Managing Uncertainty

In the kitchen, I am glowing in the humidity underneath a wash of pale spotlights. Outside in the dark yard, the cedillas emit their ceaseless din. Rubbing my strained eyes I wonder, with a heart pumping fast, could there be  someone out there looking in at me?

A toad releases an ungodly belch. Nothing feels normal. Moving through to the garage, I locate a familiar looking screwdriver, large and heavy in my hand. I know I need it, but can’t remember why. Turning to leave, I press the wrong switch and jump as the garage door clangs loudly and begins to rise up into the gloom. As it lifts up and out, a downpour of Hollywood proportions comes in to view.

The rain is making V shapes as it hammers on to the drive. I feel my senses ambushed and shiver perversely in the heat. I stab at the switch repeatedly and beat a hasty retreat.

My chest is tight and skin prickling inside swaddled sheets. Bound like an Egyptian mummy I try to free my heavy legs. Rain is lashing down on the bedroom roof.

Calm down, I tell myself. The positive self-talk begins to sink in as I realise TV footage from the previous evening has worked its affects on me. Images of Houston in Texas submerged again, have reconnected me to old experiences and fears. It’s a sense of being out of control, the not knowing how events will play out …Hurrican Ike storm gathering

I suspect most of us have memories of an extraordinary weather event and have felt the unstoppable powerful of nature at her worst. Hurricane Ike was special to Houston; the eye of the storm covered the width of the city. Houston took a direct hit.

It is perhaps a cliché to recount a dream sequence, but aren’t dreams fascinating? They inform us, provide a commentary from the unconscious. Watching news footage undoubtedly tapped into mine, giving me nightmares. Sensations that passed through my body five years ago, recalled in the here and now, while I slept.

Short scrappy scenes; waking in the stifling heat, striding forward, fumbling through a dark house, clammy and panicked, desperate to locate a cup of tea or some iced water. Only then to remember the power is out. There are no lights, or kettle to boil or iced water to pour from the fridge. The power outage went on for two very long weeks …

It wasn’t life threatening for us, although sadly approximately 200 people did die as a direct result. It was a slow trial; a test on the nerves. The aftermath was at best inconvenient. At first there was a sense of adventure, the ‘together in the trenches’ moments. In the photo you can see our children inspecting our neighbourhood the morning after Ike. houston 2009 139

The knowledge of the hurricane approaching and inherent uncertainty was more challenging. Growing up in England, I’d experienced storms, high winds and flooding before. I was in my early twenties and living alone when the 1986 ‘hurricane’ passed through Kent. Sevenoaks, where I now live, lost six of its seven oaks, planted in 1902. Although the oaks were replaced, it has been known as ‘One oak’ ever since …

In 1986 the Kent weather event caused significant damage and yet it wasn’t a true hurricane. Another crucial difference was it happened without warning. The BBC weatherman, Mr Fish, famously poo poo’d the idea of a hurricane coming when he read the weather forecast on the evening before. As a result the fear of what might play out was absent.

Back then; I woke at 2:00 am to a chorus of unfamiliar whistles and crashes. I was awestruck by the chaotic scene in the street below my flat. Trees bent double, trash-cans bounced down the street like discarded newspaper. Unable to make sense of the scene and alone in my little flat, I went straight back to bed and slept on. Oh to be young and carefree of life!

When you are an expat you take what the posting brings as part of the package. You expect the unexpected (some of it very positive) and you cope as best you can. The ten day build up as Hurricane Ike made it’s way across the Gulf of Mexico and subsequently the certainty of it’s impending arrival, were scary. And yet there was no time to deal with the anxiety, hurricane preparations – boarding windows, gathering essential supplies took over.

Dealing with the unknown, the unexpected and feeling out of control are some of our most stress inducing experiences. So how might we cope with uncertainty coupled with fear?

6 Tips for Managing Uncertainty

1) Thinking logically when you are feeling anxious is challenging, so a clear head will be help. I recommend you stop what you are doing and sit down, now tell yourself to relax. Easier said than done? Take a deep breath in through your nose to the count of ten and then breath out through your mouth, slowly to the count of ten. Relax your jaw and facial muscles. Do this seven times and you notice as you begin to feel calmer. Repeat this as many times as you need to.

2) Ask yourself, What is the worst that can happen? Consider what action you can take now to prepare or help ease your situation. If you are truly powerless over events (a rare occurrence) commit to staying calm, this will help maintain a sense of control.

3) Remind yourself ‘This too shall pass’.

4) Distracting ourselves can be a way of ‘avoiding’ particularly when we know we should be doing something we don’t want to! Conversely, at times of great stress, distraction or displacement activities can allow us the space to calm down. For example, studies have shown that doing something with your hands that doesn’t require much thought, such as knitting, will help. Moderate exercise is another good stress buster.

5) Remind yourself that although uncertainty is difficult to tolerate, it is not impossible to do so. Recall a time in your life when you coped with not knowing what was going to happen. With the benefit of hindsight, what have you learned from surviving that experience?

6) Mindfulness can help us to still the mind and stay focused. Do you have memories of unexpected events?

Would you would like to share your experience and possibly what you learned from them?

Watch ‘An Inconvenient Posting‘. Huge thanks to author Jack Scott  and Liam Brennan at Summertime Publishing for their work on my book trailer and new look blog. If you have a second to ‘like’ them I would very appreciate it 🙂

Bouncing Back

After my sinus operation this phrase seems apt to me. For two weeks even the kids could see their Mum was a bit pale; a reduction in eye rolling ensued as plates were transported from the table without much ado. After that it was clear the people in my world expected me to bounce back, the only problem being I was getting better in barely perceptible shifts each day, not to a two weekly deadline. If I was going to allow my body the opportunity to heal I needed to manage my output and, horror of horrors, stop doing things (oh no). Thankfully common sense prevailed and all is well, although I can’t understand how I am both stuffed up still and yet able to breathe more effectively than before the op, very strange!Samantha-French-2

Many people in England are currently experiencing a setback beyond their control, ie the weather. A good friend, living a couple of miles from me, had her house flooded last week. The water is still rising up from under her living room floor and making its way down her hallway … The reason it’s flowing up through the foundations and not through the door – the water table is extraordinarily high in some parts of Kent, a result of the wettest January since records began (rainfall has been measured in England since 1766).

Other regions of England are worse hit, the county of Somerset is featured daily on news media; the army have been drafted in to aid relief. The BBC reporting, “it started raining on 9th December and it hasn’t stopped since”. I am reminded of a television program I watched in 2012 describing the phenomena of ‘global weirding’, a natty phrase which neatly captures the weird and extreme nature of the world’s weather experienced in recent years.

When I was living in Texas, a few years ago now, the droughts and torrential floods began reaching unprecedented levels – that’s my Houston neighbour’s house in the photo. We were fortunate not to have our home flooded, however, the two weeks after Hurricane Ike Came Calling gave me my own experience of coping with a significant setback – more of which chronicled in my book An Inconvenient Posting (unashamed plug).IMG_0348

My recently flooded pal epitomizes all that is good in the English character; she is stoic and apparently unchallenged by the pond in her home. She is resigned to knowing she couldn’t have done anything about it and has a plan in terms of what to do next, and how to prevent it happening again. It will be a long process, probably involving loss adjusters and unwelcome expense, but her head is up and she is ready to pick her way through it.

People vary dramatically in their coping skills at a time of crisis. Knowing this I was inspired to think about what mindset helps us to bounce back; below are some ideas I’ve brought together for you.

Ideas to promote resilience …

TRY AND STAY POSITIVE

–          Berating yourself about how you could have prevented or helped the outcome of the setback will change nothing and make you feel worse.

–          With this in mind, limit negative thinking to a few minutes. Try not to dwell on thoughts such as, Why me? What if? And counter these with positive ones; What can I do differently in the future? And How can I make things better? How or who can help me?

FOCUS ON CHANGE

–          Coming to terms with your bump in the road will help you to move on effectively and make the necessary changes more promptly – accepting that setbacks are part of life is key to moving on.

–          Sometimes it’s impossible to move on because of your ongoing predicament; remind yourself that eventually things will change. Perhaps you can begin to imagine what this might look like and conjure up some positive images to draw on?

–          Try re-evaluating your goals for that time when change comes. Taking control of your situation will make you feel better.

–          Ask yourself, How might I get help or advice? For example, losing your job is usually an upsetting and unwelcome set back. In addition to the obvious financial implications it can sap confidence and erode your sense of identity. On the other hand, it is normal nowadays, in fact most people lack job security. As a result, there is help at hand to provide support and ideas in the form of books and articles on the internet.

SEEK HELP AND ADVICE

–          Most people feel good about helping others so don’t be afraid to network effectively. And who knows, maybe there will be something you can do for that person in return. Research shows that when we help others it makes us feel good too.

–          Meet up with a trusted friend and have a good moan, then thank them for listening. This will help you gain perspective on your situation. Need a deeper discussion in which to process your feelings? You could find a therapist; look for one who you feel you’ll work well with.

MAKE SMALL CHANGES; BEGIN NOW!

–          The road back may be a long one; whilst it’s good to make a plan, you don’t want to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task in hand. Start with small bite size changes, challenge yourself to think about what you can do today that will help.

–          Made a mistake? We all do! Forgive yourself and do not be discouraged. Maybe there was something positive resulted from the mistake? An example that springs to mind for me, was the shower stall I had tiled with mosaic. I was pleased with my choice, thinking they were a stylish bargain and they looked good in the magazine photos… However, one year on the grout is constantly turning black and grimy; some tiles are falling out. It’s a small issue and yet every morning I look at the horrid little squares and stifle the urge to feel miffed I ever chose them. The learning; next time do a little research and ask  someone who knows!

Good luck and please let me know if you’ve been affected by a particular challenge recently.

Specifically interested in expatriate challenges? Try The Emotionally Resilient Expat by Linda Janssen

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.