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.

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.

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.