Wednesday, August 15, 2018

This Weird Feeling of "Not Depressed"

The other day I read a verse in Psalm 30:

I will exalt you, Lord,
for you lifted me out of the depths
and did not let my enemies gloat over me
Lord my God, I called to you for help,
and you healed me.

It struck me that this verse was actually true. Of course it was true before, when I had read it with a kind of longing and reassurance that David understood being in the depths. I had read it with desperate hope that one day I would feel this way.  Now I realized I actually did feel this way.

I can remember clearly two years ago being lost in the middle of those depths. I could not see anything other than a fog of depression, and I could not believe it would actually get better. I was calling for help but the healing was not happening. Last year I told our member care specialist, “I have come out of the pit just enough to realize how deep it is, and how far I have to go to get to the top. I am still really far from okay, but I can almost see what 'okay' looks like.”

When we came back from China at the beginning of the year, I though I was mostly better. I just needed to deal with the after-effects of these years of depression and surviving and burnout. We attended a three week intensive debriefing retreat – three weeks because we were that bad off. It was so helpful, but at the end of three weeks I found out that I was still depressed. “High moderate depression," my counselor and her little inventory described it. That was pretty discouraging because I had just had three weeks of daily individual and group counseling and I was still depressed! When I thought I was doing better!

I came to realize that now and in the past what I thought of as depression was actually severe depression. If I could function and didn’t want to die, I figured I wasn't really depressed anymore. Apparently "better" looks like something higher than that.

This past month, after continued counseling and a new medication, I have remembered what not being depressed feels like. There are times when I feel what I presume is normal baseline – is this what people really feel like? - like I can handle life and I think that good things might actually happen in the future. I feel stable. It’s a weird feeling. I have been able to enjoy my kids, even to enjoy this stage and not wish they would please just grow up more and not need such constant help and attention.

Obviously there are still times when I don’t enjoy them – when Nadia is clinging and screaming, when Juliana is whining and stomping around, when Adalyn has to be prodded every single step of the way to do every single task. But this is the normal counting-down-to-bedtime stuff of parenting. These days, I rarely feel like my head will explode. When no one is screaming, I can actually enjoy this stage with these little people.

Of course there are still emotional times, frustrations and disappointments, the discouragement of sickness and poor sleep. But the amazing thing is, I can feel grieved or discouraged and then I can get over it. The next day I may feel pretty good again. I am not dragged down into an endless downward spiral.

When my psychiatrist first suggested a mood-stabilizing drug, I was a bit skeptical. “I’m not sure my moods are unstable. Everyone has ups and downs. By the way, what do stable moods look like?” Apparently they look like ups and downs but the ups are above the level of depression and the downs are something you can recover from. Apparently it is not feeling like you are crazy all the time. How interesting.

I do feel more stable now. I can see yellow paint or 80’s décor and not feel like everything is really weird and the world is an unsafe place. I can be in a strange or unpleasant situation but when I am out of that situation, I can shake it off without it tainting my whole day or week. One night I was talking with my family about a possible suicide/murder in our town and about a childhood friend with a terrible disease. You know, pleasant bedtime conversation. I felt sad and disturbed but I didn’t even have any terrible dreams that night. And I have had a lot of terrible dreams in these past months.

In fact, dreams have come up several time in my counseling because I have had so many disturbing ones. One of my less disturbing but frequently reoccurring dreams, second to stressful travel dreams, are out of control elevators. I’ve had these dreams for years. I get on an elevator and it never goes where I want it to. It shoots up to dizzying heights or drops deep into the ground or veers sideways into different buildings. I can never get where I want to go.

A few weeks ago I had another elevator dream. I got in an elevator and realized there were no buttons. All it had was a big lever you had to pull at just the right time to stop on the right floors. In my dream I was able to pull the lever and stop at just the right floor - twice! I was excited by this dream because it was the first time I had ever been able to control the elevator. Even though it wasn’t easy and didn’t function like I expected, I was able to make it work! I think this must be what it is like to not feel like your life is out of control.

Even though so much of our lives are out of our control. We cannot control if we will be able to stay in the city to which we have grown attached or in the country where we have lived for 13 years. We don’t control what apartment we will live in or who we can have over to our home. We don’t control when our heat comes on and turns off and we have no thermostat to adjust. The other day Juliana, so cutely and innocently said, “Wouldn’t it be great if they invented something where you could make the temperature anything you wanted – hotter or colder if you needed?” My sister said, “Um...they actually already have that.”

We don’t know how long the local public schools will continue to accept foreign kids or how long our area will continue to accept foreigners. Who will be the next among our friends to have to leave? Sometimes we know months in advance with time to say goodbye. Sometimes it happens suddenly, even overnight, and our global circle means friends we may never see again.

We can influence but not control our health. We can prioritize but not control mental health. We know that all manner of situations might force us to change our country, our homes, our jobs, our friends, our schools, our way of life – all in one fell swoop.

But I digress. There are so many circumstances of life we cannot control, maybe more than ever before, but somehow life doesn’t feel like it is spiraling out of control. A sickness feels like a regular event that we will recover from. A change of plans is inconvenient, even stressful, but it is manageable. I can see that it will probably not throw our life into utter chaos and alter the entire course of our lives.

I have this weird thought that life may actually work out. I have moments when I am downright optimistic. (No fear though, I don’t really thing lasting optimism is in my nature, whereas my witty sarcasm clearly is.) I have these moments when I realize I feel happy, just effortlessly happy in the midst everyday life. Is this what normal feels like? Is this what it means to be truly okay?

I forgot what this feeling was like, and it might take a while to get used to, to believe it is not just a fleeting phase. It will definitely take a while to work through the habits and thought patterns carved out by years of depression and anxiety. I realize there were many times in life when I thought I was all better but depression and anxiety were still having a profound impact on my life. I am trying to look back and sort out what was depression and what was me. I am seeing the ways that God has brought healing through counseling and medication and a lot of time.

I am climbing out of that deep, dark pit, and the view is looking pretty good up here at ground level.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

How Crazy is TOO Crazy?

I write a lot about mental illness because 1) I have many years of experience with it, 2) I am very interested in mental health and plan to get a counseling degree one day, and 3) I think stigma is stupid and I want to do my part to dispel it.

I know I appear to have very little filter, but I actually do reign myself in a bit. If I write something that makes me seem too unstable, then I back off a bit and write about something a little more normal next time. I want to remind people I am more than my depression and anxiety.

When I write about my experiences I do worry that readers will think, “Crap, she’s much crazier than I thought.” I want to reassure people that I am not actually any crazier than I have been for the past 20+ years. Actually I am in a better place now than I have been in quite a while, and definitely more stable than many points in the past. The difference is I didn’t talk about it before. So don’t worry - nothing new here.

But I do wonder, how much crazy is too crazy. Many people deal with depression and counseling is not too unusual. Everyone feels anxiety sometimes, even if they don’t have an anxiety disorder, so the rational aspect of that makes sense (maybe not being disturbed by yellow paint).

But what about schizophrenia? That’s pretty weird, right? What if someone has a panic attack in the airport? So awkward. What if someone needs shock therapy? Uncomfortable, 1900’s stuff. Can we talk about suicide, or will that freak you out? Nobody judges you for a stay in the hospital, but a mental hospital is a whole different matter. We are allowed to be physically sick (although chronic illness and invisible illnesses are probably made up, right?), but mental sickness needs to have some boundaries. We are allowed a certain amount of crazy before we turn to hushed tones and sideways glances.

So one of my fears in writing about my own mental illness is scaring people off. I don’t want people to talk in hushed tones or wonder if I’m about to go off the edge. Because if I am about to go off the edge, I want to be able to be honest and get help to pull me back. What I deal with is not actually that uncommon, most people are just pretty good at hiding it, like I did for many years.

Some statistics for you: The World Health Organization estimates that over 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression. The CDC states that tens of millions of people in the US suffer from mental illness and estimate that half receive no treatment. A 2016 study by NIMH found that 6.7% of all U.S. adults have had at least one major depressive episodes. An estimated 31.1% of US adults experience some type of anxiety disorder in their lifetime. We’ll talk more about suicide in the future, but the same study found that 4% of US adults had suicidal thoughts during the year 2016. If you enjoy statistics, here’s a bunch more:

The main take away is that mental illness affects a lot of people. It undoubtedly effects people you know, probably many people. And a lot of people don’t get help, likely for various reasons. The cost of healthcare, for example. While our insurance covers counseling, the ever increasing deductible means I will be paying for it out of pocket, and counseling is not cheap. I feel like it is worth spending the money on, but for many people it is just not possible.

Some people don’t even realize they are dealing with mental illness. In high school and even college, I didn’t understand what the problem was, I just knew something had to be wrong with me since I couldn’t seem to handle life like everyone else. I didn’t tell anyone about my suicidal thoughts partly because I didn’t know how to. Even my most recent 4th period of major depression took me a full year to recognize, and I “should” know by now what depression looks like.

When I was younger I also didn’t talk about my depression and anxiety because I was afraid of people thinking I was really weird or weak. The stigma may have lessened but it is still very real, and like in most things, adolescents are probably the most susceptible to being misunderstood. I am fortunate now to know a lot of people in the mental health field – and a lot of people with mental illness – who are willing to talk about it. This makes a huge difference in my willingness to be open, and many people don’t have that.

For the one struggling
If you struggle with mental illness, here are some things I want you to know. You are not alone. Once you open up about it in whatever way you feel comfortable with, you will undoubtedly find other people who are struggling too. Find someone you feel safe with, who will listen without judgment and try to understand you. If you are having a hard time, it is okay to protect yourself from the constant news cycle and overwhelming information. Expect less of yourself for a while, because dealing with the rough periods takes a lot of energy.

Get the help you need. This is not selfish – this is important to your health and wellbeing. This is not weak; it is brave. Maybe you would find counseling helpful. Find a counselor you connect with and that actually helps you. Sometimes medication is really useful, because sometimes your brain chemistry needs some help. There is nothing wrong with taking medication!

Recognize that you are a spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional being and that all these areas are affected. Addressing the spiritual component is helpful but “thinking the right thoughts or praying enough” does not address the other areas, and puts a lot of guilt on yourself that maybe if you had a strong enough faith you would be joyful or anxiety-free. This does not make any more sense than someone telling you that focusing on truth and praying enough will cure you of cancer or high blood pressure It is just not true.

Realize that a lot of people truly don’t understand what you are going through, and if you say, “I am dealing with anxiety,” that doesn’t necessarily mean a lot to them. Talk about the specifics of what you are struggling with: “I feel like my chest is tight all the time and I can’t breathe or think clearly.” Give them some grace as they try to understand. But again, talk to people who are trying to understand. For your own sake, avoid sharing too much with people who are just critical or give unwanted advice.

For the one supporting
For those of you who are close to someone with mental illness, try to listen and understand instead of giving advice. Recognize there is a difference between “feeling down” and clinical depression, between feeling worried about a problem and anxiety disorder. A counselor tried to explain the difference to us like this: If you are feeling down, maybe you should take some brownies to a neighbor because doing something for someone else is a pick-me-up. If you are clinically depressed, this won’t help. You don’t have energy to make brownies in the first place, and even if you did you don’t want to leave the house to see the neighbor.

You can encourage things like exercise (“Why don’t you meet me to walk once a week?”) and self care/getting out of the house (“Let’s have coffee this week.”) but also realize in themselves, these are not solutions to serious problems. In fact, carrying the weight of another person's problems or trying to be their sole support is draining on you and unhealthy for both of you.

Encourage your friend to seek help. Finding a counselor or support group can be overwhelming, so if they are open to the idea, help them find some resources and possibilities. When I was really struggling in China, our member care specialist helped me to find resources within China. She called them to find out details, costs, and how to get in contact with them. It was a huge help, because a task like that was completely overwhelming to me.

Learn what you can about what your friend or family member is dealing with. Knowledge often takes away some of the fear. Ask them what their experience has been like. Ask questions like, "What does depression feel like for you? What are some things that trigger your anxiety? What things have you found helpful or not helpful in the past? What are some areas of daily life you struggle with most?" Recognize that a person might not know what they need or may have trouble accepting help, so instead of "Let me know if you need anything," you could try, "I’m going to make food for you this week – what day is best? Let’s meet for coffee and a good talk - what about Wednesday?" Ask about specific ideas like watching the kids or helping to find possible counselors in the area.

In parting I will share a few words from Jenny Lawson, an author who writes hilarious books about mental illness.  If you are mentally ill, are not afraid to snort-cry-laugh, and are not terribly put off by a lot of swearing, check her out. She is amazing.

When we share our struggles we let others know it's okay to share theirs. And suddenly we realized that the things we were ashamed of are the same things everyone deals with at one time or another. We are so much less alone than we think. - Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

Thursday, August 2, 2018

American School Day 1

First Day of Pre-K and Second Grade

Today I dropped the girls off for their first day of American school. Juliana was nervous because she had never been to the school and didn’t know anyone, but she was fine once she got to class. I told her it was normal to be nervous but reminded her that she was worried at VBS that she wouldn’t have friends. That lasted until the second day when she had a new friend she was very sad to leave at the end of the week and gave my phone number so they could keep in touch. The only problem was it was my China phone number.

I just discovered this summer that our county has a free pre-K program, so Adalyn is now going to the same school as Juliana. It is a full day but seems pretty laid back – two recesses, nap time, and centers like blocks, imaginative play, art, etc. Adalyn hadn’t thought much about it, or at least hadn’t talked about it, until she saw her classroom at open house the other day. She came home excitedly telling everyone about the play kitchen and how much fun it looked, so I think she’ll really enjoy it.

I found it both strange and cool. I am used to being in charge of their education – choosing curriculum and our pace, knowing everything they are learning. It is strange handing them off to someone else and not really knowing what they are learning, besides the undoubtedly convoluted reports. Although I remembered I have sent them to Chinese school, where I really did have no idea what was happening.

It is still amazing to me that you can just send your kids off to school for free, and someone else prepares their lessons and decorates their classroom and is entirely responsible for their education. I don’t take that for granted! We also found out that a family of 5 can qualify for free/reduced lunch if they make less than $56,000 a year. Who makes more than that?? How would we ever afford America? Needless to say, we qualify.

Juliana was understandably nervous because even though she attended three years of Chinese preschool/kindergarten and went part time to international school, this is her first school experience in America. I tried to teach her some of the ins and outs.

Me: Do you remember what your teacher’s name is?
Juliana: No, but that’s okay. I can just call her Teacher.
Me: Actually people don’t do that in America.
Juliana: What? Why? You do in China.
Me: I know. In China it is respectful but in America it seems like you forgot the teacher’s name or something.

The other night we had an beginning-of-school dinner at McDonald’s, a month after our end-of-school McDonald’s. As we were eating, Juliana tried to describe a boy she was playing with in the play area.

Juliana: He was...he was... (putting her hands out in front of her stomach)
Juliana (lightbulb moment): He was PUDGY. That’s right, he was pudgy.
Me: Um, Juliana, people in America don’t really like to be called pudgy.
Juliana (perplexed): But I thought we weren’t supposed to call people FAT. I thought pudgy was okay.
Me: Well, people don’t like to be called fat or pudgy.
Juliana (still perplexed): But people say that in China.
Me: I know, but it’s one of those things that is different in America.
Juliana: So...then...What DO you call people?
Me: In America you just don’t talk about people’s weight.
Juliana: Really?!
Me: Really. Ever. Unless maybe you are a doctor.
Juliana: Huh.

There are many things that our little third culture kids have to learn! We are learning as well – how to sign the kids up for school and for free lunch. How pick up and drop off works. What kind of things kids do and learn in American schools.

BUT, we don’t have to decode 30 Chinese classroom WeChat messages a day. When we wait to pick up the kids, nobody stares at us openly or covertly because we look different from every other person around. People actually do things like line up instead of swarm the gates. I don’t feel like an idiot when communicating with the teachers because my command of English is actually quite good.

The girls are not the only kid in the class/school that looks completely different, has a different background, and speaks a different language. They don’t struggle to understand what the teacher is saying or what they are supposed to do. They don’t have to stay silent during lunch… Not that they have disliked Chinese school, but I think they are going to enjoy this time in American school.

Nadia thought it was a little weird not having any sisters around, and she was sad she couldn't go to school too.  But she quickly recovered and will undoubtedly enjoy the extra attention.  She was excited to tell her sisters when they returned about her trip to library story time and the grocery store.

At the end of day 1, Adalyn told us about playing with blocks and what they ate for snack time. This is what pre-K should be about! We asked Juliana, “Do you think you will be friends with (your seatmate)?” Juliana said, in an off handed manner, “Oh, we are already friends!”

So I think we’ll all adjust.

Not TOO sad about her only-child time

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Do you miss China?

It is another one of those questions like “How are you adjusting to America?” and “Where are you from?” and “Do you love China?” that leaves me fumbling and confused.  In an eloquent attempt to convey the complexity of my feelings, I typically say something like, “Um, kind of…”

Besides, saying, "No, I don't miss China" is as awkward as saying, "No, I'm not excited about returning to America."  I don't know why - people should be impressed that I'm so content in (or at least unwilling to leave) my current location, wherever that may be.

I told my friend (who lives in China), “I don’t miss China, but I miss our lives in China, if that makes sense.”  She thought it made perfect sense.  

I don’t miss the stares and attention every time we go outside.  I don’t miss the lack of mental healthcare and the general questionable healthcare.  I don’t miss the pressure of knowing we are supposed to be Doing Something Significant and knowing everyone is watching us and thinking how weird we are.  I don’t miss the pollution or the ugly buildings.

But I do miss some things about China.

I miss the relative simplicity.  There is so much less to buy, because we don’t have space for it anyway, and we already have more things than most people around us.

I miss walking and biking and driving our san lun che.  Even though a van is so convenient and much more comfortable, I like being in contact with the world instead of being sealed away.

I miss the roadside peddlers, their big metal drums baking sweet potatoes or their giant walks frying up rice and noodles.  I miss our fruit seller, who was always so happy to see us and gave us bags of free damaged fruit.

I miss the hijabs and the Hui beards and the smiles I associate with them.  I miss the friendly Muslim guys selling flatbread.  I miss learning about the cultures within the culture - Hui, Uighur, Kazakh.  There is a camradere in being the odd ones out.

 I miss Adalyn’s smile she comes out of Chinese kindergarten, holding her teacher’s hand.  I miss how enchanted everyone is with Nadia. I miss seeing Juliana talk easily with her Chinese friends.  I miss her dance class and her international school and her Norwegian best friend.

I miss my own friends.  My city friends have know each other for 7 years, and some countrywide friends for 13 years.  We understand each other because we live the same kind of strange lives.

I miss the Chinese old women dancing every morning in the park, even when it is 15F outside.  I miss the parks and even the crowded buses, because I don’t ride them too often.  I miss Chinese food and all our favorite restaurants.

I miss the mountains and the sunsets on clear days.  I miss fall leaves and spring flowers and winter's frozen lakes.  I miss the familiarity of our two square miles of everyday life.

So yes, I guess I do miss China.  Missing a place is not all or nothing, not pure love or hate; life is never that simple.  I am not ready to return, but I think in another 6 months I will be.  After all, it has become our home.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Hello, My name is Ruth and I have a fear of yellow paint.

Every morning when Juliana went to school or when Kevin took the girls somewhere, I would wave goodbyes and wonder if they would die before I saw them again. I didn’t obsess about it or feel paralyzed with fear; it was just a daily, automatic thought. “Goodbye, hope you don’t die before you come back!”

My sister and I recently had a conversation about worrying that people will die. That was when I realized I had stopped wondering if my family would die every time they left home. It had been a daily thought for such a long time, I had failed to recognize that perhaps it wasn’t entirely “normal.” When I told Kevin about it he looked at me very strangely and said, “Really? That’s terrible!”

Depression is my primary nemesis, but depression and anxiety often like to tag-team. I don’t talk about anxiety as much because I find it harder to figure out. I recently read Wil Wheaton describing his chronic anxiety and depression. Even though I have years of experience with these illnesses, it was reassuring to realize someone else understands what is going on inside your head. I have also realized that I can say, “I struggle with depression and anxiety,” but those words might not mean a lot to people who haven’t experienced it before.

So I will attempt to give a picture of what anxiety has meant for me, knowing that each person’s experience is different. Anxiety is a normal part of life, but generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) makes you feel anxious about things that don’t even make sense. As I thought back on some of the things that have caused me anxiety over the years, here are some examples:

- Pale yellow paint: The doors in my first apartment in Yangzhou were covered with peeling yellow paint that reminded me of a 1960’s mental institution. It was very disturbing.

- Marshes: All that innocent looking grass covering up sinister water.

- Certain patterns: It’s hard to explain, but some repeating patterns look like disease or tiny eyes or are just trying to make your eyes go crazy.
Why would they do this??

- 80’s décor: I’m serious. That gold rim around the shower door. I can’t begin to explain this, but it’s something about the feeling of stepping back in time.
Creepy, right?
- Furniture pretending to be decapitated humans: My sister says this would be anxiety producing for most people, so maybe I’m totally normal for feeling like legs should stay attached to humans.

This lovely piece of work was in the neurologist waiting room.  Do you think they are trying to mess with people's minds?
You can see why it is hard to explain anxiety. When you say, “Yellow paint is upsetting to me,” people who struggle with anxiety understand. But other people look at you like they wonder if you were ever abducted by aliens.

The problem with anxiety and other mental illness is that the illness itself skews your perception of life. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around anxiety because it is just not rational. Depression feels almost logical. Your mind says life hopeless and everything is only getting worse, so naturally you feel depressed. But anxiety makes you feel crazy, like you are literally losing your mind. Because honestly, who is afraid of 80’s décor??

Of course there is something behind the crazy, even when you can’t explain it. These irrelevant things bother you because something about them is not right. You get that creepy feeling like when you are in a dark parking garage (I also hate parking garages) all alone and someone is following you. For some reason 80’s décor looks like the scene from a horror movie. A part of your mind cannot get over the fact that human legs should be attached to bodies not furniture. So your mind screams, “Danger! Something is off here! Pay attention to this sinister feeling!” Because your brain refuses to believe that tissue boxes are not threatening.

During my first year in China at 22, I went through periods of unintentionally waking up at 4am. I would head out on solitary bike rides at 5am, when only the street cleaners were out. I did not have a cell phone and nobody knew where I was, but I wasn’t worried about that; I was more afraid of being in my apartment alone. I was confident enough to travel all the way to China, but I suffered an unshakable dread of making copies in the little copy shop. I was living on my own in a foreign country, but I was terrified of the dark. I knew there were no monsters under the bed; what I feared was much more sinister and oppressive.

Sometimes the subject of anxiety is logical, it is just obsessive. Every day I carried Nadia down the stairs from our 5th floor apartment, I pictured myself tripping and dropping her on those hard, concrete steps. I continually calculated how likely my children were to die in a particular situation. When Juliana sat on her bunkbed, I pictured her falling off head first. When I took Adalyn outside, I pictured her running out in the road and getting hit by a car. I lay awake at night thinking how I would save my children in a fire. These were somewhat reasonable worries, but I could not get them out of my head.

My worst period of anxiety was the year Kevin and I returned to the US for a year to get married. I decided that the middle of a bunch of life-altering transitions would be a good time to stop taking my antidepressants. In hindsight, it was clearly a bad decision. My depression had improved, but I didn’t realize that the medicine was also helping my anxiety. I didn’t even realize I had anxiety.

I nearly had a nervous breakdown the summer before the wedding, but I thought it was just all the adjustment. After we were married, I was upset whenever Kevin had to leave me. Sweet newlywed stuff, right? Except I also dreaded going to work each day. I dreaded hanging out with friends. I was exhausted all the time. I hated driving on the freeway at night because all the lights and movement made me feel out of control. I wanted to stay safely inside our little apartment, until the walls started closing in and I couldn’t breathe.

I curled up in bed, a crushing weight on my chest keeping me from getting enough air. My heart pounded and the world spun out of control. I was completely alone. Even when Kevin was with me, we may as well have been in two parallel universes: Kevin sitting on the bed in our apartment, me being sucked into a formless black hole, all noise and darkness and chaos. It was my first experience with panic attacks.

The panic attacks became more regular and I realized this anxiety was becoming crippling. I finally saw a doctor and started back on medication. The anxiety and panic attacks decreased, and eventually a solitary session of EMDR therapy stopped them completely.

My anxiety has ebbed and flowed over the years. Lately it has been a lot better, but the triggers are unpredictable. Anyone who struggles with anxiety can tell you it is tough. It is exhausting. It is confusing. But it can get better. One day, hopefully, you will be surprised to find you no longer wonder every day if your children are going to die. You are not losing your mind. Or maybe you are, but at least you are not alone.

And in case you are wondering, it’s not your mental illness: decapitated human legs pretending to be furniture is not normal.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Group Therapy

Our family is currently attending an intensive counseling and renewal program for overseas workers called Alongside. So far we are learning a lot about how we are even more messed up than we thought, which is always fun - but I think it will be pretty transformational.

I sat down at orientation feeling, well, disoriented. We arrived late from our road trip and our bags were still in the car. As the director introduced the program, he said, “You may be looking around thinking, ‘I know why I am here, but why are they here?’” I had to laugh because that was exactly what I had been thinking. I knew nobody was here because their life was smooth sailing, but everyone looked so normal, so together.

Do you know what hurting people look like? A lot of times they look just like everyone else. They smile and make jokes, at times. Maybe they wear makeup or fashionable boots. They may look like they could easily step up into a pulpit or battle the wilds of Africa. Hurting people just look like people.

But we have started to share our stories. Loss, trauma, transition, incredible stress, and so much pain. In a safe place the pain, so carefully controlled, comes flooding out. We are normal people, and we hold so much pain.

Group therapy. Just the thought makes some people shudder – or laugh. It sounds cheesy, all that feely stuff. We start each day with, “today I feel...” so at at least one point during the day, we recognize and verbalize what we are feeling. This is harder than it seems, when you aren’t used to identifying feelings.

We share our stories. And let me tell you, there is nothing cheesy about it. This is the story we usually share only in pieces, only behind a shield of humor or stoicism. I shared my story – the themes of depression and anxiety that have ebbed and flowed throughout my adult life, years of sickness and survival and burnout leading us to this place.

We entrust each other with our deepest pain, believing that we will not be ridiculed or belittled, and we aren’t. Nobody says, “Think positive. It wasn’t that bad – it could always be worse. Here is how you could be healthier/less depressed/live a better life.” Instead they just listen and say, “I hear your pain. I feel sad for you. That shouldn’t have happened. Thank you for telling us.” Their tears have allowed me to cry – and I hardly ever cry – instead of withdraw to my analytical “safe” zone.

I am surprised that the small group has been so healing. As an introspective introvert, and one who tends to turn inward in pain, my go-to is writing or maybe talking with a close friend. I would never have thought that sitting down in a group of six strangers would have opened me up and allowed space for processing.

Of course, the group is a bit special. Nobody came in with pretense – we are here because we need help. We have parameters for not giving advice or platitudes but just showing understanding. Even though each situation is different, we recognize each other’s pain. It is a safe space, where we experience the power of community and shared pain.

You may not have a group, and you may not need therapy. Apparently some people are emotionally healthy and not even mentally ill, crazy right? But on the off chance you have or will ever experience pain in your life – find your people. Find your safe people who can share that pain with you, who can resist trying to fix you, who can enter in and sit with you.  Because really, everybody needs group therapy.

Thursday, February 15, 2018


“Are you excited about going back to America?”

I’ve heard this question a lot over the past few months. Usually my response is something like, “Um, yeah? I guess so?”

Even this super definitive answer is somewhat of a lie. But a soft lie, used to keep conversation from grinding to an awkward halt when you say, “No.”

Excited is not the right word. If I were to answer honestly, I would have to say,

“It feels weird.”
“I don’t really know how I feel.”
“I feel anxious. And relieved. And unsettled. And expectant. And a little lost.”

The truth is, when we dropped our friends at the airport where they would fly back to China, to sleep tonight in their own beds in their own apartment in their familiar city, I felt a pang of jealousy.

I just want to go back to our home. Except that it’s not ours anymore.
I want to go back to our normal life. Except we have to do the hard work of creating a new normal.
I want to be with all those people who get us and understand our lives. Except I also want to be with family and friends.
I want everything to stay the same, even if it wasn’t healthy or sustainable.
I want everything to stay the same, and of course it never does.

It is no reflection on our family or our friends in America. It is just that…we live in China. We visit America. But right now approximately everything we own is packed up in boxes, and we can’t go back to where we lived for four long years, and we won’t see our China friends for at least a year.

It’s just that we have repacked these bags over and over, and it will be at least a couple more months before we can really unpack and settle in. Somewhere that is yet to be determined.

It’s just that sometimes I lie awake at night thinking, “We don’t even have spoons. Or a broom. How are we going to live in yet-to-be-determined-housing without spoons or a broom?? It seems wasteful to buy a broom just for a year. Aren’t brooms kind of expensive? I don’t know how much brooms are. I don’t know how much anything is. How do we possibly budget for a year in America if we don’t even know how much a broom will cost?

“Where will we live and what will we do and what if we just spend this year wandering confusedly around grocery store aisle ranting to strangers about the meaninglessness of ten different varieties of canned tomatoes. Chopped, diced, stewed, seasoned, name brand, store brand – why are you ruining our lives?

“What if our friends don’t understand us and we don’t understand them? What if our kids talk about kuai and three wheeled vehicles and places in Thailand and everyone thinks they are too weird to bother with? What if they forget all their Chinese? What if they prefer America? What if we keep getting sick and nothing changes? What if we can’t go back to China, or back to our city, or back to our school?...”

It’s just that the things I packed and carefully portioned into four 23 kg suitcases plus carry-ons already confuse me. Why does Juliana have so many clothes and Nadia so few? Why did it seem so important to bring that book and not the other one? What happened to that game I was sure we packed? Why did we bring so much and it’s still not enough?

We painstakingly discussed which stuffed animals the girls would bring. Adalyn was definite: kitty, dolly, and worry-eater. She is not like Juliana, who sleeps with a pack of animals and panics if one falls under the bed. Adalyn’s animals stay in the suitcase or fall under the bed - she barely even cares they are there.

Until the night she lay in bed wailing, “I want my hedgehog! Where is hedgehog? I wanted to bring my hedgehog and you wouldn’t let me! I don’t want kitty!”

She was just tired. She was just reacting to Juliana’s temporarily missing hedgehog. She was just lashing out. She was just responding to the stress of sleeping in different beds in different cities and countries and not even knowing where your things are or if you will actually see them again and what if you made the wrong choice and brought the wrong things? What if you didn’t know what you really wanted?

The next morning she was fine. She hasn’t mentioned hedgehog since. But the feeling will continue to resurface.

We will keep traveling – another airplane, another country, another bed before eventually we settle and try to make ourselves fit into life somewhere for a year, less than a year. Knowing this is temporary, knowing that this is not the place we really live.

Maybe I will feel excited.

But for now, if you ask me, I will probably just look confused.

I’ll probably say, “Um, yeah? I guess so?”

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Snapshots of Transition

 ~ Known ~
“I will miss this next year,” I lamented, looking around at a group of mom friends. On a rare mom’s night, we sat talking about beach hotels we have all visited - sometimes at the same time, about the new international school, about our children’s Chinese language progress and willingness to interact with other Chinese kids, about what country we will be in at what time.
“When I am here, our life seems pretty normal, but when I am back in America I realize our lives are really weird! The simplest discussions – about backyards or buying cars or extracurricular activities – leave me feeling isolated.” Everyone nodded in understanding.
Because we do understand each other. We understand the stress of being the one fascinating foreigner at a Kindergarten meeting, trying to practice your language skills while chasing your toddler around and warding off picture takers when they get a little too enthusiastic. We understand the joy of hearing your children speak Chinese and interact with other Chinese kids – when a year ago they didn’t want to even try. We all understand the stress of 24+hour trips and jetlag and endless transitions.
Many of us in this expat community have “grown up together.” We have waded together through having babies that are never dressed in enough layers and toddlers who won’t sleep, preschoolers who don’t always want to go to Chinese kindergarten, and now grade school students with classroom drama. We talk about home school curriculum, 三轮车’s, and the new Burger King that just opened. We are from different states and different countries, but we seem to have more in common than not.
~ Stress-Induced Insanity ~
I wondered if spontaneous combustion really happens, because I could swear my head was going to explode. My heart beat strangely, my head pounded with too much blood, my nerves tingled. Everything sounded too loud and grating.
The girls were finally in bed, but I could still hear the lullaby shrilling from their China-gifted blinking, twirling star machine. It is supposed to be soothing, but it may cause seizures and certainly insanity. Kevin sat next to me, wondering at my blank silence. “Kevin, I need you to go out of here,” I said rather shortly. “I am too stressed to be with people right now.” I knew he didn’t quite understand. He feels stressed too, but it doesn’t seem to lead to stress-induced insanity, aka. extreme over-stimulation.
Fortunately as I have learned more about what it means to be highly sensitive, I can recognize what is happening. I am not going insane. But I might, unless I escape all the stimulation and be alone. So I sent Kevin away before I started yelling at him and told him for the love of all that is holy, turn off that horrible lullaby.
Sitting under a thick blanket on our bed in soft lamplight, with the door closed and ocean noise on, the pressure in my head began to release. It is worse with stress, I know. How do I balance the packing, the daily piles of laundry, handling the kids (better than I have been), the last minute obligations, this encroaching deadline, and my own need for sanity? Everywhere I look is a reminder of what needs to be done. The outside world of our home descends further into chaos, and the barrier between outer and inner world starts to disintegrate. How do I protect an inner peace?
~ Bittersweet ~
Juliana came home from her last day of international school with a personalized scrapbook. Each page holds notes from her teachers and pictures of her at school. In half of the pictures her hands are covered in paint and her face with a silly grin. There she is concentrating on the drums, acting in the Christmas pageant, studying Chinese. Her teachers write – in English and Chinese – about her sunny disposition, her silliness, her enthusiasm.
This was the school’s first semester, their “soft opening,” so all of the 30-some students are known well. The school has been flexible, allowing for part-time home school. They have made allowances for our kids’ strange, foreign ways. They have been understanding when we said, “Actually we need to go live in another country for a year, mid-school-year, so we’ll be back later.”
I think Juliana will enjoy public school in America next year, but there will be confusion. When she tries to add up American money she tries to remember which one is a kuai. She has now sorted out the American and Chinese flags, but she doesn’t know the Pledge of Allegiance or that most people in America, when asked where they are from, don’t say, “I’m from America,” or “I’m from China.” We are a little weird to Chinese and to Americans, but in this little in-between world of ours, we all make sense.
~ Stress Dreams ~
I have been having a lot of stress dreams. Lately I have varied from my ordinary stress dreams – realizing we are supposed to travel and I forgot to pack, or my recurring “out of control elevator” dream, where the elevator never goes where I want, but shoots up to the 157 floor, or down 47 floors below the ground, or leaves the building altogether and shoots across the street.
No, lately I have dreamed about a rapist serial killer and all the woman he molested, about Kevin rearranging all our cabinets in a way that made no sense, about going back to America and nobody having time to hang out with us, about Nadia running into the road and almost being run over by a car, and last night - about Steve Bannon getting into our house and snooping around, trying to extract information from us. So yes, stress nightmares. Thank God I don’t have prophetic dreams. I think I can understand why Adalyn keeps waking up screaming at night.
~ Heartbreak ~
Adalyn keeps waking up screaming at night. Sometimes it is night terrors. Sometimes she is awake but can’t seem to calm down.  Everything seems out of control, especially inside of herself.  She is excited about going back to America, but she is the most sensitive to upheaval. I try to figure out what is going on with her – is she reacting to our stress? Is it her own difficulty coping with transition? Is it something more? 
I took her out one afternoon. We ate ice cream in our coats and played a game and worked a puzzle and did a little activity about stress. I wasn’t sure she would even understand stress, but her insights were surprisingly deep for a four year old. Too deep for a four year old.  She used pictures and colors (my child for sure) to describe the fear and “break-fulness” she feels. I could understand how she felt, and it was heartbreaking. Surely a four year old should not feel this way. Is it the stress of transition? If it is, how will she ever survive this crazy life of ours? Is it something deeper? If so, how do we know what is going on and get her help?
~ Goodbyes ~
The milk tea lady gives me an extra kind smile whenever I see her. The shop workers exclaim when our girls wander through the store. Every time I drive up, our fruit lady gives the girls fruit and snacks, or asks about them when they aren't along. She gathers up a whole bag of “ugly” fruit and gives it to us for free. The neighbors smile with delight when they see us in a restaurant or at the kindergarten or on the road. “Look, there is 安安 and her sisters!” Everyone knows Juliana. The owners of our favorite restaurants will wonder, “What ever happened to those foreigners? We haven’t seen them in ages?” Because we can’t tell everyone we are leaving. But who should we be sure to tell goodbye?
~ Packing ~
The other day our friend watched the girls, and I had an hour to focus on packing. It is amazing how much can be accomplished without constant interruptions. I laid out all the dishes we didn’t absolutely need to use and wrapped them in layers of bedding. I was a little worried about them breaking, but then I realized these dishes have withstood years of hard use, so they have probably never been so safe in their lives. I felt pretty good after that hour. See all we accomplished? This is totally possible.
A few days and approximately zero packing later, I thought, “Surely I can get something done this morning.” Right after I put some laundry in to wash, and hang up that pile of clean clothes, and help Adalyn draw a Christmas tree and then draw one for Nadia too, and reheat my coffee, and clean up the contents of the previously packed bin which are now scattered on the floor, and oh, now it’s time to pick up Juliana from dance class. But I did pack a tiny ziplock for hair things, so that is progress, right? This is never going to work.
~ Messy ~
I have been reading a book called Looming Transitions, written by a past colleague Amy Young. In one chapter titled “Accept That It’s Going to Be Messy,” Amy says, “a sign of finishing well is the ability to embrace the chaos of life.” I want this ending – which is an ending, even if only for a time - to be neat and orderly. I want my responses to transition to make sense. But the truth is, it’s going to be messy.
We cannot pack up a house without piles of boxes, bags of trash and stacks of give away. Some things will be carefully wrapped up and others left behind; some things will inevitably be lost in the shuffle. I start by trying to divide everything into categories: books, toys, kitchen items. I end by throwing anything and everything into any box that will hold it. I think I have a box all packed and ready only to realize it has been upended, its contents scattered all over the floor by oh-so-helpful children.
We cannot transition without mess. I feel a grief at losing some of the things I value most. We look forward to returning to family and friends, but we leave behind friends who have become like family. Even if we return here, as we certainly plan, it will not be the same. Some people will be gone. China will be different, as it leaps decades – backwards or forwards – in a single bound. I feel relief at starting over, getting rid of some of the baggage we have carried from place to place, when we should have left it behind years ago. I hate the thought of starting over. I wish we could just keep doing the same thing, even if it is not working it is familiar.
"Embracing” the chaos seems a bit out of reach, but I take time away from the craze of packing to process and write. To stop and have coffee with friends. To draw a Christmas tree with my daughter. To make sure I am still breathing.  And then I dive back into the mess of transition.