Have you ever been in a situation so demanding that the voice in your head is saying, “I can’t do this! I can’t do this! But I have to–there’s no one to help me–I have to!” You are between a rock and a hard place, pushed beyond where you thought your limits were. And no one understands, or has time to, ’cause all your usual helpers are in the thick of it, too. Or if they can sympathize, and try to reach out to relieve the pressure, you blast them out of frustration, back into letting you handle it on your own, hurt that whatever it is seems more important than they are. Your perspective is off, it’s not a life or death by any means, but it seems like the only way to get to a place of balance and normalcy, and you can’t get through the bottleneck, not…yet…can you ever? You get even more upset as you perceive how badly you are handling things, taking it out on others. You judge yourself incompetent, think “better if I just go… You frantically search for a mental picture of how a person would cope, but you have none. Think maybe you’re falling apart. It’s either a situation without precedent, or one which you saw your model handle just as badly. You feel the effects of the stress on your body–the foggy thinking, the slow reflexes, the racing pulse, the exhaustion, the knotted innards, the headache.
I hope not often, if ever. I hope that nothing but the prefect storm of circumstances can bring about such feelings in your life. For me, it was these:
- Being newly arrived in a foreign country whose language (complete with a unique alphabet) I needed to know to buy food, get phone service, fix an internet connection, figure out why my credit and ATM cards weren’t working, ask for directions, deal with an ailing gas burner, take a bus or taxi, everything. I’d started studying using Rosetta Stone, and pick up languages quickly, but not quickly enough for my new life there.
- Having children dependent on me for emotional support, help with sibling relations, entertainment, education, and of course the other usual parental tasks such as dealing with food, clothing, and household management. Friends were a world away.
- We were too isolated for homeschooling to be a healthy option. Didn’t know any homeschoolers nearby (the only group we knew met across the city). So we put them in school, and I had to advocate for them in their various situations (usually across a language barrier), as well as help them process all the stressful situations they encountered. During the day I missed my kids and was very concerned about them as well. First time in school ever, and it was in a foreign language!
- My husband was available very little, being in the midst of an intensive language learning program.
- Hottest time of the year, in the Middle East
- Culture shock–some locals were more blunt, sometimes abrasive, and it seems that argument and yelling was a prime form of communication. Others were ultraconservative, so I had to be careful what I wore and where I was as a woman without an escort.
- Small apartment minimally furnished, cement walls that bounced around all our sound.
- We knew no one locally, had no prearranged network. It was only us, the people we could connect with on the go, and internet communications with family and friends at home. Our internet periodically and inexplicably dropped.
- Symptoms of possible illness came and went in my kids–rashes, slight fevers, neck pain, and although we had medical insurance, I didn’t know where the clinic or hospital was, or if there were English-speaking providers.
- No car to get around on Saturday, church day, when the buses didn’t run.
You may have guessed that were in Israel. For a study sabbatical and major family adventure we expected to last two years. I know that it wasn’t always so hard, but for the first several months there were waves and waves of HARD. There was no quick fix. There were oases of hope–my husband’s tenderness when he could spare it, an occasional encounter with an anglophone in the grocery store or bus, a helpful janitor to fix something, quiet times in the warm evenings to write my heart out. But it was grueling.I found I was doing so much to help my kids cope (especially one of my kids, who was quiet as a mouse at school but let all her intense emotions out at home), that I could barely take a breather to process my own reactions. I wrote a lot, a blog, and frequent prayer letters to friends at home.
Slowly, slowly (Hebrew: Leyat, leyat) we moved out of the storm (with occasional recurrences). Every time things started to get hard, we’d learned to ask friends to pray for us, and it was amazing what help was sent. There were milestones–I joined a Hebrew language class, where I was HIGHLY motivated and met some wonderful people from all over the world. I figured out how and where to buy the best groceries and housewares, and even found out how to get to the malls. Who would have thought I’d enjoy shopping in a mall? I outgrew that, and went back to the downtown open market and local vegetable stand, but at least I could get that “western” fix if I needed to. I found modeling clay and art supplies for the kids, a great second hand bookstore (my twelve year old devoured Moby Dick, he was so book-deprived by then), a library. I met a local woman and her kids at the playground, who befriended us, showed compassion, and answered every question I brought her. I found out how to get through to an English speaker at our internet and phone companies, how to pay bills, opened a bank account. Slowly the stress diminished, and the memory of it heightened a sense of accomplishment. And I am still amazed at the inner strength I discovered in myself. Okay, so what didn’t kill me (or cause a breakdown) made me stronger.
But it could have been different. What doesn’t kill you can make you weaker–crippled, wounded, destabilized, so I don’t sing that song. Now I understand why we had to sign a form when we applied to go overseas so my husband could study: a form that certified that we were mentally and emotionally stable enough to withstand the stress of cross-cultural living. I thought that was a bit odd, but they knew …
All six of us agree now that although it was hard, especially at first, spending that time overseas was enriching and not to be regretted. We all got different things from the experience, but it was a very worthwhile time. And a sense, as we realize how it changed us, it’s not over yet.