Written across the center of her website and catching one's attention immediately, Robin Pascoe invites the reader to "Find yourself in my books." Available on amazon.com, I ordered a copy of A Moveable Marriage earlier this afternoon, because on Tuesday I discovered that her invitation doesn't disappoint. She spoke in Polanco to a room full of women, astonishing me as I recognized myself in her words. Not only did I find myself, I found myself validated, realizing I may be somewhat isolated, but I have never even once been alone.
Her audience was the expat woman, and in particular the woman who follows her husband to the country where he'll work, leaving her own career behind, along with the comfort of an established identity. Whether the woman is from the same country as her husband or not makes hardly a difference; she will suffer a great loss, and will often be blindsided by the grief.
I understand exactly the experience she described. It is the most difficult thing I've ever had to wrestle with. To hear that it is so common and so natural, and from someone who has lived it herself, was nothing less than a balm. In that hour, I was able to let go of the ideas I held that I have been a wimp, not adaptable enough, an ungrateful and ugly American whose troubles don't merit the tempestuous inner monologues they've provoked.
A year ago, writing to friends and family to let them know about my new life in Mexico, I talked of wedding plans and my favorite sugared figs, my in-laws and Day of the Dead. And I said that culture shock was something I hadn't expected. "It's an identity crisis," I wrote, and in a large part, I still believe it is.
Arriving in Mexico, I suddenly found myself without success at work to define me, or my friends, or my good income and the freedom it had lent me, not to mention the freedom that comes from a safe city. I missed all those things because I love them, but also because they helped buoy an identity that I liked a great deal, and without them, I felt desperately lost. In spite of the happiness that finally being with my husband brought, I grieved, often alone and confused and unsure what I should do. And it soon became clear that the financial side of life we'd both expected was not going to materialize any time soon, obligating a past sense of financial control to disappear in the wake of professional Mexico's reality.
In her website, Robin says that, "Family therapists who counsel expatriates agree that grief is an overlooked dimension of the culture shock cycle...Ask accompanying expatriate spouses anywhere in the world to identify the most overwhelming loss they feel after moving abroad and identity will likely be the near-unanimous reply," and "the sense that something is missing from their lives—possibly forever—doesn’t altogether disappear with their culture shock."
Had I known from the beginning that this would happen to me, too, along with the advice given to alleviate the situation, I may not have begun dealing with digestive problems that continue to bother me every day. “When emotions associated with grief or trauma are shoved onto the back burner, they will eventually rear their ugly head in some manner,” believes family therapist Lois Bushong, and I know she is right. But advice taken late is still better than never, and I now stand by its helpfulness to the end. Connecting to expat communities is invaluable, no matter how important it is to also try integrating into a new culture. It has helped me feel like I am reinventing my own life, for myself, releasing me from the complete dependence on my husband and his world to define who the new me would be. But not living near to other expats has been both difficult and a likely blessing. For too long, I desperately needed contact with others who shared not only a common expat denominator, but also similar interests and backgrounds. On the other hand, though, I have seen, learned about and understood so much more of Mexican life--and spent so much more meaningful time alone with Patricio--than I might have if I'd lived close to the safety net that an expat community provides. My circumstances, though still not easy, have helped to slowly work on reinventing myself into someone I'm beginning to like a great deal, too.
And I agree with Robin when she says that reinventing oneself is one of the greatest gifts an expat life can offer. Finding myself in her talk encouraged me to continue remaking myself. I'll keep taking more control, and it feels unbelievably good.