living abroad

Moving Abroad With Mental Illness

Many of you have (kindly) asked how my move to Hong Kong and transition to life here has affected my mental health. This past April, just over a year from when I was diagnosed with Type 2 Bipolar Disorder and a slew of other anxiety and panic disorders, I started a new combination of medications. One is an anti-depressant, and one is for severe moments of anxiety. I had reached what felt like a breaking point in my life and this was the third treatment option my doctor and I were trying.  Within just a few weeks I was stunned to realize that I felt “normal” for the first time in as long as I can remember.

Normal meant I was no longer waking up in the morning with twisted knot in the pit of my stomach before I had even opened my eyes. I no longer entered each day feeling defeated and on edge, like at any moment the tenuous rope of functionality I was holding onto could unravel. Yes, some days I still struggled with anxiety, especially when faced with something particularly triggering. But where my base level for anxiety used to never dip below a 4 on a 10-point scale, even on my most stable days, now I find that many days, my baseline is a 1 or a 2.

The best way I can describe it is that it feels like relaxing your muscles after holding them all in tension every moment of every day for years. Most days this feels like a miracle.

The past few months have objectively been extremely stressful. I think the stress of moving internationally, changing jobs, and being separated from your spouse are things that would cause anyone a decent amount of anxiety.  I don’t deny that there have still been moments where I have been overwhelmed with anxiety and fear. I have also been deeply sad about leaving behind my life in Columbia. But the thing that stands out to me is that somehow, I have managed to cope in a way I don’t think I could’ve done a year ago, or even back in March. And not only cope, but find moments of sheer joy and new excitement for this new life.

I can’t describe my gratitude for this. And at the same time, I have to acknowledge the fact that I am not “cured”. I am on a journey. I am managing so much better than I was a year ago, but it’s not as simple as just popping those two little pills each night. My mental health is a holistic battle and the reality is that it will probably be a lifelong fight.

This past Sunday we visited a church for the first time since coming to Hong Kong. We haven’t really met anyone here besides coworkers, and we are hoping to find a community. Throughout the afternoon I could feel myself getting more and more anxious. By the time we left our apartment, I felt like I was in a daze. Everything seemed a little too bright and blurry around the edges and the sounds around me were like a low buzz in my ears. Jonathan tried to talk to me about other plans for the night and for the future, and I could barely process what he was saying to me. Eventually he gave up talking to me until after the service was over.

After we sat down in the church auditorium (which looked like the church auditorium of many an evangelical church in America), all of my thoughts and all of my energy were consumed with trying to get through the service without panicking. Understand, it was a perfectly normal evangelical-style church service. There was nothing particularly objectionable about it. But for most of the service I felt simultaneously like my skin was on fire and like I was going to pass out. “You are OK. This is OK. There is nothing wrong here,” I kept chanting to myself.

After the service was over, we ducked out and went to dinner where I tried to explain to Jonathan what I’d been feeling but failed (though he was gracious as always). By the time we got home later that evening, I was utterly exhausted. Coming down off of the adrenaline that had fueled me through the afternoon was like crashing after a sugar high. My whole body ached.

Moving abroad has helped move me out of some old patterns that were not good for me. At the same time, it’s launched me into a world of unknowns, a somewhat precarious place for bipolar planner like me.

The thing about mental illness is, it’s effing scary. It’s scary to feel like you don’t have control over your own mind, or that your body has these visceral reactions you may not even understand. It’s scary to know that it’s possible for your feelings to not accurately reflect reality. The fight for wholeness and wellness forces me to choose every single day to actively work towards healing.

It’s a holistic effort. Medication is a blessing, but it is not enough. Meditation, exercise, and diet help. Nurturing life-giving relationships helps. Prayer helps. Avoiding triggering situations helps. Turning off the introspection to show love and care to the people I encounter every day helps. But the thing that helps the most is hope. Hope each morning when I wake up that today can be a good day. It can be good no matter what yesterday was like and no matter what may come tomorrow. Today I can be well.

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PS- I just wanted to give another shout out for my new travel website www.keeproamingon.com. I’m proud of the work I’m doing there and would love to have you follow me if you are interested in sharing my travel and living abroad adventures. You can follow by clicking the follow button at the very bottom of each page.

 

 

 

 

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Introducing…Keep Roaming On

Faithful friends, today is the day! I am so excited to announce the launch of my new website Keep Roaming On. This site will be dedicated to travel adventures and advice, to feeding your wanderlust (and my own), and to telling the stories of our daily life in Hong Kong and of all the people we meet along the way.

I will still be keeping Such Small Hands active and will continue to post here about topics like reading, faith, mental health that don’t necessarily fit under the general travel/living abroad umbrella.

In the meantime, I would love for you to head over to the new site which already has a few posts up, and follow or subscribe by email if you are interested in what’s going on there. You can also follow Keep Roaming On on Instagram and Twitter for more of a daily dose of life here in Hong Kong and tips from other travels over the past few years. If you have any specific requests for topics you’d like me to cover, please let me know!

https://www.keeproamingon.com

Why We Moved to Hong Kong

In my last post, I gave a brief answer to the very complicated question of why we picked up and moved to Hong Kong. Of course, there are some obvious reasons–we have wanderlust, and the timing was perfect for a new adventure since Jonathan was graduating. We found jobs in Hong Kong that match our interests and skill set. This is likely the last opportunity we will have to live abroad before we’re ready to settle down somewhere. We also have a great opportunity to save money and to travel more. But even as spontaneous and adventurous as I like to think of myself, I could never have made such a huge decision based solely on those things.

On some level, it isn’t anyone’s business but our own, and I don’t feel I owe anyone an explanation, but to my core I believe in the power of truth-telling, even when that truth is ugly.

Our three years in Columbia were unhealthy for us in many ways. We both struggled with our physical health and fitness as well as bigger issues like Jonathan’s knee surgery. I struggled off and on with disordered eating. I had several low points in my mental health (though now, after nearly a year of experimenting, we seem to have found a good treatment solution). We loved our church, but our hectic schedules made it hard to plug in outside of Sunday mornings. Most importantly, these years were not good for our marriage.

For three years, we existed largely in different worlds that overlapped only at the edges. We loved each other, and we lived peacefully together, but we were living separate lives. Jonathan learned and worked and grew and changed in his grad school community and through his hours and hours of dedicated writing. Meanwhile, I threw myself into my job, into nurturing and caring for children in my life and for friends whom I connected with deeply. Both in terms of our actual schedules and in terms of emotional energy, we gave very little to each other. And so we grew and we learned and we changed and we became in ways that we did not share with each other.

In the spring, it became clear that we had a problem that we couldn’t fix with a few date nights or meaningful conversations. We had rooted ourselves into a way of life that did not include one another, and this had taken a toll. We felt disconnected and frustrated, resentful and sad, and, in moments, a little bit hopeless. Something had to change, and in the end, we knew that it would be very difficult to make those changes if we stayed in the same place doing more or less exactly what we had been doing for the past three years.

We always speak of our time in Korea as being both the hardest and best time of our lives. The pictures and the CoT stories cast some glamour and humor over the memories, but there were moments when life there was very difficult. The thing that made it so worthwhile anyway, was how close we were to each other. We were all each other had, and we supported each other, explored together, and grew together in a sweet way.

In Columbia, I had a job that was meaningful and fulfilling and that I worked hard at. It was a job I loved and felt competent in. I had gained the respect of my peers and my superiors and the love of my students. I had a boss who became a dear, dear friend. I had amazing relationships with several families who let me into their homes and their lives to help care for their children. I had a beautiful 14-year-old girl who I loved with my whole heart and whom I took care of  like she was my daughter. I had (have) friends who I love like my own heart. And for once, my family was actually close enough to visit several times a year. I had built a home, and leaving it all behind was one of the hardest things I have ever done.

I did not do this casually. I did it because even though those things are important to me, my marriage is more important. My marriage will always be more important. And Jonathan and I had peace that moving away was the best thing for our marriage. We are not running away from our problems. We are taking them with us to a space where we can work on them without the temptation to slip back into the separate lives we had been living.

So here we are in Hong Kong, launching into a new adventure, hand in hand, faces turned toward the same horizon, waiting to see what we will discover next.

Good Morning From Hong Kong…Some Life Updates

Well, friends, it’s been a while, and some things have changed. For starters, I’m writing this sitting in the window of my 6th floor apartment in Hong Kong. Where I live now. As of Wednesday night. (Check out the “sea view.” Really, it’s there! I swear!)

Jonathan graduated with his MFA in Creative Writing at the beginning of May after completing and defending a brilliant novel that served as his Master’s thesis. He started a job search that included local options as well as international ones. At the end of May, we both accepted jobs with the Hong Kong office of a company called I Can Read.

To get some of the FAQ’s out of the way…

When did all of this happen?

It has been a whirlwind, which is why I didn’t do any writing about the process. We applied to the jobs we’re now working at the end of April. We found out we had an official offer at the end of May. I resigned from my job (which only entailed not signing a new contract), and we took a previously scheduled vacation to Ireland and Amsterdam (amazing, btw, but not the point).

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Casual Cliffs of Moher Pic

We came back to Columbia for one day, then Jonathan flew to Kansas City to grade AP Literature exams for a week, and I flew to Phoenix to visit my sister.

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We did goat yoga in Arizona. Like you do.

My sister and I drove together to Los Angeles to see my youngest sister graduate from fashion school. Then Jonathan and I both flew home, and four days later, he moved to Hong Kong.

I stayed behind for five weeks, wrapping up our lives in Columbia and running a couple of ESL camps at my school. Meanwhile, Jonathan went through training, started working, found an apartment for us, and did a million other things all on his own. Being apart for five weeks was not fun, and it gave me such respect and sympathy for people who regularly have to be away from their spouses.

Last weekend my parents, my sister, and my nephew flew up to Columbia to help me finish up packing and moving my things to a storage unit in town.

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Best Family in World. End of Story.

On Tuesday morning, they dropped me off at the airport in Charlotte, NC, and on Wednesday night Jonathan (and some people from ICR) picked me up in Hong Kong. I start job training today.

What exactly are you doing there?

We’ve been hired by a company called I Can Read that runs literacy centers throughout Southern Asia. We are both working as literacy teachers. This is not a regular school – the best thing I can liken it to is something like a Sylvan Learning Center or other specialized tutoring center. The classes are held in the afternoon and evenings and on Saturdays. The entire focus is teaching kids to read in English using the phonemic awareness program I Can Read has created. We teach reading lessons to small groups of students ages 3-12, or sometimes just to individual students.

The company was started in Singapore by some Australians and has now expanded into Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, China, Hong Kong, and Myanmar. They have only been in Hong Kong for about two years, but they are growing rapidly. Jonathan and I work at two different centers in different locations in Hong Kong, but we are doing more or less the same thing.

Why did you move abroad again?

There is no simple answer to this question, and in fact, I think it warrants its own blog post. The short version is that Jonathan had finished his program, and it was a natural time of transition since he was looking for a job anyway. We have been interested in living abroad again ever since we returned from Korea, so when an opportunity came up for us in Hong Kong, we took a leap.

But what about your mental health?

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Need I say more?

Are you going to write about it?

Umm…heck yes. I am actually setting up a new website/instagram/twitter and possible youtube channel for all the living abroad and travel goodness. I will keep lilyellyn.com for writing about things like mental health, reading, and faith wrestling. I will post a big announcement here when the new site goes live, so be on the lookout!

For now, my goals are to get over jet lag, stay awake through training, and start devising a plan for how to make friends with the old ladies who do Tai Chi in the courtyard every morning. More to come!

 

Call Me Maybe: A Guest Post About Embarrassment, Failure, and Karaoke

I am so excited today to be featured over on Lindsey Smallwood’s fantastic blog, Songbird & a Nerd. Lindsey asked me to write about a time when I experienced something out of the ordinary – a time when novelty causes us to notice. I could almost have picked any day of my two years in Korea at random and found material for this, but I chose to write about a less-than-glorious moment and what it taught me about Failure, Shame, and letting Life shout the loudest.

“Perhaps the only thing Koreans love as much as kimchi and soju is singing karaoke, or norebang as it is called in Korean. Singing is such a deeply embedded part of Korean culture that it’s virtually unthinkable to be Korean and not sing (sort of like being Korean and not drinking, but that’s a different story for a different time). Much like golf in America, singing karaoke is a perfectly normal and acceptable thing to do as part of a business meeting or work event.  

When we’d first arrived at the restaurant I’d scouted the room for the telltale sign of the cart with the microphones, speaker, and video screen and had been comforted when I didn’t immediately see one. I should have known there was always one in reserve.”

Read the rest of this post here and be sure to check out other stories on Lindsey’s blog!

My Country Tis of Thee: On Living in the Land of Giants

We landed in Dallas after a 12-hour flight from Tokyo and stepped foot onto American soil for the first time in a year. I was overwhelmed by how familiar and foreign everything felt at the same time.

In the first gas station we stopped at, Jonathan and I ran up and down the aisles like children, yelling our finds to each other over the shelves. “Did you know that there are Peanut Butter Snickers now?!” “You can get a 32 oz CAN of something! Who ever heard of a 32 oz CAN?! It’s HUGE!”

Driving through my hometown, I was bombarded with new storefronts and neighborhoods that seem to have sprung up like mushrooms over night. Several fast-food chains whose logos have dotted the American landscape for decades have gotten facelifts while we were away and several entirely new chains have sprung up, our ignorance just one more sign of how long we’ve been gone and how far away we’ve been.

Adjusting is not like I expected it would be. In some ways, I’ve assimilated quickly, falling back into comfortable rhythms and familiar interactions I’ve known all my life. But on some subconscious level I also find myself viewing America as an outsider. For the first time, I identify with those who stereotype America as a land of crime and excess where everyone is fat and spoiled. (True story: When I first met one of my Korean coworkers she said to me, ‘When I heard you were American, I thought you would be fat.’)

I find myself shocked by the sheer size of everything. The size of portions and the size of people and the size of my cat who looks like a puffy version of his former self. After years of craving space, now everything feels too big and too loud. I also find that I am more worried about safety here, in my “home,” than I was in Korea. Here I lock my doors and avoid dark parking lots and my eyes are always peeled for suspicious people. Last week I started to panic after standing in line at the bank for 10 minutes, suddenly recalling every bank hostage story I’d ever heard, stealing sideways glances at the other customers, tension rising in my shoulders.  In Korea, I ran after dark down city streets and took cabs across town after midnight and never felt uncomfortable.

Then there are things I didn’t realize I’d forgotten, like the way we Americans chat with strangers while they go about their day – maybe this is friendliness or maybe it’s just an inability to handle silence. Last weekend a girl taking my order told me I looked exactly like someone who worked with her husband. She asked me my name and when I told her, “Lily,” she told me all about how she was going to name her daughter that but her best friend had a daughter first and stole her name. She named her daughter Chloe instead.

After two years of minimal interaction with people around me, I find the sheer volume of words required for daily life exhausting. In the evening, when Jonathan comes home from school, I am quiet, having spent my words on cashiers and neighbors in the parking lot and the librarian with the horn-rimmed glasses. He asks if anything is wrong and I say, “No,” only that I’m tired.

I don’t know how to say that I am dazzled by this life we’ve fallen into. Awed by the strangers who have welcomed us in and called us friends, amazed by how beautiful ordinary life can be, and yet constantly, persistently uncomfortable with this life that is so hauntingly familiar and so utterly strange. How do I explain that I spent my day going through the motions of an ordinary American life like an actress playing a role she’s memorized so well it comes to her as easily as breathing?

Fifty-two Weeks of Adventure #25: Adventures in Konglish

When we first arrived in Korea two years ago we were surprised to discover that there is English everywhere here. We were equally surprised to discover that the vast majority of it is grammatically incorrect, misspelled, or complete nonsense. The majority of store names, advertisements, and words on clothing are all written in English, though it’s clear that no one who actually speaks English was involved in their design or manufacture. To give you an analogy for what this is like, imagine if you went to the US (or England or another English-speaking country) and found that all of their stores had Chinese names and the people mostly wore clothes with Chinese characters on them, even though very few people spoke Chinese.

In our first few months we were constantly amused by this and tried to take pictures of especially funny examples when we found them, but if you live with anything for long enough it will start to seem normal. After a while we got used to all of the strange and bad English surrounding us and stopped noticing it as much.

On Sunday we met our friends downtown for lunch and decided to make a point to try to notice the ridiculous English we passed just on our way to the restaurant. Unfortunately some of the best examples are on people’s clothing and that’s much harder to get pictures of without being really rude, but we still found some gems without going out of our way.

Clothing store with this inspirational quote on it.

Clothing store with this inspirational quote on it.

Cafe Lucid

Contact Lens store

Contact Lens store

On the wall in one of our favorite restaurants.

On the wall in one of our favorite restaurants.

In addition to these signs we spotted on the go, I went back through my phone pictures and pulled out some favorites we have collected along the way.

Student's English notebook.

Student’s English notebook.

On the wall in the  English Village Learning Center

On the wall in the English Village Learning Center

Coffeeing

Best Coffee Cup of Life

Best Coffee Cup of Life

Im bong

Shirt I almost bought for my friend but resisted.

Shirt I almost bought for my friend but resisted.

body breast face

On a plastic surgery office. I’m hoping those “breasts” are the befores and not the afters….

This is on the wall in my English classroom.

This is on the wall in my English classroom.

And my all-time favorite – this tissue box found by a fellow native English teacher.

tissue box

I hope you enjoyed this week’s Adventures in Konglish. We are trying to remember to take more pictures of these things now that our time here is coming to an end. I know the photos will bring back memories and make us laugh for years to come.

If you have an adventure to share, add your link to the link-up by clicking the button below. You can participate in all of the adventures or you can just do a few – no pressure. If you missed last week’s adventure about our 5th anniversary trip to Busan you can find it here. And if you are new to my Fifty-Two Weeks of Adventure project you can find out more about it here.