Longing for light; longing to write

December in the Northern Hemisphere, although wonderfully familiar to me, has its drawbacks. You can imagine what I’m referring to, the weather has become cold and the cloud low. Even so, you’re unlikely to catch me admitting to it being “really cold” until the temperature drops to around 2C/28F. We Brits are nothing if not hardy; the gene pool has adapted to withstand our errant island climate.  Autumn crocuses

Just down the lane where I live, there grows a blanket of delicate Autumn crocuses. In November, each day I willed them to stay upright a little longer (not just because they are unusual and beautiful) I knew once they sagged back into the soil it would be a clear signal of Winter rushing in and daylight hours becoming shorter.

Are you affected by a lack of light where you’re living? Perhaps there are other climatic issues that require you to adapt? Looking out of my window, I feel a sense of time shifting. I see an old fashioned kind of English garden; ornamental shrubs of roses have all but closed down for Winter, I count seven pink optimistic blooms and beyond a pale hopeful light is fading against a bank of low anthracite cloud. By school pick up it will be dark…

Experiencing dusk by mid afternoon and darkness when you wake up does have an impact on mood. Many folk report suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. ‘SAD’ identifies a reaction or response of low mood and depression experienced by people who are otherwise unaffected throughout the rest of the year. According to Wikipedia the symptoms are recognised in America as effecting between 1.7% in Florida and 9.7% of people in New Hampshire. That’s a lot of folks. Lamps that simulate outside light can be purchased and do seem to help … but who wants to spend half of the year sitting in front of a lamp for goodness sake!

I don’t believe I am a sufferer of SAD, my problem is one of relativity; fortunate to have lived in other, blouse clingingly hot places, I notice the cold now I’m back and take seriously my scarf and gloves routine. Unfortunately, the lack of light is not something you can control. I remind myself that In Singapore (and Houston) it was not always pleasant – returning to a roasting hot car and grappling with a steering wheel too scalding to touch. But being close to the Equator meant regular, light/dark daily cycles of approximately twelve hours, all year round. And frankly, it’s wonderful; everyone knows what they are doing, their brains are not constantly trying to reorientate and calculate if its time to wake up yet. The children used to accept that when it went dark, it was time for bed; ‘mother’ nature was living up to her name.

Last time I repatriated back to the UK I anticipated I might notice less as time went on … and really it isn’t that cold, something I was reminded of when I read Aisha Ashraf’s recent blog (Expatlog) – Aisha lives in Canada, where it really does get cold – I have immense respect for people coping and in fact enjoying truly cold climates.

For me it helps to write about life’s little difficulties and share them here; ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’. Sometimes I’ve worried about sharing too much. Jo Parfitt’s monthly Inspirer (another heart felt blog and she’s been at it many years) entitled Is it Dangerous to Overshare? reminded me recently why I do.

Others may need to protect themselves and shy away at the thought of talking about anything personal with people they know, let alone share it on the internet with those they don’t. That is okay and its normal ‘Information is power’ after all. And in keeping negative experiences to ourselves we may hold them safe (I do that too sometimes) but what of the power of helping others by sharing?

Before the internet and the opportunity to instantly communicate with so many other human beings, many now commonplace sufferings went unshared and we missed the chance to support and help each other. What a waste, we thought we were the only one who checked the plugs five times before leaving the house or worried about our parents dying while we were living abroad …

I met Jo Parfitt because I was lonely having arrived in Houston and decided to attend the 2009 Families in Global Transition Conference ‘FIGT’. Having been encouraged by Jo from the time I met her to write from my challenging place of isolation, I was, later on able to explore the pros and cons of publishing my memoir with her. Truthfully, I would probably not have discussed with many people my episode of depression, had I not taken the risk and had the memoir published by Summertime Publishing. The point was to share the learning from my loss of identity and depression in a way that was accessible and enjoyable for readers. Ultimately, I longed to write and found it cathartic to do so.

Even after writing most of An Inconvenient Posting the decision to publish was made more complicated because it didn’t just affect me, the ‘story’ reveals a family experience. As one well meaning husband recently quipped,

“I’d die of embarrassment if my wife wrote a book like that about us.”

“Just as well I’m not married to you then!” my reply.

I know the friend was speaking ‘his truth’ and didn’t mean to cause offence, none taken, although I encouraged him to read the book before he commented further… Thankfully my own husband felt we had little to conceal. He, at least, wasn’t ashamed of my struggle or my words.

As always, I would love to hear from you if you’ve time to put aside a few minutes from the mayhem of the festive season.

Lastly, an unashamed little plug: As its December and Summertime Publishing are offering a one month only kindle promotion on five of its most popular titles (including Inconvenient) I thought I’d share the link and some reviews on my blog and Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk

Book Review by Aisha Ashraf: An Inconvenient Posting

Published by Aisha Ashraf in her popular blog Expatlog, you may prefer to click to read it there and learn more about Aisha’s ‘life without borders’ 

Dangerously evocative reading for those acquainted with the invisible assassins Culture Shock and Depression. 

Describing an encounter with depression during her family’s expatriation to Houston, USA, Laura J Stephens’ memoir will strike a chord with displaced souls everywhere.

Straight-talking, hard-hitting, while those on nodding terms with ‘the black dog’ will undoubtedly find something of interest here, the expat niche is where ‘An Inconvenient Posting’ will garner its greatest appreciation. As a professional psychotherapist Laura was better prepared than most for the changes she anticipated yet still found herself stalled by the rictus of morbidity that settled over her. In her deceptively down-to-earth style, she captures the emotional vortex of the expat experience so skillfully that I found myself reliving the dramas of my own. Corresponding memories continued to re-surface long after I’d put the book down. Details like glancing at the clock to gauge the time on another continent when thinking of absent loved ones bring visceral authenticity to the account, and the practical guide that follows offers advice and resources for anyone currently struggling with depression or preparing for expatriation.

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While it’s the dramatic, life-changing events that capture our imagination, in reality, the tightening screws that stretch our lives and test our endurance make themselves felt in more subtle ways. Laura documents the almost imperceptible slide from fully inclusive functioning to becoming an outsider in your own life that so characterizes depression. As readers, we share the dilemma of conflicting thoughts, vacillating between “something’s not right, but I probably just need time to adjust” to the insistent whisper “how far down can you go before you can’t get back out?”

In an unflinchingly honest description of psychological displacement, she lays bare her insecurities, hopes and naivetés, so that like Doubting Thomas, we can approach, poke our fingers into her wounds and see for ourselves the discomfort and distress she overcame. She creates a window of understanding for those who’ve never expatriated and the opportunity for deeper self-knowledge for those who have.

We travel with her as she leaves the familiar, ‘the lattice of small white frames of my Georgian kitchen window… the sunlit autumn garden strewn with dead leaves and worm casts’ for ‘the world they had only previously seen on TV’ familiar on the surface but deceptively alien in practical terms where she often feels ‘like an actress in the wrong role’.

‘No one had died on the journey and yet I felt bereaved’

Working through her thoughts and feelings with therapist and Life Coach Gretchen, Laura draws back the curtain on the more intangible aspects of the process of acclimatization, demonstrating how, even if you’re living as expected, ticking all the boxes – getting the driver’s license, attending the gym regularly – it’s no guarantee you’ve reached your equilibrium. She conveys the frustration of the ‘trailing spouse’, bereft of professional identity and diminished in social stature. She also discovers how past experiences can have a significant influence on subsequent postings as her new situation resurrects old ghosts.

The biggest obstacle to overcome in any expatriation is recognizing ‘we can only live in the present however much we look to the future.’ After a year of torturous adjustment and a return visit to her homeland, Laura finds her perspective has shifted and she is able to better appreciate the opportunity to have seen what was previously unseen. On her return to the US she finds herself welcoming routine and reconnecting with family life. Somewhere along the way Houston has become home.

Empty Nest?

Are you a paid up member of the “I hate change” club? If so, welcome to the majority – you are far from alone. The comments around losses I’ve encountered in the last few weeks reflect the fact that many of us dislike change.

Specifically, a number of friends are experiencing the departure of a child to college or university (and yes I know they are not strictly speaking children, but it still feels like they are). Cries of “I’m lost without them” resound in the heads of parents at this time of year. Hasty goodbyes in cramped, strange smelling spaces are combined with squished kisses somewhere between the eye socket and hair line and mum’s look away to hide moist eyes. Last minute pleas include, “Don’t forget to eat” and “When shall we speak?” Returning home the house can seem eerily different and empty of the energy and presence you took for granted. VARIOUS

Have you experienced a young family member moving out? If so you may be struggling to reconcile how your most treasured offspring will survive in that featureless, one room or noisy ‘halls of residence’. Those with a half full ‘nest’ may find the remaining siblings notice the difference too as the dynamics of the family experience a seismic shift. For better or worse, everyone feels the losses along with the pull to accept, adjust and adapt.

Most subtle are the emotional changes; for example, one friend noticed her youngest son had pacified and distracted with humour, when things got tense at home; she wasn’t aware of this until he’d left. Most of us have a role in the family system, maybe the yeller has departed; who will ‘carry the can’ and voice the family’s anger now? This could be a positive outcome of course, when a sibling and parent are alike they sometimes clash and it can be a relief when one of them has gone. That’s not easy to admit to anyone let alone yourself.

Parents usually find it challenging when their kids leave home for the first time because it is a big deal, and many changes require many adjustments. When the transition includes moving cities, or even countries, it is HUGE for the student too and in your heart you know it could be very tough for them. Speaking as a parent, I’d say that can be scary … I know expats who’ve ended up with themselves on one continent and two offspring at colleges in two others! What a lot to handle practically and emotionally.

Meanwhile, my friend Roz (a cup half full kind of gal) has just dropped her eldest son off to live in Bath, where he will begin three years of college life. She sees the positives; excited for him and his new life-style. With two other children in her care, she feels the positive impact on the domestic scene. Let’s face it when the first one goes there is the prospect of less washing, cleaning, ironing, arguments, not to mention one less tummy to fill. Roz sees a future filled with opportunities for her son and engages with the changes in her life like a pro surfer riding the breakers.

It’s not always easy to be philosophical though, most of the mothers I’ve spoken to have known for years their child will leave, and yet when they do actually go, it’s still a wrench. When an only child or the last one departs, those mums (and dads) know they had a role and now it’s gone forever.

Perhaps you too are experiencing another kind of change, but feel it came along too quickly or you could be adjusting to a sudden turn of events; one of life’s ‘curved balls’.

Regrets

Accepting it is the end of an era is key when you consider your son or daughter’s childhood is now over. This knowledge can come with a sense of regret. How do we get past those nagging thoughts? I wish I had spent more time with them, listened more, and disciplined them more and so on.  It is not for me to provide absolution, but I believe there is no such thing as the perfect parent; we are always going to get something wrong, as ours did for us. Most parents try their best with the personal resources they have available to them at the time, emotional and financial.  As Alexander Pope wrote in 1711, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.”

Time

Give yourself time to grieve the loss before putting yourself under pressure to move on. Keep in mind that releasing emotions is an important component of any healing process. It may help to focus on any positives about the new situation, even if you have to dig deep to identify them.

Positives

When young adults leave home you can take credit for having raised your child in such a way they are now ready to go out into the world without your daily intervention. You have reached the goal of every parent – well done you!

We never stop being a parent and maybe the relationship will benefit from some distance.

If you have more time at your disposal, try focusing on how you would like to use it. Perhaps you can take up a new hobby or with the new found freedom in your schedule, you could at less feel less pressurised. It may help to recall the days when your children were very young and you longed for a few hours off!

Communication with College Kids

Agree with your offspring how you wish to communicate; email, text, phone or skype etc, and get ready to respect their new found privacy and space. Many parents are alarmed at how little they hear from their son or daughter and worry that something is wrong. Although it is important to check-in that everything is okay, don’t expect daily contact, they are starting a new life and will be busy.

Take heart, your son or daughter may turn out to be one of the ‘Boomerang’ generation; nowadays sixty percent of kids move back home eventually – best not to convert their den to a guest room just yet!

Do you have any experience or ideas that you could share? Please go ahead and comment.

Other blog posts about college leavers

Wordgeyser.com – Collegebound Kids Twitter @Wordgeyser

HuffingtonPost.com – Starting College: A Guide for Parents 2013 Twitter @ HuffPostParents

PsychologyToday.com – Letting Go of College Kids Twitter @PsychToday

For information and sharing on parenting matters, check out:

ExpatChild.com Twitter @ExpatChild

Mumsnet.com Twitter @mumsnettowers ‘By parents for parents’

Book

The Global Nomad’s Guide to UniversityTransition’ by Tina L Quick