On Solid Ground

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Creating a life as an expat can sometimes feel like you’re trying to build a house in the middle of an earthquake. Just as you feel you have things figured out and you’re ready to take on your next significant task, you can find yourself laid flat by unexpected emotions, thoughts or circumstances. It’s common among expats to feel that there are the things we never get to (from the scrapbooks left unfinished to the educational degrees never quite completed). This happens, of course, for everyone at some point or another – the difference with us though is that we sometimes don’t even have a sense of what we need as a baseline, a place of normal, from where to begin those tasks we’ve been putting off.

At its heart, this comes down to not always knowing where and when we feel most calm, stabile and at ease. It’s as though we’re hammering away on the roof of a building without even checking in on those tectonic plates shifting below us.

But what if we could get a better sense of that baseline? Is there hope in looking deeper into what we need to feel most like ourselves, most at peace and most happy so that we have a solid place from which we can begin to tackle that ever-growing to-do list? If we take some time to sort out our own personal normal, would we stabilize our foundation and make the work that we’re doing up on the surface that much more manageable and in turn more successful?

I think so.

I’m a huge fan of journaling and I love lists that ask tough questions that help me get to the heart of what I’m feeling and thinking. Lately, I’ve been thinking about some questions that can help expats home in on a baseline for feeling ready, at ease or even just plain “normal.”

This isn’t a long list of questions, but it’s designed to help you uncover what helps you feel like you’re on more solid ground. I invite you to take the questions thoughtfully. Sit down with them and take some time to think about what they tell you about yourself. Above all else, be honest with yourself. And remember – this is not someone else’s list. This is about you and what you most need. Give it a go and remember to revisit it from time to time…because as we all know in this lifestyle – more change is likely just around the bend.

1. What are my top 3 needs for physical comfort? This can be anything – special coffee mug, a particular bed or set of sheets, a nice stack of books, nice laptop computer…

2. What 2 things would I have in my life if I weren’t living or traveling around the world? Is it possible to have these things as an expat? If yes – how do I get them in my life? If not – what is the closest alternative I can find and how do I get that in my life?

3. The expat life gives me a few special privileges/luxuries. What are they? Which 2 do I most love? How will I improve on my ability to embrace those luxuries?

4. What 2 spiritual needs are the most important to me? How do I make those needs happen even when I’m moving a lot?

5. What are my 3 strongest emotional needs? How do I make sure I keep these a part of my mobile lifestyle? What daily practices can I add to my life to make sure these emotional needs are being met?

6. What 2 habits have I picked up from my mobile lifestyle that have made me a better person? What plan can I make to keep those habits in my life and how do I remind myself to do them?

7. What 3 family traditions are important to me? How do I make those a part of my expat life?

8. What hobby, exercise or pastime do I most love to do? What minimum criteria do I need to make this activity possible even when I’m moving around a lot?

9. Who are the 5 most important people in my life? How do I honor their needs, hopes and dreams to the best of my ability? What reminders can I put in place that will help me demonstrate the special place I reserve for them in my life?

10. When times get tough, who or what most reminds me that I can get through and come out the other side? What can I put in place now to know that this support system will be there when I need it most?

If you like this list or found it helpful, I have similar exercises in The Expat Activity Book.

If you’d like to enlist some support in the process of gaining more solid ground before making a fresh start towards a dream, a goal or simply a deeper sense of happiness, check out my signature package: Foundation Focus. It’s a great way to get support in becoming your best expat self.

This post is linked at Small Planet Studio’s #MyGlobalLife Link-Up 2015. Click here to check out other great blog posts from expats around the world!

The Power of Trust – Expat Style

These past couple of weeks, in the midst of another major transition, I’ve been reflecting a lot on trust. Does living the expat life cause you to trust people more, or less? Does the constant fluctuation of friends and community enable you to reach out a bit more for help with a challenging technical issue, extra support with childcare or the everyday request for a spare egg or cup of flour?

In my own experience, expats do tend to take a big, deep breath and go for it when it comes to trusting their neighbors – particularly neighbors that are part of the same professional, religious or cultural community. Simply put, we don’t quite have time to be hesitant. When you’re new somewhere you have to begin building relationships quickly…precisely because you never know whose help you’ll need and when.

It also seems to me that there’s more to this extra-developed sense of trust than just the practical. I think there are other deeper, more personal and more happiness-inducing positives than just finding solutions for everyday problems.

Like what? Well, here are 4 (unscientific and anecdotally researched) benefits of trusting others:

  • Stronger Relationships – When you trust others you’re saying to them, “I believe in you. I know you can do this.” This is an exceptional basis for building deeper and longer lasting relationships because it starts from a place of mutual respect and acceptance. Instead of someone having to “earn” your trust, you begin there and for the recipient of your trust this is a great confidence booster. I mean, who doesn’t want to feel that their friends trust them?
  • Confidence in Your Own Abilities – Trusting others also enables you to build confidence in your own strengths, abilities and intuition. In today’s world, we’re constantly faced with the reality that many people and situations are not trust-worthy. But, when we trust others as our default we build in ourselves the capacity to go with our gut and see the positive outcomes when we do. And we strengthen our ability to know when and how to ask for help. In short – we tell ourselves, “I know you can do this. I believe in you. I trust your ability to ask for what you need.”
  • Getting Burned – Along those same lines, sometimes we do get burned when we trust someone. Occasionally, we reach out only to find no one is listening or available. Or worse, the person we trusted turns out to be untrustworthy. It sounds awful…and it is awful. But it’s not all bad. Here’s why – we learn from the times that don’t work out just as much as we learn from the times that do. We heighten our awareness of when to trust and when to listen to that feeling in our gut that says, “Not so fast.” With time we become more efficient and proficient trusters.
  • A Wider Network of Connections – In this great big world, it never ceases to amaze me how very small it can seem. It’s like living in a tiny village, spread out all over the world. You may not know your neighbor, but your neighbor probably knows your previous neighbor from three countries ago…or has at least heard of her…or once read a blog post she wrote. The point is this – when you trust someone to come into your life, to laugh (and cry) with you, to support you and to become your friend, you foster connections that not only strengthen your relationships, but that strengthen the relationships of your larger community. And that’s good for all of us.

So, if you’re finding yourself feeling the urge to reach out – I say go for it. Living the best life for you, where you are right now, means going out on a limb sometimes – trusting others as well as yourself.

Getting the Most Out of Your Expanded Comfort Zone

I remember, with an incredible degree of detail, stepping on the plane for my first, true international adventure. It was 1997, and I was in my sophomore year of college.

As I found my seat on the plane, I looked around at the other students who were also flying out of JFK that day – headed to study abroad programs in Spain. They all looked much, much cooler than me…or at least they looked much, much cooler than I felt.

They all had large travel backpacks. I had a hand-me-down suitcase from my mom. Most of them were smoking. I stifled coughs and gags and burning eyes as the cabin filled with second-hand smoke. Most of the students didn’t speak a word of Spanish…and apparently didn’t intend to learn any. I not only spoke a fair amount, I thought we were actually going to Spain to learn more.

As a rather extroverted Texan from a small town – I suffered a crisis of comfort zone. I felt completely out of my element. I feared I wouldn’t fit in or find friends and that I’d end up on a big (and scary) solo adventure. I suddenly realized I’d lived a very, very sheltered life.

I remember thinking at one point, “Well, I’m just going to have to do this on my own.” Then, little by little, I began to find the people with whom I connected. I made friends. I improved my Spanish. I traveled. At each step, I was stretching to the outer limits of what felt comfortable to me and to my surprise it felt really good.

As is the case with most expats – with time (and miles), the process has become easier for me. For all expats, it’s second nature for us to expand our definitions of comfort. We take on broader and broader views of what feels right and we become experts in things that once seemed unfamiliar. The gap between fork and chopstick, English and Arabic, handshakes and kisses on the cheek narrows. This is good for us, I think.

But, it’s also important to remember that this is just a start. Knowing that you’re comfortable in lots of different situations is one thing – understanding how the experience is affecting you is completely another. This is, in my opinion, one of those wonderful things about being an expat – the opportunities for personal development and growth are built into the lifestyle. And, while it can take time to find your own style (be it journaling, meditation, reflection or just plain talking it out with a friend), there are so many options for making an expanded comfort zone a true learning opportunity. Gets you thinking doesn’t it?

Are you interested in the idea of getting the most out of your expanded comfort zone? Do you want to take the strengths you’ve gained living abroad to the next level, but you’re not sure where to start? To get a better sense of what your expanded comfort zone really means for you – try this activity. It’s a FREE sample of one of the exercises from my new book The Expat Activity Book: 20 Personal Development Exercises for Gaining Insight and Maximizing Your Potential Wherever You Are. The complete book is also available on Amazon, Amazon.uk and Amazon.eu.

H.A.L.T. for Expats

My greatest stressor in the first week in a new country? Hunger. I find the combination of either having no food or having had someone I barely know attempt to stock my pantry to be incredibly overwhelming. And knowing I’ll soon have to walk into a strange supermarket and purchase unfamiliar products with prices that mean nothing in a language I barely speak all while my stomach rumbles is more than enough to bring my stress levels to almost unbearable levels.

And then on top of the hunger is the exhaustion. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more tired than I did the morning we arrived in Paris for a three-day layover, halfway to our new home in Madagascar, with a 2 month old, a 4 year old, a 6 year old and a 100 pound dog (that almost didn’t make the flight). I lived for days in a fog that wavered between dream and nightmare.

Oh, and then there’s the loneliness. I make friends pretty easily and with time have learned to lay my heart on the line…better to be heartbroken when we part than never to have spent those long mornings over coffee getting to know a new friend. But even for an extrovert, there’s the sorting and negotiating of new friendships that takes time. In those first few days or weeks in a new place, my single most persistent thought is, “Why have we done this again?” I don’t think I’m alone.

And after all of the hunger and exhaustion and loneliness, a kind of underlying grumbling can start to bubble to the surface. I don’t anger easily, but that’s a choice. And, it’s a choice laid in the foundation of the pep talks my husband and I do before a major transition. The night before we head out, bags packed, children settling down to sleep, we tell each other, “We’re in this together. We’re a team. We’re each doing our best with a very difficult and stressful situation. We will think before we speak. We’ll use nice words.” It works…almost always.

For us expats, these feelings are all just another part of our unique normal. But recently, I came across an acronym that I’d never heard before. It’s called H.A.L.T. and it really, really spoke to me. It’s a reminder for how to keep yourself in check when you’re facing extreme stress.

The gist of it is this – in times of extreme stress ask yourself, “Am I……”

Hungry?

Angry?

Lonely?

Tired?

If the answer to any one of these is yes, take care of that problem first before you act or make any major decisions. Okay, so sometimes it might be easier said than done, but I like it as a bit of a twist on the traditional “count to 10” recommendation. I like it because, in the expat life, it’s so completely and utterly dead-on. We don’t just experience these situations, our lifestyle causes these situations! I like it because I feel it’s the type of thing you can plan for in advance. I like the idea of writing down each condition in bold letters on a piece of paper and brainstorming how I could handle each one. Because, if you know that (1) each of these things is going to happen and (2) you’ve prepared for how to deal with them in advance, you’re much, much more likely to be able to handle all of the stress that comes with moving.

But you know, the thing I love most about looking at the H.A.L.T. model for stress management is that every single person on the planet has been hungry, angry, lonely or tired at some point in his or her life. The great gift at looking at these conditions as stress contributors is that, firstly, we can all relate to these states of being and, secondly, we’re free to personalize our responses to them. There’s a great gift in the fact that they’re both universal and highly adaptable. They represent a freedom to plan for your stressors in a very concrete and predictable way.

So next time you’re experiencing a big transition or find yourself overwhelmed by stress, ask yourself how you’ll halt and then take the next steps towards finding a more positive way to get through. I think you’ll find dealing with being hungry, angry, lonely or tired first, goes a really long way towards sanity.

 

Changing the Way We Change

Still.
Still.

Here’s a place we’ve all been at one time or another – confronting the feeling of, “I can’t do this anymore. Something’s gotta’ give!” Whether it’s too much work, school, parenting, partnering, loving, caring, hating or even having fun – too much (or, frankly, too little) of anything can send us reeling toward change. Reeling, flailing, careening, spinning…kicking and screaming?

I think sometimes we have the common collective knowledge that discomfort brings about change. It’s that whole idea of hitting rock bottom. You have to get to the most miserable place in order to climb your way out and regain your sense of freedom and happiness.

But I’ve been thinking lately about how we sometimes skip a very important place in the middle. When we get to the point where we know we need to make a change, that change is often born out of the spinning of our brains. In a sense, it’s like we’re drowning and looking for anything to hang on to. Maybe this is the answer! Or this! Or, I could do that!

At some point we just end up choosing something. Sometimes it’s the right thing – the world rebalances and we’re on our way. Other times we quickly find ourselves right back where we started – in the whirlpool, grasping for driftwood.

Why? The answer may be different for each of us, but in my own life this has often been that I’ve missed an important step – stillness. When change is upon us we often go into fight or flight mode. We’re in it for survival and, instinctively, that means – RUN! But, often there’s a part of us that just needs to slow down, stop, watch and wait.

When we slow down and listen we can discover that change isn’t something we control, it’s something we go along with for a time so that, upon arrival, we’re more clear-headed and openhearted about which paths most suit us next.

So next time, before flailing (or after just a little bit of it), try being still. You never know – perhaps good things really do come to those who wait.

Detours

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about detours. Obviously, since our son’s diagnosis with Type I Diabetes we’ve taken a pretty big detour from the path we were on in Madagascar. Then of course, in addition to this big, giant detour, there are all the little detours we encounter every day – school cancellations, finding we didn’t pick up an essential ingredient for a meal, plans for dinner out thrown off when a friend is working late, traffic, rain, etc., etc.

From my perspective, life’s not really about simply managing the detours, it’s more about recognizing that the path we’re on is just plain winding. We make all these plans and, in the best of circumstances, it all works out as we envisioned. The road spreads out ahead of us, each brick in its place, each blade of grass grows straight and perfect, the sun shining…and on and on. But, almost always, there are bumps along the way.

Few people understand this reality better than expats. It’s not that it’s easier for us (it’s not), but I do think that when your world is so big (and honestly so small at the same time) you realize really quickly that there are a whole, whole lot of things outside your control. We rely a lot on others, perhaps more than people who stay put. We also have a great internal locus of control – an “I can do this!” attitude. We become almost absurdly adaptable. We get really good at seeing the big picture – the world outside ourselves.

We’re not perfect and despite the ways in which we expertly go with the flow, sometimes, just like anyone else, we get knocked around a bit by the detours. But, let’s not forget in challenging times to tap into our inner adventurers, our nature as modern-day explorers and our deep understanding of the quirky. Because whether you’re on one giant detour or finding a moments respite in the straight and fully-paved – life’s really about the way you handle the road more than what path you’re bumping along on.

From There to Here in Twenty-Six Days

I’m faced with a dilemma. It has now been 27 days since my last blog post. It’s been 26 days since my son Sam’s life (and ours) was changed forever. The dust is starting to settle on our latest and scariest family adventure and I feel compelled to get back to the business of coaching, evolving and contemplating. Well, honestly, I never really leave all that even in times of stress – if anything it’s when I rely on those processes the most. But, all that work has been going on behind the scenes of what has been a major, giant, life-altering shift in our family. Now I have to decide where all of it fits in my professional life as a coach.

Interestingly, I think the answer lies in one of the things I love most about life coaching. When you’re a coach, you don’t hide the messy parts of your life. You don’t separate the personal and the professional as much as you are required to do in a lot of other work (say, traditional therapy). Your work with your clients is absolutely not about you, as the coach, but it’s also not about painting your own work, your own journey, as completely separate from the lives of those around you – even your clients. Coaching honors and values a high degree of interpersonal connection. This can be felt in the ways in which coaching focuses on the use of intuition as a guide for the coach and coachee. It can also be seen in the way in which finding the right coach/client connection is largely based on the right “feel” or seeking out the “type” of clients a coach most feels energized to work with.

So, in an effort to be true to myself, my work, and the relationships I will likely build with people over the course of my coaching journey, I would like to share here Sam’s story. Our story. I envision that over time and in certain instances I will share our experiences in ways that may provide guidance for people facing similar challenges – in much the same way my previous blog posts have focused on the expat life, transitions and building a home abroad.

And, to be honest, I also want to share this story in its entirety because this all came so much out of the blue and I think maybe it will help someone to have this information…even in the age where a quick Google search gives you all the info you need in seconds. It’s cliché, but knowledge is power – if I’d known then what I know now…

So, here it is (names protected accept for mine and Sam’s):

On January, 19th, our five-year-old Sam was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes. The three-and-half weeks since have taken us to 3 hospitals, 3 countries, countless exhausted, worried hours and now, back home…our real home, Austin, TX.

Sometimes we can look at life and see a very clear delineation of before and after. The clear moment where something was one way and then, suddenly, it was another. Looking back over the events of the past 26 days I can’t help but feel the simultaneous weight and clarity of seeing this before and after.

Here are the very, pinpoint, exact moments that I remember in the week leading up to Sam’s diagnosis.

On Sunday, January 12th, we joined a great big crowd of some of our closest friends for brunch at Tana’s Café de le Gare. There were 10 adults and 14 children. It was wonderful, summer-weather madness. We ate and talked and played games, but oddly Sam didn’t seem himself. He was eating a lot, but seemed tired. While the other kids played, he fell asleep in his dad’s lap. A bit strange, but not huge. Maybe he’s a little under the weather? It is Tana after all – seems like everyone is always a bit sick.

By Tuesday he still didn’t seem like himself. He had a bit of a cough, but no fever, diarrhea or vomiting. He had vague complaints of a stomachache, but he would say something about it then go off to play. I noticed he looked a bit thinner. He said his muscles hurt. I went for a walk with a friend and asked her what she thought of it. She thought maybe he was growing. I agreed, but wondered if he should have blood work done.

These mismatched and random seeming symptoms continued throughout the week. One day he said he felt sick and began to cry – the teacher called us to come pick him up. He just didn’t seem like himself. His teacher agreed. But then he would go off and play. Could it be  some virus he’s just having trouble shaking? Something didn’t seem right, but none of us could put our finger on exactly what it was.

Saturday he rested most of the day. I felt more worried about what was starting to seem like pretty significant weight loss…even in just two days. When I was making the kids’ dinner that night, he was raiding the fridge, eating and eating. When I told him to stop, that I was about to give him some Mac-n-Cheese, he started to cry. My husband and I went out to dinner with friends and we all discussed what was going on. The consensus was something like tapeworm. Yes, we thought, definitely worms…or a parasite.

However, Sunday morning he woke up and it was clear his breathing was labored and his mouth was so dry he couldn’t drink enough water. He was also going through tons and tons of milk. Drinking thermos after thermos. We willed ourselves to wait until 8:00AM to call the medical officer. We didn’t want to wake him up. But, we were really freaked out. And scared. The medical officer came over around 10:00. I think he diagnosed him within seconds, although he said it was just a possibility. He’d need to test his blood and urine.

Waiting for the med officer to call us back seemed like an eternity. When he did call we knew what he was going to say – Sam’s blood glucose level and the ketones in his urine were very high.

Here’s something I’ll never forget – Sam dozing in and out on the couch. Me trying to eat a few bites of a black bean taco knowing that we were headed to the hospital and might be there a few hours or even over night. The rain outside. I packed a bag for us – I didn’t forget my Kindle, which in retrospect seems absurd because there was no chance that I was going to be reading. We got in the car. We’ve never been back.

It turns out Sam was in Diabetic Ketoacidosis or DKA. Here’s my rather simple and unscientific explanation of what happens, why someone becomes a Type I Diabetic and how they get to this point (and so quickly):

Type I Diabetes (previously called Juvenile Diabetes because it is usually diagnosed in childhood) is an autoimmune disorder (unlike Type II Diabetes which is a metabolic disorder). Basically, the body gets a virus. Antibodies designed to fight off the virus, get confused and attack the insulin producing cells in the pancreas (bad thing #1). Insulin’s job is to help glucose in the blood reach the cells so that the cells can produce the energy you need to live. When glucose can’t get reach the cells then it builds up in the blood (bad thing #2). Then the body starts looking for other sources of glucose and pulls it from places like the liver (bad thing #4). It also starts burning fat (bad thing #5). When the body burns fat the byproduct is ketones. When ketones build up in the urine that’s bad news.

Type I Diabetes is, quite simply, really bad luck. There’s no cure. Type I Diabetics will take insulin for the entirety of their lives. If you want more details, you can read more about it here.

In short, it’s some pretty scary, scary stuff. Things went from strange to really bad over the course of about 12 hours. All the random things in the week leading up to his diagnosis seemed minor. From Saturday evening until Sunday morning, nothing seemed minor at all.

So, we found ourselves on Sunday night at the hospital. Me, the Embassy med officer and Sam. From the very first seconds of this experience Sam was the most amazing, brave and calm trooper. The whole thing was so scary, but (thankfully) he’s never been afraid of needles. I don’t think he ever cried more than a few tears. I, on the other hand, was quite a mess those first few hours. It took all of my strength to hold it together. I knew right away that Sam and I would need to leave Madagascar, but the most upsetting thing was that the care he was getting was so inadequate while we were there. One of the first things that must be done to reverse DKA is to give IV fluids. Sam waited in the ER for 4 hours before they agreed to give him fluids. It was a nightmare, frankly. Thankfully, our med officer remained calm. This helped because I was never totally sure about what should be done, not done and what steps we should expect next.

In the end, we waited 18 hours before the air ambulance arrived from South Africa. Words cannot express the relief I felt when the nurse and doctor walk into our room. They carried, in two backpacks, more proper medical equipment than the entire Polyclinique Ilafy (the best hospital in Tana) stocked in the entire hospital. And, despite being kind, the Polyclinique doctors, frankly, seemed to have no idea what they were talking about. I keep thinking back on things that were happening now that I’ve learned so much. But, I try not to think back on it too much. The pain of knowing what wasn’t being done is overwhelming…and yet, that time has passed, so I’m trying to remember not to replace my ignorance in those moments with new fears in hindsight.

And so, Monday morning, Sam and I drove our last drive through Tana…our typical route from Ivandry (our neighborhood), past the boys’ school (I saw several friends dropping off their children in the early morning traffic. Sam and I blew kisses to his big brother), past our house (without stopping), past the Embassy (closed for the MLK holiday) and out to the airport. I hate tiny planes. I loved this one. My fears were starting to subside.

The fear is all relative I guess. We weren’t out of the woods, but we were out of Tana…it was the next best thing.

And, then of course, it was so sad to leave. I never loved Tana, but I LOVED our Tana life. The outpouring of love and support we have received through this event is not possible to capture in words…but, I’ll try. I think about it this way – you spend your life, if you do it right I think, focusing closer and closer, every passing year, on the things that matter. For each of us, it’s different. Maybe career matters most, or a nice house in the woods, or lots of time to play sports or music. For my husband and I, more than anything else we have worked to create a home life that is constantly surrounded by friends and family. And, because in the Foreign Service your friends are your family, you nurture those relationships as if your life depends on them. Sometimes you discover that your life, or at least your sanity, actually does.

So when everything was up in the air, when we were running only on adrenaline and worry, we somehow found ourselves surrounded by an outpouring of love and prayers that we never imagined (or ever had to imagine) we would need. And in those first few days it was the key to survival. I actually felt the love and embrace of those around us. We were never alone.

Sam and I, leaving Daddy, big brother and baby sister behind, landed in South Africa around 11:00 AM on Monday, January 20. Phase two began with an ambulance ride…a real, working and well-equipped ambulance this time…to the Little Company of Mary Hospital in Pretoria. It’s funny the things you remember in retrospect. I kept thinking the ambulance driver looked like Val Kilmer, then I decided he looked like Jim Morrison…then I realized that likely meant he just looked like Val Kilmer. Anyway, he did and he loudly sang romantic pop songs, refused to turn on the AC or roll down the windows and smacked his lips loudly while eating Cheetos. Random details forever burned in my brain. Sam rested in the back, enjoying the sirens through the red lights…despite feeling crappy, that medevac flight and the ambulance, were without a doubt the rides of his life.

The air ambulance doctors got us checked in and then we were there. South Africa. Land of adequate healthcare.

When you’re living in Madagascar, South Africa is one of those places everyone longs to go. Getting back to the US, or even to Europe, is such a long, long journey, but if you can make it to South Africa, shopping and eating and “normality” can be right at hand. In fact, in the weeks leading up to Sam’s diagnosis we had been planning a 10-day trip to Cape Town for early April. And, even as we arrived in the midst of a major, life-changing emergency there were still lots and lots of people who were encouraging us to take in the sights, eat some good food, enjoy the sense of order.

I have to say, while we never really got to do much sightseeing, I did appreciate the sense of order from the very first minutes. As we were arriving at the hospital all I kept feeling was a huge sense of relief. It looked just like a regular American hospital. Every nurse and every doctor we saw actually seemed to know what he or she was doing. There was a normal cafeteria, gift shops, café, restaurant…everything. It’s amazing what it can feel like to just know that people are going to have, at a minimum, the basic skills to care for your child.

We settled in quickly. I’ve never felt more tired in my entire life. Taking a shower and falling asleep that first night, knowing Sam was going to be fine and that they were taking good care of him was so comforting. He and I even found time to laugh over strange little things – like the other child Sam’s age who briefly shared our room, who would run over to Sam’s bed and chat away with him in Afrikaans (to Sam’s complete bafflement). Or, the fact that people mostly spoke our language, but not entirely. Words like “loo” and “wee” really sent Sam looking at me for guidance. And then there were the strange foods – like when I thought I was ordering French fries (chips), but ended up with some sort of deep-fried goat cheese thing with Thai chili sauce on the side.

Things remained stressful, but it was like a level of humor and comfort set in amid the stress. We made some new FS friends and even got to catch-up with some old friends from Tana, now serving in South Africa.

In Pretoria, we started learning more about Type I Diabetes. Sam immediately took to the process – he was excited to learn about giving his own injections and testing his blood sugar. He couldn’t wait to win the award given to all kids who learned the required info before being discharged. We also spent a lot of time playing computer games and making little lands out of toys and paper. And, we really, really bonded. It’s rare when you have three kids that you get such an extended period of uninterrupted interaction with just one of them. I’ve come to find this one of the many silver linings of a less-than-ideal situation.

As they started to prepare us for Sam’s discharge, I have to say I felt completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stuff I was supposed to be learning. It wasn’t that it didn’t make sense – there’s a lot of math and measuring that goes into managing Type I Diabetes, but I find most of that doable and kind of like a really hands-on extended science project – but it is true that all of this information was coming in through a filter of stress, trauma and sadness for the life we had so suddenly left behind. Sam was feeling better, so that helped alleviate some of the deepest stressors, but knowing that so much of his life was now in this delicate balance of the things I had to learn was really overwhelming at times. It felt like cramming for the most important test of your life…only the stakes are more than just red marks on paper.

It was during these moments, the moments where I felt like, “There is no way I can do this,” that I found myself surprisingly able to stop, slow down and, frankly, say, “Well, you have no choice.” I remember once asking a friend who is a cancer survivor, “How did you do it? Get through each day, keep moving, without feeling completely overwhelmed?” She said, “You just do it. You have no choice.” While Type I Diabetes is distinct from cancer, there is this thing that kicked in with me – one foot in front of the other. Don’t look back, don’t look too far forward, just look right where you are.

I also felt at every moment that the prayers and well wishes of our friends and family were palpable. I honestly felt wrapped-up and connected to every single person I knew that was pulling for us, thinking of Sam and sending up their blessings. I’ve always been a big believer in the power of prayer and meditation. In this case, more than in any other time in my life, I felt sustained and buoyed by that love.

And through all of this, Sam just kept on being his smiley self. He missed Daddy and especially his siblings terribly. Every day he would wonder what they were doing and talk about feeling sad he wasn’t there with them. One morning he woke up and the smile on his face faded within in seconds. It was as if he woke up from a dream and realized that all this was real. Tears rolled down his cheeks. “I want J**,” he said. Having these adventures without his big brother, his best friend, was really hard. But, when it came to the diabetes, he just rolled with it. I wonder if this is a potential upside of being diagnosed so young – he’ll soon forget what it was ever like to live without it. It will start to seem more and more normal.

By the time they were ready to discharge him, we were both really, really ready to be out on our own. I faced that moment with a combination of relief and dread – relief that we could sleep in comfortable beds and eat more normal food, dread that the calculations and insulin and balancing was going to be up to me. Our three days in the hotel before my husband and the kids arrived ended up being less scary than I thought they would be. We were fortunate to be able to spend each day (or at least part of the day) with friends. It helped to pass the time and left us feeling like we had something to look forward to. We went to the zoo and on a mini-safari. Both our new and old friends in South Africa really looked out for us. It all felt like Sam and Mommy’s special adventure. We became more confident. We developed a system. And, we waited intently for the others to arrive.

Truth be told, we got pretty used to our quiet little existence. When my husband and the other kids arrived, it’s like everything went back to our hectic, silly household – with diaper changes and snack times and laundry and Legos. We were so incredibly happy to be back together, but all five of us in a small hotel was exhausting. Getting back to the US, in the end, really couldn’t come soon enough.

Finally, just ten days after his diagnosis, we landed back home. But where are we now…really?

Well, we’re reminded constantly of why we have so many rituals and routines – we rely on them even more now. We are thinking a lot about the structures we’ve put in place for discipline and bedtime and mealtime and play time. While so much has changed, these things continue apace as they always have. It’s a saving grace really – that and the fact that love and compassion continue to guide us in everything we do. We’ve always told the boys (and now Imogen) that no matter what, we have each other, that if all else fails we go home (to Austin) and that every moment is really just a great big adventure. Sometimes you wonder if you’ll ever really need to live out these messages. Now I can say we’ve put them to the test.

And we’re now down to the business of living life as it looks now. We don’t think Sam’s diagnosis will affect our onward assignment. This relieves some of the stress. It doesn’t look like we’ll need to rebid or scramble to find a position in DC. We’ll have a few weeks of separation here and there. We’ll get through it. The Foreign Service has been good for us, individually and as a family. Does having spent the last 5 years wandering the globe make things like this easier? I don’t know. Right now, for our family, I think it does. Five days from now I might change my mind. I don’t really bank on certainty…never have really. But, there are a few things where I feel I can invest my confidence – love, flexibility, a good cry, a good laugh, friends, family…and hugs.