Finding the Positive in Change

It was a back-to-school picnic and I was sharing a Tartan blanket with another mum. As we munched on the carrot sticks and houmous someone commented, “It’s almost like a New Year”. She was referring to the summer holidays drawing to a close and I could see what she meant; with the school holidays over and students preparing to journey back to their universities, this time of year heralds a significant change for some of us. For me, it is an unmarked ending, a full stop or at the very least; a punctuation mark in the year. However, unlike New Year there is no media fan-fare to acknowledge the shift, it just happens and the parents and children push on and hopefully adjust to the new schedule without further ado.

school kids

Sometimes, if one of our children is going to college or leaving home, it can be a more far reaching change with the loss of their daily presence in our lives. This time last year I found myself writing about the phenomena of the ‘Empty Nest’, it proved a popular subject.

For the school children, the new school year involves transitioning back into their role as pupil, reintegrating into friendship groups and getting down to some work (we hope). For me, I notice the house is quiet, devoid of laughter and squabbles and the distant chatter over social media. It’s a relief, juxtaposed with a little sadness, does that make sense? I’ve enjoyed not having to rush every morning, the general slowing of pace and the joy of having a family holiday together. I won’t however miss imponderables such as:

How much Nutella is okay for one teenager? Should I be more curious about the nutritious content of the consumables stashed under my eldest’s bed?

Can I get away with yet another twist on an old pasta dish without incurring a chorus of eyes rolled heavenwards?

Is it worth a confrontation to get each child to take their turn at loading and unloading the dishwasher or doing a little ironing? Sometimes they just do it, I could wait and see if it happens …

Do other parents punctuate their day taxi-ing teenagers around to limitless destinations for no particular reason other than to hang out with their mates? How much walking to the station or the town is too much walking?

Why is it that on the days I’m not working I don’t sleep in – something I’ve fantasized about before the holiday.

All these small dilemmas can now be put to one side and be replaced by something we all recognise (and let’s be honest most of us really like) our routine!

Responding to Change

We don’t have any choice about change, it’s a certainty of life and we’d be bored if nothing ever happened to stimulate us. However, many of us naturally favour a routine which allows us to feel secure and navigate life more easily – hence my relief at returning to it. What I notice, which is really positive, is the shaking down effect that the transition brings. It is subtle, but in stepping out of the routine for a while I seem able to tune-in to some changes I could make as I transition back into it? I’m taking a fresh view of my week and what I do, even though I didn’t stop working in the holidays, I can see that too with a fresh eye.

I have a little more time now, as my youngest is joining her siblings at senior school I won’t need to arrive at the gates at 3:30 pm every day. For thirteen years, whatever the weather, whichever continent we were living on and whatever else is happening, I’ve battled to find a parking space (in recent years one where I won’t risk a parking ticket) and the change hasn’t quite sunk in yet. Wow! Writing it down has helped and I feel a real opportunity opening up in my weekday routine. Flexibility, hmm, I love that word.

I’m not quite sure what I’ll do yet, but its good to just let the change settle over me. I’m also aware that I’m still acknowledging my children are growing up and they won’t need me so much. I notice I’m not required to get out of the car at the morning drop off, “Don’t do it Mum, its social suicide”. No more goodbye kisses for me then …

Change vs. routine, part of the ebb and flow of life that keeps us energised and encourages us to grow and change as individuals, as a nation even … Here in the UK we have been undergoing a process of referendum to allow people living in Scotland to decide if they still want to be part of the UK. It has imposed an opportunity for all of us in the UK to think about what devolution might mean for us individually and collectively; the impact on our culture and identity, not to mention the financial implications, many of which are uncertain.

Whether it is a matter of State or personal impact, what feels important, is to face your feelings and find the positives in any change. Ultimately to find our own place of acceptance is to navigate our way through.

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.

9781904881803-Perfect.indd

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.

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