Mental Health & Kids

Last night, a friend confided that his daughter is experiencing difficulty maintaining a social life outside of school now that she has repatriated to the UK.  Another has a daughter who is finding it a challenge to settle in at school within the adopted country.  Both families need support clearly and perhaps organisations have under estimated the challenges and frustrations our children face before, during and after their time abroad?

Resilience and mental health are key to maintaining a happy and healthy life. Today I stumbled across a (new to me) section of BeyondBlue, a section devoted to developing and sustaining resilience within the family unit.  Applicable to all families, especially applicable to those posted/living overseas or those who have recently repatriated.  Of particular note were the sections relating to identifying and seeking support for children suffering from mental illness; here parents are provided with advice, information and links to gain further information.  

So in support of friends, colleagues and fellow expats here is the link to beyondblue beyondblue.org.au an organisation committed to “increasing understanding and reducing the impact of anxiety and depression”.  You may wish to share this information with your own family, friends, school community in the hopes of supporting others.  

@aubergine_jelly 

 

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Game Faces On – We’re Nearly Home

Almost home now and trying to follow my advice from previous pre-emptive posts. What I am most anxious about now is how I will received by friends who have also been shaped by life, who may have forgotten about me or may not wish to reconnect.  This is followed by commencing work at a new workplace and the typical ‘have I got what it takes to do this?’ thinking and  thirdly managing the culture shock that has already started to jolt me as I move about doing ordinary tasks such as driving, grocery shopping and so on.

My coping strategies for transitioning to a new normal:

Expect and except change within yourself. You have had new experiences which have shaped your world view and transformed your beliefs and values.  These may be challenged upon your return ‘home’.

Be prepared for isolation or feelings of lonliness. Family and friends have become used to your absence and may not give a thought to calling around for a cuppa or inviting you to a social gathering. Nthing personal, they’ve just become used to you not being around.

Be prepared for apathy. You know the look of eyes glazing over when you have visited family and friends at home and you launch into sharing an anecdote from your new home? Well expect that upon your return; basically noone cares after 5 minutes.

Establish routine. Exercise and work will assist with this to an extent and can help with your transition in addition to supporting mental health.

Keep in touch with other repat friends still overseas or at home. Friends who have repatriated already can be a real support as they understand the process of grieving the life you have just left behind, culture shock and stressors of settling into life at home.  These guys have a shared history with you and will happily indulge in moments of nostalgia.

Seek professional help.  Many government employees have access to psychologists who can assist with preparing for repatriation, settling into life at home, relationship counselling and so on.  Use these services should you need them.

Prepare for reverse culture shock. Just like when you moved to post as an expat, you will experience the highs and lows as I discussed in my post ‘The Stages of Cultural Adjustment’.  Many of us are familiar with the term ‘culture shock’ however the stages are the honeymoon phase, negotiation phase (known as culture shock), adjustment phase and mastery phase.  Reverse culture shock can be pretty intense for repats as it’s impact is unexpected – you’re moving home after all, should be an easy transition.   This emotional rollercoaster is one heck of a ride and may last more than 6 months, as you will remember!

Be kind to yourself. Be patient and at times administer a bit of tough love when required. You know you’re resilient as you’ve managed this process before.  Allow time to settle back into your new normal.

What other effective coping strategies do you use?

@aubergine_jelly

Testing Times

11755705_10153439309178433_1361961058966712893_n.jpgRelationships take a bit of a hit when you move and live abroad.  Prior to the move attention shifts to working through the uplift process and then setting up a home at post. Once things begin to settle, cracks will appear.  Suddenly both partners are dependent upon the other to fulfil emotion and social needs and this is particularly true for the stay at home spouse.  So let’s focus on them.  Oddly, I have found that this occurs at the beginning, around the midway point and again as the post draws to an end.  And these periods are tough for both individuals.

The officer does not have a easy life at post, however they do enjoy the benefits of routine, working in an environment similar to that at home, interacting with others and escaping the confines of home.  The trailing spouse has none of those things and must strive to carve out some sort of normalcy for themselves with little support.  Initially, the isolation and lack of confidence combine to make a formidable force that psychologically inhibits the spouse to  leave the house.  You know little of the language, have no clue on the layout of the city and feel scared to venture out in a taxi alone, anything could go wrong.

So what happens?  You stay within the confines of your new abode and beat yourself up because at home home you are a bubbly, independent woman with interests and hobbies. Your partner returns home from a busy day of work and asks the dreaded question – ‘what did you do with your day?’  And in that moment you feel like you are merely a shell of your true self.  This is where the pressure emerges for the working spouse to be your everything.  And it becomes tiresome very quickly.  Suffocating even.

Below are a few tips to work through these trying periods at post:

Communicate –  have honest and timely conversations with your spouse about how you’re both coping and how to best support each other moving forward.  Talk about ways to use your time at post be it through study, volunteering or work.  Make travel plans together to have something exciting to look forward to and as means to reconnect and create positive experiences and memories together.  Discuss how to give each other breathing space or time apart to recharge.

Utilise every support available to you – visit the doctor, chat with trusted confidantes at home, use the company counselling service, keep a journal.

Tough love – force yourself out of the house.  Sit in a communal area and smile at those around you, strike up a conversation at a cafe, wander through a mall.  Accept social invitations and actually attend.  Tough love remember!

Exercise – exercising releases endorphins and feeling good about yourself physically will transfer to a better frame of mind and may contribute to improved mental wellbeing. Attend gym classes, if offered, as a means to meet new people.

Join an expat group – many cities have chapters for the American Women’s Association, British Women’s Association, Australian and New Zealand Women’s Association and other groups.  Most of which accept membership from all expats and regularly host social events including seminars, excursions, morning tea and luncheons.  Check it out and remember that not all groups will be a good fit and that’s ok.

Be bold – when attending work events with your partner mingle and hand your phone number out like candy.  Some will share their contact details and get in touch, others won’t.  You’ll meet some friendly and not so friendly people but you are actually meeting people and you may meet the first person to meet out for lunch or a coffee.  And one friend leads to another..

Relationships are never easy and expat relationships have added pressures.  You will find a happy balance and create a dynamic that supports the needs of both spouses if both give 100% effort, and extend patience and love towards the other.

@aubergine_jelly

Expat Wives Club: Keepers of the Wonder Woman Facade?

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Trailing spouses, supporting spouses, expat wives, expat spouses.  These terms provoke similar responses from women on the treadmill of regular life back home.  Conversations about expat spouses needing a ‘reality check’ or the prediction of these folk not coping when they return home as living ‘the high life’. I mean, these folk won the lottery and have escaped the rat race to live out a fantastical life of luxury and pampering, right?

While the expat life has many advantages and benefits to both the posted officer and their families, it does come at some expense; it’s not all smooth sailing.  Most spouses have placed their career on hold to support their partner to further their career and many also experience difficulty securing work themselves due to visa requirements.  This means financial dependence and feelings of mooching, not contributing to the household.

Further, dealing with the loss of routine, personal and professional identity, one’s support network of friends and family, and all things familiar from home become magnified. In my experience dealing with everyday situations can be a struggle due to cultural expectations (like requiring a husband’s approval to open a bank account), language barriers, loneliness and boredom.  The facade of being Wonder Women naturally begins to crumble.

What I have also found is a peculiar culture of ‘everything is awesome’ permeating through the expat wives club.  An expectation to sing the praises of the lifestyle and not let cracks appear is evident – don’t let the team down.  Even when meeting other expat spouses we all ask ‘how are you?’ or ‘how are you settling in?’ and we have learned to cheerily answer ‘I love it here’, ‘coping well’ when working the crowd.  Those not coping or needing to debrief do so in whispers in one on one conversations with trusted confidants. Lest they be the subject of gossip and labelled as someone not coping, not maintaining the party line. Publicly, remember, ‘everything is awesome’ and noone likes a Debbie Downer.

Blogs and social media pages are popping up everywhere as a tool for spouses to cope and reach out anonymously for support and an outlet for reflection.  Posts have similar themes if you read carefully – isolation, loneliness, anxiety, depression and of course the Facebook highlight reel that reinforces the Wonder Woman facade.  But don’t feel too much sympathy for these spouses, after all these folk won the lottery and escaped the rat race to enjoy a fantastical life of luxury and pampering, right?

@aubergine_jelly

 

Could repatriation be more challenging than expatriation?

wpid-wp-1421210277801.jpegThinking of “home” conjures memories of blue skies, smiling faces of love ones, our dogs and an easy lifestyle.  These rose coloured glasses of mine are building me up to fail at our upcoming repatriation.

Many expats buy into false assumptions about the ease of returning home.  Home is familiar so the move will surely be straightforward, as will the transition back to normalcy. This is when the gods of reality check laugh and throw a few curve balls.

Those returning home experience similar challenges to when they moved abroad – sourcing accommodation, cars, school enrolments, possibly securing a job for the spouse and so on.  However this time, the family completes this transition without the support from the employer.  After all, you’re home now  how difficult can it be?

Reverse culture shock 

The romanticised view of ‘home’ often omits the forgotten frustrations and stressors of everyday life.  Home has changed – people have changed and experienced new and different things and may have moved into a different lie stage.  You have changed too as a result of experiencing a new culture.   Your beliefs, values and essentially your world view have evolved and these may be at odds with what awaits you at home.  Be aware that this may make it difficult to simply pick up where you left off with friends and coworkers upon your return.

Further, your lifestyle abroad was fairly comfortable.  Here, we have domestic staff who assist with minimising the daily stressors of navigating anger inducing traffic (machet), limited parking opportunities, lengthy travel times as well as home cleaning.  Returning home means doing everything for yourself.  Additionally, you may find that money becomes a consideration without access to expat financial allowances (though this may be countered by the spouse being able to work once again!).

Supporting children

Leaving the familiar is difficult for adults who have the language to communicate frustrations and fears.  Children on the other hand may not and their anxiety may present through behaviour.  Repatriation for kids is an enormous deal – they are leaving their home, school, routines, friends and significant adults – everything that is familiar and predictable.  Some children may have developed a strong connection to the adoptive country and some may not even remember life back home.

So how to manage this transition for kids?  Communication is key.  Talk positively about the transition and ensure that the child knows that the move is inevitable.  Children should feel supported to talk openly about how they’re feeling about the move without judgement.  Other strategies may include:

  • schedule proper goodbyes prior to leaving
  • ask your child what they might like to know about ‘home’ and research together
  • once you’ve made the move, set up the child’s bedroom in a similar way to provide a sense of familiarity and comfort
  • establish routines within the home and
  • keep in regular contact with teachers or carers

Many organisations do provide counselling services for officers and their families; consider utilising this service to support with the transition before, during or after relocation.  Repatriation offers many additional challenges for expats and their families due to the perceived ease of returning to the familiar.  Good luck.

Why is the transition challenging for trailing spouses?

Firstly, lets celebrate the trailing spouse and make time to reflect on the enormity of of this supporting role and thank them for their sacrifices.  For me, the two biggest challenges I grappled with were no job and no friends and the baggage that comes with …that.

The majority of trailing spouses at our post are women.  Highly educated, driven women who have willingly put their careers and professional aspirations on hold to support our partners to further theirs.  Many of these women who join their partner at post and find that they are unable to easily find work due to visa requirements, political environment and so on.  This is huge.

Many, like me, find that making the transition from career women to home maker quite confronting.  Our careers are heavily intwined with our identity; who we perceive ourselves as people. Some successfully find short term employment within our post while others take to the ‘ladies who lunch’ lifestyle like ducks to water.  Good on them, but that’s not me or most of my friends.  With no job, zero way to contribute to the household financially and without financial independence this leads us to deeply reflect on ‘who am I without the additional layers?”

Now if like me you have a supportive partner, you will survive the emotional rollercoaster and implement many coping strategies that will serve you well beyond the posting.  For the majority of officers, life carries on as normal.  They work in a familiar environment with policies, expectations and procedures from home, they interact with fellow countrymen and they have routine.  As spouses we struggle with the lack of routine, limited social interaction, running a household with little knowledge of what’s available within our new community, financial and emotional dependency on our partners and constant self doubt.  These factors all chip away at your happiness and mental health and the biggest factor is that you have left your support network at home.

Things to improve and mostly in random ways.  One day you will happen to meet someone who asks if you’d like to join them for a coffee.  Be brave, say yes and actually turn up. This person may end up being your best friend at post OR they may lead you to the next friend. Slowly you establish a small yet trusted support network and everything gets better from this point on.

From this point, you remember the person you were prior to posting – the vibrant, happy, confident, interesting women with hobbies. And she begins to emerge once more.  You notice it, your partner notices it and loved ones back home notice it too during Skype chats.  You venture out of the house more and more, your mental health improves (along with your outlook), you rediscover your confidence once more and you’re no longer dependent on your partner for emotional support.  A weight lifts off your shoulders and you suddenly find yourself thinking life ain’t too bad – this is a huge accomplishment!

And life as a trailing spouse isn’t too bad.  The lifestyle affords us the gift of time to study, explore a career change, start a family, experience a new culture, relax, whatever you want to do.  Initially all of these positives come at the price of happiness and anxiety.  Spouses are forced out of their comfort zone and compelled to work through many challenges.  This experience will make you stronger and more resilient both personally and professionally.  Valuable skills for life after post.

@aubergine_jelly

You’ve Got a Friend in Me..

Moving into the expat bubble as a trailing/supporting spouse is like time travelling back to high school. How will I meet people? Will anyone like me? What if nobody talks to me?

Social isolation is part and parcel of the process, initially. The dialogue in your head can be pervasive and counter productive. So too can be factors like the lack of language skills in your adopted country, a newly diminished self  confidence, heightened anxiety and so on.

Interestingly all spouses have similar experiences and most will extend a welcoming hand of friendship to newbies. However the first step is up to you. Tough love is needed to accept invitations to functions or events and push yourself out the door.

Be bold. Don’t fear rejection. Take a breath, smile and say hello. Put on an extrovert hat for a moment and ask open ended questions to start a conversation. If you feel that the person are a possible good fit, ask if they’d like to swap numbers or even meet for coffee. The worst they can say is no!

Utilise technology. Explore Facebook and join community or interest groups in your area. You’ll meet new people in addition to getting out of the house which is a double boost for mental health.

Say yes. Accept every invite and attend with a positive attitude. You may not gel with the person who invited you but you will meet new people and you may even meet that one special person who becomes your new best friend! 

Be patient. Know that forming your new support network takes time. Be patient and be willing to cull those who do not lift you higher; the ones who drain you of your life force and happiness. Remember that you won’t gel with everyone and you won’t be everyones cup of tea either. 

So be brave, be bold and more importantly be you as you begin your journey as a trailing spouse. 

@aubergine_jelly