15 Questions To Help You Set “Relationship Resolutions” In The New Year

After we got married and moved overseas five years ago, my husband, Mike, introduced a concept that initially horrified me. He suggested that every year around New Years we name one thing we’d like each other to work on in the upcoming year. In essence, he proposed that we assign each other a New Years resolution.

I spent weeks trying to decide what I would say to Mike that first year. I felt like I had to pick something serious. Momentous. Life changing. And I fretted about what he was going to say to me. What awful, embarrassing, character flaw was he going to spotlight and ask me to work on?

When the night finally came, this is what he said: “I would like you to please pay more attention to not scattering your stuff all over the place the minute you walk in the door.”

I was so relieved that this was what he picked, I laughed at him. But I now think his choice that first year was wise. He started small—a pet peeve that annoyed him out of all proportion to the actual offense, but something easy for me to agree to work on. And ever since then I have tried (with varying degrees of success) to be more mindful of keeping my clutter out of common areas.

Now that we’re several years down the track of our relationship, this little tradition has begun to serve an additional purpose—it reminds me that New Years resolutions shouldn’t just be about what I want to do (or not do) as an individual. As I take stock of my year in December, I should also be thinking about how my relationship with Mike is going and how we could improve it.

There are all sorts of things we can aim to do to build happier, healthier relationships. Here are just a couple:

  • Practice kindness
  • Laugh together more
  • Say what’s on your mind
  • Tell your partner what you want and need
  • Ask questions
  • Play together more
  • Practice really listening
  • Spend more time together
  • Talk about tension points (like money, or sex)
  • Give each other undivided attention (with no cell phones lying handy nearby!)
  • Be quicker to apologize
  • Practice forgiveness

The trick with setting resolutions, however, is to focus. If you try to do everything on this list you’ll probably end up accomplishing nothing new in the long run. So be strategic. Take stock of your year and your relationship, and then pick one or two things you really want to work on. Add this to the one thing your partner has asked of you and craft your New Year intentions around this trio of aspirations.

Ready to get started? Great. Here are some questions for you to think about and discuss this month in the lead up to Christmas and New Years.

questions-and-answers

Answer yourself

Answer these questions for yourself, and then set aside some time to share some of your answers together.

  1. Pick three words that describe this year.
  2. What are four things from this year that you are grateful for?
  3. What is the habit you would most like to stop next year?
  4. What is one habit you would really like to start next year?
  5. What are two things you and your partner “did well” in your relationship this year?
  6. What is one thing you would like to do with your partner to improve your relationship next year?
  7. Pick three words you would like to describe next year.

Ask each other

Now, take some time to ask each other these questions and discuss the answers.

  1. What were some of your favorite moments this year?
  2. What is something you have really appreciated about me this year?
  3. What is something I could do to support you well in this upcoming year?
  4. What is one thing you would like me to work on this year?
  5. What is something you’d like us to work on together to improve our relationship?

Setting relationship resolutions

Congratulations!! If you’ve asked and answered all of the questions above, you’re ready to set some relationship resolutions for next year. Use these questions to help you:

  1. What are one or two things (not more!!) that I really want to work on this year in my relationship?
  2. What is one thing my partner would like me to work on?
  3. What might these things look like in action (e.g., if you want to practice kindness, what might that actually look like on a daily basis)?

Your turn…

Do you set New Years Resolutions? If not, what do you do to mark the turning of a new page in January?
Leave a comment and let us know, or share some of your answers to the questions above.

blank list of resolutions on blackboard

Living Overseas Can Be Hard On Love: Making Your Relationships Work When You’re On The Move

Before we moved to Laos, I worked full time as a stress-management and resilience trainer for humanitarian workers. During those years I saw first-hand the pressure that living overseas places on people and relationships. After my husband and I moved overseas ourselves, I decided to focus my energies on supporting relationships—particularly long distance relationships—and last week I pressed “publish” on a new, free resource I want to share with you on making long distance relationships work.

How To Make A Long Distance Relationship Work: 50 Best Tips

If you’re NOT in long distance relationship

If you’re not in a long distance relationship you’re probably wondering if there’s anything here for you, so let me speak to you first.

When you move overseas, you’re hit with myriad challenges all at once. You need to make a thousand and one decisions in quick succession. You need to learn a new environment, new people, a new job, and maybe a new language. You need to do all of this at the same time your normal support systems (familiar friends, family, routines, jobs) are stripped away.

Moving overseas when you’re single has it’s own constellation of additional challenges. It can be less complicated in some ways, but lonelier. If you’re single and missed these posts recently right here on ALO, check them out—Not An Afterthought, and A Life Alone.

If you move overseas with a partner and/or a family you’ve carried a very important part of your identity and support system along with you. In some ways this is great—some of the bumps of transition can be softened when they’re shared. In other ways, however, partners and families add an extra level of complexity to a taxing situation. And partner and/or kids can want extra attention and support right when you feel stretched to the breaking point yourself, when you’re struggling most with your own overload, fatigue, and ricocheting emotions.

What’s the bottom line? Moving overseas can take a real toll your most important intimate relationship. When you’re in survival mode during those early days following a move it’s extremely difficult to actively invest in and nurture your relationship with your partner. And once you start to emerge from survival mode, it can be difficult to reshape the new patterns you have been laying down and fumble your way towards a closer connection again.

I acknowledge all of that, but I’m here today to say it’s really important to make your relationship with your partner one of your top priorities. There are many reasons to do this. Here is just one: Marriage and relationship problems are one of the most common reasons people need to leave the field and returning home.

Where to start with this? There are many things you can do to build connection with your partner. Today, why don’t you check out the following articles from the long distance relationships tips page. Set aside a bit of time, pick one or two and discuss them:

If you live overseas and you’re in a long distance relationship

If you live overseas and you’re in a long distance relationship, well… you like to keep things extra-interesting, don’t you? If it’s any consolation, I’ve been there. So has Shannon Young, Steffani Taylor and Dawn Othieno.

Come visit us over at Modern Love Long Distance. We’d love to share with you, support you, and hear more about how you make your long distance relationship work.

Your turn to share your stories and strategies with us.
What are things you and your partner do to help “make your relationship work”?

Please Don’t Feed The Monks

Tonight* my husband, Mike, and I took the little dog and walked down to one of our favorite restaurants in Luang Prabang from which to watch the sun set over the Mekong. While we were eating and watching the long-boats glide downriver in golden light, two tourists at the next table struck up a conversation with us.

“Is that your dog?” they asked. “Do you live here? What do you do?…”

In return they told us about their trip. They were backpacking around Asia together, and they loved Luang Prabang with it’s stately temples and unexpected, French-influenced, other-wordly charm. Just that morning the guy we were chatting to had gotten up early and gone out to feed the monks who come out in silent lines to receive alms at dawn. He’d bought rice to give away from one of the girls selling it nearby, lined up with the local women, and started dishing out food as the monks trailed past.

MONKS BREAKFAST IN EARLY MORNING IN LUANG PRABANG, LAOS

“There were so many monks!” the guy raved. “I had no idea there would be that many. I gave all my food away to the first twenty – I was piling it into their buckets, two biscuits and a handful of rice at a time – and then I went and bought some more and kept giving.”

Now doesn’t that sound charitable? Noble? At the very least, harmless?

Not so fast.

As this total stranger relayed this to me while Mike was inside paying the bill, I felt torn. On the one hand I didn’t want to be that know-it-all who jumps on an unsuspecting tourist, shoots him down, and tells him that what he’d done was culturally inappropriate.

On the other hand, what he’d done was culturally inappropriate.

Locals here (usually women seeking to earn merit for their families) get up before dawn to prepare the fresh rice they give to the monks. They line up alongside the road, kneeling, with head and feet bare as a sign of humility. As the monks walk past, the women quickly and silently place a small offering in each bowl without making direct eye contact. Giving alms is a cultural and religious ritual that carries great meaning for the locals – they practice it with commitment, care, and deep thoughtfulness.

The unique picturesque symbolism of the monks making their dawn rounds has made it one of Luang Prabang’s premier tourist attractions. Some locals have capitalized upon this by staking out places where alms-giving occurs and selling unsuspecting tourists rice that they can offer to the monks. These rice and cakes sold by the hawkers are often not fresh, and tourists who do not fully understand the meaning of the ceremony or how to perform it respectfully then offer this left-over food to the monks. This is disruptive to nearby locals and to the monks (who, from what I understand, do not want these offerings that are not prepared or given in the proper spirit of humility and thoughtfulness by their community or by genuine seekers who approach the ritual with reverence).

So, what to do with my new and garrulous buddy at the pizza place?

Initially I let it slide. He’d already gone and done it, I reasoned. He was leaving tomorrow. Why risk embarrassing him in front of his girlfriend now?

But then the conversation continued. After he told me of that morning’s activities, I mentioned that many here were wondering how long there would enough locals living in the Old Town district to sustain the ritual and feed all of the monks in the area. As more and more guesthouses are built in the Old Town, it seems inevitable that more of the local families currently living there will leave. With them will go their early-morning-rice-preparing wives and mothers. Who will feed the monks then?

“Oh, no problem,” the stranger proclaimed. “There are plenty of tourists around, they can just sell more rice to tourists and get the tourists to do it and make money out of the whole thing to boot!”

After this I couldn’t let him leave without at least trying for a course correction.

“You know,” I said, “tourists feeding the monks is a bit of a controversial practice…”

I explained why as gently as I could, and then Mike and I wished them well, collected our leftovers and our little dog, and left.

“Do you think he got it?” Mike asked as we walked home

“I don’t know,” I said. “I hope so. Do you think I was too indirect? What would you have said?”

“How about just, don’t feed the monks!” Mike said.

So for all of you readers who may come visit us in Luang Prabang at some stage I’m telling you now so I don’t have to tell you then. Unless you earnestly desire to give dawn alms in ways that are fully respectful of local traditions here, please don’t feed the monks!

When did you last have one of those awkward moments with a visiting stranger?
What did you do?

*This post first appeared on lisamckaywriting in 2012.

When You Need Help Abroad: Finding A Good Counselor When You Live Overseas

One of the first questions people often ask me when they learn that I’m a psychologist is, “are you practicing?” They are invariably disappointed when I tell them “no, I’m still busy with our young children, and I’m trying to start a business on the side.” Here, like many other places I’ve lived abroad, there is a shortage of trained mental health professionals who are well equipped to help the expatriate population.

And, boy, a significant chunk of the expatriate population needs some helping.

That’s not surprising, really.

Moving abroad pushes you out of all sorts of comfort zones. Pretty much everything in life – from grocery shopping to figuring out the point of life – gets more complicated. The level of challenge in your life goes way up, right when you lose a lot of your normal support and coping mechanisms.

Yes, this can be a recipe for great personal growth. It is also, often, a recipe for great personal struggle and pain.

Coping with sudden and extreme change gets exhausting. Living far from family and friends gets lonely. Witnessing the impact of your choices on your family members – particularly your children – can breed guilt and insecurity right alongside gratitude. Having the familiar social and cultural scaffolding of your life ripped away can force you to confront core identity questions around yourself, privilege, meaning, purpose, and the existence and nature of God. The pathways to answering these questions often lead through dark valleys.

I would guess that those who live overseas entertain a higher chance of experiencing significant mental health problems, marital challenges, or substance abuse issues than those who remain on home soil. I’ve seen numerous marriages hit the rocks and other important personal and team relationships become hopelessly mired in miscommunications and conflict. I’ve seen people skid into alcohol and porn addictions. I’ve seen parents feel guilty and helpless as they watch their children implode (or explode). I’ve frequently seen more people who cannot shake anxiety, grief, bone-deep exhaustion, or the grey, soul-sucking fog of depression.

When these things happen (and they happen more often than you might think) expatriates can find it very difficult to get help.

There are all sorts of reasons why this is so, but one of those reasons is a shortage of qualified mental health professionals who themselves live abroad. So today, we’re going to talk about how to find some help when you find yourself struggling with a dark, difficult chapter in your story.

Keyboard_Help

When you’re trying to find a counselor locally, ask around

If you’re looking for a psychologist or counselor, start by asking others in town about the options. You don’t have to go into details, just ask if anyone knows of any psychologist, counselors, or social workers living in town.

You might want to start with your embassy. Talk to the doctor on staff at the embassy clinic, if there is one. Ask them whether they know of any psychologists or counselors practicing locally and, if not, what they recommend when people contact them asking for mental health or family counseling referrals.

If you live near an international school, you can approach them for information, too. The international schools may know of skilled expats in town, especially those who work with children.

You can also ask other expatriates, particularly doctors, nurses, midwives, doulas, and pastors.

Search online

world magnifyingWhen you live anywhere outside the major city centers, word of mouth is your best bet when it comes to finding mental health professionals who live nearby. However, you might get lucky with an internet search. Here are three things to try…

Check out International Therapists Directory. It provides an online global listing of professional mental health therapists who are familiar with the TCK and international expatriate experiences.

Use Google. I’m in Laos, so I would try searches like “mental health Laos” “mental health Vientiane” “psychologist Laos” “counselor Laos” “family therapy Laos” etc and see what comes up. I’d also search LinkedIn with those same search phrases.

When it comes to choosing a counselor, be picky

Don’t work with someone just because they live nearby. Yes, there are some benefits to sitting down with someone face to face, but a significant proportion of the mental health professionals I’ve met abroad are… well… to be honest… strange.

Be picky. You will be far better off talking to someone you trust and like via Skype than sitting with someone locally who isn’t qualified or able to help you.

Selecting a counselor is an important and individual process. Remember that a counselor who works well with one person may not be the best choice for another person. Also, when you live overseas, it can be helpful if your counselor has lived abroad themselves or has previous experience working with expatriates.

When you’re considering working with someone, you might want to let the counselor know you’re thinking of making an appointment and ask if they have a couple of minutes to talk with you before you make a decision.

Don’t use this time to explain at length why you want to make an appointment. Instead, ask some questions that can help you get a better feel for this counselor and whether you feel comfortable talking to him/her.

Here are some questions you could ask:

  • Can you tell me a bit more about your training and experience? Are you a licensed mental health professional?
  • Can you tell me a bit more about your general approach to counseling?
  • What do you enjoy about counseling?
  • If you feel comfortable naming the issue that you want to work on in general terms (e.g., “issues related to humanitarian field work,” “child-rearing problems,” “marital issues”), you might ask, “How much experience do you have working with people with this concern?”
  • How long (over time) do you generally like to see clients?
  • Can you tell me more about your fee structure/how you handle billing? (Either on the phone or in your first meeting, the counselor should provide information about procedural matters – fees, meeting times, availability, confidentiality, etc.).

When you meet with a counselor, ask yourself whether this is a person with whom you feel comfortable talking. You may need to talk with the counselor more than once to know the answer to that question. Do you feel the counselor is listening to you? Does the counselor treat you with respect? Does the counselor respond to your questions constructively?

If you can’t find someone local who you like and trust, find someone back home and work with them using Skype, Facetime, or other video-chat options. Nowadays, many counselors are happy to take on long-distance clients.

Find and read resources online

Articles, online training modules, and podcasts are not an adequate substitute for talking to someone, but they can help along the way. Here are a couple of websites that you might find useful.

The Headington Institute: Provides psychological and spiritual support services for aid and development personnel worldwide. Check out their free online training center covering topics related to resilience, stress, trauma, relationships, spirituality and more.

Member Care Associates: Provides and develops supportive resources for workers and sending groups within the mission/humanitarian sectors. Click on their Articles/Books tab to find a long list of resources for those on the mission field. Click here to read about their latest book in the Member Care series.

The American Psychological Associations Online Help Center: This is a good source for general articles and tips sheets about health, emotional wellness, families, relationships, and children.

Please chime in and add to this list!
Feel free to ask questions, share your experiences, or add useful links.

When You Second-Guess Your Life

Last night while we were getting ready for bed, my two year old started to tell me a story. He told me this story three times in a row, getting more excited and delighted every time.

Was this story about the herd of cows we’d seen blocking the road to our house that morning? Or how our gardener had let him cut the bushes all by himself with a huge pair of shears (gulp)? Or about how the seatbelt-less van we’d been riding in that day had braked suddenly and he had flipped right up and over onto the (thankfully, empty) seat in front of us? (It’s been quite a week, and don’t even get me started on how we all had to go to the clinic and get tested for TB last night.)

No, the story that Dominic was so excited to tell me was about making blueberry pancakes at his grandparents’ house three months ago.

He misses his grandparents terribly. So do I. And when I pause for too long and think about what we’re losing by living so far away from parents, sisters, brothers and cousins, it can really make me wonder whether this living overseas thing is worth it.

Question-MarkI know some of you who read this blog have a very clear sense that God wants you to live and work in a particular place for an extended period.

My husband, Mike, and I don’t have that.

Instead, Mike and I have the sense that God wants us to use our skills and talents for good wherever we are.

It so happens that many of our skills and passions equip us well for overseas living and development work. It so happens that opportunities for my husband to use his skills and work within the circle of his passions have opened up here in Laos. It so happens that we judged that taking up those opportunities was the best fit for the overall family system right now. And, so here we are.

Who knows where we’ll be this time next year. We don’t.

Today, I want to speak to those of you who don’t fit the typical missionary model. Those of you who don’t feel called to a particular place. Those of you who don’t intend to land somewhere and stay there – God willing – for a decade or more.

If you move overseas without a clear commitment to a place, an organization, or a time-frame, you should be prepared to second-guess yourself often. You will need to learn to build meaningful relationships within a constantly shifting social framework. You will need to grow in your ability to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty. You will ask yourself the question “is this worth it?” frequently. You will need to answer the question “what’s next” every couple of years.

Answering both of those questions requires re-visiting a complex equation involving any or all of the following shifting variables:

  • Your perception of God’s opinion on the issue
  • Each partner’s (if you’re married) skills, passions, wants, and needs
  • Existing professional commitments and logistical constraints
  • What seems best (emotionally, educationally, and/or medically) for any children you might have.
  • Health risks and constraints for every family member
  • The career, financial, and logistical implications of any change you might make.
  • The needs and wants of your extended family.

If you’re anything like me, trying to figure life out in relation to just one of the variables listed above is hard enough. Throw them all in the mix, and decision-making in the absence of a clear sense of “divine assignment” can quickly become seriously overwhelming and very taxing.

I’ve been doing the “professional expatriate” thing for more than a decade now –most of my life, really – and I don’t have any sure-fire solutions for you on how to deal with the dynamics of this lifestyle. What I can do is offer you some things that have helped me at various points.

Direction road signs

1. Get some clarity on the hierarchy of the variables in your list. Is this a season for prioritizing building a stable community over taking an exciting job in a new country? If you can get some idea of how the variables in your own personal universe are weighted in this season of your life, it’ll help guide your decision-making.

2. Once you’ve actually made a decision, try not to second-guess yourself. Not for a while, anyway. Protect some space to live in the now. If you know you probably need to move or switch jobs in July next year you might, for example, agree to not talk a great deal about next steps until March.

3. At risk of sounding like I’m contradicting myself… talk. Talk with your partner about the whole, complicated mess, without feeling you need to make any immediate decisions. Talk about the things you love about living overseas and those you loathe. Talk about what you miss about living back home. Talk about what you want, and what you fear, and what you feel like you should want, and what you actually want, and what makes you scared and mad and sad and happy and grateful about this crazy extreme adventure you’re living.

U-turn-permitted-cropped4. Keep a physical or mental list of all the wonderful things about your life overseas so that when your two-year-old waxes wistful and begs to “go home” it doesn’t spark a complete existential crises (not most of the time, anyway). Regularly, intentionally, celebrate these wonderful things about living where you are. Rehearse how living overseas allows you to live in your strengths, to grow, to help others, and to experience life.

5. Give yourself permission sometimes to seriously consider alternate realities. Finding yourself wondering often whether you’re in the right place? Consider whether you are in the right place. Spend some time thinking about what life might be like elsewhere, doing different things. Seriously map it out. Give yourself permission to change course.

6. Pay for your parents to come visit. Tell them to bring blueberries and pancake mix with them.

When you start second guessing your life, what helps you?

An Airport Encounter With Grace

Folks, I’m a bit in survival mode here at the moment. I’ve been without a car all week. We have an uncharacteristically grumpy, teething baby. We have a feverish two year old who only wants Mama… all the time. We have a Daddy who is leaving on Sunday for a week. And we have two very tired parents, because what we don’t have is nearly enough sleep.

Yesterday, however, I decided that when people here ask me how I am, I’m going to try to avoid giving them the shell-shocked stare of someone under siege and then launching straight into a disjointed account of my biggest problem of the moment. That goes for this blog, too. So this month I’m not going to write a post exploring how to cope with epic toddler tantrums (although if you’d like to see me write on that at some stage, let me know). Instead, I’m going to post something more light-hearted that I wrote four years ago. It’s about grace that I experienced in – of all places – an airport.

Image credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net (artur84)
Image credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net (artur84)

Until this morning I had thought that perhaps my capacity to invent new and stupid things to do in airports had finally been exhausted. After all, it’s been almost two years since I’ve done something dumb on an epic scale.

Given my track record, two years is a pretty long time to go without a major self-inflicted airport disaster. In two years I have not left my wallet at home and gone to Colorado without any money or credit cards. I have not neglected to get a visa for Czech Republic and been stranded in Germany. I have not sat, content, at the wrong gate in Chicago airport until a mere twenty-seven minutes before my flight to London left from an entirely different terminal. I have not shown up at the airport for a flight to Washington only to be informed that I was supposed to be on that flight all right, just a week earlier. I have not misread a flight itinerary for a trip to Ghana as leaving on Tuesday, not to realize until Monday at 9am that it actually left on Monday at 4pm. I have not lost my bank card and then had to hastily borrow a thousand dollars in cash from church friends before a Sunday departure for two weeks in Kenya. I have not illegally entered home country number one as a tourist on the passport of home country number two after realizing, on the day of departure, the implications of the fact that my passport for home country number one had expired.

And, in a particular triumph, I have not been rude to any incompetent immigration officials, in any country.

In other words, I’ve been good these past two years. Really, really, good.

So good, I thought that maybe these days of tragi-comedy airport disasters were over. I truly hoped so. Because, contrary to what some of my nearest and dearest may believe, I don’t do these sorts of things on purpose. These sorts of situations are in no way fun while they’re unfolding. They make my palms sweat, my heart race, and my general stress levels spike (which, given that most of them have occurred during my travels as a stress management trainer, is a particularly aggravating irony). They are a serious assault on my image of myself as smart, competent, organized, and independent.

I am not quite sure why, but a disproportionate number of these incidents seem to involve airports. And so it was this morning.

This morning I got to Grand Rapids airport in Michigan an absurdly safe two hours early for my domestic flight. I spotted my gate number – B1, found a nice chair in the sun, rejoiced over the free wireless, and paid no attention to the surrounding chaos until I heard the words “final boarding opportunity” and “Chicago” right after one another.

I slammed the laptop shut and jumped up, wondering how it had gotten so late, only to turn around and see that between me and gate B1 stood… security screening.

Security screening, which I had completely forgotten I had not yet passed through. Which, in fact, I had completely forgotten even existed.

And there was a very long line of people stretching away from it down the terminal, past where I stood.

So I want to say a very sincere thank you to the woman at the head of the line who let me go in front of her when I showed up panicked and begging. And to the half a dozen people behind her who came to my defense and said it was alright for me to totally disregard my rightful duty to the line, “they didn’t mind at all”, when the security people accosted me with a belligerant “ma’am” and demanded to know if I had waited my turn.

Not only were these people in line kind, they were nice about it too. They smiled at me, which I totally did not deserve.

It was, in a pure form, grace.

Hours later it all still leaves me drenched in shame and shaky gratitude and determined to treat gently those who cross my path very flustered after just having done something unbelievably silly. Perhaps even to treat gently those who are doing something unbelievably silly but aren’t the least bit flustered or regretful.

And to smile at them.

Have you experienced grace from strangers lately? Do share the tale…

The bumpy road back: Five ways to support families during transition and re-entry

We’ve been deep in the throes of transition during the last two weeks. Just after Christmas last year we left Laos in a rush and headed for Australia so that my husband, Mike, could receive treatment for cancer. Now that he’s received the initial all-clear (hooray) we’re in the process of reassembling normal life. To get there, however, we had to relocate ourselves and two children under three back to Laos last weekend.

Much easier said than done.

It’s turning into a brutal re-entry. Three of the four of us left Australia already sick with colds. Thailand decided to stage a coup the day before we left, including instituting a 10 pm curfew. Scrambling to reach our hotel after our flight landed at 8:20 pm was a little stressful. Calming down two over-stimulated children enough for us to get any sleep was close to impossible. Arriving back in Laos at 2 pm the next day with everyone getting increasingly unwell, our car hemorrhaging oil, 99 degree heat, and no electricity for several hours was completely demoralizing. Being woken up by one or the other children every hour our first two nights home was beyond taxing. And having the electricity go out again during the loooooonnng sweltering afternoon of our second day back and being faced the possibility of an internal wiring problem in our house was the last straw.

I seriously entertained the idea of taking both kids back to Australia and telling Mike he could join us there when he was done here.

But we’re five days in now. One child, at least, has slept well the last two nights. After two days in the shop our car seems (mostly) fixed. The electricity has stayed on since Monday. No one is healthy again, yet, but my voice is pretty much back. Hopefully both kids are on the slow mend. I suspect I’ll stay (for now, at least :)).

We’ve been so touched by the support we’ve been offered in the last several weeks by friends and acquaintances both in Australia and in Laos. That support has made a huge difference to us practically and psychologically during this re-entry. So, this month, I thought I’d reflect on ways that people have helpful support us recently, and put together a post on things you can do to support those in the midst of challenging transitions:

Help during transition

1. Bring meals around

One lot of friends bought round kid-friendly food on Sunday night (As an extra bonus, they fed our eldest child and he actually ate). Another couple brought round a lovely dinner on Monday, complete with some baby food for Alex. Not having to wrap my head around cooking and making baby food during those first three days back when I felt so sick was so wonderful. While we were in Australia and Mike was in treatment, we also received numerous meals from my parents’ church community. Not having to cook a dinner for the family can really help ease the load. Cookies and other things you can give to kids as snacks are also very helpful.

2. Bring groceries

Two couples had stocked our house with some staples and groceries before we returned, including toilet paper, milk, cheese, bread, eggs, butter, peanut butter, cereal, apples, and coffee. This really helped deal with those initial breakfasts and lunches and meant we didn’t have to run right out and grocery shop – doubly helpful in light of our broken down car.

3. Lend needed items

When we arrived in Australia with a four month old and a two year old, friends and acquaintances from my parent’s church community there lent us all sorts of kid paraphernalia that really helped us out – including a high chair, a crib, a baby jumper, baby toys, toddler toys, children’s story books, and some hand-me-down clothes. Particularly if a family is traveling with young children, think about things they might find useful as part of their daily routine. Since we’ve been back here, another family has lent us their car this week while we’ve been trying to get ours fixed.

4. Watch children

This one can be hard, because it’s challenging for parents and kids to be separated in the midst of upheaval and change (particularly if the children don’t already know you). If you can make it work, however, it’s one of the most useful ways you can help out. Even if you come over to the new house and entertain older children or toddlers while parents unpack, sleep, or take care of life admin, it will be a huge help.

5. Give money

Just before we left Australia, generous friends there completely surprised us with money to help cover some of the extra expenses that have accrued this year.  That has turned out to be especially timely in light of our car problems.

I know I have just scratched the surface on this topic, but I need to go and do some of my own unpacking and sorting. We are a long way from settled. We will, however, get there.

Help out and add your thoughts in the comments section so that we can all benefit from your experiences.

What have others done to help you during challenging transitions?
What have you done to help others?

Book Giveaway: My Hands Came Away Red

This month, Moody Publishers has offered to give away three copies of my Christy-award-nominated first novel, My Hands Came Away Red. Below  is a little about how I came to write this novel and what I learned during the process. You can find out how to enter to win a copy of the book at the end of the post.

My_Hands_Came_Away_Red_med qual

 

Cori signs up to take a mission trip to Indonesia during the summer after her senior year of high school.  Inspired by happy visions of building churches and seeing beautiful beaches, she gladly escapes her complicated love life back home. 

Five weeks after their arrival, a sectarian and religious conflict that has been simmering for years flames to life with deadly results on the nearby island of Ambon.  Within days, the church building the team had constructed is in ashes, its pastor and fifty villagers are dead, and the six terrified teenagers are stranded in the mountainous jungle with only the pastor’s teenage son to guide them to safety.  Ultimately, Cori’s emotional quest to rediscover hope proves as arduous as the physical journey home.

 

 


The Story Behind My Hands Came Away Red

When I was eighteen years old, I went on a ten-week short-term mission trip to the remote island of Camotes in the Philippines.

My motivations for signing up were complicated. I was looking to “do some good”, sure. But I was also looking for a grand adventure. And I chose the backpack team mostly because I figured it would be less work than a construction team.

Boy, was I ever wrong.

I’d envisioned acting out gospel stories for eager kids, hiking along gorgeous beaches, and bonding with new friends around a campfire. To be fair, there was some of that. But right along with it came no shower, and no toilet. We washed clothes in buckets and slept in tents. We pumped our drinking water through hand-held filters. We hiked up to 15 miles a day. There was an absolute epidemic of blisters. And there was heatstroke.

I didn’t have the gracious fortitude to be thankful for it at the time, but all of this roughing it did come in handy later when I buckled down to a task I’d set myself before I even left on the trip…

Someone should really write an honest story about a mission team that collides with some of the worst this world offers, I’d thought after reading an article about piracy in south east Asia one morning, months before leaving on the trip.

Somehow, during the following weeks that thought slowly became a conviction.

I should do that.

Then it morphed into a promise.

I will do that. After all, how hard could it be?

I never dreamed at eighteen that it would take me eleven years to fulfill this promise, or that the story would be so profoundly influenced by my own life in the decade following my mission trip. I never dreamed that I would learn so much about writing and life along the way.

When I started writing the book I knew some of what would happen to my characters. What I didn’t really know was how they would react and cope when the world they thought they understood was rocked so violently. How they would begin to find hope again. How hope would have changed.

During the years it took me to write the book, the story wasn’t the only place I encountered these issues. In various jobs as a young psychologist I counseled murderers, debriefed police officers after traumatic incidents, reviewed hundreds of case files on children’s deaths, conducted risk assessments of child sex offenders, and ran workshops on stress and trauma for humanitarian workers on the front-lines of disaster and conflict all over the world. Among other things, my career has been a whirlwind tour of some of the worst experiences life has to offer.

People often say that you should write what you know, but I felt driven to write this novel more by what I didn’t know than by what I did. Writing my way into this story when I couldn’t see the way out was sometimes exhilarating, sometimes terrifying, and always difficult. I often wondered whether my personal sanity would have been better served by writing a romance novel instead of a book set in the middle of a civil conflict in Indonesia. But as I labored to write this novel while also working to try to help people profoundly challenged by their own witnessed and experienced traumas, several life lessons were being ingrained.

I learned, for example, that when I hear myself asking the question “how hard can it be?” the answer is almost always “much harder than you think is possible.”

On a more serious note…

I learned some about sitting with tough questions in life, staring them down honestly, and respecting the fact that there are no easy answers that satisfy, and sometimes no answers at all that satisfy completely.

I learned a lot about the temptation to let the magnitude of suffering and evil apparent in this world overwhelm, and ultimately paralyze.

And I learned a little about the responsibility we have to choose hope in the face of all that – even when it doesn’t seem to make any earthly sense.

OK, now that I’ve talked about some of what I learned through writing, I’d love to hear from you about reading.
To enter to win a paper or electronic copy of My Hands Came Away Red answer one or more of these questions by leaving a comment on the facebook page of A Life Overseas or here on the blog:

  1. What is a book you really loved, one that stuck with you long after you finished it?
  2. Has a book ever changed your life? How?
  3. What is one thing you’ve learned from reading?

Thanks for entering! I’ll randomly select the three winners on May the 16th and email you shortly after that.

The Existence Of Poo (On Shame, Part I)

Almost four years ago now, on a velvety Friday night, my husband, Mike, and I had a hot date. We’d been married a year and a half by that stage, and living in our new home-town of Luang Prabang, Laos, for three whole weeks. We decided to go somewhere special to celebrate. That somewhere was a tiny restaurant called Tamarind.

Tamarind is tucked opposite a gold-glazed temple and serves traditional Lao food along with a dash of cultural orientation. It was at Tamarind that I first sampled a stalk of lemongrass stuffed with minced chicken and herbs and grilled over an open flame. It was also where I first tried the brown triangles of dried riverweed studded with sesame seeds that you are meant to dip into tiny bowls of chili paste mixed with buffalo skin. The latter was not such a transcendent epicurean moment, but I guess you can’t win them all.

Despite the occasional appearance of buffalo skin in the dishes, I love the food at Tamarind. At least initially, however, the food at Tamarind did not return my affection in equal measure. Although I was feeling perfectly perky when we sat down to dinner, I suddenly felt markedly less perky about halfway through our feast.

There are few things more deflating than suddenly becoming aware that you may need to make an emergency toilet run in the middle of a hot date.

outhouse-231367_640Mike – a water and sanitation engineer and himself a veteran of giardia in Tajikistan – was sympathetically no-nonsense. We got the coconut sticky rice desert to go and caught a tuk tuk back to the guesthouse immediately. After we got there, I made a beeline for the toilet. Then I collapsed, petulant and groaning, onto the bed.

“What?” Mike asked. “Don’t you feel better?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s just that, well, Asia is forcing me to acknowledge poo.”

“What about poo?” Mike asked.

“Its existence,” I said.

“Wait,” Mike said, genuinely baffled. “Let me get this straight. Asia is forcing you to acknowledge the existence of poo?

“Yes,” I said.

Then Mike busted up laughing so hard I really thought that he might fall over.

“Did you really just say,” he started, when he was once again able to speak, “that Asia is forcing you to acknowledge the operational out-workings of a normal bodily function that you have, on average, been experiencing at least once every two days since you were born?”

“Mere existence doesn’t mandate open acknowledgment,” I said. “And I am not the only one. This is a widespread woman issue.”

“What do you mean?” Mike asked.

“What do men do when they feel the urge and they’re out somewhere – at the office, or at a friend’s house?”

Mike looked at me as if trying to figure whether I was asking a trick question.

“You use a toilet,” he said. “That’s what they’re there for – to deal with our body’s normal waste in a sanitary and efficient manner.”

“There are some exceptions to this, obviously,” I said. “But women usually find it excruciatingly embarrassing to be caught out in public and need to do the poo. It is generally understood that you do not do the poo anywhere where other people may surmise what you are up to – much less anywhere you may be heard or smelled. Ideally you do not do the poo unless you are at your own home. Alone.”

Mike did not want to believe me on this. I had to tell him about women I know who will never use a public restroom. I had to tell him about women I know who regularly go to an entirely different floor of their office building to use the toilet if they simply cannot wait any longer at work. I had to tell him about women I know who spent their entire honeymoon constipated because they refused to use the bathroom in their hotel room.

“No!” Mike said, horrified, upon hearing this last tale of poo-shame.

“Yes!” I said. “They made covert runs to the bathroom in the lobby.”

“Did you…?” he asked.

“No!” I said. “I wasn’t that bad. But I get it. It’s hard to suddenly acknowledge the existence of poo to someone else when you’ve spent much of your life working to hide it.”

How can there can be that much shame around something everyone experiences?” Mike asked me.

We lay on the bed for a while that night, staring at the ceiling, and pondering this question. We didn’t come up with a great answer four years ago, and I’m still not sure I have one now. I have, however, done some more thinking about shame and guilt since those days, and next month I’ll revisit this topic of shame, guilt, vulnerability and living overseas in some more depth.

In the meantime, however, I’d love to hear from you on this topic. Help me think through how to take this further in next month’s post by picking one or more of the following questions and leaving a comment.  

restroom-99226_640

1. Has living overseas “cured” you of any shame?

2. Has living overseas “created” any shame(s)?

3. Do you differentiate between shame and guilt? If so, how?

4. What is the most scenic/unusual toilet you’ve ever used?

 

(P.S. With regards to question 4… For me, it’s probably the three-sided shack overlooking the rice terraces of Banaue, Philippines. There was no door on the side overlooking the valley, but when this is your “while you pee” view, who really wants a door?)

banaue_rice_terraces_by_inventionary-d3jr45p

Epic travel fails and other misadventures of expatriate living

A few words of introduction to my post for today…

The essay below was written several years ago now, in an attempt to redeem one of the silliest things I have ever done in all my years of traveling. And, oh my word. There have been a lot of silly things I’ve done involving airports and planes – including misplacing my only debit bank card just before a two week trip to Africa and after all the banks had closed for the weekend. I got out of that one by ringing around my Bible study group and getting five people to each float me $200 in cash. The incident reminded me yet again that it is a really good thing to be part of a Bible study group, folks, because you never know when you’re going to need a thousand dollars in cash on three hours notice.

So, my theory about epic-travel-fails is this: The more you travel, the more relaxed you get about the whole process and the more careless errors you make. When you look at it that way, spectacular travel screw-ups are really a sign that you’re a seasoned travel pro.

Like I said, that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

Now, before I get to the essay itself, I’m going to spell out the take-home here for you just in case you don’t have three minutes to giggle over a cup of tea. This community is, after all, a place to learn from other’s mistakes wisdom about living overseas, and I’d hate for you to miss the practical take home because you were in a rush. So if you remember nothing else from this post, remember these two things:

  1. You cannot travel on an expired passport.
  2. You cannot enter a country that you are a citizen of on the passport of another country that you are also a citizen of.

Got that? Good. Now… the backstory

Aus passport

This, I thought as I stared at my passport, is possibly the stupidest travel-mistake I’ve ever made.

And that’s saying a lot.

During the last five years I’ve been stranded in Germany for a week on account of neglecting to get a visa for the Czech Republic. I’ve traveled to Colorado and left my wallet, all my money, and every credit card I own safely in my gym bag at home. I’ve turned up to the airport in LA to discover that I’d booked a flight to New York on Wednesday all right, but the Wednesday of the previous week. I’ve walked off an American Airlines flight in Chicago and sat down at the first gate I saw that said “London” and had the right departure time, without double checking the flight details on my boarding pass (which might have helped me notice that my connecting flight to London was, in fact, with British Airways instead of American). At various times I’ve forgotten to pack my malaria medication, my phone charger, my power-point presentation, and, yes, on one especially memorable occasion, my underwear.

Given this, you might find it ironic that I make my living at least partly by training humanitarian workers to cope more effectively with their “high transition lifestyles”. In other words, how to hop on a plane, go dashing off to a disaster scene to aid the recovery effort, return home, reorient, and then turn around and do it all again two weeks later. Oh, and stay sane in the process.

One point so obvious that I rarely mention it during workshops, is that it’s helpful to have a valid passport when you’re trying to board an international flight…which brings me to noon on December 15, a confirmed seat on a flight from LA to Sydney leaving at 10pm that night, and… an expired Australian passport.

Here’s how it happened.

Once upon a time I was born in Canada…

OK, OK. But it is relevant. Because of where that most joyous and happy event occurred I have an Australian and a Canadian passport. And it’s a lot easier for Canadians to get visas to work in the US than, well, the citizens of any other country. So at the moment I’m living in the States on a Canadian work visa. That means that I have to use my Canadian passport to enter and leave the US as I go dashing off to all those disaster scenes. Got that?

In July I noticed that my Australian passport was going to expire in October. But the thought of trying to navigate the maze of red tape that would inevitably surround my attempt to renew my Aussi passport in the States while living there on a Canadian visa made me feel exhausted.

So I hatched a brilliant plan. I would just go home to Australia at Christmas and take care of it there. If, for some obscure reason, the Australian immigration officials were upset that my passport had expired I could just pull out my other one, enter the country as a Canadian, and then get busy renewing my passport on home soil.

The plan, clearly, was flawless. But, because I am responsible and organized, I rang the Australian consulate in Los Angeles to run it past them, and a cheerful fellow named Malcolm and I had a brief conversation that went something like this…

“My passport is about to expire. I could get it renewed while I’m here, but I think it would just be easier to wait and renew it at home at Christmas, don’t you?”

“Yeah, mate,” Malcolm said. “Just do it when you get home. She’ll be apples.”

In retrospect, missing from my side of the conversation was the, perhaps vital, fact that the passport would expire before I was due to travel home. But, to be fair here, missing from Malcolm’s side was a detailed query somewhere along the lines of, “wait just a minute, you don’t happen to be a dual national living in the States on your other passport and thinking of using said other passport to enter Australia after your Australian passport expires, are you?” But at the time I hung up satisfied that I’d covered all my bases.

The next six months I was very busy. Busy traveling to Kenya, Colorado, Indiana, Canada, New York, and South Africa. Busy teaching people how to live life that way and be happy, healthy and well-adjusted. Like me.

That busyness might explain why it wasn’t until the morning of December 15 that I had the time to locate the website where an American friend who was going to fly over to visit me for New Years Eve could apply for their Australian tourist visa online. As I cut and pasted the link for him, I noticed a statement saying that everyone except citizens of New Zealand had to apply for a tourist visa before boarding arriving at the airport to board their flight to Australia.

Huh, I thought, I wonder if everyone includes Canadians, and whether that might cause a small hiccup if I suddenly pull out my Canadian passport, visaless, in Sydney airport.

So, trying to do the right thing here, I call the Australian consulate again. My pal Malcolm was gone. Perhaps he’d been fired for not asking enough questions. And in his place, I got Andrew.

“Hey, Andrew,” I greeted him warmly. “I just want to check that it won’t be a problem for me to enter Australia if my passport’s expired.”

“What are you talking about?” Andrew said. Clearly, whatever it was that I was talking about, he didn’t think much of it. “You can’t travel on an expired passport.”

“Huh,” I said, moving on to Plan B. “Okay then, will I need a tourist visa in my Canadian passport to get into the country, since I’m also an Australian citizen?”

“If you’re a citizen of Australia you can’t enter Australia on the passport of another country. It’s illegal,” Andrew said, in a tone that asked where I was in kindergarten when everyone else was learning international law.

There was a long silence while I digested this.

“Right, then,” I said. “Um, could you help me brainstorm my options, because my flight to Australia takes off at ten tonight.”

What?” Andrew said. I don’t know how he managed to pack incredulity, exasperation, and pity for my obviously deficient intellect into one word, but he did.

I wanted to defend myself. I wanted to tell him – hey buddy, I’m a smart, capable, person. I have two masters degrees. I direct a training program for a non-profit. I’ve written a novel, and… and… I can cook. These things happen. They just clearly haven’t happened to you lately.

But I didn’t defend myself. I chose the only option that I thought might get me somewhere. I begged.

“Please! I have to make that plane. I haven’t been home in a year and a half!”

“Well,” he said grudgingly. “You’re probably going to need to apply in person in the consulate at LA for an emergency travel document. That’ll take five working days. Your only other option is to call the airlines, explain the situation, and see if they are willing to call Canberra and get authorization to uplift you without a valid passport. But, the airlines don’t generally go for that sort of thing, and Canberra might not grant it anyway…”

As he spoke I had a vision of spending the first precious week of my holidays hanging out in the lobby of the Australian consulate in LA, and a second week trying to finagle another seat on a flight to Sydney before Christmas. There had to be another way.

“So,” I hazarded, looking around furtively as if the foreign affairs swat team was about to swoop into the office and take me into custody right there and then. “Hypothetically speaking, if a citizen of Australia was to show up at the airport and present another country’s passport, what do you think the chances are that the airline would figure it out and stop them from boarding?”

“I cannot advise you regarding that course of action,” Andrew said primly.

What is my country coming to? Doesn’t he know it’s his job to represent Australia around the world? Doesn’t he know that he is duty-bound to proclaim our national motto “no worries mate, she’ll be right” with nonchalant assurance in any and every situation? And where was some of that convict spirit we’re so famous for?

As I walked into LAX that night and presented my Canadian passport, safely impregnated with an electronic tourist visa that I’d applied for online, I was sweating. I like to think of myself as someone who could, if they chose, break laws with panache and style. But I could feel all my style clinging to me damply.

My grand plan was just to make it onto the plane and get to Sydney, whereupon I would confess all my sins and throw myself on the mercy of the immigration officials. I figured they would probably be cross, but I couldn’t see they’d have much choice about letting me into the country. I mean, they couldn’t very well deport me back to the US, could they? Can you even be deported from your own country?

But as I disembarked in Sydney I had second thoughts about the wisdom of confessing. Who knew whether, in my absence, Australian immigration officials had become as mean-spirited and irrational as American ones? Maybe they would deport me. I hesitated, and then joined the lengthy queue for non-citizens.

While I mourned the fact that I was wasting my one opportunity a year to sail through an immigration checkpoint in the citizens line (not to mention the money I’d paid for the tourist visa for my own country), I had plenty of time to wonder whether my name would flag the existence of my other passport and bring wrath and, I suddenly realized, possibly a hefty fine down upon my head.

In teaching others how to cope well with high transition lifestyles one of the things that I always talk about is the importance of having a sense of humor. And, when things like this go wrong, I can usually shrug and see the bright side in that fact that I provide so much raw material helpful for keeping mine in good working order. But at that moment I couldn’t see the funny side of the situation.

Possibly, as my father would point out later, because there wasn’t one.

Way too soon I was next in line. I glanced at the immigration agent and debated my options. Would it be too obvious to proclaim excitedly, “I’ve been looking forward to this trip for years, and I can’t believe it’s finally here!” Maybe my accent would give me away, even with a well-placed Canadian, “eh?” So I handed over my passport, reminded myself to breathe, and tried for my normal mien at this stage of the immigration process – bored and exhausted.

With just a glance and one casual anticlimactic flick of his wrist, it was over. Never have I been so glad to see a stamp come down and hear the words, “welcome to Australia.”

I was home.

Well, home as a tourist, anyway.

Welcome-to-Australia

OK, your turn. Don’t leave me hanging out here looking like an idiot all by myself. Tara Livesay has already shared a wonderful tale of taking a mastiff on home leave (bottom line: don’t), but I’d love to hear from the rest of you.

If you’ve had an epic travel fail or some other expat misadventure, tell us about it in the comments or leave us a link to a blog post that tells the story.

Let’s Talk About Love

Happy Valentine’s Day!! Before I jump into all things love (because, really, what else could I write about today), I just want to say thank you for the lovely comments and notes I received after my last post about my husband’s cancer diagnosis and our sudden (hopefully temporary) departure from Laos. We’re still in Australia. Mike’s at the oncology unit today, almost half way through his second cycle of chemotherapy. We celebrated our 5th anniversary in style, in our wedding clothes, at the hospital :). We hope to be all done with chemo and able to return to Laos by May 1. We will see.

Now, love.

If you had told me a decade ago while I was working full time as a stress and trauma specialist for humanitarian workers that I’d now be fashioning a new “career” as an authority on long distance relationships, I would have been both bemused and amused. But there you have it. In the last year I’ve published two books for people in romantic relationships with plans for more to come.

So, to celebrate Valentine’s Day, I’ve pulled something out of each of my recent books that I thought might help you “grow love” in your life.

Whether you’re dating, married, or single, I hope these discussion questions and activities provide you with fodder for thought and conversation with others in your “inner circle”. I hope that in some small way they help you deepen and broaden important relationships in your life. And, wherever you are today and whomever you are with, I hope you feel that you are well loved and that you are loving well.

201_comps_72dpiSome things to talk about from 201 Questions

  1. Think of someone you greatly respect. What are three things you admire about that person?
  2. What are some of the best gifts you’ve received? Why were they so special?
  3. When you feel stressed, how does that show up in how you interact with other people?
  4. What would you like to do more of in life, but don’t? Why not?
  5. How does your job allow you to express or “live out” what you value?
  6. What is something you’ve achieved that you’re really proud of?
  7. Tell me about a time you overcame a fear.
  8. What are two issues or themes around which you most frequently feel as if you struggle to find balance in your life?
  9. How have your beliefs been challenged and/or changed recently?
  10. What are things that refresh you, inspire you, and remind you of what’s most important to you?

kindle_cover_borderSomething to do from Dating Smart

The VIA Survey of Character Strengths is a psychological assessment measure designed to identify an individual’s profile of character strengths.

The version on the Authentic Happiness website is free. It has 240 multiple-choice questions and takes about 20-30 minutes to complete. After you answer all the questions, you’re presented with a personal profile rank-ordering the 24 character strengths. Your top 5 strengths are considered your “signature strengths”.

This is such an interesting test that I often recommend it to friends as a personal growth exercise. However, it becomes even more fascinating if your partner or a close friend also takes the inventory. Then you can compare your results and discuss the implications.

Want to play? Here’s what I suggest …

1.  Go to http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu.
2.  Register so that you can access the Authentic Happiness Testing Center.
3.  Take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths.
4.  Then, think about the following questions and discuss them with your partner, family member, or friend.

Your strengths:

1.  Do you agree with the results, or not?
2.  What does the test suggest are your top five “signature” strengths?
3.  List at least one way each of your top five strengths is evident in your life.
4.  Which two of your top eight strengths do you feel you use most frequently?
5.  Which two of your top eight strengths do you feel you use the least frequently?

 Your partner, family member, or friend’s strengths:

1.  What are your partner’s signature strengths?
2.  Do you agree that those five strengths are “signature” strengths for your partner or would you have guessed that other strengths would show up more strongly in their profile?
3.  What are ways that you see these signature strengths show up in your partner’s life?
4.  What are ways that you and your partner have different strengths?
5.  How can these differences be complementary?
6.  How might these differences cause friction?

Leave a comment and add to the Valentine’s Day “fun and games” ideas!

Do you celebrate Valentine’s Day? How?

What’s a question you’ve recently discussed (or something that you’ve done) that led to growth in a relationship?

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos
Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

How Will You Know When To Go Home?

Lis and Mike Jan 2014Three weeks ago, just after Christmas, we learned that my husband, Mike, has testicular cancer.

We were in Thailand at the time, on a three-day getaway from our home in Laos. Mike had noticed something different downstairs ten days previously, and we’d scheduled an appointment to get it checked out in Thailand while we were there (Laos medical facilities are, shall we say, sub-par).

Right up until the day of the appointment, I wasn’t worried. The chances of it being anything serious are so slim, I reasoned. And after everything that’s already landed on us in the last two years – a baby’s broken femur, my broken ankle, depression, Mike’s two herniated discs and spinal surgeries – it’s so not our turn for this sort of medical drama anymore, amen.

I was carrying our five-month old and simultaneously trying to prevent our leashed and unhappy two-year-old from climbing into a fishpond, when Mike walked up to me after his appointment and said the words: “I have a tumor. It needs to come out as soon as possible. The doctor said it could be life-threatening.”

Well. So much for not our turn anymore.

As we were driving back to Laos the next day, Mike and I began to do something we’ve gotten rather skilled at doing – planning for how to deal with a medical challenge in Bangkok while we continued living in Laos.

During that drive home, we decided that Mike would leave ASAP to have surgery in Bangkok while I stayed in Laos with the kids. If further treatment was needed after that, we hoped that perhaps Mike could commute to Bangkok for radiation or chemotherapy and then return to Laos and work in between treatments.

It seemed like a good plan to us. It didn’t seem like such a good plan to two of our good Australian friends – both doctors – who are also currently living in Laos.

These two friends came around to our house that day after we arrived home from Thailand. Over the course of the next three hours they lovingly but firmly laid out all the reasons why, given Mike’s test results, we should all catch the first available flight to Australia.

Forty-eight hours later, one minute before midnight on New Years Eve, our flight from Bangkok to Brisbane lifted off. I believe we were being serenaded at the time by our exhausted two year old screaming in rotation, “COOKIE MAMA, RIGHT NOW!!” and “OFF PLANE!!”

Now it’s the 20th of January. We’re living at my parent’s house. Again. Mike had surgery in Brisbane six days after we landed in Australia. His tumor turned out, as expected, to be cancer. What we didn’t really expect was for a Stage 3 diagnosis. Lymph nodes in his groin and his chest have already been affected. I’m writing this article in the oncology unit, sitting beside Mike. The nurses are preparing to hook up the first treatment in what will be at least nine weeks of chemotherapy.

I am so profoundly grateful that we are not in Laos or Bangkok right now, and that our kids are being watched over by their grandparents while I’m here.

I was wondering yesterday what to write about this month that might be relevant to you all when this question popped into my mind: How will you know when it’s right to leave the field?

Our first inclination when Mike was diagnosed was to stay in Asia. We only decided to temporarily relocate to Australia because we invited, and then took, the advice of two friends who knew more than we did about what we might be dealing with.

One of those two doctor friends reassured us as we were still trying to process stepping away from Mike’s job, our house, and “normal” life for an indeterminate amount of time.

“The specifics about your house and everything else will sort themselves out,” she said. “They always do. And within six months this will all most likely be behind you. You’ll be back. You just need to step away for a while.”

What sort of situations or warning flags would make you decide to step away for a while, or even leave the field permanently?

Sometimes we’re faced with a pretty clear crisis point, like a cancer diagnosis, that raises the question of whether to go or to stay. Speaking as both a psychologist and someone who has been through a couple of those crisis points, I can tell you that no matter how calm you feel in the immediate aftermath of a crisis point, you may not be thinking logically and rationally. Right when you need to be making 101 important decisions, you will not be at your best.

Make up your mind now not to go it alone during those moments. Who will you trust to help you untangle your options and to give you advice? Think now about who could be a good sounding board for you then.

Beyond that, however, think about what sorts of seasons and reasons should cause you to at least consider leaving the field. In the absence of a specific crisis point, we can slowly acclimatize to all sorts of stresses and strains without realizing the extent of the pressure that we (or our relationships) are under. That proverbial frog in the boiling pot of water might have survived if he’d kept his eye on a thermostat. Along those lines, we should keep some of our own personal and relational thermostats within view when we’re living in potential pressure-cooker situations. When you choose to live overseas, it’s wise to identify some personal warning signs that should prompt you to reconsider whether your life overseas is worth the cost that you and your loved ones are paying.

What signs of marital strain would act as this sort of trigger for you? What about issues with your children, or your (or a loved one’s) faith, job, sense of vocation, or health? Where would you go if you had to leave the field on short notice?

Think about these questions this week. Talk about them with your partner, friends, or family.

I hope you never have to put any “emergency exit” scenarios into place. But if you do, I hope you’ll know when to leave and that you’ll have somewhere soft to land for a season while you sort out your life. On those fronts, at least, Mike and I count ourselves blessed.

Share your wisdom with us all. Have you ever had to make an emergency exit from your home abroad? What helped you during that time?

And, what sorts of reasons or seasons might prompt you to leave the field?

Jan 19, 2014: A family "everyone still has hair" photo shoot.
Jan 19, 2014: A family “everyone still has hair” photo shoot.

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos
Website: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red