.
ALXnow: When were you last in Africa?
Buchanan: At the time of the kidnapping, my home was in Nairobi (Kenya) and afterward my husband and I went back there for a year. My son was born there in 2012, and I got pregnant with him about three weeks after the rescue. We moved to Alexandria in 2013 with the intention to move back, but life had other plans for us. We also have an eight-year-old daughter.
ALXnow: How have you talked to your kids about this?
Buchanan: We always thought that when they were ready to hear about it that they would come to us with questions. It’s probably been in the last year that we’ve talked about it more. I do a lot of fundraising for the Navy SEAL Foundation. In February of last year, I brought my family with me to one of their fundraisers and it was the first time they’d heard me speak. It was really difficult for them. They knew about it, of course, they’ve seen the book laying around.
ALXnow: But this was the first time they witnessed you holding court and openly talking about your story.
Buchanan: It was. My son was fixated on the men with guns, and my daughter, who is very empathetic and sensitive, felt a lot of sorrow. She understood that this was something that was super hard.
But it was a teachable moment, too, because I could say to them that this was the hardest thing I’ll ever go through.
“Look at me now,” I tell them. “I’m okay, and I’m strong and you’re a part of me, and that means that you’re strong, too. So, whatever you’re gonna face in your life, because you’re gonna face hard things, you go back and know that you’re made out of tough stuff.” That’s kind of the message that I try to portray to my kids.
ALXnow: Can you tell me about that folded flag behind your desk in the case?
Buchanan: This is the flag that SEAL Team Six presented to me on the plane on the way out of the desert.
ALXnow: It must have been dramatic holding that.
Buchanan: I couldn’t talk. Like, I couldn’t form any words for hours (after the rescue). Nothing would come out of my mouth. I would open it and nothing would come out. I was just in so much shock… I was sitting on a bench on the plane, and I’m wearing rags. The whole thing, it’s just so bizarre, and then the SEAL handed me something and just put it on my lap and I looked down and it was this flag and he said, “Welcome home, Jessica,” and I started to sob uncontrollably. Then I could start talking. Then the words came.
ALXnow: How have you been able to overcome this trauma? Therapy, antidepressants, saunas?
Buchanan: All of the above, and you don’t get over it. You just learn to carry it. It’s with me every single day. It’ll never not be with me. I will always think about it. It will probably be one of the last things I think about before I die. It changed my life trajectory. It changed me on a cellular level. I think that’s what parlays into the work that I do now. It’s like I had to make it mean something in order to bear it.
ALXnow: To be rescued by Navy SEALs is one thing, but ever since then you’ve been on the mission to rescue yourself from the depths of trauma and depression.
Buchanan: I think that that’s a really interesting way of putting it. I think I’ve learned how to rescue myself. It’s like the hero’s journey, right? Like you go through the whole thing and you learn your lessons and then the last stage of the journey is to complete that cycle and share them. Yes, I was rescued, then I had to figure out how to rescue myself. Now I’m helping other women figure out how to rescue themselves.
ALXnow: Now you’re publishing a second book, “Deserts to Mountaintops,” an anthology of stories from 21 other women who faced challenges in what you describe as reclaiming their voices. What does “reclaiming their voices” mean?
Buchanan: It means that you know your boundaries and that you stick to them, that you don’t feel pressured or guilted into doing things that you don’t want to do. It means that you not afraid to be yourself. It’s about showing up in the world unapologetically and not trying to make yourself small, not trying to fit into somebody else’s idea of who you should be, not being embarrassed by the things that you want, the things that you like, the things that you say. It’s about self-love and acceptance.
I’m the lead author on this book, and in my story everybody always thinks that it started for me on the afternoon of the kidnapping when our car was taken over. But it really starts several hours before then. I knew something was off, that something bad was gonna happen. My intuition was screaming at me so much so that I had nightmares all night long that I — I kid you not — that I was going to be kidnapped by pirates. I chose not to listen because I would let too many people down. I was afraid I would look stupid. I was afraid I would lose my job. I had been bullied into the situation in the first place.
ALXnow: You thought you would be fine.
Buchanan: Right. I was a girl from America in her early 30s. I’m a school teacher from Ohio. And I think that that’s the hardest thing to carry, that I have to really work and manage, that bad things happen. Life is really hard. None of us are exempt and none of us are immune. But what I know now is that is that things are survivable.
ALXnow: You’ve become a hiker.
Buchanan: So, the inspiration for “From Deserts To Mountaintops” is metaphorical and it’s also literal for me. I spent three months living in a desert, and part of my therapy and healing has involved hiking. My dad lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains and he’s an avid hiker. We lost my mom really suddenly the year before the kidnapping happened, and he really got through his grief through hiking.
So, I have spent the last 10 years putting one foot in front of the other. A lot of times I don’t listen to music, either. I hike a lot of times with my kids and my family, and then when I do get to be alone, it’s sacred, beautiful healing work. It took me a long time to learn how to trust and love the outdoors again, because I was so traumatized by living outside for so long.
ALXnow: Jan. 25 is around the corner. Is that a big day for you?
Buchanan: It’s my rescue day. It’s a huge day for me. I’m never really sure how I’m going to react to it. This year is going to feel like absolute celebration and reclamation. Next up is volume two of “Deserts To Mountaintops: Our Journey To (re)Claiming Our Bodies.” I am looking for women who want to write about their journey to reclaiming their bodies, whether it’s their health or self-image, and I would love to have a story of someone who has transitioned for their outsides to match their insides.
ALXnow: What’s the unifying thread in the stories in your new book? Your writers have all faced adversity. Is it about the moment they decided to change?
Buchanan: It’s the moment when they decided to love themselves. They decided to rescue themselves, and no one can really do that for you. You have to do it for yourself.
ALXnow: Are there any aphorisms that you live by?
Buchanan: Things don’t happen to us, they happen for us.
ALXnow: Did this event happen to you so that you could help people?
Buchanan: I think it happened so I could learn to love myself and then help teach other women how to do that.
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Time flies when you’re having fun! The T.C. Williams High School Class of 1973 will hold its 50th reunion July 21-23, 2023 in Alexandria. All graduates and their adult nears and dears are welcome. Events include a Friday evening icebreaker, Saturday dinner dance, and a Sunday brunch. For more information: tcwilliams73.com, 770.789.3534.