A series on Expat depression: introduction

Last year I wrote a post that has been read again and again and again…..barely a day goes by when it, or another on the same subject, doesn’t get looked at. When I wrote the post I don’t think I had any idea what a big topic this was. I almost didn’t write it at all, it was actually a bit of a last-minute thing prompted by a link someone had put on my Facebook page.

What was this post about? Expat depression. And since writing that post, I have realised just what a neglected subject this is.

Time to Talk

The original post was called Depression and the Expat Life: Something we Don’t Talk About Enough. I wrote it to mark the 2015 Time to Talk campaign – a UK campaign that encourages us all to talk to someone about mental health. Today is the 2016 Time to Talk day and this seems like the perfect time to launch my new series on expat depression. The campaign is about de-stigmatising mental health issues, and in my original post I set out to highlight how this was something that we needed to do within the expat world where these issues can really be a big problem.

That post has been read many times since I wrote it, not because I have a huge following but because a lot of people find it by searching under the term “expat depression” or something similar. The more I realised this was happening, the more I realised I needed to write more about this important subject.

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Interview with a professional

Due to the pressures of finishing and publishing my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide (which includes a chapter on culture shock and depression), and then moving to South Africa, it took me a while to get back to this. Eventually though I was contacted by an expert on the subject – Anita Colombara, who is mental health specialist with a particular interest in the international community. Anita agreed to be interviewed for my blog and to fill in some of the gaps I had about depression in the expat community. The information she was able to give me was excellent, really good practical stuff that I  hope will help a lot of people.

But although the reaction to Anita’s interview was great, with lots of views and lots of feedback, I still knew there were plenty of people out there that I wasn’t reaching. So I decided to tackle this subject properly. Following the same format as I used to write the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, I felt that the best way to do this would be to share real-life stories, experiences, tips and advice. Often, just knowing you are not alone can help. So I set up a survey and watched as the answers came in.

Shared experiences

In the end, I had pages and pages of material. Some of the answers were one-liners, some were out-pourings. I was awed that people were willing to share so much, convinced the more I read how important it was that I did this.

It is important though to point out that I am not a medical professional, a therapist or a counsellor. My role here is as a writer and blogger, as well as an expat. I am not the one who can tell you what to do or how to cope. I can only do what I have been doing ever since I wrote my book which is to share the experiences of myself and of others. By doing this I genuinely hope I will help others – by making them realise they are not alone, things will get easier, that they should seek help, that they should talk to someone, how they can help themselves, where they can get help from…..

As I am not the expert I decided to call on the assistance of a professional to ensure that what is published stays within the remit of being responsible. So for this reason I have asked Anita to be part of this series. I have asked her to read each post before it is published and to contribute if she thinks it would be helpful. Many people pointed out as I asked for help with the survey that there was a difference between clinical and situational depression, and that the responses to each could be quite different. I want to explore these differences and I want to ensure that anyone who thinks they need help knows where to at least start trying to find it.

New series

So today, Time to Talk day, I launch this new series on expat depression as a way to hopefully help everyone out there who is suffering from one of the unspoken sides of expat life. I hope to post weekly and will include when and why depression is most likely to hit, how it manifests itself, the link between culture shock and depression and the ways people have found to help themselves. Later I will also talk about how to help others – including partners.

I hope many people will find these posts useful; even if you yourself don’t think this is something you need to know about please share as you see appropriate as only by reaching as many people as possible will I feel I have started to do what I set out to do. I look forward to your comments and feedback.

Photo credit: ashley rose

The perfect Christmas gift for a new expat….

Holidays are coming! Holidays are coming! As I write this, I can hear the tinkle of reindeer bells, the thudding of hooves on the roof, the ho ho ho as Santa takes off into the sky….

Ok well not quite, but although the weather outside would tell me otherwise (don’t forget, I am in the southern hemisphere so for me, this isn’t right!), Christmas really is just around the corner. And as you scratch your head and try to work out what to buy your expat friend, mother, daughter, brother, sister, colleague or basically any random person you know who happens to be moving abroad – let me present you with the perfect answer:

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Too much?

Anyway, the book has been called “an absolute must-have for anyone moving abroad“, “perfect for anyone living abroad or thinking of it” and “a must-have for soon to be expats as well as seasoned expats“. Even Bridget Keenan, the author of the acclaimed Diplomatic Baggage and follow-up Packing Up, said she wished she had had this book when she first became an expat wife.

Available from all good book stores Amazon, starting at the budget friendly price of just £2.99/$4.62 (who makes up these prices??) for an ebook,  or £7.99/$9.99 for a hard copy, you can use this as the perfect stocking filler, wrap it to put under some lucky person’s tree or send it by email as a gift card (or ebook if you are in the US) to that certain someone who you know will most appreciate such a gift.

Happy Christmas, thank you to everyone for your support this year and especially to everyone who has bought the book and/or left a review. Here’s to another great expat partner year!

click here to buy the book

 

 

Another great review of the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide

Before coming to South Africa I started researching what life would be like here. One of the best blogs I found to help me with this was the wonderful Joburg Expat. Sine, the American/German mum behind the blog, has been a brilliant source of information for me – not least because her children were a similar age to mine when they lived here. She is also wonderfully honest about parenthood and I love her anecdotes about quarrelling kids as much as her stories about travel in the region. There’s nothing like someone elses problems to make you realise you are not alone with children who grump even on the most beautiful beach in the world!

Anyway I was thus over the moon when Sine wrote a wonderful review of the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. She is painstaking in her detail which makes me realise she must have actually read the whole thing rather than just skim!

It feels a bit weird giving an extract of a review that itself gives extracts of your own book but here is an extract:

Clara’s voice is cheerful, uplifting, occasionally funny, and she keeps it moving along at a nice clip. To me, that’s immensely important. I have to like the author if I’m going to stick with them for 300 pages of a self-help book, otherwise… sorry, there just isn’t enough time in my day to spend on uninspired reading.

And another one:

The second strength of The Expat Partner Survival Guide is the voice of other participants. Clara has collected hundreds of personal stories from other expats and expat partners, interweaving them very smoothly with her own narrative. For me it felt a bit like coming across long-lost friends, as I recognized quite a few of the people she interviewed from my own connections in the expat world, like Maria from I Was an Expat Wife and Apple Gidley of Expat Life Slice by Slice.

To read the full review please visit Joburg Expat.

And in the meantime if you haven’t yet purchased your copy of the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide (price fom £2.99/$3.99) – you can go here to find out where to get it from!

Finally if you have read the book and enjoyed it then please consider leaving a review on Amazon for me. I will love you forever. Thank you!

How to overcome culture shock – an interview on Tandem Nomads

I was interviewed about culture shock the other day by the lovely Amel who runs a website called Tandem Nomads. The site is aimed at “empowering expat partners” and I was incredibly honoured to be amongst the first to take part in one of her podcast interviews. The podcast broadcasts (is that the right term?) haven’t started yet but you can sign up to the site to make sure you don’t miss out when they do – the link is here. In the meantime you can read Amel’s blog about my interview here.

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And  if YOU are an inspiring expat partner and would like to be interviewed too then do get in touch with Amel. If you want to know more about the show, this is what she says:

Tandem Nomads is a podcast show (online radio) and an online platform providing you with great inspiration and free resources to help you turn the challenges of relocation into great opportunities for you and for your career!

I will host for you 2 podcast episodes per week:

  • Mondays are “story days”!

I will interview for you inspiring and empowering expat partners from around the world that will share with you how they managed to build their career, their projects or their business while following their partners’ career and moving from a country to another.

  • Thursdays are “topic days”!

I will focus every week on one particular issue that you might be facing with as an expat partner. Those topics will be related to your professional success, your financial independence, but also on all the other issues that are important for you to solve as you will need to create the right environment to build your success. Issues like dealing with change, adjusting to new cultural environments and coping with all your other important responsibilities related to being an expat partner or an expat parent.

You can contact Amel via her website here

Expats and depression: Interview with an expert

The post on my site which gets the most hits is one I wrote about depression back in February. It wasn’t a long post or a particularly informative one – but what it did say was that depression in expats is common, it’s not something to be ashamed of and it’s something that we should all acknowledge as a very real part of expat life. What the reaction to the post – both the immediate reaction at the time of writing, and the amount of hits that post has had since – told me is that this is a subject that needs a lot more attention.

So I extremely grateful when an expert in this area agreed to be interviewed for this blog, and not only to discuss some of the reasons why expats are so vulnerable to depression but also to help with some advice for those who think they may be affected. Anita Colombara is a mental health specialist with a particular interest in the International Community. Her own background and experience, as well as her training, has helped her set up her on-line counselling service and to be in a great position to offer advice to the globally mobile. I hope many people will read her advice – please share this post if you can because I know, from how many people find my blog by typing in the words expat and depression, that this is a topic more people need to be aware of.

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Anita, thank you for agreeing to this interview. First of all could you tell me a bit about yourself, your background.
I grew up in Washington D.C. with Asian parents. I enjoyed both the American and immigrant experience as I felt part of both and neither worlds at the same time. I also had friends who hailed from every corner of the globe. As an adult, I married an Italian/Ecuadorian who spent summers with family on two different continents. You could say that, since childhood, I’ve been embracing the world, determined to be a global nomad when I grow up.

I’ve had the privilege of visiting and living in over a dozen countries. For four years I lived in Cambodia, gave birth to my second child in Malaysia, and later, enrolled my children in public school in Beijing. Throughout these adventures, I’ve experienced both the joys and challenges of being an expat. I love acquiring new languages, assimilating to new cultures, and feasting on new cuisine. However, I have also struggled with adjustment issues – cultural shock, loneliness, and confusion; with mental health issues – post-partum depression, anxiety, and vicarious trauma; and with relational issues – misunderstandings with locals and colleagues, marital strain, and difficulties parenting my two young children. I’m guessing many of your readers can relate.

How did you come to be working in mental health and why do you think it’s important for the ex-pat community?
I started out as a social worker in the States about 20 years ago. I worked in a variety of settings focusing on issues related to domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and refugee resettlement which I then implemented with my work in Cambodia.

However, during my years in Cambodia, and later in other settings, I saw that ex-pat and humanitarian worker’s needs were being severely neglected. As I mentioned, I’ve struggled living overseas. And I know I’m not alone. I’ve heard numerous accounts from those experiencing trauma, disillusionment, confusion, compassion fatigue, depression, anxiety, loneliness, etc. I’ve also seen too many marriages broken and families strained due to ignoring conflicts rather than addressing them in a healthy way. I saw the vital need for my peers, who live and work internationally, to have access to quality, professional counseling.

When I returned to the US in 2008, I enrolled in the University of Washington School of Social Work, focusing on trauma intervention and therapy.Since graduation, I’ve have been serving as a mental health therapist at a community based agency in Seattle, WA. However, my heart is still with the international community. That is why I founded Remote Access Mental Health. My vision is to see globally mobile people thrive no matter where they are. My mission is to provide on-line professional mental health counselling for this unique population.

Why remote counselling? How would the globally mobile benefit from it?
When I lived in Cambodia, there were few counselling services for ex-pats. The few professional therapists in town were often booked. Moreover, with the ex-pat community being so tight, there was a high probability that the potential client and therapist already knew one another. This made professional boundaries difficult and therapeutic relationships awkward. This is an issue in many locations, not just Cambodia.

Services offered by host or sending agencies have their own set of potential complications. A typical scenario is that of a field staff person being assigned an agency affiliated counselor when supervisors become concerned regarding mental health or other issues in that individual. Many times, since the counselor is employed by the agency, they give their assessment to the supervisor. This is not always a bad thing. However, more often than not, I’ve heard from field staff who have been hurt by their agencies when they felt that client-therapist confidentiality was violated. In some cases, this resulted in the sudden expulsion from the international arena in order to receive “treatment” for unresolved mental health issues, family conflict, moral failure, etc. Individuals and families are left feeling like they’ve failed, betrayed by their employer, further isolated, and sink deeper into disillusionment, depression, or resentment.

With that said, I know a lot of ex-pat individuals and families who would benefit from an unbiased professional who could provide support where they are. With high speed internet service becoming increasingly available, even in the most remote places, this is becoming a possibility. Although in-person counselling may be preferable, video conferencing is a viable alternative given the hectic travel schedules and lack of local services that many expats experience. Professional counselling is now within reach!

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What kind of mental health services do you provide specifically for the globally mobile?
First off, I realize the term “mental health” often turns people away. They automatically assume I’m talking about crazy people with paranoia or are detached from reality. On the contrary, most of the people I work with are completely normal.
In short, I apply the same evidence-based therapeutic approaches that I use with my clients in my in-person practice. I first perform a thorough assessment to determine what the client’s needs, goals, strengths and natural resources, and desired treatment modality are. I then work together with the client to flesh out a treatment plan accordingly. I provide tools to address struggles as well as help create a plan for long term self-care.

The difference with my remote access clients is that I tailor to the unique needs of those who travel or live internationally. I am particularly interested in supporting the globally mobile population, including TCKs and ATCKs, that want to address trauma, panic attacks, anxiety, depression, and stress due to unresolved issues or culture shock and re-entry (reverse culture-shock) adjustment.

What are the signs that expats need to look out for if they think they might be suffering from depression, PTSD or other mental health issues?
Depression is different than sadness and normal life’s lows. It involves intense feelings of despair with little or no relief. It interrupts one’s life, work, relationships, eating, sleeping, and ability to engage in once enjoyable activities. Typical signs of depression are:

  • Loss of interest in relationships or activities you once enjoyed
  • Loss of energy, feeling tired all the time
  • Sleeping more than normal or inability to sleep
  • Change of appetite, overeating or lack of eating
  • Difficultly concentrating or finishing tasks
  • Lack of motivation
  • Lack of personal hygiene
  • Ruminating on negative thoughts
  • Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, emptiness, apathy, failure
  • Feeling more irritable, short-tempered, angry, aggressive
  • Loathing – overly critical or self and/or others
  • Consuming more alcohol than normal or increased drinking alone
  • Engaging in reckless or unhealthy behavior

PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a condition following a traumatic event that leaves one with intense feelings of fear, anxiety, or loss of control. One may feel trapped in a constant state of danger or in a painful memory. Others may feel unable to “snap out of it” and feel disconnected from others and present reality.

Many of my colleagues engaged in aid and development work experience what is called vicarious or Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder (STSD). Through repeated or long-term exposure to stories or observations of those suffering from traumatic events, one may develop symptoms similar to PTSD. These symptoms come in three main categories and can arise suddenly, gradually, or re-occur over time:

  1. Re-experiencing the traumatic event:
  • Intrusive, upsetting memories
  • Flashbacks (feeling like the event is happening again)
  • Nightmares
  • Feelings of intense distress
  • Intense physical reactions when reminded of the event (pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, vomiting, muscle tension, sweating)

2. Avoidance and numbing:

  • Avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of the trauma
  • Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Feeling detached from others
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Lack of motivation
  • Sense of a hopelessness or assuming premature death

3. Increased anxiety and emotional arousal

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Irritability or angry outbursts
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”)
  • Feeling jumpy and easily startled

Before reaching the point of needing to seek help from a counsellor like yourself, what can we do to help ourselves if we do find we are in this situation?
Self-care, self-care, self-care! I know too many good hearted people who are constantly looking out for others but neglecting to take care of themselves. Development workers, missionaries, and those on the front end of disaster relief for sure! The most important thing is to develop healthy habits and a personal Wellness Action Plan (I call these WAP for short). The second most important thing is follow through with your plan.

Your WAP should be comprehensive, including all aspects of your wellbeing – physical, emotional, recreational, relational, financial, spiritual, etc.

Your WAP should also be specific. It’s not enough to say, “I will exercise regularly.” What kind of exercise? How often? What time of the day? Where? This is especially important for the globally mobile since settings change and new locations may not accommodate to previous routines.

Lastly, your WAP should be realistic. For example, there is no point making a plan to exercise everyday if you know you’ll be on a plane two days out of the week. Make your plan attainable. Otherwise, you will find yourself giving up in frustration for not sticking to it.

Oh, and be kind to yourself. I tend to work with a lot of driven folks who are hard on themselves. Give yourself a break once in a while.

At what point would you recommend we need to seek further help from a professional such as yourself?
Negative feelings such as sadness, frustration, or stress are normal. But when they become overwhelming and interrupt daily function or lead to relational problems, it is important to seek professional help.

With that said, many people wait too long. It doesn’t hurt to seek professional help sooner than later. After all, even the healthiest among us receive physical check-ups. That is why I love assisting people in their personal WAPs to promote long-term wellbeing.

How can we support others if we start to recognize some of the symptoms of depression in them? In particular, how can we help our partners?
Often times, when a loved one is struggling, we may feel distraught or frustrated ourselves. It’s easy to go into advice giving mode or to withdraw due to feeling at a loss regarding how to help. However, the most important thing is your presence – being with them even if it just means holding them, crying with them, or sitting beside them in silence. Validate feelings instead of try to reason with them. Watch out for minimizing their pain, blaming and shaming. Educate yourself on the disorder so that you can better understand your partner, but be careful not to lecture them.

If your partner is reluctant to seek professional help, that does not mean you cannot seek help for yourself. A good therapist will be able to guide you through the process of assisting a loved one struggling with mental health.

Do you have any particular advice for children who might be showing signs of depression? How would this manifest in them differently than in adults?
The answer to this important question deserves an article itself. In short, children often act out what they cannot put into words. Often times, symptoms of depression, anxiety or PTSD in children are misdiagnosed as ADHD. Children often manifest troubling behavior such as difficulty focusing, defiance, difficultly regulating their emotions, hyperactivity, inability to calm down when aroused, lack of boundaries or risky behavior. They may engage in violent or self-harming behavior such as cutting themselves or hitting their head against a wall. Other children, may retreat, fall silent, even becoming mute. This is often the case for someone with PTSD. Again, disturbing behavior is a sign of a more significant, underlying issue that needs to be addressed.

Anita Colombara MSW, LSWAIC
Anita is a licensed Mental Health Professional by the State of Washington. After spending many years in Asia, she currently resides in Seattle, WA where she lives with her husband and two children and enjoys the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest. She is the founder of Remote Access Mental Health LCC, providing on-line counseling for the globally mobile. www.remoteaccessmentalhealth.com

If you are or think you may be suffering from depression, or are vulnerable to depression, then please do talk to someone close to you and/or consider seeking help. As well as counsellors like Anita, charities like MIND can also offer online support and advice. I list other forms of support in my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide.

Photo credits: woman with key: Mary Lock at https://www.flickr.com/photos/wijen/; woman at table: Adi Sujiwo at https://www.flickr.com/photos/wijen/

Why do we have so much STUFF?

So yesterday our shipment came, aka heavy baggage. For the non-expats among you, this is always a major moment in the life of the newly-moved abroad: your stuff is here at last.

But oh my! Why oh why do we have so much of it?

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Where does it all come from? And where is it all going to go???

As box after box was unloaded and distributed around the house by a small army of Pickfords men, I kept wondering what on earth was in them all. We have been living fairly happily for the last two months out of a few suitcases plus a couple of boxes of “float” (eg crockery and cutlery, linen, a tv etc) from the office. Ok, the house looked a little bare and yes the children did complain from time to time that they didn’t have any toys – but still, we survived just fine.

So why do we have so much STUFF?

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Man with a van…this was only half of our boxes – there was a larger lorry outside the gates of the compound…

Do I really need this many clothes, many of which I haven’t worn in years? And shoes that have sat in my cupboard forlornly since we left St Lucia more than four years ago? Do we really need all those books (ok, maybe yes to the books!), the toys that haven’t been played with in a while, the thirty-eight different shopping bags?

The thing that really got me though was the kitchen goods. HOW many glasses? And mugs….four cafetieres, although only two with glass still intact; cups and bowls and cocktail twirlers; old crockery, new crockery, chopsticks still in their original wrapping from when I bought them in Cambodia; fish-shaped placemats from St Lucia, a beautiful tablecloth with a less-beautiful stain from Pakistan….We thought we had got rid of most of this back home – we seemed to do trip after trip to the second hand shops and the tip. But look at all of this!

I think the reason we have so much STUFF is because much of it is memories that we fear throwing away. We seem to have thousands of glasses – but so many of them are engraved with a particular event that brings back thoughts of a particular night. A disproportionate amount of which seem to be either Oktoberfests or Marine Balls….

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A few of our glasses…

But I know we have to do something about this mountain of STUFF. I found it particularly difficult watching all our goods be unpacked from their boxes yesterday knowing that the people doing the unpacking (the Pickfords Army, plus our helper Sana) probably own less than about a fiftieth of what they were unpacking. Forefront of my mind, just like many in the world at the moment, is the Syrian refugees, arriving in their new homes with not much more than what they can carry to their names. And living here in South Africa, you see terrible poverty all around you on a daily basis. All of this just rubs in how rife consumerism has become in the “west” – and I know I buy a lot less than many people (for one, I hate buying shoes!).

Luckily, living as we do in a country like South Africa, there is always someone who will take some of your unwanted STUFF. Yesterday we passed a frying pan, a couple of chopping boards, some children’s lunch bags and a whole pile of coat hangers to Sana. I later put aside a bag of clothes for her granddaughter, unworn and unwanted by my fussy youngest – who, at the moment, will only wear playsuits (this is an ongoing minor crisis in this family at the moment – we are now down to three said playsuits….).

I am sure that over the next couple of years we will continue to find homes for our unwanted goods. At least here I  I can feel like we are not being wasteful, but rather starting a cycle of life for our stuff that shouldn’t finish when we (spoiled as we are) have had enough of them. But in the meantime, I am now embarrassed all over again as three plumbers have just turned up at the house and I have had to apologise for all the cr**p strewn all over my daughter’s floor. Ah, first-world problems!

Do you think you have too much STUFF? What do you do when you move – take it with you or have a good clear-out?

My Expat Family

Interesting expat: relationship specialist Vivian Chiona

I first came across Vivian when she contacted me via LinkedIn. We had a chat on Skype – her in the Netherlands, me at my kitchen office desk – and I found her to be an incredibly warm and supportive person. An experienced expat herself, Vivian has founded her own counselling service – Expat Nest – to help others transitioning into expat life, with a special emphasis on relationships and a specialism in children and teenagers. The Expat Nest website introduces the service as a “warm, safe and confidential” counselling service and, having spoken in person to Vivian, I am quite sure this is what it would be. I thought it would be interesting to hear a bit more about Vivian, her own background and about the service she provides to help expats with parenting teens, expat life and relationships generally.

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Can you tell me a bit about yourself, how long you have been an expat, where you are from and where you have lived?

I am a bicultural, multilingual expat with family all over the world. I was born and grew up in Greece and have been living and working in the Netherlands for the past eight years. I love travelling, exploring new cultures, trying different food and collecting folktales from all over the world.

I’m also a qualified psychologist and the founder of http://www.ExpatNest.com. Expat Nest provides emotional support to expats and their families by offering telephonic and online counselling services (via Skype and Facetime).

What brought you down the expat road to start with? Was it planned or accidental?
Because of my multicultural background, I’m not really surprised to have expatriated! I feel it’s a big part of who I am. My relocation to the Netherlands to study was planned; however the length of my stay was not. The initial plan of staying for one year in Holland has since become almost a decade!

What has been the most positive thing for you about being an expat?

Celebrating diversity and getting to know people from all over the world… trying their food, listening to their music and just enjoying the blessing of being in a multicultural setting. I simply love it! I also feel at home when I’m around internationals.

And what about the least positive? If you could change one thing about your way of life, what would it be?

The most challenging part of being an expat is that the goodbyes accumulate as friends come and go. Saying goodbye to my family after a visit to Greece is also difficult. No matter how many years I’m away, I still feel the sadness of farewells.

As for what I would change… the weather in the Netherlands! I know it seems trivial, but as someone from a country with 10 months of sunshine a year, I have really struggled to adjust to the climate here.

Tell me about Expat Nest, the online-counselling service you started for expats. Why did you start it, why do you think it’s something that is needed? Who is it aimed at and how do you help them?

It all started with my vision to inspire love and joy in expats everywhere! Founding Expat Nest has therefore been a dream come true for me. I’ve always been really passionate about supporting expatriates and it didn’t take long for me to notice a significant need for counselling services devoted to them.

I know from both my personal and professional experience that expat life can be daunting and lonely at times. This spurred me on to create a comforting, empathetic environment (hence the name ‘Expat Nest’) in which expats could feel heard and understood and deal with the unique challenges they face (like saying all those goodbyes!).

In a mobile life, technology is often the only constant, so it made sense to offer online counselling so that I could truly serve expats. As a result, Expat Nest’s services are accessible, convenient and flexible for all expats, across all borders and all time zones – this is truly counselling without borders. What also makes us different is that we are expats/internationals and highly qualified – so expats are guaranteed a professional supportive service.

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In my book, the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, I talk about how hard the expat life can be on relationships. What can people do to try and protect their relationship? Would you recommend counselling even before they move?

I think it helps to understand that relationships exist within an emotional eco-system. When the external variables change – whether a new friend group, job or neighbourhood – the relationship often has to adapt. And of course, it’s also challenging when one partner follows their heart to a new country. Moving for love is one of today’s classic dilemmas and it’s important to recognize that the person moving is not weaker or less-than.

Fortunately there are a number of ways expats can protect and nurture their relationship, including:

• Keeping communication open and honest so that you avoid letting negative feelings build up
• Rediscovering your identity in the new place so that you feel empowered and whole in the relationship
• Setting realistic expectations of your partner so that you don’t expect all your happiness to come from one person
• Meeting other expats (both individually and as a couple) so that you have the space to discuss your unique challenges as an expat. For more pointers, check out this article I recently wrote on moving for love.

And yes, I would highly recommend counselling before moving abroad as it can make a significant difference to the whole relocation experience. (This could be a one-off session or a limited number of sessions – it needn’t be a lengthy process.) Pre-relocation counselling allows you to prepare emotionally and mentally for the move, but it also facilitates a safe space in which to talk about any thoughts and feelings that are not easy to discuss with our partner or children, or those we are leaving behind. That said, if you’re about to move and weren’t aware of the benefits of pre-relocation counselling, or just don’t feel ready for it, that’s okay too. Trust in your wisdom and do what feels right for you.

As well as adults, you also work with children – particularly teens – and in fact one of your specialisations is as a child and adolescent psychologist. I feel this is a hugely important subject and one that perhaps isn’t considered enough before families make the decision to move abroad. What sort of issues do you particularly find yourself dealing with in this area?

There are a number of common challenges faced by expat teens, including:

• Grief at having said many goodbyes
• Feeling disempowered due to lack of preparation or discussion by the parents before the move
• Being reluctant to invest in friendships/relationships as they know they will move again or have already experienced the pain of leaving people behind
• Shutting off emotions to avoid feeling the same pain again
• Feeling confused about their identity or uncertain where “home” is
• Feeling angry without knowing why
• Loneliness as they miss old friends and attempt to make new friends
• Struggles in adjusting to the new culture and way of being

If you’d like more info on helping expat teens and TCKs to thrive in their new country, feel free to read our blog articles, including “10 things you might not have known about TCKs”; “10 ways to improve communication with your child (teens too!)” and “How expat kids can use their difference to make a difference”.

What advice would you give to parents contemplating an overseas move with their children?

It’s essential that parents have in-depth discussions with their teens before moving, so that teens feel empowered (and even excited!) about the move.

After the move:
• Ask your teen to describe his expat experience in three words – this is a great way to lead into an honest discussion about his feelings/thoughts. Above all, listen to your teen… even if what he says is difficult to hear!
• Brainstorm ways to help reduce any painful feelings that have come up. Do this together – the idea is to avoid giving instant solutions and rather help your child to build up his own coping tools. Be sure also to convey the comforting message that any hurtful feelings will lessen in time.
• Focus on the positives of expat life, such as a fresh start, the chance to learn about another culture or learn a new language, and the opportunity to develop an expanded worldview.
• Remind your teen that friendship and love are not gone; all the important people in the previous country/school are still there. Encourage your teen to communicate with those left behind using online technology.
• Put up photos of your previous life to give a sense of stability and continuity (assuming that your teen is ok with this).
• If the painful feelings persist and are affecting your teen’s ability to function (e.g. disturbed sleep, poor academic performance, isolation, high levels of anxiety), seek out professional help.

Thank you Vivian for telling us about yourself and your counselling service. You might want to know that you can get free resources by signing up to Vivian’s website; but in the meantime I would be interested to hear what any expats think of specific counselling aimed at them – do you think it’s necessary? Do you wish you had known about services such as Expat Nest? Would you consider using a service such as this?

Help! I’m new!

For this month’s Trailing Spouse blog crawl, we were asked to consider what sort of advice we would give to newcomers to our current location. In fact, we were asked to blog about our travel secrets. Well, when you have only been in a country less than a week (as I have at the time of writing) then you don’t really have any travel secrets. In fact, you don’t really know very much at all!

However, the advantage to this is that I am still at that stage of discovering other peope’s travel secrets, and where to find out more about Pretoria, the surrounding state of Gautang and the neighbouring states of North West Province, Limpopo and Freestate, and other parts of South Africa. As well as Mozambique, Namibia, Mauritius, Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho….yup, there are certainly going to be plenty of places to see around here!

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A view of Harbeespoort dam.

But because there is so much out there to see, it’s actually all a little overwhelming. The guide books have page after page of places I have already bookmarked as places I would like to visit; my laptop is similarliy bursting with bookmarked pages of safari parks and moutains and wine routes and beaches….and yet there is only so much time (annoyingly, other people in my family have boring things like school and work most days, making non-stop travel a bit of a non-starter!).

So where to start? Well, one piece of advice I give in my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, is to find a blog (or blogs) from the country where you are moving to and start reading the archive as soon as you know you are going there. If possible, try and find a blog written by someone who has similar interests to you, or whose family situation is the same (following someone who writes about day trips with the kids isn’t going to be much use for singletons who want to know more about nightife).

For me, the first such blog I found was Joburg Expat, which I particularly liked because blogger Sine’s children were a similar age to mine when they were here so she has some great tips for family trips. But more than this, I also love that she doesn’t sugarcoat family life – I was sold when I read one of her posts about a visit to Capetown which included various tantrums, disputes, whines and fall-outs – in other words, a totally normal family trip where you know that you are never going to be able to please everyone, all the time:

True to character, Sunshine and Jabulani take off their shoes and go play in the (freezing cold) waters of the Atlantic, while Impatience and Zax give us an earful as to their suffering on this horrible and boring beach. We are almost convinced that we are practically torturing them. For Impatience, all memory of the gift shop and the earrings seems to be wiped out. I have her repeat “I shall be grateful for the earrings I got at the gift shop” for the next 5 minutes to buy myself some peace and an opportunity to consult with Noisette about lunch plans, since the other truth in our family is that the best answer to whining is food. We settle for a nice late lunch at Zenzero on the Promenade in Camp’s Bay, where the kids are somewhat mollified with Virgin Daiquiris and Spaghetti Bolognaise.

I’ve dipped in and out of Joburg Expat many times and I am sure I will continue to do so, but I am also slowly starting to discover other blogs with further information. For example, there is Expatorama, a blog by a British expat who lives in Johannesburg and has also started a Facebook group for local “trailing spouses” (which I have also just joined: another great way to tap into local knowledge); The Average South African (which has lots of yummy posts about places to eat) and 2Summers, another Joburg dweller who blogs about life in that crazy city.

I am sure I will discover more blogs like these (including, hopefully, some Pretoria-based ones) as our time here goes on, but I just wanted to give an example of some of the sorts of blogs that are out there – and literally bursting with fabulous information.

So, other than blogs, where else am I getting my information from?

One of the things we were most excited about when we heard we were coming to South Africa was the wildlife and so, as soon as my parents decided they would come out and see us for the Christmas period this year we booked a few days at that most famous of South African parks – Kruger. Where, hopefully, we will have plenty of chances to see more of these:

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But to start with, booking the park was as confusing as a chicken in a pillow factory. In other words, the more I read, the more baffled I became – until, hurrah! I found the Sanparks wesbite. And here I was able to work everything out that I needed to know – including exactly which date I needed to book our accommodation in order to make sure of getting in during what is probably the busiest time of the year (hint: it’s a year in advance!) and which camps best suited our needs. We were also able to view maps, accommodation details, hints and tips for game drives and even live webcams of animal activity. Oh, and the ever-useful forums where you know you will always be able to get an answer to pretty well any question you ever have.

In a similar vein, I have always found Trip Advisor to be a good site for general travel advice – a sort of overview of a country, region or city and then more specific reviews of restaurants, hotels and activities. Whilst you need to take some of the reviews with a pinch of salt, I have usually found that if you read enough of them you get a good idea of whether somewhere is worth visiting or not. And for South Africa-specific advise, a couple of people have already recommended WhereToStay.co.za – I can’t say if it’s any good or not as I haven’t actually used it yet, but it’s certainly a site that looks like it will be full of good accommodation options.

Finally, for more day-to-day activities (as opposed to the wonderful trips away and holidays we are planning), I have also started having a look at a website aimed at parents – Jozikids. Most of the information seems to be based on Johannesburg, but as we’re only 45 minutes drive away at least we know there’s plenty to do just up the road.

So that’s my lot for now. As I said at the start, it’s early days for me still and I am pretty sure I will soon discover more and more websites chocca with information. This country is one of the top tourist destinations in the world, with accompanying food, wine, scenery, beaches, sport, wildlife…..I know there’s no shortage of things to do. Now if only I could pursuade the rest of my family not to bother with that boring work/school stuff…..

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Check out other #TrailingSpouseStories in this month’s blog crawl:

Yuliya of Tiny Expats lists down the top info sites, blogs and directories for expats living (or planning to move) in Czech Republic.

Tala of Tala Ocampo shows us around her ‘hood of Balestier Road in the island city state of Singapore

Didi of D for Delicious reveals her bookish nerdiness with her go-to resources about Dubai and the US.

People Who Live in Small Places #8: Brunei (and no that’s not next to Dubai)

Huge thanks to Liz at Secrets of a Trailing Spouse who has kindly volunteered details about her life in the small country of Brunei for my occasional series People Who Live in Small Places. Brunei is one of those places that many have heard of – but few could place on a map. It sounds like it belongs somewhere in the Middle East whereas in fact it’s very firmly in South East Asia. So, to find out more, over to Liz:

Thanks for being part of this series, Liz. First of all, can you tell me a bit about your ‘small place’

Brunei Darussalam is a small country nestled between two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo. It has a population of around 400,000 and a land mass of 5675 square kilometres. Brunei has an equatorial climate and is mainly covered in rainforest. Many people have no idea where it is, and often think I live in Dubai

And so what are the good, and not so good, things about living there?

Brunei’s nickname is the ‘abode of peace’, and on the plus side it really is tranquil here: things move at their own pace, there is little crime, few crowds and a great sense of community. There is some beautiful primary rainforest, and very little tourism so you can really feel alone in there (apart from the wildlife). It’s sunny all year round and the whole of South-East Asia is on our doorstep – we have had some fantastic travel opportunities since moving here. The cost of living is fairly cheap so there’s plenty left over for some holidays of a lifetime!

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Brunei consists mainly of rainforest

I’ve always preferred to live in a ‘quiet’ place, yet this took on a whole new meaning when we moved to Brunei! It is such a small country that it takes less than two hours to drive from one end to the other (and would take even less time if the roads were better). Most of the expats live on camp in close proximity to one another so there is a real sense of community, although it can get a bit too close sometimes – when I got pregnant pretty much everyone knew because I stopped drinking, although they were kind enough to not ask me about it until I was ready to announce the news.

The small population means that there is very little to do in terms of anything – shopping, entertainment, culture… In Brunei you have to make your own entertainment, which brings me on to the next question.

What to you find to do to occupy yourself in your spare time?

There are many other ‘trailing spouses’ here; due to restrictions with work permits it is very difficult for spouses to legally gain employment, but as a result there are numerous clubs and societies to reflect the diverse interests of an international community. Pre-baby I spent a lot of my time volunteering, and I still help out with the Brownies (Girl Guides aged 7-10) as well as chairing the library. There is a club for the expats which has an outdoor swimming pool, gym, restaurants and events held by the different sections. There are also a large number of exercise classes, and a lot of very fit people around!

Entertainment is self-made but there are people here from all walks of life and with all kinds of qualifications, which means that there is a lot going on.

Enjoying a beer in a ‘bar’ – the fact that this photo is several years old shows how rare an occurrence that is in Brunei!

Enjoying a beer in a ‘bar’ – the fact that this photo is several years old shows how rare an occurrence that is in Brunei!

When my son was born it was a bit like moving here all over again as I swapped my old routine for one full of baby groups and playdates. It is a bit more restrictive now in terms of getting out and about; due to the very high temperatures and mosquitoes I do not spend nearly as much time outside as I would like to. But there are plenty of activities for the little ones to attend.

How easy is it to “get away” and where do you escape to? Do you feel the need to escape?

Yes, I certainly feel the need to escape! Living in Brunei is wonderful, most of the time. But the longer I spend here, the more I start to miss things like theatre, music, eating out in good restaurants, going to a bar… And the need to escape builds up. Sometimes just a weekend away to Singapore for a culture binge is enough, other times a longer holiday to somewhere with nice toilets and good shops… My priorities have certainly changed since living here! Luckily it is pretty easy to get away, although usually you need to change flights at one of the main hubs such as Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, which makes the journey time add up. For a quick fix, we can drive across the border to Miri in Malaysia in one and a half hours for a weekend getaway. Our most recent escape was to Japan, but we are in easy flying distance to many beautiful destinations such as Thailand, Vietnam, Bali… Sadly too many places to visit on a four year posting!

Enjoying some time outside in Japan

Enjoying some time outside in Japan

What is the local community like? Have you felt welcomed?

The Brunians are tremendously welcoming, as is the rest of the expat community. I was nervous about moving initially as I can be quite shy and usually struggle to make friends to begin with in a new place. But it took only a couple of months before I had settled in here and made some good friends. Because the turnover of expats is quite high in Brunei, with most contracts lasting four years or less, friendships are much more fluid and tend to progress faster – it is not uncommon to be invited round to someone’s house after only one meeting, and the numerous clubs and societies mean that it’s easy to meet people without having to go out of your way. Although the official language of Brunei is Malay, most people speak English, which makes everything so much easier.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about moving to your (small place – eg island, village etc), or somewhere similar?

Try to manage your expectations. I know of some people who have turned up here and absolutely hated it because they have spent all their time comparing it to their home or previous postings. There are many challenges of living in such a small place, but you get used to it after a while and you can always ship anything that you can’t find. Lastly, the internet is a life-line when you live in a small place, but make sure you switch up and venture out of the house sometimes!

Monkeying around with the internet connection

Monkeying around with the internet connection

Can you tell me a bit about yourself (and your family if you have one with you) and why/how you came to be living in your small place?

My husband works for an oil company and we moved in 2011 when he applied for a job abroad and was awarded a post in Brunei. My son was born last year (in Brunei) and has just turned one. I used to work as an English teacher in the UK before we moved, but I found that I soon got used to being a trailing spouse and now you would have to persuade me to give it up and return to work! Our contract is up at the end of this year, so we will be moving on to a new (bigger) place soon if all goes to plan.

Thank you so much Liz! I’ve certainly learned a lot about a country I knew very little about. Good luck with wherever you move on to next! Please don’t forget to check out my other Small Places blogs by clicking on the tag below – and let me know if you live somewhere small and would like to be featured right here on this blog 🙂

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