Monday, March 4, 2019

The Other Normal Place

The view washing dishes at our friends' house.  We go down this road almost every day.  On clear days we can see the nearby mountains in the background.
 The first thing I noticed was the attention we attracted.  We had no sooner exited the international terminal than the sidelong glances and outright outright stares.  People shoved their children in our direction saying, “Look!  Foreigners!  Speak English – say hello.”  As we walked past we heard all the usual, “How cute!  Pretty girls!  They are like foreign dolls!”  People peered into the girls’ faces and took cell-phone photos.

As we boarded our last flight, Nadia was having a breakdown, understandable at hour 20 of travel.  “Mooom, people are staring because she is crying,” Juliana hissed.  “I think they are probably staring because we are the only foreigners around,” I replied.

What surprised me in the first days back was how normal everything seems.  I noticed the differences more, as I remembered how different everything is from America, but it is still familiar.

Bouncing along in our 三轮车 (three wheeled electric cart), we passed the water truck watering the roads while blasting out a cheery chorus of “It’s a small world after all.”  A dozen vehicles almost ran into each other or pedestrians without a single actual accident.  Passersby watched us and exclaimed all the usual, “Foreigners!  How cute!  They look like foreign dolls!”  The streets teemed with people – walking down sidewalks and on the road, weaving through on bicycles and motorbikes, bouncing along in their own three wheelers, and driving their new, meticulously clean cars.

Everywhere we go, people ask, “Are these three all yours?  Three girls? Girls are good.”  Then, “Do you want another one?  A boy is good!”
We are grateful to stay at our friends' apartment while ours looks like this
We parked our 三轮车 at the bottom of our apartment building and climbed up to the 5th floor.  Climbing stair felt more familiar to our minds than our bodies – we were out of breath by the top.  The apartment looked very familiar but also very messy.  The entire living room was piled with boxes, furniture, and pieces of wood that will once again become beds.   The girls played some game involving jumping up and down from the kitchen counter, while Kevin and I moved some furniture and discussed which areas needed intensive bleaching.  This will begin our 5th year in the same apartment – a record by far!
The girls played some kind of game that involved jumping on and off our kitchen counter
We stopped for noodles at our favorite noodle shop, and the owner remembered our “usual” order from a year ago! The noodles tasted just as good as we remembered.  It feels good to be remembered, not just as one of those foreigners, but recognized for ourselves and for our noodle preferences.

With less fondness we were re-aquanted with the pollution that dims the sun and conceals the nearby mountains.  Our first two days included the one water and two power outages.  I remembered the need for frequent laundry – tricky without power or water.  But at the end you are rewarded with a washing machine rendition of "Jingle Bells."

Has it really been a year since I hung wet clothes on a laundry porch and took down the stiff, dry clothes?  I remembered the dust and dirt that cover the girls’ clothes if they so much as step outside.  Of course, they rarely step outside without sitting/climbing/crawling/rolling on something.

Daily we remind our kids, “No shoes in the house! Don’t flush the toilet paper. Don’t rinse your mouth with the sink water. Don’t lean out of the 三轮车.  It is supposed to be nighttime, you need to try to sleep.”

We remember the generosity of friends here.  They have let us stay in their apartment while we prepare our own.  They made us bread and stocked us up with the basics like yogurt, bananas, and peanut butter.  They have invited us for meals.  We have had conversations about things many outside our circle wouldn’t understand but that effect us all deeply.

I feel a deep sense of community and also a sense of isolation.  We are surrounded by millions of people who are all the same (not really of course, but more than you may think) and all different from us.  However much we may try to fit in we will always and forever be obviously different, as we are reminded by every stare we receive and every piece of bread that we eat.  It is tiring, sometimes, being so foreign.

I sense an intangible heaviness, much more apparent after being away for a while.  It is a hard place to live, harder in some ways that we realize.  The heaviness becomes a part of us, a weight we forget influences our everyday lives.  But in that heaviness, more than ever we cling to the rock that is higher.  We know we need strength greater than our own.

Sometimes (okay, a lot of times) I find it easy to focus on the hard stuff.  “These 24 hour trips are ridiculous.  Other people don’t have to do that.  Poor us without our dishwashers or pre-washed vegetables.  Why are we constantly saying goodbyes to friends around the world?”

But I also feel a lot of gratitude.  How great is it to think about all the wonderful people we know in Georgia and California and China and many other places around the US and the world!  Everywhere we go we meet new awesome people.  It is enough to give you faith in humanity.  We live this crazy life of hoping from one side of the globe to another with a mere 24hr trip.  We leave one normal world and another familiar world is waiting for us on the other side.
Re-aqcuanting ourselves with some favorite dishes

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Transition is complicated. Kind of like spinach.

“So how do you feel about going back?”

It’s a reasonable question, and I appreciate people asking.  It’s also one of those stupidly difficult ones, like, “Where do you live? Do you love China? Do you love America?”

Almost exactly a year ago I sat in a hotel room in limbo between our life in China and our year in America, and I wrote about the equally hard question, “Are you excited about going back to America?”  I didn’t know how to answer that one either.

How do I feel about going back?  I’d say I feel all the things. If I were an emoji I would have at least three heads: wailing head, smiling head, stress head. Stress over packing and trying to get all of our prescriptions in time.  Grief over saying goodbyes and leaving this place where we have settled for a year.  Grief for the goodbyes and transitions my kids have to go through again and the difficulties they will face.  Anticipation of getting settled back into our own familiar space where we lived for four years.  Anxiety over how much our community and the environment of our city has changed in the last year.  Eagerness to see friends we have missed.

I am a pre-griever.  I feel all the sadness before something happens, dreading the coming change.  I have been known to feel sad about Juliana going away to kindergarten and to college at the same time.  My pre-grieving knows no bounds.  But once the dreaded event occurs, it is easier.  Once I get on the plane, I can focus on what is ahead.

I also know that adaptability is not one of my strengths.  When I face going anywhere, I always think, “Or we could just stay here...”  It doesn't help when the first step is 30 hours of travel. I like the familiar and have very low desire for adventure.  Maybe in spite of or because of living in China, I love stability and routine and everything staying the same.  Fortunately I have been through enough transition to have gained a self-awareness.  I never want to leave, but when I get there it will be okay.  Right now everything seems up in the air and the room is cluttered with suitcases, but one day soon we will be settled again.

When I think about going back, what I look forward to most is the familiarity.  I think of our apartment and how it will look once we have everything unpacked and organized.  I think of our friends who are still there, ones that we know and understand, and who will understand all the feelings that come with transition.  I think about the familiar roads we drive down every day, and about the familiar faces – the fruit seller, the restaurant owners, the neighbors.

When we have been in China for a while, I will think, “I cannot imagine living in America.  What would that even be like?  What would it be like not to live here?  This is our life.  This is normal.”  But in those first days back, I know I will look around at the dull gray skies and the dull gray buildings and wonder, “Why are we here?  Why is everything ugly? Why would we choose this?”  It takes a while to notice the glimpses of beauty.

Similarly, when I first get back to America I always think, “This place is crazy.  I cannot imagine living here.  Look at the size of these houses! How much everyone thinks they need to own!  Why are there so many choices??”  But after so long in America – a full year – I think, “It’s pretty nice here. I could get used to this.  We could settle in and our kids could go to school, we could keep going to our church, we could drive around in a van and fill up a closet.”

So there is always an inner conflict.  America is so in-your-face prettier and easier and bigger and has ten options of anything you could ever want.  China has to grow on you.  Everything is harder but also simpler.  In China, I would love to buy one of those pre-washed bags of spinach and skip the whole process of “wash with soap, rinse really well until the water is no longer dirty, rinse with drinking water, dry completely and use in the next day before it wilts.”

But there is also something wholesome about stepping into the tiny vegetable shop or bending down over the blanket of vegetables along the side of the road.  In the middle of the city, there is something grounding about spinach covered with dirt, a reminder it came out of the ground not a factory.  It was probably carted into the city on one of those incredibly loud banging tractors and sold by the farmers, directly to us or to the vegetable shop.  And I probably bought it for 40 cents.

So my feelings about China are kind of like spinach.  I miss the ease and convenience of sanitized spinach in a fancy container inside a ridiculously clean supermarket, but I also enjoy the connection I feel through my dirt-covered spinach sold in a cold, cramped vegetable hut by the same person I see every time, who tells me if my kids are wearing enough clothes or not.

In fact, maybe this will be my new analogy.  “How do I feel about going back to China?  Well it's complicated; kind of like spinach."

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

One Word for 2018: Restore

I have never been into New Years Resolutions. In lieu of resolutions, a few years ago I jumped on the One Word bandwagon, where you choose one word you want to define the year. Some of my words have worked out great and ended up being a very meaningful theme of the year, like the Year of Grace. Other years did not turn out at all like I hoped.

I had a word in mind at the beginning of the year, but I didn’t ever fully commit. For one thing, we were in the middle of moving and transitioning back to the US for a year, and I had a few other things to think about. I also felt reluctant to commit myself to something that I wasn’t sure would happen. The word I flirted with was “restore,” but it was more of a hope than a resolution.

We spent this year in the US with the specific purpose of seeking healing and restoration, and we were committed to actively work toward this end. We attended a debriefing and renewal retreat that got us started in digging deeper into how we got to this place of depression, sickness, and burnout.

We saw dozens of doctors about various medical complaints, some we had put off for many years. I found a psychiatrist and began regular counseling, both a first in my years of depression and anxiety. Kevin had a break from the stresses of teaching and dealing with challenging school situations. In the fall I had a break from home schooling, and family provided a lot of help with the girls.

We were not passive in our quest for health. But at the beginning of the year, I had trouble believing that any of these things would actually make a difference. In the midst of depression, it is so hard to believe you CAN get better. When something is wrong inside of your mind, what can you do outside that would possibly heal you? We were so worn down after surviving for so long, we couldn’t see what doing well would look like.

It has been a slow process. I came back to the US this year thinking I was over depression, only to discover that wasn’t true at all. I reluctantly began to understand that depression will very likely always be a part of my life - hopefully something I will be able to manage well, but never something I can ignore.

I asked my psychiatrist if I would always need to be on antidepressants and she said, “Well, it depends. Do you want to go back to feeling like you did before?” Hmm. I really wanted to be a person who could stop taking medicine and be all better. It takes a mindset change to accept that for me, this is a chronic illness. But I also feel more hopeful. In understanding my depression I can give myself permission to get the help I need. I can open myself to the possibility – through medication and prioritizing mental health – that I really can do well.

This year we have enjoyed amazing physical health. Well, Kevin had a couple of hospitalizations. That was not amazing. He avoided the majority of the last couple of years of sickness, so this year was probably worse for him health-wise. And we had the usual sicknesses, but compared to the last few years it was pretty amazing. We had long stretches of time when everyone was healthy. Our bodies finally had the chance to recover enough to rebuild our immune systems. And nobody got pneumonia!!

We are not completely healthy and mentally stable and perfect, unfortunately. We have spent the last couple of weeks of the year with sickness and asthma flare-ups. Sickness is always discouraging, but it is part of life, not necessarily the start of another season of continual sickness. We are still striving to function better as a family.

However, looking back to where we were at the beginning of 2018, we have come a long way. Slowly, over time, we have built up the inner resources that were so depleted. We can look on the challenges and stresses that will face us in China and still want to return.

When I look toward 2019, I have no idea what it will be like. I’ve stopped trying to predict the future. We are setting plans in place for how to operate better in China. We are prepared to do what is in our power to stay healthy. We also know how much is outside of our control. It’s hard to live very long in China without adopting a somewhat fatalistic mindset.

I can’t see what the future holds, but I can look back and see where we have come. I picture Samuel, setting up an Ebeneezer stone and declaring, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” We did as much as we could, but in the end the restoration was not in our hands. We can look back and see God was faithful to bring it about. We can walk into the new year with confidence, whatever it holds, knowing the Lord goes ahead of us and will continue his work of restorations.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Oddly Missing Christmas in China

“Christmas this year didn’t feel quite like Christmas,” Juliana said last night before bedtime.
“What do you mean?” I asked
“We didn’t get to see any friends.”
“Well, Christmas is usually a holiday you spend with family, not so much with friends.”
Juliana responded, “We do. In China. I miss Christmas in China.”

I was struck by her response. I had an idea in my head of what “normal” Christmas is like. Christmas is family time. Except in China, we aren’t with family. We do spend our Christmas with friends. And if  5 of your 8 Christmases have been spent in China, naturally your version of normal is a little different.

This exchange also struck me because I was feeling the same way. I have only spent 9 out of 35 Christmases in China, so my view of “normal” is still pretty American. But those 9 China Christmases have taken place over the last 13 years, and we have developed our own new normal.

Still, who wouldn’t love extra Christmas celebrations with many more presents than normal? Christmas programs and Christmas lights and Christmas music on the radio. The month of December becomes Everything Christmas.

In China, we miss Christmas in America. We miss the resources to make all kinds of Christmas cookies. We miss stores decorated for Christmas and selling at least some classy Christmas decorations. We miss candlelight Christmas Eve services. We miss Christmas morning with family and stockings over the fireplace.

This year in America, I found myself oddly missing Christmas in China. For starters, the whole month of November becomes Everything Christmas and that is just morally wrong. By the time you should even be starting to think about Christmas, you feel kind of over it.

There are so many Christmas activities – performances, parades, services, visiting Santa (which we didn’t actually get around to), Christmas craft days, Christmas parties – it’s fun to experience and also a bit overkill. It bombards you at every turn. It is not something you make happen – it happens to you. It sweeps by you in a flurry of busyness.

Christmas in China is whatever you make it to be. There is no pressure to do all the Christmas things because they don’t exist. We do lights and make cookies because that feels like Christmas. We light our advent wreath. Every year I try unsuccessfully to make our tree not look tacky. We Skype with family. We gather with teammates for a potluck and gift exchange.

We don’t drive past houses strung with lights (we also don’t pass any houses, so there’s that). We string our own lights inside our apartment windows and enjoy knowing that our neighbors will see them, the only lights around. We don’t listen to Christmas music on the radio, partly because our little three-wheeled electric cart is conspicuously missing a sound system. But at home we do listen to our favorite Christmas albums on the computer.

We make wrapping paper out of decorative book-covering paper. Last year when I bought an interesting variety of paper from the stationary shop, the owner excitedly pointed out to another customer - “She is buying paper for Christmas presents!” I have even wrapped presents in pillowcases and scarves or out of pretty, recycled shopping bags, which is very eco-friendly and also convenient when that’s what you have.

We celebrate St. Lucia Day, in honor of our own Lucia and of our Norwegian friends. We dance around the Christmas tree, remembering this special tradition shared by our Norwegian and Scottish friends years ago when our children were very small.

Some years, we have our own candlelight service. It much simpler and smaller than the polished mega-church variety we attended this year. We sit around a living room with a small group of other people who become our overseas family, children crawling around, maybe some fireworks going off in the background, singing to music from YouTube. It is anything but polished, but in spite of or because of that, somehow it is wonderfully meaningful. So yes, I guess normally we do celebrate Christmas with friends.

I don't want to idealize Christmas in China, because it is often very hard. December is a dark, cold month. It always seems to be a difficult time of year, often filled with sickness and discouragement.  We wish we could be near family and attend Christmas activities.  We feel jealous of everyone celebrating what appears to be picture-perfect Christmases.

We had lots of Christmas this year, more than usual in every way. We got to be with family and do Everything Christmas. We enjoyed it, it was just...different.  This is just the way it is - nothing will be quite normal again, as we split our life and affections between two different worlds.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

You Might Have Been in America Too Long When...

We have now been back in the America for over 10 months. 10 months! That is by far the longest we have been here since we got married 11 years ago. When you spend that much time in your own country, you start adjusting your behaviors and expectations, until America starts to seem pretty normal.

You know you have been in America too long when…
  1. You say, “I don’t really feel like Mexican food today.”
  2. You find yourself drinking ice water – IN THE WINTER.
  3. You start to take closets for granted.
  4. Burger King is not the best burger you’ve had all year.
  5. You send your child to school in one layer when there is frost on the ground, and nobody even scolds you.
  6. You don’t even stop in the cereal aisle.
  7. You complain that the door locks aren’t your temperature controlled, shock-absorbing, faster than 30mph, fully enclosed and locking CAR.
  8. You don’t go into fast food and gas station bathrooms thinking, “This is so much nicer than my bathroom.”
  9. You think that drive thru and grocery pickup and prepaid mailing labels are quite normal.
  10. You stop wondering what the neighbors will think, because you don’t have a couple hundred of them seeing and hearing all the screaming through windows, walls, and floors.
  11. There is only one Chinese person at the park who is eyeing you...because there is only one Chinese person at the park.
  12. Nobody comes up and awkwardly asks you in English, “Hello! Are you American?” but you go up to the Chinese person at the park and awkwardly ask in Chinese, “Hello! Are you Chinese?”
  13. It seems normal to have so much stuff you need an attic, a basement, and/or a storage shed in the backyard.
  14. You start to take for granted that you can send your kids off to school where someone keeps them all day and is responsible for making sure they learn everything – for FREE!
  15. Your kids get super excited about rice and even more excited about jiaozi (potstickers).
  16. You start thinking of all these ways you will HGTV and Container Store your apartment when you get back.
  17. Your kids have twice as many toys and yet somehow still have less than most of their friends.
  18. You feel annoyed when it takes a minute for the water to heat up in the sink, even though you have hot water in the sink.
  19. You take for granted the DISHWASHER.
  20. You stop noticing when other parents take their babies out shockingly under-dressed.
  21. You start getting all paranoid about safety, even though your kids have probably never been safer in their lives (school shootings not-withstanding).
  22. You don’t eat avocado every day.
  23. Your family hasn’t flown, even domestically, in NINE months.
  24. You think it’s a pain to drive 45 minutes to get immunizations, even though in the past you have taken 24-48 hour round-trips to get immunizations.
  25. You start thinking that maybe it wouldn’t be too weird to live in America.
But then you go back to China and everything rights (or possibly wrongs) itself. It all depends on your perspective.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Sometimes We Get the Chance to Say Goodbye

When we left to come back to the US this year, our friends kept asking, “Are you coming back? How sure our you that you will be back?” They weren’t asking because they found us to be naturally untrustworthy people but because they recognize the reality of our transient community. I would usually answer, “Yes, we are definitely coming back as far as we can foresee. As far as it depends on us. As long as nothing big happens. We are leaving all our possessions here and saying, “See you next year,” not “I may not see you again ever.”

We feel a fear whenever someone leaves, or even talks about leaving, because we know none of this is forever. Not in a “the earth is temporal and not our home” kind of philosophic way but in a very practical sense, we are continually reminded of the tentative nature of our lives.

When we left China, another family from our city left at the same time, knowing that they probably would not be back. They were our friends, former classmates, our playgroup buddies. Our two oldest were international school classmates. Our two middles were best friends. Our two youngest were preschool classmates. But we were able to say goodbye and send them off to their home country, even though we would probably never see them again.

After we were back in the US, we heard that another family unexpectedly left our city to return to their home country where we will probably never see them again. Juliana’s teacher that she loved left our city and will not be back. Another family, in a nearby city, told us this summer they would not be back. Just now we learned from another family in our city, our good friends, that they will be leaving in a few months, before we get back. These times, we do not get to say goodbye.

Sometimes we, and they, can plan ahead. We knew that several friends would be leaving before we returned (in addition to the aforementioned ones). Some other friends, who have lived in China for over 25 years, have already been making plans to return to the US next summer. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, the move is sudden. We don’t have the chance for goodbyes. And so we hold a certain fear. Will they return? Will they stay? Will I see them again?

In the US we like to believe we control our own destinies, if we believe it we can achieve it, we can set goals and make them come true, we can do anything, nothing can stop us. We choose our jobs and our homes and our cars, maybe our children’s schools and our city or neighborhood. We have so many options that we can believe we are in control of everything – until a terrible diagnosis, or a tragic loss, or a sudden layoff.

In our lives overseas, most of those illusions are stripped away and we wonder what in the world we are left to control. We may lose our friends and our children’s friends. We may lose our most of what we own. We may have to leave because of our health or parent’s health or children’s well-being or because we are no longer welcome. We may lose our jobs and our schools and our homes and our way of life all in one blow. We carry this possibility with us each day, not because we are doomsday thinkers or extreme pessimists but because know these are realistic possibilities.

Lately I have been feeling this grief. Loss of friends. Loss of control. Loss of security. The uncertainty of the future. And the continual goodbyes. How many goodbyes, most likely permanent goodbyes, have I said in these years? Another year, another dozen goodbyes. I am tired of saying goodbyes, but I am grateful for each time I get to say them. I know that sometimes we won’t have that chance.

We tend to run in one of two directions. Sometimes we close ourselves off to friendships because who knows how long they will be here anyway. We don’t fix up the apartment because what if we have to move again next year? Sometimes we cling to things tightly in the hopes they won’t slip through our fingers. But we can never cling tightly enough to keep change at bay, and the loss tears us apart.

The only way I see through it is by holding our hearts out, and holding them loosely. We have to keep investing in people and a country, loving others, settling in however temporarily. We have to accept that change and loss are inevitable, that however hard we try we are not in control. Then when change and loss happens, we grieve in whatever ways we do it best. We allow our hearts to break and then be remade.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

What does a depressed person look like?

“Everyone has a story or a struggle that will break your heart. And, if you’re really paying attention, most people have a story that will bring you to your knees.” - Brene Brown

You may look around and think, “I don’t know anyone who is depressed.” Probably most people you know look normal. Functional. Together.

We all want to look like we have it together. It might be okay to struggle because of some obvious and outward and universally understood circumstance, but not too deeply or too long. We should be able to get over it and move on. If everything is going okay in our lives, we should be okay.

Except that the outside doesn't always mirror the inside. Even when we are barely functioning, we seem to cling to this social code. We smile and keep it together because that is the appropriate way to behave around others.  And when we can't manage to keep it together, we hide away so nobody knows we are falling apart.

So what does a depressed person look like?

They may look successful.  Maybe they have awards and scholarships and smiles.  They may wonder what is wrong with them, what is this fatal flaw that makes them so desperately miserable.

They may be surrounded by friends, such good friends they even wear matching clothes!  They may socialize in the dorm and go out with friends on Friday nights.  In between they may lie on the floor crying alone, wanting to live but not sure if they can survive.

They may look adventurous and daring, striking out on their own in the world.  They may love their job, feeling a sense of calling and purpose.  They may wonder if they are worthy of taking up space in the world.

They may have the life and the family they wanted.  They may feed and clothe and bathe their children, and even smile at their antics.  They may be crushed by the weight of trying to get through another day.

Each one of these pictures represents a time when I was severely depressed. In only one of these times did someone else know that I was depressed.  How is that, when I had friends and family - close friends even, and family who cared about me?  It is because you can't always see depression from the outside.

When I look back on these pictures I feel the disconnect.  I do have good memories.  I did smile and laugh and do things with friends.  I got good grades, taught well, was a pretty decent mom.  And yet I also remember what I felt like inside. I remember the palatable darkness that threatened to swallow me, the gaping emptiness, the deep exhaustion from acting like I was okay.  I remember questioning the will - or desire, or ability - to live.

How can this paradox exist?  And how can we ever see what someone is feeling on the inside when we are so good at hiding it?

Maybe we can't see it.  Maybe we have to hear it.  We hear it because we are listening.  We enable them to be open and honest because we have been open and honest.  We fight down the urge to give advice or judge or swoop in and rescue; instead we just listen. We don't even encourage or offer solution or try to drag them out of the pit - not yet.  First we step into their pain and sit with them.  We say, "I'm here," and then we stay.

"In the deepest, night-blind fathoms you're certain that you're alone. You aren't. I'm there with you. And I'm not alone. Some of the best people are here too...feeling blindly. Waiting. Crying. Surviving. Painfully stretching their souls so that they can learn to breathe underwater...So that they can live."
- Jenny Lawson

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Living Well as a Highly Sensitive Person (Guest Post)

I mentioned in the past my "aha" moment of realizing I was a highly sensitive person.  I didn't even know what that meant before, but it has helped to explain so much about my experience of life!  Maybe you suspect you are highly sensitive (here's a quiz you can take), you think your child may be (there's a quiz for that too!), or you know someone who is.  If so, you will certainly benefit from today's post.

Today's post is by Candace Nisbett McCallister, one of the first people I heard talk about being "highly sensitive." At the time I didn't understand what that meant.  I approached her about writing about this topic because I knew she had a lot of wisdom to share. I was not disappointed, and I don't think you will be either.

How does being HSP influence you positively and negatively?
On the positive side, I think that being highly sensitive helps me to live a more balanced, simple life. Some people can simply keep going despite all the pressure and overwhelming stimuli, but I will shut down or break down. This is actually a gift, because it makes taking care of myself and creating sustainable rhythms a requirement in my life.

The darker side of it is that I often feel like I'm not capable of accomplishing as much as those who are less sensitive. I know that I wouldn't be able to sustain that kind of schedule or pressure for very long, so I choose to do less. And doing less can feel like I'm behind or less successful than my peers.

In what situations do you most often find yourself getting overstimulated?
I get overstimulated when I am in large groups of people with lots of noise and activity. I can handle these best if I find a small group of people to connect with. The absolute worst place for me is probably the mall. The smells from the food stations (soft pretzels, imitation international foods), from the products at various stores (bath products, shoe stores), and from cleaning products used - all combined with crowds, noise levels, and hundreds of signs to read - about puts me over the edge. Decision-making is hard for me in general, but in this environment, I start to get really anxious. I have also heard that there is a high level of EMF transmission in malls (from the high concentration of electronic devices), and this can affect highly sensitive people. I personally avoid malls at all costs. And, when I've gone, it usually takes me a couple of hours to decompress or "detox" from that environment.

How do you manage oversimulation in daily life?
Over the years, I have found lots of ways to make my life more calm and manageable. For me, avoiding certain environments most of the time is important. This does not mean I'm afraid of these places; I just know how I feel when I go there. So, I make a plan and give myself a lot of grace and level-headed support. For instance, I can make a shopping trip more doable by not bringing all the children with me or by making a list and a plan ahead of time. I can choose to shop at places where I feel more peaceful.

I make sure that I have time alone to be quiet and free for a couple of hours each week. This makes all the difference in the world. It is worth hiring a babysitter, being less productive, or inconveniencing other people. Time alone, not in front of a screen, is very rejuvenating for me. I am a different person when I have this in my life.

I keep my house as decluttered as possible. A clean and orderly living space makes a huge difference in my ability to handle other stimuli coming my way - kids crying, extra tasks, etc. Having one room that stays fairly clean and decluttered is a must for me to be able to focus and relax. My husband and I have found that if we have a conversation in a space where things are neat and orderly, I am able to focus much better without thinking of a hundred other things I should be doing.

I do not keep things in my home that are sensitivity triggers - chemicals, loud toys, scented candles. It's crazy how a certain item - like a piece of furniture or toy can drive me NUTS. I am learning to use common sense and just pass those items along to the thrift store.

I actively practice self care - nourishing my body, stretching, exercising, taking epsom salt baths, getting enough sleep, reading books I enjoy, taking classes and pursuing my own interests and dreams. I also get outside every day - barefoot on the earth, if possible. There is a lot of research around this type of "grounding" and how it helps bring health and stability to the body.

Meditation or prayer every single day is a must. Even five or ten minutes each day makes a difference. In the swirling mass of stimuli that result in overthinking and "noise" of all sorts, a little quiet and listening for God's voice can calm the storms around me and change the way I see it all.

I use mantras a lot. I really like Louise Hay's affirmations. I use this one often: "My life is simple and easy. All that I need in any given moment is revealed to me." The first time I read it, I laughed out loud. I have never been one to think life was easy. But the more I say it, the more I believe it. By living more in the moment, I find that what I need to do in that moment is actually quite simple.

I also do regular detoxification, as I think both emotions and toxins seem to build up in my system more easily than with other people. Many of the methods above actually help the body detox. I also do intentional detoxes twice a year. A good cry can make a world of difference in helping balance hormones and detox the body. I love to sweat, use saunas, and get regular massages (which is easier for me because I can do massages for others and then trade for my own). I also use supplements, herbs, certain foods, and foot baths to aid detoxification.

How did you recognize your child was highly sensitive?
My son was a little sensitive as a baby, but mostly I would say he was happy and fairly flexible. We moved when he was two, and things began to shift. He experienced a lot of change in a short amount of time - two changes of homes, lots of visitors, the birth of a baby sister, and (I believe) some additional toxin exposure in the city. He began to be inconsolable often and to have outbursts of rage or crying. It was different than what people describe as "the terrible twos or threes." People confronted us about it. We felt worried. He started to have the classic signs of sensory processing disorder - bothered by loud sounds, certain clothing aspects, and pickiness around food and certain products.

What have you found helpful for a highly sensitive child?
When my son was three, we decided to cut out food dyes and preservatives and followed the Feingold Diet for awhile. This was a huge support to my son's system.

We also had to be extra-gentle with him. He was very good at expressing himself through words, but it took him a lot of emoting to get there sometimes. We had to decide what was worth the struggle and what wasn't. We had to learn to believe that what he was going through was real and not just defiance or disobedience. He had a lot of trouble falling asleep for years, and I would spend the time it took to help him decompress and go to sleep at night. Getting enough sleep really helped him to function better, so putting in the extra work in the evenings was worth it.

He had a resurgence of these issues just a few years ago, and we did some functional lab testing and found that he was high in some heavy metals. Addressing this through a holistic health approach has been a significant help to him. Still, he is a sensitive kid. He needs time alone outside every day. He gets overwhelmed when our schedules are busy or he has to be around people a lot without a break. He is still affected by eating certain foods. It can be hard to control all these factors on vacation or when staying with family, yet I have found it is worth it to support his body as much as possible and also plan in time for him to be alone and decompress.

With all of this, it can sound like we're just being too soft - like we need to suck it up and deal with it. But for HSP's, that really exacerbates the problem and puts you in the path of an even larger break down. Being aware and planning for what is needed is worth the time and the sacrifices.

What would you want others to understand about highly sensitive people? 
I think it is worth noting that we all live in an overstimulating world right now. No one is immune to this, although many people seem to be more resilient or have a greater tolerance for overstimulation. I often think that those of us who are sensitive are like the canaries that were sent into the mines to test the air quality. They were more sensitive and responded more quickly. The miners would have ended up dying as well, just not as quickly. Those of us who are sensitive react more quickly to the bombardment of chemicals, busy-ness, EMF, advertising, and fast-paced lifestyles. Everyone is affected by it, but we are like a gauge showing the rest of the world that this isn't working.

I want other people to understand that this is a gift to everyone. If those around us will listen, will believe us, and will support us in slowing down and living intentionally, everyone wins in the end. Be kind and gentle with the HSP in your life. Believe them the first time they say something, and support them in getting what they need. Those of us who are highly sensitive to overstimulation are also very sensitive to the subtle. We are often great listeners, healers, gardeners, cooks, artists, or writers. It's to our benefit and yours if we learn self awareness and healthy boundaries, for we have a lot of beauty and hope to offer the world.

You can check out Candace's work as a natural health practitioner at

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