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

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Writing with Benefits

Can writing, in its many forms, make us happier? Research tells us that it can be a useful coping mechanism for managing stress. So how does that work?

Most of us like to read and appreciate being able to do so, whether that be for the learning we gain or the gathering of interesting facts; being enthralled by a heart-stopping storyline or simply noting the Emergency Evacuation Notice that might just save our life. But have you ever considered being the writer? You may be thinking what would be the point of that? Or perhaps you already write.

There is the obvious allure of making mega bucks as an author; realistically that only works for a few premier league novelists and I’m very happy for them. But I don’t want to dwell here on money, even though it is undeniably important and clearly can contribute to happiness.

Journaling

Regulars to my blog will know that a few years ago, when I was really struggling emotionally, I began to express myself by writing down my feelings and thoughts, something I’d not done before.

Having recently arrived in Houston on a posting from England, the austere black covered notebook slung carelessly on my bedside table would become a place of refuge, an escape from my isolation. The notebook had begun life as a safe place to store my seemingly endless ‘to do’ lists, but was soon transformed into a journal. In the privacy of my bedroom, alone with my silent friend, I could say absolutely anything; shameful ramblings allowed me to unleash my authentic feelings. Instead of being in transition, I realised, I had become completely stuck – set adrift, marooned in my own head. I discovered that the process of scribbling down the unspeakable was like releasing steam from a pressure cooker!

Months later when daring to look back at my daily entries, I was surprised at the depth of feeling contained in those pages. I didn’t remember feeling them so intensely or writing them in that way and yet there they were, staring right back at me.

I summed up my sense of incredulity:

‘How is it that a formerly together, fulfilled human being can find herself torn down by the simple act of moving from one western country to another?’

Thoughts of that ilk, captured in my journal, galvanized me to write about the process I was going through and my learning from it. So the journal itself remained personal (worth noting as the privacy of knowing you won’t have to share, allows you to write freely) and later it would provide me with the material I needed to write my story as a memoir and thus share it.

What of other types of writing? Essays, articles, blogs, short stories, novels, even tweets; do they help us to move forward therapeutically?

Books and Essays

In March Pico Iyer, a journalist, writer and novelist, was the keynote at the Families in Global Transition Conference (FIGT) in Washington. He also held a Writer’s Forum session (skillfully hosted by Apple Gidley) where he spoke of the “interesting conundrum of writing” and how through imagination and creativity an “alternative self appears in the world”.

Although most of Pico Iyer’s ten books are about travel and “new global people”, it was his words about the joy of “inhabiting the alternative universe” that particularly resonated for me, he was referring to writing fiction – he’s published two novels as well. Most writers experience a sense of escape and being in another world when they are engrossed in the task of writing, I find it still wonderfully restorative and what I want to share with you is that anyone can have a goboy arms up superman

A top tip for writer’s block from Pico Iyer was to write from “the deep place”.  And to help you capture a sense of a place you have visited, he recommends emailing a friend (imaginary or otherwise) describing it from your memory. To help bring your writing to life, Iyer advises scribbling down notes at the time; snippets of dialogue, ideas and the like to refer to later.

Blogging

Unlike journaling, blogging is of course a typically public activity and yet it can still be therapeutic. Particularly if you find the act of sharing and connecting with others has that affect on you.

People blog for many different reasons; something that was also discussed at the FIGT Conference where Linda Janssen (adventuresinexpatland.com), Maria Foley (iwasanexpatwife.com), Norman Viss (theexpatcoachdirectory.com) and Rachel Yates (DefiningMoves.com) – all successful expat bloggers – spoke of sharing and connecting with others through their blogging. Some bloggers do it for personal expression, others for business reasons. My word of caution would be to be mindful of sharing personal content which could impact adversely on people close to you…

Twitter

Twitter is an exciting way to connect instantly (and publicly) with people all over the globe. With its 140 character limitation, it can be a succinct way of expressing yourself and sharing useful information. Twitter can help you hone your writing skills as the challenge of trying to capture what you want to say in a tweet encourages discipline and creativity. Beware; tweeting can be time consuming – Twitter has a reputation for being a hungry bird and is not a great vehicle for expressing difficult emotions or managing your stress levels! I heard someone who advised “If you wouldn’t shout it out in the supermarket then don’t tweet it.”

Getting Started

Wondering how to get started with writing yourself to a happier place? All you need is a blank screen or a sheet of paper and a willingness to try. The benefits of journaling are well documented. One way to begin, is to ask yourself What is going on for me right now? Or you could ask yourself for an image, a thought, a phrase or a single word that represents how you feel. Try not to censor what comes up.

Resources:

There is of course an abundance of material on the internet to help you get started on your writer’s journey; you could search for whatever is most tailored to your needs. Here are some resources I have found helpful:

http://www.juliamccutchen.com/

Write Your Life Stories http://www.joparfitt.com/2013/03/write-your-way-to-a-happier-you/

Books:

Journaling Through: Unleashing the Power of the Authentic Self by Angela Caughlin

Writing memoir: Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

On Writing, a Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Writing Begins with the Breath, Embodying your Authentic Voice by Laraine Herring

Blogging:

On the therapeutic value of blogging: scientificamerican.com

Free Blog tips every blogger should read: weblogs.about.com

Twitter:

A step by step guide to Twitter: blogs.telegraph.co.uk

How to get started with Twitter: support.twitter.com

You can ‘follow’ me on Twitter at @laurajstephens

Your greatest resource might be your time and the giving of it to writing. Good luck and let me know how you get on.

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

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