It’s been two years since I landed in Atlanta with a few bags and a dog. (My husband and the girls followed a few hours later.) We borrowed a car and moved into a furnished apartment that was graciously provided rent-free by a wonderful church. Our first few days were such a whirlwind, only a few key things stand out in my memory.
- We bought a few essentials like phones, coats, and scarves (it was winter, after all, and we’d just left the tropics).
- We tracked down the only box fans in a 15-mile radius because we’d grown so accustomed to sleeping with them in Central America we found we couldn’t sleep without them.
- Our daughters win the bravery awards because they went to new schools less than a week Stateside.
- My husband freelanced from the apartment to try and cover all the money I was spending on the home we bought (which was one creative real estate agents like to say, “just needs a little TLC,” but really needed almost a complete gut).
- We church-shopped and friend-shopped and tried to figure out how to get around our new hometown.
As I write this, I think it sounds quaint and maybe even fun. In reality, it was extremely difficult, filled with mistakes, and down-right lonely.
I think I broke all of the what-not-to-do-when-you-return-from-living-abroad rules. I’ve since learned returning ex-pats should refrain from talking much about their overseas-adventure, because, well, most people just don’t care. OK, maybe it’s not that they don’t care, but rather they don’t have a context for what you’re talking about so they end up tuning you out. To be fair, I was warned. But I apparently had trouble remembering.
I have regrets. (Can I get a do-over? ;-))
Words quite literally popped out of my mouth when I least expected them to, especially in the first six months. I said things that might as well have physically slapped people in the face. (If you missed this season of life with me, consider yourself lucky, I suppose.)
I’ve spent much of the past two years trying to figure out how to verbalize my re-entry process. This has involved writing a lot and posted very little. I blamed and lamented and worried and questioned. I eventually learned to spew more thoughts-in-progress at God (who can handle it) and fewer at those around me (who likely can’t), and eventually I started to find my rhythm and settle into my new normal.
And then after my boss and I reflected on the events of two-years-ago—I was getting on a plane at the very same hour my predecessor stood in my boss’s office to give his notice—he said something about me being “in recovery” for awhile.
When I first heard that, it didn’t make sense. I mean, aren’t people usually in recovery from addiction? Can you be in recovery from something you loved? Yes, I realized, I think you can… particularly if you’ve lost what you loved or otherwise experienced a monumental life change.
So here’s my version of the twelve-step program, specifically tailored for, well, me. And maybe you, if you’re working through a similar loss.
- Admit I experienced a loss beyond my control. (You might not initially think of a cross-culture move as a loss, especially when you’re moving back “home,” but it absolutely is. I’ve come to realize all change involves some sort of loss.)
- Make the decision to turn it over to God and trust his plan, even when none of it makes sense to my feeble mind.
- Allow myself to grieve and process the loss—you can’t go around it, you can only go through it—but set aside a specific and reasonable amount of time to grieve/process. Sing, write, draw, yell, cry… but restrict said activities to safe environments.
[IMPORTANT: Avoid seeking out new relationships during the grieving period, but rather focus on a few existing relationships who are able to encourage and support you through the process. I didn’t do a very good job at this last part… Free tip: new people and places are probably not safe environments in which to grieve.]
- Remind myself of step two and that we all process change in our own unique ways.
- After the pre-determined amount of grieving time has passed, refrain from focusing on the “loss” aspect of what happened and attempt to “move on.”
[SIDEBAR: I gave myself one year, based on the advice of people who had gone before me. Up until that point, I cried/whined/complained a lot. But after the one-year mark, I
stoppedtried to stop. One particularly painful moment came when someone told me, ever so lovingly, I really needed to either go back or stop talking about it. This happened at the thirteen-month mark. It was so hard to live through, but absolutely true. Eventually we all have to move on. Sara Groves’ song Painting Pictures of Egypt is particularly applicable here.]
- Remind myself of step four. (But avoid going back to step three.)
- Seek to discover what God is/has been trying to teach me through this process, as as to make progress in the moving on part. Consider: maybe it wasn’t about me at all? But rather what God needed to accomplish through me?
- Hold my own plans very loosely, recognizing it is not my will but God’s to be done (repeat step two, as needed).
- Give myself grace. (Remember steps one and two, again.) And realize this is all normal for the process.
- Recognize my humanity, which leads to a reminder of my need for a Savior. “I can’t do this alone, but the good news is I was never supposed to!”
- Take a baby step toward something new: make a friend, take up a hobby, go back to school, get a (different?) job, or whatever feels like it might lead to a fresh start. (Warning, maybe try just one of these at a time until you get the hang of it again? 😉
- Reflect on how I’ve grown through the loss. (What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?!) Be willing to share and encourage others who might experience similar situations. (Hence the reason for this blog post. ;-))
So, those are my 12 steps. Now, what’s helped you process big life changes?