South Africa: You think you know a country and then you move there…..

South Africa – what images do those words conjure up for you? Is it of elephants and lions lurking behind the bushes of Kruger National Park? The iconic Table Mountain standing sentry over Cape Town? Or maybe it’s the legacy of Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest leaders of modern time who changed history in this Rainbow Nation?

On the other hand, it might also be car-jackings and armed robberies. House invasions and corrupt police officers. Shootings on the streets of Johannesburg. Or perhaps the huge division of wealth  between the shacks of inner-city townships and the shining villas of the opulent suburbs?

In fact, as I have discovered since moving here last year, it is all these things but it is also more – so much more. And the things that dominate both the negative headlines and the positive tourist brochures are often very out of proportion with the reality. In fact, just like I am sure is true for almost every country in the world, you really can’t know a country like South Africa until you live here. And even then, having been here less than a year still, I am really only scratching the surface.

When you think of South Africa is this what you see?

When you think of South Africa is this what you see?

The Size and the Beauty

First of all I have been totally blown away by the beauty and the diversity of South Africa. It is a huge, I mean really enormous, country. At least it is for me who comes from little old England. We have only been used to doing car journeys of an hour or two to get anywhere – a four hour trip would seem like a massive adventure! We also previously lived with our children on an even tinier island (St Lucia in the Caribbean), where the longest drive you could do was only about 2 hours long. So to find ourselves contemplating driving hundreds of kilometres for a weekend away was at first rather daunting – but we are getting used to it. And one of the reasons we are getting used to it is because there is so much to see and do we really don’t want to miss anything!

So far we have already ticked off many of those attractions that most people know about – Cape Town, Kruger, the Winelands, the whales of Hermanus. But we have discovered there is so much more to this country than the main tourist attractions – the Drakensbergs will  blow you away with their majestic beauty, Madikwe is a wonderful safari park only a few hours drive from the capital, Johannesberg is in every way as interesting a city as Cape Town (and a little more hip to boot!). And there is so much more: coming up we have a trip planned to the KZN coast to include some wildlife, some diving and a lot of beautiful scenery (including a short diversion in Swaziland – that is another thing about South Africa: with both Swazi and Lesotho contained within its borders you get three for the price of one, never mind the close proximity of Mozambique, Botswana, Zimababwe and Namibia…).  I also hope to drive the Garden route and up the coast, visit areas such as the Karoo and the Kalahari, explore Limpopo and Mpumalanga and so many other places with wonderful evocative names…

Namibia road trip....

Namibia road trip….

The Dirty Side

Of course you can’t ignore the dark side to this country and without a doubt there is a crime problem. But, and this is a big but, for me personally it is not as bad as I feared it would be. By that I in no way want to diminish the seriousness of this problem for a huge proportion of the population – you only have to look at the rape statistics or read about some of the awful home invasions to know that I am in a very priviliged position to be able to say this. However, as an expat with the backing of good physical security provided by our employer and a lot of common sense, I can go about my daily life more or less normally once you have become used to the bars and gates and locks and guards and alarms and keep doors…

But one thing I hadn’t really thought about but that concerns me far more is the high number of road traffic accidents and death toll they create. On our first weekend in the country we passed a horrific accident – there was a dead man lying in the road and two more badly injured at the side. Just yesterday we passed another here in Pretoria, two bodies lying under tarpaulin. In less than a year in this country I have seen more dead bodies due to road accidents than I have in all my life in the UK. I have lived places where the driving is a lot worse than here (apart from the minibus taxis, which are a law unto themselves) so it is hard to understand why the accident rate is so high but I wonder if it is something to do with the distances, the good roads, the fact that everyone is going to the same places at the same time…..

The Bit They REALLY Don’t Tell You About

This is the thing – what I have found hardest about living here isn’t the crime or the fear of crime but the weird underlying edginess and the racial tension that some might have thought would have disappeared after Mandela’s release in the 1990’s. But of course something like Apartheid doesn’t disappear overnight and in fact it will take generations for the problems it has caused to be resolved.

Often, I liken living here to living in an African version of the Help (the novel and then film set in 1950’s America). I live in Pretoria which I am told is the “Afrikaans heartland” and certainly in the part of the city I am in we are surrounded by affluent white people being served by black people (many of whom are immigrants from Zimbabwe and Malawi).

http___www.pixteller.com_pdata_t_l-169913

At the same time though there are white beggars on the street and white people leaving in their droves for other countries because thanks to a positive discrimination policy they feel they have no chance of getting a job.  And the current (black) government is incredibly unpopular and yet most people I speak to won’t vote for the main opposition party because although their leader is black they are known as the “white” party. The other opposition is seen as a bit mad by most but has a charasmatic and clever leader and is gaining popularity amongst the disffected youth. There are things happening here – like students burning down their own universities – which may or may not be connected to race but is somehow all tied up in the same problems of an unhappy younger generation. The so-called “born free” children (those born after Apartheid ended) are starting to reach maturity  and starting to question why life for them isn’t that much better than it was for their parents. It is a hot cauldron of bubbling tension that feels like it could overflow at any point. Add to that an economic crisis not helped by one of the worst droughts on record and this definitely feels like a country on the edge.

And yet

And yet my life here is wonderful. I realise that I am priviliged and my life does not in any way reflect that of the majority of South Africans. But I can enjoy gorgeous weather, beautiful countryside, cheap prices (thanks to the weak Rand – sorry South Africans!), good food, some of the best wine in the world and daily interactions with some of the friendliest people on the planet.

It’s a unique place alright but that is one of the reasons I love it!

DSC_1189

 

Expat depression and repatriation

I am not going to write a hugely long post about this because I think so much has already been written on this subject (see links at the end of the post). But I couldn’t close my series on expat depression without at least mentioning this topic.

When I was reading through the survey results from which I initially gathered people’s experience of overseas life and depression, one thing that stood out was the number of people who said the hardest thing for them hadn’t been moving abroad….but moving back home again. But why is this so tough? Surely you are returning to the bosom of your friends and family, to a culture you feel familiar with, to a place where you can understand what people say and find food you like in every shop?

Well, let’s start by having a look at some of the reasons why moving home isn’t always as straightforward as you may at first think it will be:

You’ve changed. They haven’t.

Of course, this isn’t entirely true as everyone changes as they grow and age. Things do happen back home just as they happen “abroad”. People get married, have babies, get sick….but these are “normal” things experienced by all; what you have gone through is very likely something out of the usual bubble of life, something out of the ordinary and something most of your friends will quite possibly never experience. And this will have changed you in ways you perhaps don’t even yet realise yourself. You will see the world differently, things that were important to you before won’t be now and vice versa. You will probably see that there is more than “one way”, that the world is a more complicated place than you possibly realised it was. And you will bring all of this with you into back into your old life – which will probably be just as you left it…

No-one will be very interested in where you have been.

Okay at first they will be. They will want to hear your stories of paddling down the Congo in a dug-out canoe or sleeping under the desert stars. They will start by asking you questions but these questions will soon run dry as they run out of understanding about your life and what you actually did on a day-to-day basis (which probably isn’t that much more exciting than theirs, despite what they may think). Eventually they will stop asking questions, start avoiding you in the street, “forget” to call you back. Not because they don’t like you but because they can’t really relate to this new version of you. And avoiding you is their best way of dealing with this.

You will have to start again.

And yes it could be just as hard as starting again in a foreign location. So you need to find schools, dentists, possibly a home, a job….you may have a group of supportive friends or you may not but many repats find themselves looking for a new support group who has more of an understanding of what life has been like for you over the past few years. So you need to find these people, get to know them, reach the point where you feel comfortable with them…You will also almost certainly find yourself going through the same culture shock cycle as at the start of your posting and as I described in my book The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide: the honeymoon period, negotiation, adjustment, acceptance.

If you have children they may very well be grieving their old life.

Whilst we may feel like we are returning home, this may not be so easy for children who have been out of the country for a long time and don’t really know anything but living in your foreign home or maybe even several foreign homes. For them, the things that are familiar and comforting to you may be very alien to them. They will probably also be missing their friends and wondering how or if they will ever see them again.

——————

And that is just for starters. You will read it over and over again but you probably won’t believe it until you experience it for yourself – moving home can be just as hard as moving away. In fact, many would say that it can be a lot harder – to the extent that one great piece of advice is to treat this as another foreign posting and adjust your actions and emotions accordingly.

In fact, this is why repatriating can very often lead to depression – because you are not expecting it to be so hard. You think there is something wrong with you. You feel ungrateful or guilty….you should pull yourself together, you can’t blame living in a foreign country for your feelings anymore….

So if this is you stop. Just stop. And give yourself some time. Ask for help. Do all the things people have recommended in my earlier posts on expat depression. See a professional. Don’t blame yourself, don’t think you are being weak. Just like you hopefully did when you first moved abroad, you will eventually settle back in, life will eventually get back to normal. You will be happy again. And if you don’t? Well, there is a whole world waiting out there!

Further info/reading:

Link to a free webinar on 26 May called Eeek I’m Repatriating – all about “finishing well and preparing to go home” – http://events.wattsyourpathway.co.uk/eek-i-m-repatriating-event-registration/

http://blogs.wsj.com/expat/2015/04/15/repatriation-blues-expats-struggle-with-the-dark-side-of-coming-home/

http://www.worldwideerc.org/Resources/MOBILITYarticles/Pages/0212-Dean.aspx

https://iwasanexpatwife.com/2012/01/16/repatriation-5-mistakes-i-wish-i-hadnt-made/

 

 

Feeling like a nobody.

One of the hardest thing about moving overseas as an expat partner is losing your identity. Okay at the start it’s difficult finding a house, navigating the roads, comforting the homesick children…but once the initial few months have passed and you begin to find yourself back into some sort of a new-normal, you realise something else has changed. Something pretty bloody massive. You are not who you used to be.

Well, you are who you used to be but you would be forgiven for feeling this way because this is how you will be treated from now on. As the sidekick. The uninteresting one. The one to avoid at parties (that is if you are ever actually invited to any). Never mind that you used to be a doctor or a lawyer or a nurse or a teacher or whatever it is that you did back in your home country. And never mind that actually you have a life here too, possibly even a job. As far as many people you meet are concerned you are a nothing. Your status is somewhere lower than the dogs and actually the only use you have is smoothing the way for your partner’s brilliant career.

But don’t judge us because we are not those nobodies. We were and dammit we still are very big somebodies. There is nothing worse than being ignored because you don’t work in the office  of the people you are meeting. Even worse for those of us who USED to work in that office and therefore actually could join in the conversation. As far as those people are concerned your brain is made of cotton wool and you couldn’t possibly have an opinion on anything useful!

This has happened to me here in Pretoria – with a few very honorable exceptions in some of my former colleagues who actually deem me fit to discuss what they do (and no I don’t expect to know everything and yes I realise that even though I have signed the official secrets act that was a long time ago and by now out of date so I don’t expect to be filled in on everything that is going on). As far as most people here are concerned I am fluff. I am my children’s mother, my husband’s wife. I am not a person who needs to be acknowledged.

Added to this sense of frustration is that everything I need to get done has to go through my husband. Want to open a bank account? He needs to get the ball rolling because I don’t work here. Something wrong with the house? Needs to go through his office. Flights home? School bills? Even medical treatment? Yup you guessed it – through his office!

We went to a party the other day thrown by someone fairly high up in diplomatic circles here. We were guests because I am friends with the fairly high up person’s wife. It was so refreshing to be there because of me not because of my husband – refreshing for him as well as me because he didn’t have to feel like he was working. It was a great night, I met some fun people and never once felt like I shouldn’t have been there. I was invited as me, not as the other half of the main man.

It’s frustrating and I know it is felt by many. What to do about it? Well if you are reading this and you know people who are the partners then ask them what they do or did, be interested in them, ask their opinions (some of us even do things like follow the local news and – shock horror – spend quite a lot of time getting to know our host country by interacting in various ways with the locals). Realise that they have a brain and treat them accordingly.

If like me you are the fluffy sidekicks then lets reclaim ourselves, our identities. Perhaps when we meet people and they ask why we are here the first thing we say SHOULDN’T be what our partners do or where they workbut rather why we decided to come with them. I wanted to travel. The opportunity to see more of the world was too much of a temptation to turn down. I decided it would be a good way to get my novel finished and do some more scuba diving.

And then, before they can start looking at you down their noses trying to sum up whether you are worth another three minutes of their time or not, be the first to move. Tell them you need to be somewhere or you’re on your way to the bar for another drink. Smile sweetly and walk away. Leave them wondering.

And always remember, whatever your situation, you are important. You are not a nobody you are a somebody and you always will be. And anyone who judges you because of what you do or don’t “do” isn’t worth another minute of your time anyway.

Here’s to all us expat partners – may we ever realise just how bloody important we are!

Raising kids abroad: it’s all just a guessing game

There has been a huge debate going on in an expat Facebook group I belong to over the past few days about whether it is right to take children to live overseas.

Started by a woman who is obviously struggling, the post hit such a nerve that within 24 hours she had something like 200 responses. And almost every one of them with a different view. Which just goes to show – no-one really knows the answer.

Some people obviously took huge offence at the notion that it isn’t necessarily in the best interest of the child to take them away from all that they know and love, into an alien environment where they would have to make new friends and find a new routine. To them, their decision to take their offspring abroad was seen as an entirely positive thing. They would be bringing up global nomads who would navigate their lives with a fantstic grounding in world knowledge, an understanding of different cultures and hopefully an extra language or two.

What could be wrong with that, right?

Well of course to many, this wasn’t so right. Others piled in with a totally different story. Loss of identity, sense of not belonging anywhere, losing friends, missing family……there were plenty of stories from the other side of the coin to counteract the rainbows and unicorns thrown around by the first group.

In between of course were plenty of sensible comments made by people who understood that in the end there is no “right” and no “wrong”. That just like pretty well everything when it comes to parenting (apart from maybe making sure your child doesn’t stand too close to the edge of Niagara falls), it’s all just guesswork. It is impossible to know exactly what effect your decisions today will have on your children in the future – you can only weigh up all the considerations and they chose one way. And hope. Not only that, but every family, every child, every situation, is unique. What works for one will not necessarily work for another. And what worked for your child when they were 5 or 6 years old might be a different story when they reach their teen years.

cooling off day one aug 08

Expat life can definitely have its advantages for children….

So should you move abroad when you have children? Well, having been a Third Culture Kid (TCK) myself, and now raising two more, I am not going to say no. But on the other hand I will caution that it is important to know what you are getting yourself into. I don’t agree with those who do nothing but rave about the experience. To me that sounds very defensive and I think there sometimes is a lot of “guilt” (oh don’t we all hate hearing about the parental gult!) behind their comments. Realistically, taking your children away from their home once, or multiple times, is going to affect them one way or another – and you are doing them a disservice to pretend otherwise.

However, so long as you are prepared and know what you are getting yourselves into, I also believe there are at least as many upsides as downsides to doing this – and hopefully in the end, the scales will come down in favour of taking the plunge. At the moment we are struggling with my youngest daughter who, nearly seven months after we moved here, is still unhappy. But on the plus side she has had some of the most incredible experiences that will stay with her for a lifetime, she is learning new languages, has friends from several different countries and been given an opportunity to learn about a fascinating country with a very unique history, first hand.

My other daughter has settled a lot better but there are a lot of issues around her schooling. Moving her into a different curriculum hasn’t been easy and I foresee problems when we move home again.

I, like others, question every day whether we have done the right thing. But there is no point in beating myself up about it – at the end of the day we are here and unless some emergency forces us home, we are staying for the duration. My youngest daughter might be unhappy but she could equally be just as cross at home – but for different reasons. And of course she isn’t always unhappy – she loves her new friends, seeing elephants in the wild, learning to ride a horse, being in the swimming pool for hours on end….

And the older daughter might have gaps in her maths knowledge, but she will have learnt things from being in a school with an international culture that she would never have the chance to back home. She will also have friends in several different countries – who hopefully we will have the chance to visit once this posting is done and dusted.

So what is my conclusion? Well, really it goes back to the title of this post – which is, who knows! It really is just a guessing game and whilst I would love to give you a straightforward answer, I can’t. To take your children to live abroad or to not take your children to live abroad? Well, that really is the question!

Resources: I can recommend two brilliant resources for anyone who wants to know more, both of which I have reviewed on this site: Your Expat Child website and the book Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere: Insights into Counselling the Globally Mobile.

What do you think? Have you taken the decision to move abroad with children and if so was it the right one? Were you yourself a Third Culture Kid and if so, do you think it benefitted you? What advice would you give to others?

back-kuaa-on-kickstarter

 

 

Six months in to my new expat life

I’ve been in Pretoria for six months. Six months and four days, to be precise. I didn’t actually notice on the day we reached our six-month milestone – we are so busy and wrapped up in our life here, it passed me by completely. Which has to be a good thing! No-one’s first half year in a new country is all sweetness and light, and I have had my fair share of downs as well as ups. On the whole though, I think I have got off pretty lightly in the “difficult first six months” department, certainly compared to other places I have lived.

Looking back, it seems incredible that only six short months ago I felt like the helpless toddler that I described in this post – Starting expat life: feeling like a child again.

Or even the pre-teen I was when I wrote this post, three months later: How far I have come.

But am I an adult yet? Well, perhaps not quite – but I certainly feel like someone who knows their way around, is comfortable negotiating daily life here and even feels ready to give advice to newcomers. And so, to mark my six months anniversary in Pretoria, here is a list of some of the things I have learned so far from our time in South Africa:

  • You can get used to living with a high level of personal security. I don’t really think twice now about all the keys, padlocks and bolts we have to open and close to get in or out of the house. I automatically lock my car doors every time I drive anywhere. I am always aware of who is around me, and if a car is acting suspiciously on the road behind me. I never have my handbag open, I put money away when I get it out from the ATM before walking away. You do have to live in a sort of state of high alert all the time, but it doesn’t ruin your life. Having said that, one of the things I am most looking forward to when I return to the UK for a holiday is walking out of my front door at night, simply closing it behind me, and walking….
  • A GPS is a damn fine thing – it brings you freedom in a way no map can. Up until now I have eschewed these relatively new items of technology: early experiences with one back home in the UK when they were still called SatNav’s were not good: they fell off the window; you could never get a signal; they took you down ridiculously narrow roads leading nowhere. But here they have been a revelation – allowing me to go anywhere I wish, knowing that not only will “James”, “Kate” or “Sarena” get me there, but they will help guide me home too. I love my GPS so much I even wrote a whole post about it.
Always ready to go....

Always ready to go….

  • Culture shock comes in many guises. I think I have suffered more from the differences in the school community we are now part of than in the differences of South Africa itself. The school is an American international school so we are having to learn about a whole new curriculum and a whole new way of doing things. Many of the frustrations I have felt since arriving here have been directed at the school. That isn’t to say I haven’t felt culture shock in other ways and places, but perhaps this was the least expected. I’m not sure yet where I am in the culture shock “cycle” with the school but I would guess somewhere between negotiation and adjustment..
  • South African politics and race relations has to be one of the most complicated in the world. You think you know a place….and then you move there. We all followed what was going on here durning the Mandela years, followed his release from prison, the election that brought him to power….and then so many of us stopped watching. I think we thought it was all resolved and everyone would live happily ever after. Of course, something like Apartheid is going to leave a massive legacy that is going to take decades, if not centuries, to unravel. There are problems on all sides of the political spectrum and underlying everything is the question of race. Never have I felt so aware of my skin colour on an ongoing, daily basis. As an outsider it is fascinating. But for the average South African there are difficult times ahead. I hope the “rainbow” nation holds together as when it works, it truely shows the world how things can be done.
Laundry day in Soweto - the racial divide is alive and kicking in South Africa, although the antics of the ANC government mean things are not as straightforward as they seem....

Laundry day in Soweto – the racial divide is alive and kicking in South Africa, although the antics of the ANC government mean things are not as straightforward as they seem….

  • It doesn’t matter if you live in the most wonderful place in the world and go on the most incredible trips every few months – your children will still be children. They will still have tantrums even on safari. I know this from (bitter) personal experience.
  • Living without airconditioning when it is 43 degrees isn’t much fun. Again, bitter personal experience.
  • All Netflix’s are not created equal. There is Netflix UK and there is Netflix US and then there is Netflix SA. We got all excited when Netflix SA arrived and joined up to see what it was all about.  On recommendation from friends, we got stuck into Narcos – which, if you haven’t seen it, is excellent. But knowing it would come to an end pretty soon I started asking around to see what other shows people would recommend. The suggestions came in thick and fast, mostly from my friends in the UK. I got all excited, thinking that for just a fiver a month we would be able to watch all sorts of fabulous shows. Only to find out that you can’t get most of them here in South Africa. Ah well, back to the drawing board it is then (luckily the local TV service DSTV actually has some pretty good shows and we are currently getting into Billions and the second series of the Leftovers).

There are, of course, many others things I have learned since living here. I know the sound of a displaying weaver bird. I recognise when a huge black cloud means hail, and when it means just rain. I understand a bit more about what happened during the Apartheid years, and why there is a whole generation here whose education was messed up. I know which shops I need to go to for cleaning products, and which for food. I even know where to get the best type of puppy food (less than four weeks now until the puppy arrives!). However, there is – of course – still a LOT that I don’t know.  A HUGE amount. And so I start the second six months of our time here with lots of unanswered questions: why DOES the weaver bird keep destroying his beautifully crafted nest? Who WILL people be voting for in the next set of elections? Just how cold DOES it get in the winter here? How likely AM I to see whalesharks in Mozambique????

Yup, the next six months look like they are going to be as much fun as the first.

My Expat Family

There’s a new place for expats to chat…..

The eagle eyes amongst you may have noticed a new logo appearing on the side bar of my blog. But in case you missed it here it is:

ExpatChat Logo 3

This is a new venture set up by the wonderful Your Expat Child website – which I know many of you use and I would encourage you to use as it is chock full of excellent information for living abroad with your child. I think Carole, who runs the site, recognised how much expertise there was amongst her readers and thought it would be a great idea to pool that expertise in one place. Hence the idea for a forum was born – where you can chat, ask questions, answer other people’s questions and generally feel that you are not alone in your new weird and wonderful expat life.

The forum is very new so it’s a little echoey at the moment. However, the more people who join the more useful it will become so I urge you to hop on over and sign up. And please share in expat groups and with others who you think would be interested. Hopefully I will see you there!

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.

8178012239_68d6c9c2a2_k

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!

327967078_14f8e77d7b_o

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/

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!

DSC_0051

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:

DSC_0084

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…..

***************************

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.

Moving day sucks!

Just keep swimming….just keep swimming…

Those of you who know the excellent film Finding Nemo will recognise this quote, but I was reminded of it by fellow expat Eline from the blog Pasta and Patchwork who is also mid-move at the moment. Exchanging tweets about what stage we were at and how stressful it all becomes, this was her excellent advice. Indeed, when you feel like you will drown if you don’t keep kicking forwards, this really does sum up how I am feeling at the moment.

The moving company turned up on Friday morning quarter of an hour earlier than the earliest time they said they would arrive. Our youngest was still at home, waiting for me to take her up to school. I was at least dressed – my husband was still running around in his pj’s doing all those last minute things that you always do leave until the very very last minute because there always seems something more important to do.

So we were all a-fluster from the start and anyone who has been through the nightmare of packing up a home and moving to the other side of the world will know how the rest of the day went.

There was

moving day2

and then there was

moving day 1

and finally there was

IMG_20150717_101837449

And along the way we found out that we couldn’t take ANY food with us at all so goodbye all our herbs and spices, as well as my baking beans which aren’t beans at all but ceramic balls – yet still didn’t make the cut because they are called beans. And that enormous box of Yourkshire tea bags I bought to keep me going? Not allowed. And the pillows that we were going to throw away got packed but the bedside cabinet that we wanted to take didn’t. We found strange bits and pieces all over the house that somehow got left out like two coasters and the dustpan and brush. And in the end there just wasn’t room for our Dyson cleaner (probably thanks to the pillows) so that’s another thing we’ll have to buy when we arrive at the other end.

Still. Basically we are there now and we’ve left our house and started saying goodbye to friends. We’ve moved into a holiday rental just around the corner from our house for a week, while our place is decorated. Gradually we are all letting go and by the end of the week, when we move on to my parents’ house, I think we will feel ready to leave.

It’s a relief to be past the worst of it. The last few weeks, and last week in particular, has been stressful. But by doing it in small chunks, dividing tasks up and not becoming overwhelmed, and, of course, by just keeping swimming, we’re nearly there.

To all you others out there going through the same thing – good luck!

The moving game.

All around the world there will be families going through exactly what we are doing right now.

Relocating to another country.

16084283788_935c6115ea_b

Packing and lists and decorating and sorting and letting and selling and more lists and goodbyes and checking and booking and calling and re-checking and more lists.

Houses and schools and visas and passports and children and pets and cars and boxes and suitcases and suncream and…..you get the idea. There is a lot to do, and lot to take in. My head is constantly spinning and when someone asks me how’s it all going sometimes I just go blank. How is it all going? Well, it’s going….and we’ll get there.. But the next few weeks are not going to be fun.

When I found my three roadtesters – Erin, Nichole and Lynsay – I asked them to help me out by using my book as a guide for their relocations and then write about it. Erin is already living in her new country (Denmark), and has been there for more than six months – so for her, these difficult days are in the past. But she wrote a post reflecting on the move and her first six months in Copenhagen, which you can read here. The post includes a list of some of the things Erin has learned since she arrived in Denmark, including the immortal line: Traveling, holidaying or vacationing somewhere is vastly different from LIVING there. Oh yes.

Erin and her family

Erin and her family

But both Nichole and Lynsay are yet to relocate and are basically both in more or less the same place as I am: in the midst of their move. Nichole is moving with her family from Australia to New York, and Lynsay from Dubai to Korea (Lynsay might have actually left already – I await updates on her arrival!).

Nichole covered chapters one (Before You Go) and two (The Move) of the book in one post – which you can read on her blog From Melbourne to Manhattan. But as a taster:

The first couple of chapter’s of Clara Wiggins’ The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, ‘Before you Go’ & ‘The Move’, have really been brilliant in reassuring me that I’m not going crazy and that I’m basically doing the right things!

Clara has used her previous experiences and a very down to earth delivery style to provide support and a vital second reference for when your mind is going through the endless ‘what have I forgotten’ cycle, which usually occurs in the way too early a.m. hours and sees me knocking things off my bed head as I flounder around for a pen and notepad.

I find the information itself helpful but also the anecdotes from other expats, that quite often oppose one another. We’re all different and each family has it’s own little world order and when it comes down to it, you just have to make decisions based on the best information/gut feel that you have and go with it.

I think it’s so important to know that you are NOT going crazy – and also that you are not alone.

In the meantime, Lynsay took each chapter separately and wrote two posts on her blog Mills Family Travels, one on Before You Go and the other on The Move (part one), about which she says:

Sorting began last month and I am gradually trying to move anything that is coming with us to a spare room.  Anything to avoid the few surprises that were shipped here (an empty suitcase that we needed for the flight, a tennis racquet case minus the racquet and an empty cardboard box!).  The arguments caused in looking for that suitcase!  Fortunately this time there is very little in the way of furniture as we are moving to a furnished accommodation.  So whilst that makes things easy in some respects it is amazing how much we are still taking (having 3 children with all their toys and books means lots of boxes!).

I love that they found an empty suitcase, empty tennis raquet case and even an empty cardboard box when they unpacked!

As for me, well here is my take on the first two chapters of my own book:

Before you go

It wasn’t an easy decision to apply for an overseas post – but I kept telling my husband applying didn’t mean we had to take whatever was offered – but if we didn’t apply, we would never have that choice. All through the long process, he kept telling me he wouldn’t get through…he wouldn’t get through….so many times that I believed him.

So it was a bit of a shock when we found out he had been accepted! To be honest, in retrospect, it shouldn’t have been a shock as he has exactly the right background, skills and experience for the job. I just believed him when he said he wouldn’t get it!

The second shock was hearing we were being asked to go to Pretoria. We had had a whole list of possible postings right back at the start of the process, and had gone through them with a tooth comb. We cut the list down to about half, and then took out a couple, added a couple….eventually I think we ended up with about six or seven real possibilites – of which Washington and the Netherlands were probably at the top for schooling reasons. South Africa would have been my first choice had we not had children, but there are a few issues around schools that luckily we now think are resolved.

So, finding out we were moving again – and then finding out it would be South Africa – was quite a shock. First thing we had to do was tell the kids – and you can read exactly how that went in this post. But after that, other than a couple of days up in London for a sort of “orientation” meeting with my husband’s department, we sort of returned to normal. We had a years notice almost from the day for this posting so it’s certainly not been a rushed process!

During that year we have managed to do quite a bit of research, and I have made contact with a few people already lving out there (we are lucky in that I have two friends in place in Pretoria, plus relatives living all over Southern Africa). But the highlight of our preparations was the trip we made to Pretoria last October.

DSCF1562

Zebras by the side of the road, Pretoria

When writing the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, I did urge people if possible to make a pre-move recce to their new country. Although we had managed this previously as a family to St Lucia, this time – with school  now such an important part of our lives – I found it even more useful. Seeing their school, as well as their house, local shopping malls, restaurants etc, will definitely make the move far easier for the girls (and therefore for me).

The Move

So now we’re in Chapter Two mode. I wrote a checklist for myself a few months ago, based on the checklist in the book, and have been going back to it every so often to see how we are doing. But now that we’re weeks rather than months away from going, I write weekly and then daily lists on top of my general list. I wonder whether, by the last week, I’ll be writing hourly lists?

Lists on lists....

Lists on lists….

As we go through the process of sorting out letting the house, selling the cars, changing our addresses, sorting out all our stuff (what to take, what to leave, what to sell, what to give away…), buying insurance, chasing new passports and visas, booking flights, organising decorators and cleaners, one thought keeps coming back to me.

How on earth did we do this in 2008 when we moved to Pakistan with a baby and a toddler?

As it is, at least this time the children are at school 6.5 hours a day (although to be fair, I didn’t have a part-time job, blog to write or book to market back in those days). However, as someone pointed out to me this morning while I was discussing this, that time I didn’t have to worry about dealing with the chidlren’s emotional baggage.

As part of the organisation for this move. I have printed off little slips for the girls to give out to their friends with their email addresses, my Skype address etc – and a place for their friends to do the same and give back to them. Taking them away from their friends and the school that they love is probably the hardest thing I have had to do for this move – and I am hoping that little things like making sure they’ve swapped addresses with their schoolmates will help.

We’re at M-day (moving out of house day) minue 15, and F day (flying day) minus 31. It will be a little while yet before I can relax – but we’ll get there.

So long as I don’t lose all my lists first.

(Overseas pic courtesry of BiblioArchives)

Are you moving this summer? If so, how’s it going? Are you feeling ready?

click here to buyMy Expat Family