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.

Identity Crisis, Depression and Finding a Way Back

A few days ago I launched my memoir ‘An Inconvenient Posting: An expat wife’s memoir of lost identity’ at the world. Over 80 people helped me celebrate and unsurprisingly, I was flushed with excitement to finally have the book in my hand!

After first reading the introductory Chapter to my guests (Cowboy in the Bedroom reflects a period of contentment after I had settled into Houston life) I turned to a second excerpt; a part of the story which describes my three children starting school in Houston. It is autumn and for my youngest, the beginning of her school life. I had planned for this eventuality, having recently trained and qualified in the UK as a psychotherapist. Unfortunately, having done this outside the State of Texas, I would later be informed I was unable to practice there.

For me that time was both a beginning and an ending; the end of an era because I no longer had a child at home during the day (something I had viewed until that moment as fairly positive) and the beginning of a slide into an episode of depression. To quote from my memoir, “I was incredulous at the evaporation of my careful plans… to ensure I would be gainfully employed at this moment.”
Against the backdrop of isolation, which arrival in a foreign posting can bring, I felt the children’s absence keenly. Although this loss was only one piece in a jigsaw of circumstances, that when pieced together, formed a picture I would call expat depression. My memoir reveals how I spiralled into identity crisis and what helped me find my way back to a happy state of mind – a place from which I could enjoy the posting.

If I needed proof that people are touched by the sharing of such emotional challenges, I felt it at the launch party. As I glanced up from my book, the assembled crowd were listening intently but the look on their faces reflected back to me the depth of feeling they were experiencing. Perhaps some of them were re-living the pang they felt as they waved a child off to school or much later when they left home. We usually want our children to go but that does not stop us feeling the pain of separation when they do…

Leaving the Lake House, Summer 48. Painting by artist Kay Crain

Depression touches our lives in unexpected ways; we hope never to experience it and yet many do and most of us know someone else who has. It seems it is part of the human experience to occasionally find ourselves unable to cope emotionally. But to be in that place is often isolating and lonely and there are no geographical or social barriers to being depressed.

Each year, World Mental Health Day is celebrated on 10th October to ‘raise public awareness about mental health issues’. The day promotes open discussion of mental disorders, and investments in prevention, promotion and treatment services. This year the theme for the day is “Depression: A Global Crisis”’.

My motivation for writing An Inconvenient Posting was to focus on depression and identity crisis and share my hard won learning. It is in two distinct parts; some people will prefer to read a story that entertains and informs, while others prefer a ‘how to’ approach. The memoir is a lively, sad and often humorous account of a depressive episode and the second part, a practical guide to recognizing, managing and seeking professional help for anyone currently struggling with depression.

PS Don’t miss a series of blogs at www.Wordgeyser.com on coping with children leaving for college and the reality of the ’empty nest’:

And Tina L Quick’s book:The Global Nomad’s Guide to University (2010) Summertime Publishing, see more at Expatbookshop.com

See more of artist Kay Crain at her website and blog: kaycrain.com

Are you in transition? I hope my 15 survival tips will help…..

Presented at the 2010 Families in Global Transition Conference

www.figt.org

TIPS TO BOOST EMOTIONAL RESILIENCE

I have outlined some pro-active strategies for coping with losses.  Pick the ones that are most relevant to you.

Emotional Outlets:

  1. Try to make a conscious effort to think about how you feel.  Allow yourself 10 minutes to feel it before moving on with your day.  It may help to make time to remember people or places.  Ask yourself “What am I feeling right now?”  You could write about your feelings to help shift them or tell someone how you feel.
  2. Try writing a few lines before you go to sleep each night – keeping a journal of whatever comes into your head.  You might want to thinkabout a) how you felt as your reflect on the day and b) why you think you feel that way?
  3. Meditation– if you’ve no experience you could try one free on line; try Googling “chill meditation podcasts.”
  4. Creative pursuits are a time honoured way of relaxing and communicating.  Is there something you’ve always fancied trying? Why not try painting, photography or writing about your unusual life?
  5. Our sense of smell is most powerful where memories are concerned – bergamot always reminds me of family holidays in France.  Find out which scents energize you or make you feel good and keep them close by.
  6. Listen to music that touches your soul.  Ask yourself what mood you are in and choose something to match it.
  7. Studies have shown that prayer can help people heal, if you believe in a higher power then pray!

What can we do to help maintain a healthy attitude to attachments?

Practical Guidance:

1         Say your goodbyes before you leave to allow for closure, in doing so you will be providing your children with a great role model.  You can follow up by writing a note or call someone you wish you had said goodbye to but didn’t.

2         Take photographs of places which have been special or you have simply visited regularly.  Children will benefit from being able to see the images of the place where they once lived and the people who inhabited it.

Create a memory box or scrapbook and fill it with photographs, souvenirs and mementos.

3         If possible, make regular visits (at least annually for young children) to stay in touch with family/ long term friends, as well as the places and culture that you wish to be connected with.

4         Talk about important people, such as grandparents, to keep their presence alive.  Encourage correspondence – this doesn’t have to be a letter, try sending artwork, press cuttings, school magazines etc.

5         If possible stay connected by maintaining electronic/IT provision for yourself and your children with:

Telephone calls.

Email

MS Messenger and Skype allow use of a webcam so that the two parties can see each other while chatting (both are free).

Facebook  is a way of supporting networking, particularly amongst teens. You could help your child set it up to ensure appropriate use of security functions.

6         Teenagers

Teenagers are at an exciting stage of their life.  The changes are profound – being physical, emotional, intellectual and even spiritual.  It can be exhilarating and also overwhelming as they sit between their childhood and adulthood.

Accepting a major life change which has been imposed upon them can be tough and cause mood swings and a feeling of being out of control of their life.  They might be angry and feel lost or deserted, depressed even.  These are natural feelings that need expression.

If the move was unexpected or sudden, they may experience shock and disbelief as part of their adjustment process.

As for all ages of children, parents need to encourage an open dialogue with them and other trusted adults, possibly teachers or counselors.  Help arrange introductions to friends of a similar age group.  Expression through creative pursuits may be another outlet eg music, literature, writing, poetry and art.

7 Children Aged 6 – 12

Children will need to be ‘held’ emotionally as their world changes beyond recognition.  Chat to them about what might happen as the move is impending.

Once you know something for certain communicate it to them, for example, some facts about the kind of destination you are going to.  Be honest about unknowns and ambiguities; if possible offer some idea of when you will be able to tell them more information.  The objective is to encourage trust and a feeling that they are stakeholders in the move.

Some uncertainties can be discussed in an exciting way, for example, the opportunity to visit interesting places and making new friends.

When a child is sad or grieving allow them to express this fully without pressure to feel cheerful.  Acknowledge that there will be endings and losses for all of you.

8 Young Children Under 6

It is often said that young children and infants are easy to move around as they don’t really know what’s happening.   Perhaps because an infant’s communication skills are not developed and their ability to understand and express what is going on is limited.  But we now know through scientific research on the function of the brain, that bonds/attachments are formed after a baby is a few weeks old.  Infants may be aware of changes to their environment and feel unsettled and likewise young children may be experiencing losses but are unable to communicate their feelings to you.

In young children, making time for physical interactive play helps to stimulate the emotion-regulating areas in the brain.

When your child is distressed, prompt cuddling and soothing will calm them by releasing anti anxiety hormones (Gamma-aminobutyric acid).  This approach has been shown to help avoid oversensitivity to stress later in life, such as separation anxiety and panic attacks.

Maintaining habits and elements of predictability in their life will make the child feel safe and secure.