Book Review by Debra Bryson: An Inconvenient Posting

Book Review – An Inconvenient Posting (Laura J Stephens)

by

 Debra R. Bryson, MSW, LCSW, CPC, co-author of A Portable Identity: A Woman’s Guide to Maintaining a Sense of Self While Moving Overseas, revised edition, 2005

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 August 8, 2013

Moving overseas has a profound effect on a woman’s identity when she moves overseas to support her husband’s career; change ripples through every aspect of her being. A wide range of feelings are normal to experience to some degree during transition, including feelings of depression.

In  An Inconvenient Posting, Laura J. Stephens courageously shines the light on her illusion that “everything was okay” when she was spiraling downward into a clinical depression; powerfully exposing an often dark, isolating, and lonely side of an international relocation for the accompanying spouse.

The author shares with the reader the early warning signs that gnawed at her; feelings of detachment, loneliness, isolation, despair, anger, loss, and resentment; and how she dutifully pushed these feelings aside to focus on the more positive aspects of the move to support her husband’s career and to give her family the often much sought after opportunity to experience another culture.

Stephen’s story chronicles the desolation she felt and how she reached a pivotal turning point, unable to contain her pain any longer; she reached out to get the help she needed. With the guidance of a trusted therapist, Stephen’s learns how the onset of her depressive episode was triggered by her experience relocating internationally as her identity was flung into a state of transition; beginning from the time she and her husband first learned of the possibility of moving from her hometown in England to the wilds of Houston, Texas in the United States.

Essential to Stephen’s recovery was her willingness to look inward and acknowledge she was in trouble; her commitment to finding the supports she needed, and her tenacity to move forward and resolve her depression. Emerging stronger within herself in a foreign land, Stephen’s story, along with an array of resources, gives hope to anyone struggling with clinical depression during an international relocation.

Overcoming Isolation

Isolation is the companion of loneliness. It can be a reality if you live in the middle of nowhere or it can simply be a state of mind. If you chose to be cut off from the rest of civilization, then you probably like it that way, in which case this blog and my ‘Five Tips for Overcoming Isolation’ are not aimed at you!loneliness

During my twenties I lived on my own; I was happy – I had my own place and felt very grown up – I embraced my independence like a longed for best friend. And yet I remember arriving at work and asking my co-worker, Jacquie, if she’d spoken to anyone since I’d said “goodnight” at the end of the previous working day. people on waterloo bridgeWe laughed about the fact that we travelled home on packed commuter trains, walked the half mile from the station to our homes, prepared and ate our dinner for one, watched some television, slept alone and repeated the same routine going back into work the following morning. And yet we had not spoken to another living soul even though we were surrounded by people on the streets of London; nipping through Waterloo Station and riding the escalator up to our platform, no words were exchanged with our fellow commuters.

Why? I guess it’s because city life is made more bearable by the anonymity of crowds. People hate being packed into a confined space where they can feel each other’s pointy elbows pressing into their sides and even smell their breath! We all get it – we really don’t want to speak to each other.

According to the New York Times ‘MORE people live alone now than at any other time in history. In prosperous American cities — Atlanta, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco and Minneapolis — 40 percent or more of all households contain a single occupant. In Manhattan and in Washington, nearly one in two households are occupied by a single person.’ Interestingly, their report even suggests that living alone can make people more sociable.

Sometimes I felt isolated and a tad lonely despite having a buoyant social life. Balancing this was the knowledge of a trade-off; I could have a lodger and the potential companionship that might afford, but I preferred my privacy and less hassle. You know the kind of thing; waiting to get in the bathroom before work, your Gran’s familiar old frying pan burned and ruined, doors banging at unsociable hours. I did try it for a while (and I was fortunate to have a choice).

So, Isolation can be caused by a lack of communication and companionship or, as I’ve alluded to, you can feel isolated by your own thoughts, hemmed in by secrets that can’t be shared… There are many such examples; family members who harbour an alcoholic – each feels forced to play their part in concealing the truth, the married partner who yearns for an old lover, the secret gambler who’s blown the family’s savings, the child starting a new school who has no friends but doesn’t want to worry their mum and dad, the parent with an ‘empty nest’ or the elderly person who has lost their mobility and contact with the outside world. These people and others (the potential list is endless) might feel they cannot confide their loneliness.  man praying

For me, there was nothing in my experience quite so isolating as arriving in an unfamiliar country and trying to orientate myself, whilst experiencing the losses of ‘home’ and all the while thinking I should be grateful for my new existence. Fortunately not everyone feels like that, but it’s easy to see how they could.

My earlier foreign posting and the subsequent repatriation had gone fine. The problem with the second posting was that I did not feel that sense of a personal ‘ trade-off’.

An accompanying expatriate spouse, who had stalled their career by moving countries, I found life a struggle without that focus and as for many expat spouses, my partner had his head down in a new job which required significant periods of time away from home.DSC_2919

With young children at school, most of the day (and evening) hours were suddenly very quiet. In time I picked up the threads and made a new life, I adjusted, but the transition was very challenging.

I have learnt that self care and a preparedness to take action are key to coping with such challenges. Here are FIVE TIPS FOR OVERCOMING ISOLATION:

  • Firstly, have some compassion for yourself. Imagine observing yourself as someone you care deeply for; what do you notice and what advice would you give that person?
  • Keep in touch with established contacts (if you have them) but be prepared to go out in the world and form new bonds. Remember it takes time to build new relationships; they require care and attention – think of a house plant that needs regular, small amounts of water in order to thrive.
  • Acknowledge the losses and get the feelings out there – do something creative – a new hobby perhaps? It will provide an outlet for your emotions. It may also provide an opportunity to make new friends if you join a club or a group activity.
  • People often find it helps to keep a journal of their feelings; the therapeutic benefits of this are well documented. More on journalling below.
  • If at all possible speak to someone you trust about how you feel (professional therapist or otherwise). Please don’t suffer in silence…

JOURNALLING

A journal can take many forms, you could begin with a diary describing the day’s events or you might like to include how you felt when you got up and how you feel at the end of the day. You could find yourself writing pages of thoughts and feelings. Your journal will quickly become a place for you to clear your mind, a dumping ground and perhaps a highly creative, exploratory place. Whatever model works for you, there are many benefits to writing from your authentic self. Your mind will have a focus that could, in turn, benefit your health.

Throughout the day we have thousands upon thousands of thoughts, most of which come and go in a second. Many of these thoughts will link us to memories, often the same ones being replayed over and over, again and again. The result is we reinterpret how we feel based on repetitious ways of processing. By writing these feelings down we can observe our own thought patterns as they emerge, clearing a path for new ones. Essentially, by grounding our thoughts on paper and thereby observing them, we create ourselves space for alternative ways of thinking.

It takes time to process and integrate change and loss. If we know what is wrong we can take the necessary action to make adjustments to our life. And if we let go of the past we can more easily give our attention to the present.

If you would like to learn more about the process of journalling and how it helped me survive a depressive episode, follow my adventures in An Inconvenient Posting, an expat wife’s memoir of lost identity.

Finally, I’m looking forward to talking about recognising depression at the forthcoming Families in Global Transition Conference (FIGT) later in the month. If you would like to register for the confererence, the deadline is Wednesday 13th March. Among the presenters will be Linda A Janssen, author of an exciting new book The Emotionally Resilient Expat: Engage, Adapt and Thrive Across Cultures (to be published soon). You can find Linda at www.adventuresinexpatland.com

Please go ahead and comment on the topic of this post.

Eating our Emotions

Diet strategies are always news and it seems we are hooked on learning more, and yet for thousands of years the problem for humans was not so much about over eating, it was more likely to be not having enough to eat, and the real challenge was staying alive.
Long term scarcity in supply of food is thought to be the reason we now store energy from food at a significantly quicker rate than we can lose it.

It seems the majority of us have evolved in a way that shifts the odds in favour of survival, but not everyone’s metabolism works in this way – you probably know at least one person who can eat more or less what they want and still look like a ‘runner bean’ or maybe you are one of those fortunate people? If not, you can comfort yourselves with the notion that should food ever be in short supply, those with an inclination to store fat, will survive longer than the skinnies amongst us!cookies
The reality of being spoilt for choice and bombarded with high fat/sugary foods, often with little or no nutritional value, means this biological gift of efficient storing is now working against us (at least in the western world); a point that was highlighted to me when I attended a three day course for therapists entitled ‘Emotional Eating’ run by Professor Julia Buckroyd.

Fortunately, Julia Buckroyd has also written a very helpful book about our relationship with food and specifically disordered eating. Her book Understanding Your Eating discusses the reasons behind those patterns which cause us distress (usually when they are experienced as beyond our control) whilst also shining some much needed light on why diets don’t usually work as a long-term solution to being overweight.

Many of us will recognise the process of being able to galvanize oneself for a short period of time to lose weight, only to put it all back on afterwards; it is extraordinarily wearing and  leaves some feeling desolate.

Weekly weigh-ins and support groups offer encouragement and support, but what happens after the target weight has been achieved and you no longer attend? Many people struggle to maintain their desired weight because their emotions are entangled with their eating habits, and unfortunately that issue is no more resolved at the end of the diet than it was at the outset.

“Are you eating your emotions?” is a question posed by Julia Buckroyd. If we reflect honestly on the feelings that have accompanied significant fluctuations in our weight, we may realise we have a habit of ‘eating our worries away’. When we find ourselves experiencing high levels of stress, over eating or not eating enough, can be a way of channelling our unmanageable feelings.

Having control over our food intake, when another significant aspect of our life is very much beyond our control may be an unconscious source of comfort – a coping mechanism of sorts, even if this means eating significantly more (or less) than our body requires.
Person eating in front of TVFor me that moment came when I had moved continents and found myself isolated, and unable to follow my profession. Suffering a loss of identity, the wakeup call came a few months into the posting after complaining to my family, “that American washing machine is shrinking all my clothes”. Hah! Everyone else looked blankly back at me; I was the only one struggling to do my jeans up and the washing machine was working just fine…

Eventually, our sea container arrived with our worldly goods and as I was reunited with my bathroom weighing scales, the unpalatable truth emerged – I had achieved a significant gain in weight without even noticing I was eating more than usual.

With hindsight, I can see I struggled to come to terms with my new situation and in the throes of culture shock and isolation I had taken to self soothing, with rather a lot of nibbles… The unspoken message rebounding in my head; I deserve it, don’t I?

It was helpful to acknowledge the relationship between my body and mind as symbiotic, remembering they cannot operate separately, particularly as my initial reaction to focus on calorie intake alone, was not helping.
In addition to  ‘eating my emotions’ another contributing factor was confusion over the food value of what I was consuming. If you have moved countries you will be familiar with the adjustment required when you first encounter the local supply of food in your new ‘home’.

A number of staples in my diet were different from those I was used to or simply not available in my local Houston supermarkets. I remember low fat/low sugar yoghurts seemed difficult to find and encountering more sugar in bread was another unexpected difference. I soon learned to live without the yoghurts and bread by supplementing with replacement items – I ditched my toast and marmalade and became a committed porridge eater for the rest of the posting! Big deal, not a great hardship… After all some of the new dishes I was trying were exciting and delicious (Tex-mex and prawn gumbo being two of them!).

More challenging, were the difficult feelings I struggled to manage. Eventually they needed acknowledging and reconciling, and with help I was able to do this. In the process of regaining my happiness and equilibrium my eating habits returned to normal and I enjoyed being more active again.

So do a few extra pounds really matter? Arguably not, unless you need to be slender for your work… a dancer perhaps. Most people would agree, that it begins to matter if the excess ballast you are carrying (or severe lack of it if you are significantly underweight) has become a threat to your health. In my case, it was simply another thing about myself that didn’t feel right at a time when everything else was unfamiliar. In short, the irony of putting on weight was that my sense of identity was further eroded by the reflection in the mirror – I did not feel ‘normal’ inside or out! So it felt important to get back to being my usual size.heart shaped food

I believe our identity is in part wrapped up in how we look and what our body and our clothes unconsciously tell the world about us. For example, we might be keeping people at a distance by being very large or unconsciously defending ourselves from intimacy? Perhaps we are undernourished and too thin, what does that say about our self worth if we are starving ourselves.?

These complex emotional issues involving misuse of food are explored by Julia Buckroyd as she aims to look at what many describe as an “ongoing battle with food”. I like the fact that her focus is ultimately on eating and not worrying about it and her findings are based on many years of research. Also included is a chapter specifically for men, who are often overlooked in terms of their specific issues around disordered eating.
Understanding Your Eating is available from Amazon.com
and if you would like to read more about my expat adventures (and what I learned), please dive into my memoir: An Inconvenient Posting, an expat wife’s memoir of lost identity.