On Safety and Sanity

“Safe passage cannot be bought. We have no holy passport to protect us and so we venture forward, fragile maps in hand, flying our banners of courage and of hope.”

Call the Midwife, Season 6

When life feels like it is too much, and I can’t make sense of our broken world, I turn to Call the Midwife, the television series based on a midwife’s memoir of working in the East End of London. I’m only half kidding when I say that.

News on the world stage is of quarantines and evacuations because of the new coronavirus, a virus affecting world economies, social structures, and everyday living for millions of people. News in your particular area may not only be coronavirus, but also local storms and tsunamis, civil war, or other threats to your safety.

In the midst of any of these, the questions for many become what will happen next and how do we keep sane and safe?

These are both good questions. The first we have little control over. Anyone who has lived overseas for even a short time knows that there are things you have no control over. From viruses to visas, you enter a life where you are regularly asked to give up your timetable and your control. If you insist on keeping them, they will mock you during a night where you toss and turn in your bed. The reality is we don’t know what may happen next.

The second question may seem to offer a few more options, but there is much unknown there as well.

Rachel Pieh Jones, writer and longtime contributor to A Life Overseas, writes about safety in a stunning essay called “The Proper Weight of Fear.” In the essay she describes having to flee Somaliland after three expatriates were murdered at the hands of terrorists. At one point in the essay she describes questions that she and her husband were asked before leaving for Somaliland. “The second question after weren’t you afraid was were you safe? Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.

“Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe.” are perhaps the most honest phrases that describe a life overseas. My first memories in life are of blackouts during a war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. My parents’ had the only room in the house that did not have a window so it was safe to have the light on. We would gather and listen to the BBC World Service and drink hot cocoa, after which my mom would read to us until we fell asleep. Safe? Not safe? Who knew?

How do we keep sane and safe during coronavirus warnings, wars, evacuations, and sometimes just plain traffic that seems to disregard human life? When it comes to decisions on safety, our lives stopped resembling those of our peers a long time ago; even so there are times when events happen that urge us to think more seriously about where we live and and weigh the inherent risk in staying or leaving.

Here are a few things that may help:

Start with the Psalms. If ever there was a model of crying out to God in times of despair and in times of hope, it is in the Psalms of David. They offer the full spectrum of feelings and responses to life and death situations. Reading these regularly is a good practice. You are not alone. You have never been alone. CS Lewis says “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.” The Psalms are a comforting reminder of that truth.

Connect with those you trust and those who can help you work through your feelings and decisions. You may want to reach out to your parents or other family members in your passport country, but you know that their worry will cause you great stress and make you second guess your decisions. As much as you love them, they may not be the best people with whom to review your options. Pick the people that you share with wisely. Make sure that they can walk you through your decision making without passing on their own fear over a situation that they may not fully understand.

Keep as regular a routine as you can. Whether you have young children or older teenagers, keeping a routine is critical. Particularly at bedtime so that everyone can get a good sleep. Family meals (even when food may be rationed), bedtime stories, gathering together for games is critically important during times of uncertainty and crisis. Keep those routines going throughout the time of crisis.

Be careful of the amount of news you discuss in front of your children. Our world is over saturated with news and information. It makes people miles away from a crisis afraid, let alone you who are directly affected. Discuss the news in age appropriate ways with your kids. With older children, answer their questions with concrete information. Don’t have the news going nonstop on either a radio, the television, or your phone. It will not keep you sane – it will make you crazy. Keeping current on information is important, but there are ways to do it that preserve your sanity.

Policies are your friends. If your organization has a policy, then trust that it was made for a reason. Let it be your friend. Let it guide your decisions. I say this to health organization supervisors all the time. “Let policies be your friend.” They don’t exist to be mean and arbitrary, but to guide and protect when you may not have the strength to make the decision on your own. You may disagree vehemently with the policy, but policies are often made to keep people sane and safe for the long term, not to burn them out in the short term. Rachel and her husband Tom did not want to leave Somaliland when they had to leave. They had only been there a year, and their lives were turned sideways. But they trusted a policy, and they left. It was the right decision.

Don’t make decisions out of fear. Fear is not good currency. It will bankrupt you quicker than you can imagine. Make decisions based on reality and with regard to your organization’s policies, not based on fear of the “what ifs.”

End with the Psalms. Start with the Psalms and end with the Psalms. They are good bookends. They keep all of life together in a clear image of human struggle and response.

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
    light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
    lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me. – Psalm 13, ESV

I don’t know what is going on in your world. I don’t know what your struggles are, what threats may assault you from without and within. What I do know is that you are infinitely precious to God on this life journey. I offer these words of traveling mercy from my friend Robynn:

When the ride gets turbulent, when oxygen masks dangle in front of us, reassure us of your nearness and help us to breathe. Thank you that you travel with us. Thank you that you promise to meet us at baggage claim. Thank you for the hope of our Final Destination. But until then, we ask for your traveling mercies.Christ in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Robynn Bliss

May you venture forward, flying your banner of courage and of hope.

7 Signs You Need a Sabbath Break

By Karis Piawong

There’s a race that we inevitably sign up for when we answer the call to mission work. Whether we like running or not, we find ourselves a part of a marathon. The race goes on for many years, and it’s all GO, GO, GO. We are careful to live as good Christians. We are careful to follow God’s commandments, communicate clearly and be a living example of His love. However, the commandment we often forget is His commandment for us to rest. This is both a right and a MUST for us as missionaries. We have given up our lives, died to our own desires and taken up the cross to follow Him to another country or culture, but resting is one thing that God has NEVER asked us to give up. Sure, we might get a chance to lie down in all the busy-ness of ministry, only to have someone turn up at our door who needs to talk. On a daily basis, we do need to give up our right to rest when we want to rest. The Holy Spirit will often convict us to go out and love. However, when looking at the big picture, God does not ask us to give up our right to rest in Him. In fact, He commands us to rest!

I have lived in a community-based culture since 2007. I got married in 2008 and my husband and I have lived in community with others since marriage. How do we find rest when living as missionaries, while many of us are probably living in a community-based culture, and how do we feel resting while people all around us are calling out for God? It is HARD to take a break! However, it is absolutely necessary for us to break if we want to function physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Let me share with you seven ways I believe can help you see that you need a rest, or a Sabbath break. If you can relate to any of these signs, you might benefit from a longer break than one day per week.

 

1. You feel stressed daily.

Why do so many missionaries struggle with stress and stress-related problems? Many of us enter the field with high expectations. We expect to save lives, to rescue, to make a difference. In fact, this isn’t really our job. There is something more important than living as a missionary, and that’s living as a child of God. God has called us into His work because He loves us and wants us to be a part of His (our Father’s) work. He doesn’t call us to missions because He demands we give ourselves to save the world. That’s His job.

 

2. You are often irritated with your family.

What many of us forget all too often is that loving our family is the first ministry. If we are out “serving” God all day and come home tired and stressed, what message is our partner going to receive? What message are our kids going to receive? Being a missionary kid is HARD, and children need their parents’ love to get through. More so, children need their parents to be in love with each other in order to feel secure. God calls husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and wives to respect their husbands. If you are on the mission field with your family, then your family is who God is calling you to love. As you love your family, the way you live your life will touch the people around you.

At the end of the day, you can be replaced in your ministry. However, no one can replace your role at home. No one can stand in as partner or parent for you. When you move to the field as a family, God is calling your whole family into a new lifestyle – not just one member of the family. If being in missions means that we are often irritated with our family when we come back home, then it’s time to look at our priorities again. What does God want for our partner and children, and how can we have a part in that?

 

3. You feel better about yourself when you’re busy with ministry.

This is a red flag, and definitely something I’ve struggled with over the years. As missionaries, we often find ourselves worshiping our ministry rather than worshiping God. When we stop doing ministry, we feel like we have nowhere to go. Our value diminishes. In reality, however God would rather we stop doing ministry for a time so we can sit at His feet and listen to Him. Jesus Himself took long breaks from ministry to spend time recharging His battery. If the very Son of God couldn’t spend hours and hours on end with people without taking time out with His Father, why do we think we can do it? Why do we feel like God is calling us to do it? Our value does not lie in what we do, but it lies in who we are: Children of God. Our Father just wants to spend time with us.

 

4. You’ve been in the same place for many years

When we stay in the same area and focus on the same kind of work for years on end, it’s hard to see life from a different perspective. However, with our commitments and responsibilities it’s often hard to take a step back or get a change of atmosphere. But if we are willing to take a step back, in God’s timing, there are so many love-filled lessons God wants to teach us in doing so. He wants us to see that our ministry is not our own. He wants us to see that our ministry can go on without us. He wants us to see that ministry is not the most important thing. If we can’t step away for a month or even a week, we need to be asking ourselves why. Remember, God doesn’t need us to do His work. He chooses to use us because He wants us to have a part. However, He doesn’t want work to fulfill us – HE wants to fulfill us.

 

5. You feel like you’re not growing spiritually.

This is another red flag. If we aren’t growing spiritually when doing mission work, then something’s wrong. We spend our whole lives stepping closer to the perfection that God has for us in eternity, but why is it that the more work we do, the fewer steps we take? When we try to make things happen, we go dry. When we try to get numbers of believers and baptisms to report back to supporters, we go dry. When we stay in the same place for a long time and do the same kind of work, it’s easy to go dry. Sometimes I feel like God calls us to the mission field in order to do something in OUR lives, to bring us a step closer to humility and love. If we are on the mission field and aren’t growing spiritually, adjustments need to be made. Spiritual dryness is NOT a cost of discipleship. It’s a season we all walk through at times in our lives, but it’s NOT a cost we have to pay to be missionaries. Being spiritually dry does NOT make God happy with the sacrifices we are making.

 

6. You’ve lost your passion.

God does not desire for mission work to cause us to lose our passion. He calls us to do His work as His children because when we do it His way it will bring us a special kind of joy that we can’t experience when doing work in our own strength. We learn about ourselves and others through doing mission work. Most importantly, we learn more about who God is in our lives, and when we lose our passion for God or the people we are reaching it is a sign that we aren’t taking enough time to just be with God and sit at His feet. Losing our passion for Him is a symptom that there is a greater issue inside. Priorities need to be realigned. How can we run back to God if we have lost our passion? No, the question we should be asking ourselves is: How can we run to God if we are facing our ministry and our backs are turned to Him? If we find ourselves losing our passion for God, we need to turn around.

 

7. You are often unwell (due to minor illnesses).

I’m not a doctor. However, I’ve lived through years of transitions, living life in constant community and experienced multiple (minor) health problems. As someone with no history of mental health problems, I’ve experienced anxiety attacks which have woken me up in the middle of the night and stalled me in my tracks. I’ve experienced unexplained fatigue (starting from when I did youth ministry at 16 years of age) which comes up in times of stress. I’ve had multiple health check-ups for worrying symptoms only to find out that everything is fine. At the same time, I’ve had infections and inflammations at a younger age than I should.

I learnt that God didn’t desire for me to sacrifice my own health to “serve” Him. Don’t get me wrong, His call sometimes takes us to dangerous places where we are exposed to diseases and death. This IS a cost of discipleship. However, He doesn’t desire for us to fall into all kinds of illnesses because we’re too busy serving Him that we don’t eat properly, or because we need to be affirmed as a “good missionary” to the point where we volunteer to eat or drink exactly how the locals do. It’s about where our heart is. I learnt this the hard way. Sometimes, we have no choice, and in those times we take what we have and pray for protection. But other times, we have choices and the freedom to choose to take care of our bodies.

 

Whether we can relate to these signs or not, we need to come to a point while doing missions where we ask ourselves, “What drives us to do God’s work?” Do we do it because we feel that He will love us more if we do? Our answer to that question will tell us whether it’s time to take a step back. His love for us is unchanging and not dependent on what we do. God desires intimacy much more than He desires sacrifice. In our hearts, He belongs above the ministry. Are we willing to lay down the ministry, for a time, for the sake of our personal relationship with Him? Ministry is work, and it will one day fade away. An intimate relationship with God is life, and it has the power to touch the people around us in more ways than we know. We need to remember how precious we are to Him. When we allow that realization to sink deep into our hearts, that in itself will become a ministry orchestrated by the hand of God.

 

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Karis Piawong is an Aussie who moved to Thailand in 2007 to find her future husband waiting for her there. They were married two years later, and as a family they currently work to raise up future Thai leaders through worship, family, training, and sports ministries. When Karis isn’t rounding up their two wild sons, she can be found writing, playing keyboard, eating chocolate, or dreaming of Australian desserts. Karis has previously written three devotionals in the Darling, Be Daring! Devotional book. She is currently publishing their family’s first book about her husband’s transformation from a gang leader to a devoted Christian, titled Because You Chose Me. You can find out more about their story and work on their website.

The Fine Line Between Expat Chaos and Rhythm

People living a life overseas are a special breed.  We don’t so much make sense to the normal people do we?

My family is on the tail end of a whirlwind, six week “home” (finger quotes) visit and we’ve been reminded every moment of it what a ridiculous life we have chosen.

Seriously.  Who does this?

By the time this trip is over we will have changed our entire existence eleven times, each one strung to the next by a 4 to 12 hour road trip on the hottest days of the summer in a car with two children and lukewarm air conditioning.  We will have done countless heartfelt, emotionally charged, “we missed you so much” hellos only to turn right around for equally heartfelt, emotionally charged, “we’ll miss you so much” goodbyes.

We live out of suitcases which seem to be gaining weight as fast as we are.

Every few days we switch to another guest bed, couch,  futon, air mattress or (on very special occasions) hotel.

We’ve learned how to use other people’s washing machines and we leave at least one sock or one pair of underwear at every stop (you’re welcome).

We’ve sat perched like a dog at a dinner table waiting for someone to ask for a China story and we’ve fine-tuned our skills of pretending we’re not disappointed when they don’t.

We’ve successfully dodged knock-down, drag-out political battles over issues we probably don’t care about, full on relational melodramas with people we barely know and annoyingly offensive jokes about Chinese food and cats.

Hygiene still matters but I’m not even sure what day yesterday was . . . let alone whether I showered or not.

For weeks we have been “ON”.  Big smiles.  Happy faces.  Intentional eye contact from the moment we landed — and we had jet lag that day.

It’s exhausting being “home” — and to be honest the whole life overseas thing can feel equally chaotic at its most settled points.

BUT . . .

I’m learning that there is such a fine line between chaos and rhythm.

Trips “home” would feel like total mayhem to any normal person . . . but we covered that right?  We are so not normal.

I love that the longer we do this the more pages there are in our story are filled with 3 am, jetlag induced Daddy-Daughter milkshakes at any place open.

It has been rich beyond words to pick up right where we left off with dozens of “hello again” friends and we’ve got this whole switching from cousins in one place to old friends in another thing to an art form.

We are expert packers, flexible sleepers, versatile launderers and accomplished lip biters.

We know how to deflect awkwardness and my kids intuitively sense when family at one stop would be horribly offended by things that were fun at the last.

Even in constant ON mode we find moments of OFF.

We are good at this.  We have found our rhythm and in some confusing way a part of our stability IS the movement.

If that makes no sense at all . . . congratulations . . . you might be normal.

If it does . . . you’re probably living a life overseas.

 

Dear Life Abroad — I’ll keep my identity, thanks.

“Loss of identity.”

It makes every list doesn’t it?  Right near the top.  Up there with rootlessness, culture shock and horrible toilets.

When you take a two column, pros and cons approach to life abroad, the word “identity” rarely makes it into the pro column.  In fact, if you compiled the sum of all of the pro-con lists out there and put them into a full disclosure, up front and honest sales pitch for a life overseas, you’d be hard pressed to convince a single person to sign on.

“Adventure that will change your life forever.  Exposure to amazing people, traditions and foods.  Community like you’ve never experienced.  Frequent flier miles galore.”

“Oh and your identity is going to be stripped to the point that you will question everything you ever believed to be true about yourself.”

“Sound good?”

“Click here to sign up.”

You would think that living abroad is a first cousin to a witness protection program, which always sounds cool at first — and then you think it through.  New life, new home, new friends but your old life will be gone forever.

I get it.  I really do.

I have expatriated (moved abroad), repatriated (moved “home”) and then expatriated again.

I have felt thoroughly incompetent both far away and in my own country.

I have questioned deeply my role, my calling and my ability to contribute to anything significant.

I have felt lost, confused, broken and paralyzed.

BUT  (and this is a huge BUT).

MY LIFE ABROAD HAS NOT TAKEN MY IDENTITY FROM ME.

On the contrary, living cross-culturally has shaped my identity.  Stretched it.  Molded it.  Changed it to be sure, but there is nothing missing in who I am because of where I have been.

 

Here are three quick thoughts on identity and living abroad.

 

ONE:  EVERYTHING WE DO CHANGES OUR IDENTITY

It’s funny to me that college doesn’t get the same bad rap that living abroad does.  The identity gap between who we are on day one of university and who we are at graduation is the most pronounced of our lives.

Scratch that.  Puberty — then college — but still.

When we talk about the college years we generally say things like, “that’s when I found myself,” or “that’s when I discovered who I really was.”  We don’t often say “that’s when I lost my identity” even though we may be a dramatically different person.

Everything changes us.

College.  Job.  Marriage.  Kids.  Accomplishment.  Tragedy.

All of it becomes a part of who we are.

 

TWO: YOU ALWAYS GO FORWARD — YOU NEVER GO BACK

Here’s where I think the rub is.  I can’t prove it with science but I’ve watched it happen over and over.

Something clicks inside of our brain when we move abroad that convinces us that we have stepped into a time space continuum.  It’s the same basic concept that makes us feel like our kids haven’t changed a bit while their grandparents think they’ve grown like weeds.  We tend to fixate on the last point of connection and even though logically we reason that time continues in other places too . . . it’s still a shock when we see it in person.

Our lives are so dramatically different abroad and the contrast is so vivid that when we return we presume that we are simply stepping back through the portal . . . into the same place . . . with the same people.

So it stands to reason that we should be the same as well . . . but we’re not.  In fact, all of the people involved have never stopped moving forward.

Life abroad is unique in that it is one of the few major life experiences that is marked by a sense of “going back” at the end.

College might be different if we graduated and went back to high school.

That would be a loss of identity for sure.

 

THREE:  YOUR “LIFE ABROAD IDENTITY” IS WORTH HOLDING ONTO

Every year about this time I get to have a lot of conversations with people who are finishing their time abroad.  I’ll give you three guesses what the most COMMONLY REPEATED FEAR that I hear is.

Here’s a clue:  It’s NOT, “I’m afraid I won’t even know who I am.”  That comes later.

It’s NOT,  “I’m afraid I won’t fit back in.”  That’s a big one but it’s not number one.

Ready?

It generally goes something like this:  “I’m afraid I will slip back into my old life and just become who I used to be.  I don’t want to forget what I have experienced and who I have become abroad.”

That doesn’t sound like a LOSS of identity to me.  It sounds like a rich and wonderful ADDITION.

Here’s the kicker — not a single one of those people would say life abroad was ONLY rich and wonderful.

They tripped and bumbled just like the rest of us but through it all they found something in the experience that they never, ever want to let go of . . . to the point that they fear losing it.

 

For me — “IDENTITY” goes in the pro column.

Anyone else?

 

 

Missions in a Conflict Zone

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A year and a half ago our family lived through another war.  For over a month there were missile attacks launched against most of the country, with violence and terrorism in the city where we live. Practically speaking, this meant trips to the bomb shelter with our kids, avoiding certain parts of the city, and one scary time on the highway with my family when a rocket exploded in the air overhead.

We lived in an elevated state of anxiety, with sharp spikes of fear and adrenaline that flared up during each new serious incident.  Many times we could not immediately process these events because we had to keep it together emotionally for the sake of our children.

When people realize where we live, inevitably the comment will come up: “I don’t know how you did it.” Others ask, “How did you live through the war?” Now, looking back, we see that several things helped us through this time even though we didn’t plan them beforehand or consciously think about them at the time.

I share them with you today because even if you are not going through a physical war, we are all still fighting in a battle that is not against flesh and blood.

  1. Continue with “normal” life and ministry as much as possible. We recognize that there may come a time in any location that you must leave. If that is what your family and agency decide, then that is okay and nothing to be ashamed of. Each country and every conflict brings its own set of challenges and circumstances. For our family, we decided that if we were going to stay, we should continue to minister. That meant traveling to our congregation from a city with a couple of rocket attacks a week to a city with several per day. It helped to continue in our ministries as much as possible, and we were continually reminded of the bigger picture and why God had called us to this place. We also grew very close to our national friends and partners during this time.
  2. Set boundaries for yourself. For my mental health, I had to set boundaries. It was too distressing to go on websites and read the news, so I relied on my husband to tell me things that were pertinent. I chose to focus on things that were in my sphere of influence like my house, children, spouse, and different ministry opportunities.
  3. Take a Sabbath and give yourself some extra margin. Not long before the war began, my husband and I decided to start taking a Sabbath day off. During the conflict, we took more down time than normal. We guarded our one day off per week and took extra time to play with the kids, get wet in the kiddie pool on our terrace, watch more movies, and be silly. We were very intentional that summer about our margin time and gave each other permission to take some extra time to do fun things.
  4. With point #3 in mind: Do a project as a family. We planted a garden. It was really a family undertaking from buying the seeds in the store to digging up the soil to plant. It gave us such joy to teach our kids about gardening and how things grow. Every day we would water and watch things begin to sprout. It was a small thing, but it went a long way. It was fun for the kids to compare the sizes of the watermelons every day.
  5. Also with point #3 in mind: Teach yourself a new skill. My husband is an avid outdoorsman and has always wanted to learn to fly fish. He ordered a fly rod, watched videos online, and went to the neighborhood park to practice his casting. I am a musician and have always wanted to learn guitar. We took advantage of a ceasefire to travel to a mall, where I bought a cheap instrument so I could teach myself how to play.
  6. Recognize that even though you are healthy and political situations can improve, there are still effects on your mental, emotional, and spiritual state. Although my family and I are physically in good shape, we are not completely unscathed from all we have been through. When there is a siren drill, I hate that my small children run and hide under a desk. Our adrenaline still surges for a split second when a motorcycle revs its engine, because it sounds just like a siren starting.  I don’t like that by age four my son knew what missiles were and that terrorists were launching them to try to kill people. I have to watch my own cynicism towards certain people groups that I have never struggled with before.  It is important to recognize these effects in ourselves and in our children and to counter negative attitudes with appropriate Scriptural responses.  I continually take a personal audit of where I am, spiritually and mentally. What this looks like for me is a weekly meeting with just myself. I look over my calendar for the coming week, plan out what is required of me, ask myself questions, schedule intentional down time, and then give myself and my family lots of grace.
  7. Most importantly, trust God for the peace that passes understanding and rely on Him. There were times of crisis when the only thing I could do was recite scripture. When sirens went off and we had to make decisions, I always had a sense of peace that could only have come from God. We leaned on God and truly came to understand that Jesus is our daily bread. He is enough. We serve an amazing God, and sometimes life is really hard. But when life is hard, he is still good. Always.

Our city and country are once again going through some very turbulent times, and I am constantly reminded of the goodness of God. I take it one day at a time, sometimes one hour at a time, and rely on His grace and sustainment for me and my family.  Despite the hardships, we acknowledge that there is One who is bigger than all of this. And His faithfulness is great indeed.

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Angela lives in the Middle East with her husband and two children. They have served overseas in ministry for three and a half years. Angela teaches music at two different schools and leads worship at their congregation. She enjoys reading, writing, making music, and spending time with friends.

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.

Missionary Mommy Wars

I just want to come out and say it; I’m not a mommy. Shoot, I’m not even a woman. (OK, those were some of the weirdest sentences I’ve ever written.) But despite my obvious shortcomings, I’m still writing this article. Here’s why:

I look around and see young moms and experienced moms who are serving cross-culturally, and they’re under siege. I see them, battle-weary and bleary-eyed, burdened by expectations that would crush the strongest. I see them wrangle toddlers and tonal languages. I watch them brave open-air markets with raw meat hanging on hooks and open-air homes with neighbors peering in through windows.

A814AB Section of barbed wire. Image shot 2003. Exact date unknown.

Missionary moms are exposed on all fronts, and they feel it. Everyone’s watching them. The local people watch every move, confused by the foreigner and her progeny; when she returns “home” for a visit, she feels watched just the same. (And for the record, jet lag does strange things to children, so any misbehavior can and should be blamed on jet lag, for at least the first two months.)

The mom on the foreign mission field is stretched thin. She must take care of her household, figuring out how to do all the stuff she used to know how to do. She must learn the local language and culture, educate her children, save the world, communicate with senders, support her husband, and convert everyone through her calm spirit and mild demeanor.

I’m speaking with slight hyperbole. Sort of. But if you pause and observe, you too will see that missionary moms, especially the newbies, have a whole lot on their plate. And it’s stressing them out big time.

Missionary dads are expected to do “the work.” Period. They are judged, for better or worse, on their work product: how is the ministry going? Not so with moms. The missionary mom is judged by how well her kids behave, how well her kids transition, how well her kids are educated, how healthy her marriage is, how well she knows the local language, in addition to how well the ministry is going.

It’s not fair, and I’m calling it. We need to pause and care for the women among us who are being crushed by unrealistic expectations.

So can we call a cease-fire? Can we stop taking aim at missionary moms, expecting them to be EVERYTHING and then criticizing them when they fail to accomplish the impossible?

And can you, missionary mom, stop taking aim at yourself? You can’t do it all, but that doesn’t make you weak; it makes you human.

Paul says in Ephesians 4:16, “He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.”

No part does ALL the work. Each part does its own work, and that work is special. What is the special work to which God is calling you?

Maybe, right now, your primary task on the mission field is taking care of your own little people. That is special work that helps the whole body to be healthy and growing and full of love. It’s not less-than. Maybe it’s leading an entire mission. That too is special work that helps the whole body to be healthy and growing and full of love. It’s not less-than.

When missionary moms, due to external pressure or internal insecurities, try to do EVERYTHING, the whole body ends up being hurt, not helped. The most important thing for you to do is the work God has called you to do.

I’ll say it again, a healthy mission field does not depend on you doing it all. Health and growth and love come when each person does the work that God is asking her to do. No comparisons allowed.

The mirage of the perfect missionary mom is alluring and dangerous. If you try to follow her, you will be perpetually discouraged, depressed, and exhausted. On the flip side, if you feel like you are the perfect missionary mom, you will be perpetually arrogant, haughty, and annoying.

What would change if you forgot the mirage of the perfect missionary mom and started remembering the Perfect One instead?

Remember, his burden is light.

He is the Lord of Rest, the Bridegroom, longing for his Bride.

He is not a taskmaster, demanding more widgets.

He is a loving Husband, pursuing his favorite girl.

He is a tender Father, splashing in the ocean with his children.

He is a Warrior, protecting his people.

He is a Comforter who really sees.

He knows you are human, and he’s glad about it.

He knows you can’t do it all, and he’s ok with it.

He is jealous for you, longing for your whole heart.

He wants your gaze fixed on him, not the mirage.

The next time you’re tempted to criticize another mom, lay down your weapon and state what she is doing instead of what she’s not doing?

Before you criticize yourself, identify and declare what you are doing instead of what you’re not doing.

Are you doing what you feel like God has led you to do? Wonderful! The Body of Christ needs you to do that. The mission field need you to do that. Your family needs you to do that.

So here’s to the missionary mom, the one in the trenches with the toddlers.

The one who raises kids abroad and then sends them “home.”

Here’s to the missionary mom, far away from pediatricians and emergency services, who lives with constant awareness that help might not be coming.

Here’s to the missionary mom who lives in a glass bowl, aware of the stares.

The one who liked shopping when shopping was simple.

The one who would really like a Starbucks coffee. Like, right now.

Here’s to the missionary mom whose children experience more goodbyes than most.

The one whose kitchen looks more like Bear Grylls than Martha Stewart.

Here’s to the mom on mission, the one who rocks the cradle and changes the world.

——————————————————–

Resources:

I’m a Proverbs 31 Failure

Expectation and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission

*photo credit

When You Start to Pick Your Nose in Public…

When you start to pick your nose in public, you might be too cheap for Kleenex. Or you might live in a really dry, dusty place and need to dig that one out before it makes you bleed. Or you might be overdue for a break.

When you (if a native English speaker) start to say things like, “There is no being upsetness in playing video games,” and think that is perfectly good English, you might be a really bad English teacher. Or you might be dizzy and dehydrated from the rising summer temperatures. Or you might be overdue for a break.

when this starts to look like a darn good beach shade…

How do you know when your time to step out of the host culture has come? I knew it when I would catch a side glimpse of myself in a mirror and only then, notice that my shoulders hunched forward, only then, realize I was too exhausted to even walk upright.

Living overseas is expanding and exhilarating and inspiring. And draining. At least for some. Our daughter asked why we were going to Minnesota for a year in 2011 and I said, “Daddy is working on his PhD and mommy needs a break from Djibouti.” She said, “Why? What do you need a break from?” To her this sounded like, “Mommy needs a break from life.”

And that’s what furlough, R ‘n R, can feel like, which is probably why a lot of expats shun the notion until they are walking like one hundred-year old women, shuffling around like the hunchback Jesus healed, eyes on the dirt and the dirty feet and not looking up into the face of our Healer. But that’s not true. Time away from the host country is not a break from life. It’s a break from specific things about expat life that strain.

Everyone encounters stress, another excuse for expats to forgo the rest time. Why should we remove ourselves from our work and friends and expat home life when others aren’t allowed that option? Because expat stress isn’t just the stress of a job or of a difficult relationship. Expat stress affects every single aspect of our lives from seemingly minor things like clothes and food to deep things like how we practice our faith and how often we relocate. The stresses strike at our sense of identity and are often far beyond our ability to control, let alone comprehend.

*holidays away from family

*speaking multiple foreign languages all day, every day

*excessive heat or cold or dust

*loneliness

*the stress of never fully comprehending the surroundings

*inability to make quick, confident choices

*lack of spiritual fellowship, input, and accountability

*lack of vocational training or development

The list could go on as long as there are expats

Furloughs are not a break from life because life continues, we take living with us. On either side of the ocean there will still be meetings and proposal-writing, diapers and school lunches, laundry and car repairs, relationships and labor. But for a brief time, there will also be green grass to roll in and Grandma’s caramel rolls for Christmas breakfast. There will be the intrinsic knowledge of how to dress, how much things should cost, how to respond when your kid is bullied at school. You will know exactly, without a second thought, how to stand in a line at the store, how to speak English, and how you like your coffee.

sometimes you need to step away

I’m not saying that assimilation is wrong, it’s good. It’s important to learn how to elbow your way to the counter at the corner store, if that’s how your host country does it. Important to learn how to farmer blow inside restaurants, if that’s how your host country does it. It is important to appreciate and use idioms and grammar in the local language.

But there are times when the stresses of the stripping, of behaving chameleon-like, become too heavy and we start to lose ourselves, lose focus, lose energy, lose any joy in the work or the friendships, even lose faith. And then it is time for that break, probably past time for that break. Then, it is time to remember how, in your passport culture, to appropriately deal with those pesky nose boogers.

 

Do you pick your nose in public? Just kidding.

Real questions: How do you know it is time for a break? Have you ever over-stayed?

-Rachel Pieh Jones, development worker, Djibouti

                        Blog: Djibouti Jones, Twitter: @RachelPiehJones, Facebook: Rachel Pieh Jones