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.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

One Word for 2017...with 5 days to spare

I am in the anti-resolution camp. I was trying to figure out why. Maybe it’s because I am too pessimistic and cynical. Maybe it’s because life has seemed so out of my control in the past few years. Maybe it’s because my failure meter is too high – I already know I won’t meet up to my standards this year, why set up something to specifically remind myself of how I don’t measure up? I understand the purpose of resolutions is to actually meet them, but how often does that truly happen?
Although I don’t make resolutions, the past few years I have started doing one word for the year. This has its own hashtag #OneWord365 so you know it is a real thing. The idea is to choose a word that you want the year to encapsulate or that you want to focus on.
I thought about my word last January. I thought of choosing Light. I was thinking a lot about light, being so surrounded by darkness, but it seemed too abstract. I thought about Restore. I knew we needed restoration and I thought that we had passed the worst part of depression and sickness and surely things would start looking up after the new year.
Then I spent most of January and February completing our “world hospital tour.” The flu in Cambodia, a terrible stomach bug in Thailand, another stomach bug in Myanmar. When we finally had a month of health, I realized that despite the relief antidepressants had brought, I was still having trouble completing simple daily tasks. We took a trip to Beijing so I could get a few days of counseling, because that kind of help is 500 miles away. Then we came back and I got pneumonia and the semester ended in a fog of sickness that reached ridiculous proportions.
So I forgot about choosing a word for the year. I’m glad I didn’t choose a word last January because once again the year has not turned out at all like I would have planned or hoped. This was not a year of restoration, more of demolition. Although I have realized that the mess of tearing down is often the first step of building up something new.
But now, five days before the end of the year, I would like to choose my word for 2017. The timing seems entirely appropriate for the year it has been. Despite the ridiculousness and difficulty of the past year, as I look back I realize it hasn’t been terrible.
It’s funny that I would think this because I also feel that most things have not gone well this year. Way too much pneumonia and asthma and flu. Crappy discipline, too much anger, and out of control children. Little contact with students and sometimes with the outside world in general. Not enough exercise and too much stress eating. Pretty much nothing that would be described as success.
The other day I got an email from a wise friend who understands. She said, “There is a lot that I don't know about my identity right now, but I do know that I have been faithful... And that is what the Lord asks of us…"
And despite all the failings, all that was out of our control and didn’t go how we wanted, this is what I see looking back on this year. We have been faithful.
We stayed when things were hard and we were just trying to keep everyone alive another day, trusting that God would care for us and provide what we needed. And he did – not at all in the way I would have asked for it. We sought help when we needed it. We have made the difficult decision to uproot our family for a year for the sake of our health and well-being, trusting that God will work out all the overwhelming details - details like where we will live and work in America and where we will live and work when we come back.
More than that, God has been faithful. He has sustained us when I wasn’t sure I could carry on. In faithfulness he afflicted us, even when it didn’t make a lot of sense at the time. In faithfulness he has torn down the old and dying things inside us to prepare a way for something new. In faithfulness, he has given us more of himself – his strength, his consolation, his grace – when we had nothing left in ourselves.
Sometimes I think we have been faithful because we had to rely on God. I feel like Peter when he said, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” It’s not that I have great faith. I don’t even feel like a very good Christian sometimes. But I don't know how to live without God.  His story is so wrapped up in me and in this past year, I couldn’t begin to unravel it. I couldn’t tell you where the ordinary ended and the sacred began. It seems that more often than not, the terrible and the beautiful danced hand in hand.
So my word for the year is Faithful. When I look back, I see a LOT of sickness, a lot of trials, a lot of surviving. But over it all I see that we stayed faithful to the One who was faithful to us. Oh, we have not been successful, but we have been faithful. And I think, actually, that has been enough.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Joy Belongs to Us

We were healthy the entire first week of December. Adalyn and I had just recovered from the stomach bug that wiped us out after Thanksgiving, and we made it all the way until the evening of December 7th before Adalyn came down with a fever.

That first week of December, we put up our Christmas decorations. We had a magically calm cookie decorating experience. We lit our first advent candle, the candle of Hope, and I felt hope that our life could actually be manageable. I sorted through the girls clothes, and our jumbled medicine stash, and eliminated unneeded kitchen items. We couldn’t really pack anything yet, but I did what I could to get rid of anything we didn’t really need. Purging brings me inner peace.

A surprisingly peaceful cookie decorating experience

But the feeling peace did not last for long. The day we lit the second advent candle, the Peace candle, Nadia was already down with a fever. “It shouldn’t be too bad,” I thought. Adalyn only had a few days of cough and congestion, so I expected something similarly mild.

Instead Nadia’s fever continued, and she lay listlessly in our arms, half asleep. On Wednesday, I was worried enough to call the pediatrician. After Nadia submitted to her examination without any resistance, the doctor said she had pneumonia and a double ear infection. Her fever, heart rate, and breathing rate were all high, and her oxygen levels were low. The doctor had us start her on a high dose of antibiotics and keep a close eye on her. “If she gets any worse, she needs to go to the hospital for oxygen.”
Sad, listless baby
It was appropriate that this was the week of Peace, because I felt anything but peace. I was so anxious I couldn’t think straight. I tried to count simple numbers to figure out her breathing rate, but I could not make sense of them. I kept reminding myself to breathe. My head was pounding from headache and fear. I sent 20 emails back and forth with my mom and doctor-sister trying to figure out what to do. I have never been so worried about one of my children before, as I listened to her struggle to breathe, as I watched her oxygenation numbers, as she lay listlessly across my chest.

At the hospital the next morning, the children’s waiting area was overflowing with sick children: babies crying, children coughing, some sounding even worse than Nadia. Dozens of parents and grandparents watched us curiously, ever the spectacle, but we were all in this together, worried and waiting.
The children's injection room at the hospital
We were happy to return home after a few hours, but we almost headed straight back when her oxygen levels dropped dangerously low that afternoon. What relief to see the difference albuterol made! After an exhausting morning, carrying Nadia all around the hospital, the rest of the day and night were still stressful, monitoring her breathing, trying to decide if she needed to go back to the hospital. Late that night her oxygen level dropped disturbingly low, and we were already out the door to the hospital when her breathing improved dramatically.
She finally got an inhaler like her sisters
We lost sleep over worry about her breathing, over waking up frequently to give her medicine during the night, and over the effects of the medicine – Nadia was so hyped up she was running around crazy at midnight. Instead of napping, she has been climbing out of her crib. But finally she was breathing. Her fever dropped, she started eating some, she played and danced and climbed on the washing machine to explore the medicine cabinet and grabbed a cleaver in the kitchen. Back to the normal worries about keeping her alive.

Yesterday we started the week of Joy. I struggle with joy more than the others. I am grateful for the promise of hope, I easily recognize the need for peace in the midst of my panic, but joy feels like a pressure. I should feel joy.

Joy belongs to those other people – the ones with the matching Christmas trees and prettily wrapped presents and smiling children. The ones who like the happy carols instead of the wistful ones, who run around doing fun Christmas activities, who are full of optimism.

Not the ones ready to sweep all the clutter straight into the trash, or the ones who whisper-yell at their children, “Go. To. SLEEP. Don’t you dare wake up your little sister!!” with angry eyes in the dark. Not the ones still scrambling to get presents ordered, or the ones with lights burned out two-thirds of the Christmas tree. Joy doesn’t belong to us.

Last week I thought, “You know, this December has still been better than last year.” Which just goes to shows how terrible the last one was. This time last year, as I sat covered by the blackness of winter and sickness and depression, I wrote about waiting for the light. I certainly wasn't feeling the joy; I was just hoping to survive a few more weeks.
Adalyn Lucia leading our St. Lucia Day procession last week. Lucia means "bringer of light."
And I remembered again: we aren’t the ones who have to make the joy happen. Anymore than we are ones creating peace or hope. A star bore witness to generations of hope finally fulfilled. Peace was not a silent night and an anglo-saxon baby who didn’t cry; He himself is our peace. The angel didn’t say, “Hey shepherds, get your joy on!” No, he came to tell them that joy had already arrived - joy in the most ordinary form of a newborn baby.

Next week is the week of Love. And for you and for me it may be a week of whining and snapping and arguments and comparison and imperfection. We can be pretty bad at loving one another. What relief to realize Christmas is not about our love, it is how great the love the Father has lavished upon us.

Sometimes we feel the joy and warmth and love. Sometimes we wait for it. At Christmastime, as nights reach their longest, the darkness seems to be winning, and some years the darkness steals straight into our hearts. But there is a Light that shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

We are the ones who wait. Expectantly, imperfectly, empty.

Joy belongs to us.

He did not wait till the world was ready,
til men and nation were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady
and prisoners cried out for release...

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

~ Madeleine L'Engle, Miracle on 10th Street

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


Once upon a time I thought that sickness meant being sick. You feel gross, you take medicine, you press through when you have to and get extra sleep when you can, you get better. Then I had children. And my children got sick all the time. And I got sick all the time too. And I realized that sickness effects everything.
Sickness is exhaustion. It is baby waking up every 10 minutes because she is too miserable to sleep. It is baby “sleeping” on top of you, elbow in your face, knees in your side, moving restlessly. It is middle of the night throw-ups: wiping faces, changing pajamas, stripping sheets, settling a pale child back into bed. It is daddy putting on new sheets while mama deals with crying child. It is the washing machine going in the middle of the night. It is lying in bed with children climbing all over you because you are too tired to get up in the morning.
Sickness is nursing and nursing and nursing. It is wishing you had stopped nursing by now. It is being so glad you are still nursing, when your baby or toddler won’t drink anything else and is looking increasingly less pudgy than a few days ago. It is nursing your almost 2 year old in the middle of the night, even though you finally got her night-weaned months ago, because she is so miserable and just needs comfort.
Sickness is an everlasting fever chart. It is peering confusedly at the medicine record, bleary eyed in the middle of the night. It is feeling that telltale hot forehead and knowing it is starting all over again. It is finally throwing out the fever chart and then reluctantly starting a new one the next day. It is owning 6 thermometers because somehow they never seem to work.
Sickness is trying to keep track of who is supposed to have medicine. It is managing to get your children properly medicated but realizing you forgot to take your own medicines, again, even though you really aren’t supposed to miss it.
Sickness is vitamin C and elderberry, probiotics and apple cider vinegar and essential oils and hand cleaner...and wondering if they will do any good against germs coughed directly into your mouth. Sickness is toddler who won’t leave your lap coughing into your food at every meal, and wiping her nose on your shirt, and drinking from everyone else’s water bottles. It is children who remember to cover their mouths...sometimes...and who use tissue to wipe their noses...when you remind them.
Sickness is coming down with your own sickness when already worn down from nights of comforting and days of carrying around a fussy, clingy baby. It is planning your day around possible naptimes. It is not having enough voice to read home school. It is dragging yourself out of bed to make chicken soup. It is children watching too much TV. It is everything you own exploded all over the floor.
Sickness is slowly getting better – itching to clean that mess which is driving you crazy, catching up on home school reading with a scratchy throat, dealing with the dire laundry situation. It is arms so tired, hanging up the clothes. It is dizziness. It is the decision whether to press on or to lie down and rest.
Sickness is trying to listen to your body, when it says you need to rest or you might fall over and die. But sometimes your body says, “What you really need is coffee. Lots of coffee and sugar and carbs.” And sometimes it says, “I hate you. Why are you so mean to me? How would you like some double pneumonia,” and you don’t need that kind of crap right now.
Sickness is wondering why there isn’t more public recognition of the monumental milestone of “learning to throw up in a bowl,” because it may be second only to “sleeping through the night.” It is when everyone has been throwing up enough you start to hear phantom throw-up sounds.
Sickness is toast and crackers and electrolyte popcicles. It is rejecting any food or drink. It is ravenous hunger before you are allowed to eat. It is excitement over the first real food – an egg or that blessed first peanut butter sandwich.
Sickness is asthma flare-ups and extra inhalers and that barky, croupy cough going on and on.
Sickness is lying in bed looking out the window at the waning sun, darkness falling over your room like a weight, like depression. It is the knowledge that you have spent almost all day in bed, and bed feels like a prison. It is summoning energy to get children to bed amidst the evening fever rise, feeling stale and dirty but too weak to shower, looking ahead to another sleepless night.
Sickness is the disappointment of canceled plans. Missing a rare party or your child’s performance or a date with a friend. It is staying home with sick children during the holidays. It is having to tell your child that she won’t be able to go to the party she has been talking about all week. It is your toddler insistently bringing you her shoes wondering why she never gets to go outside anymore.
Sickness is confinement. It is days without stepping outside the confines of the apartment. It is well-children going stir crazy, because you can’t even send them outside to play. It is well-children missing school because you don’t want to take the sick children out in the cold and pollution.
Sickness is anxiety. It is looking helplessly at your listless child who has hardly sat up in two days. It is listening to your baby’s rapid heart rate and labored breathing. It is the dread of having to go back to the local hospital. It is self-prescribing. It is finally going to the hospital...waiting in lines and lines with sick people who touch your child’s face. It is the 30 second check up and antibiotics you hope are actually warranted. It is the fear that it could be something serious. It is searching Google, even though it will try to convince you it is cancer or TB or the plague.
Sickness is kids who act like jerks, even when they aren’t the sick ones. It is being an even bigger jerk than your children, when you are supposed to be thirty years more mature. It is taking a while to even feel bad about being a jerk because the whole world is stupid and deserves your full wrath. It is parents snapping at each other, even though we know we are both just tired, so tired and not feeling well.
It is hoping your kids forget the jerk-mom and remember the one who put a cool washcloth on a hot forehead. It is cups of juice with bendy straws and crackers to nibble. It is making meals you are too sick to eat. It is realizing your baby would sleep if only you stood rocking her for the next 10 hours. It is little heads drooped on big shoulders, little hands wound through hair. It is finally seeing the shine return to their eyes.

If, of course, you aren’t too sick to notice.

Monday, November 27, 2017

So This is What Burnout Looks Like

“We are doing better than last year,” I told our member care specialist.
“Better than double pneumonia?” she asked skeptically, “I’m not sure that’s saying much.”
She had a point.

Last spring when I was recovering from pneumonia I thought, “You know, I’m really doing much better...Of course, I haven’t been outside yet. And I get out of breath if I talk much. And I have to rest every 10 minutes. And I’m still spending most of the day in bed... Hmm, I may be worse than I thought.”

That’s how this fall has been for us. Compared to last year, it’s not too bad. We haven’t been to the hospital yet! We aren’t sick all the time, but when friends ask if we are healthy, I find myself saying, “Yeah, I think we’re healthy. I mean, Kevin and I just had a weird virus that made all our muscles super sore. And Juliana threw up the other day but she’s okay now. And Adalyn’s allergies are causing her asthma to act up. But yeah, we’re pretty healthy. Nadia and I just have a little cold.”

We are functioning much better than last year. I am able to cook meals and clean the house, at least when I’m not sick. Most of the time I have had enough voice for home schooling. Kevin has continual headaches, but he’s still able to teach and handle what has to be done. But we haven’t been able get far beyond survival.

We toss around the word burnout a lot, but when I started reading about real burnout, I felt like I was reading a description of our lives. Frequent illness, frequent headaches, continuous fatigue, anxiety, inability to concentrate, feeling overwhelmed by needs, frustration and anger, emotional exhaustion, compassion fatigue, drop in productivity, questioning our calling… I could go on, but you get the idea. Check, check, and check.

I knew we were pretty burned out last year, but that was overshadowed by the relentless sickness and the darkness of depression. We were so far down in the pit of survival mode it was hard to see beyond keeping everyone alive for one more day.

This fall we’ve been able to see a little more clearly. We realize that some of the roles we have been in are not the best for us. In recent years I have often felt sidelined, unable to participate outside the home in the ways I would like. I am becoming more aware of roles I would like step into, but we have to get beyond survival before I can add anything else.

I have learned some important things about myself in the past year, like how I have been pushing against being an introvert and highly sensitive person, damaging and devaluing myself in the process. I have realized I have ridiculous self-expectations that will never be met – and don’t even need to be. I have realized that depression and anxiety will always be part of the equation, in lesser or greater proportion, and that prioritizing mental health is not an option.

For Kevin, team leading has been stressful, dealing with difficult people who may or may not get mad and hang up mid-conversation. He gets emails from the school at 10pm saying, “We need all of your lesson plans for the semester in two days!” (real example). He negotiates with the school, “I’m sorry but that’s impossible. We have never taught these classes before and have to make up the whole curriculum, but we’ll get you as much as possible by the end of the weekend.” Then he communicates the unwelcome news to the other foreign teachers, “Hope you don’t have any weekend plans...”

Kevin has also been the mostly-healthy one for the past couple of years. Since the beginning of my pregnancy with Nadia, it’s just been one mess of sickness and Kevin has been picking up the slack. He is tired. He has had a continuous headache for a year or more.

I knew this had been a hard season of life for me, but I am recognizing that the effects are longer reaching than I thought. My depression has definitely improved since last year, and I’d like to think I’m “over that” now, but the reality is I am not at all ready to stop taking medication. In fact, it would be a pretty terrible idea.  And I am tired of being sick so much, for no real apparent reason (except maybe stress or exhaustion or pollution or carrying around little germ magnets…). The kids are not even surprised to see me in bed because “mama’s not feeling good” is such a normal thing. That's not what I want them to remember of me.

We realize that we are yelling at the kids. Honestly, we’ll probably always yell sometimes because cute little people can be extremely aggravating. But we are frustrated and angry too much. We are not handling their emotional needs well. Things I used to enjoy doing with the kids, like cooking or doing anything crafty, just stress me out now.  This is not how we want our family to be.

And recently I realized, it doesn’t have to be this way. What if we could be healthy? Physically, mentally, emotionally. Not “okay” in the sense of “hopefully won’t fall apart in the next few months,” but actually well. Of course there will always be issues, but there have been times when we were really okay. We weren’t carefully measuring out our inner resources or questioning our ability to be here.

We planned to spend some time in the US next fall, but several wise friends kindly asked, “If you already aren't doing well, isn’t next summer a long time to wait?” If there is hope for more than survival, what are we waiting around for?  We talked it over together and with other friends and recognized that maybe our desire to stick to The Plan had more to do with pride and being in control than actual necessity.  Apparently it's not a good idea to stick it out until you are physically unable to anymore.

So we will be leaving this January to spend a year in the US. This fall has given us some time to think through what we need to return and do well here. We need to rest. We need to get in better physical health. We need to dig deep and deal with some long-term issues. We need to think through our roles and figure out how to find a better fit – doing things that are enlivening not just draining. Taking roles that we actually have a talent and passion for, not just ones that stress us out. We need to build into our family.

It is a hard decision, and I have been surprisingly sad about it. After all, we are used to leaving friends and “home” for a year or more. We say goodbyes all the time. And it’s not forever – we plan to come back. But we aren’t used to leaving China for a year. We have an amazing community – people we have known for 6 years - and we want to be a part of what is going on here. I feel sad that we aren’t doing well, and really haven’t been for quite some time. I feel sad that we have to completely uproot our lives and move to another country just to get the help and healing we need!

We will need to move our of our apartment, the only one the kids have really known as home, and find somewhere to store our things. We haven’t moved in over four years and two kids, so we’ve accumulated a good bit of stuff since then. I do love a good opportunity to purge, but I hate moving and transition.  I will miss our neighbors and our bright blue cabinets and the way the light fills our laundry porch.

But I also feel relief, knowing that we don’t have to keep pushing and keep pushing and hope we make it. I feel hope that we could actually be healthy and well. I feel hope for our future in China, that we could be effective instead of just getting by. And I feel hope for our future as people, which is important.

When I came across this song recently, I immediately loved it and felt like it was a theme for our current life. I have since listened to it enough that Nadia joins enthusiastically with, “I tust, I tust yooooooooou.”

Letting go of every single dream
I lay each one down at Your feet
Every moment of my wandering
Never changes what You see
I try to win this war
I confess, my hands are weary, I need Your rest
Mighty warrior, king of the fight
No matter what I face You're by my side

When You don't move the mountains
I'm needing You to move
When You don't part the waters
I wish I could walk through
When You don't give the answers
As I cry out to You
I will trust, I will trust, I will trust in You

- Trust in You, Lauren Daigle

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Life Lessons from Labor

When I think of never going through pregnancy again, I feel So Happy. But I am actually a bit sad about not having another labor. It is such an incredible experience. I have often thought of how helpful those breathing exercises are for every other part of life with children. Then I started thinking about all the other life lessons I learned through labor. Here are some of them.

~ Everyone says, “You will know when it is time. You will know, you will know.” And you will know...but maybe not as soon as you would like. But that’s okay, you don’t have to have it all figured out, even if you have been through this before.

~ Sharing horror stories seems to be part of human nature. Whatever you are about to experience, someone will feel it is their duty to tell you about the horrible thing that happened to them or their cousin’s sister-in-law. Seek out the good stories.

~ Listen to the truth about what is going on inside yourself. Your head may be telling you something different – I shouldn’t feel this way. It is not time yet. This is not how I expected things to be.

~ You may not handle things as well as you thought. That’s okay. How could you possibly have known what you were getting into?

~ Preparation matters. Knowledge matters. Support matters. But sometimes life still happens anyway and there is nothing you could have done to prevent it.

~ Just because things didn’t go according to your plan doesn’t mean they went wrong.

~ Other people will try to tell you how you should feel about your life experience. You should feel happy because “nothing bad happened,” but you still feel heartbroken. You should feel violated because someone else made the decision for you, but you just feel relieved. You should feel pain but you feel joy. You should feel empowered but you feel helpless. Feel what you feel. Find people who will let you feel what you feel.

~ If 1000 people go through the same thing, they will all experience it differently. Live your experience. Don’t compare.

~ You are stronger than you think. So much stronger. You are also weaker than you think, and you can be both at the same time.

~ Sometimes you just need people nearby who can hold your hand and remind you to breathe.

~ When you think too much about what is coming, you may feel your courage failing. Focus back on the moment, back on the most basic elements of life. Breathe in, breathe out, focus with all of your might. This moment is all you need to handle right now.

~ Sometimes you need to be quiet and breathe. Sometimes you need to yell.

~ The deeper you are consumed by the task, the less you care about what people think of you.

~ You have to let go of control and surrender completely to birth something new.

~ Everyone has scars. Some are visible.

~ There are some things you can control. And a whole lot of other things you can’t.

~ There is a time when the line between singing and swearing and praying nearly disappears.

~ Two people can go through the same experience together and feel very differently about it at the end. It was beautiful, it was terrible. It was holy, it was traumatic. It was the best and worst day of life.

~ In the middle of the labor and pain and overwhelm, you may lose sight of what you are even in this for. But when the end comes, it is even better than you imagined.

~ When you finally get what you were waiting for, sometimes you feel joy. Maybe you feel relief, or fear, or unaccountable sadness. Maybe you are so tired you’re not even sure you care anymore. Maybe you feel nothing. That’s okay. It will come.

~ When your whole life changes in an instant, after the hardest day of your life, in the midst of pain and exhaustion, the world expects you to keep right on with life. Hold tightly to your rest. Make space for recovery.

~ When things get really tough, you may forget about the fundamentals of life. Drinking. Moving. Breathing. You don’t need someone to tell you what to do: you need someone to give you a drink, to show you how to move, to breathe with you.

~ When you are going through something really hard, things you wouldn't even notice in normal life can drive you utterly crazy.  Noise, smells, touch, people.  What is helpful one minute might seem torturous the next.  People can't read your mind, so you'll have to let them know.  And try not to bite their head off in the process.

~ You may feel normal and pain-free one moment and doubled over the next. It doesn’t mean that the pain isn’t real, or breathing space between isn’t real.

~ You are the one experiencing all the pain, but realize it can be an exhausting, emotionally trying experience for the people around you too.

~ If what you are trying isn’t working, try something else.

~ If you are too engrossed in the process to think clearly, surround yourself with people who can think clearly and advocate on your behalf.

~ You need someone who has the expertise to handle the problems and complications. You need someone who can show compassion. And you need someone who can just clean up the mess afterwards.

~ Your mind may tell you that you can handle this, but if things are intensifying quickly and your body says this is getting out of control, don’t wait around. Get help. And it’s okay to speed.

~ Pain feels different when you can relax, when you have support, and when you feel safe. Pain does not always equal suffering.

~ When the task seems most impossible, when you are sure you cannot go on, often you are close to breakthrough.

~ The hardest experiences can also be the most awe inspiring.