the november cocktail hour – sans cocktails

Thursday, November 30:  It’s time for our monthly cocktail hour again, but this time I’m afraid I can’t offer you any cocktails.  It will have to be a non-alcoholic gathering, as our family has now come face-to-face, in the most unpleasant way, with the full-blown realization that we have an alcoholic in our midst.  I’ll tell you more about it later, but for now, please come in and keep me company.  I could certainly use a listener, and I’d love the distraction of hearing what’s happening in other people’s lives.

I can offer you soda, hot tea or coffee, or even hot apple cider, since it’s getting cold now. We also have tap water, of course, with a twist of lemon or lime, or I can offer you La Croix grapefruit flavored sparkling water.  You all know I love my glass of wine, but I have to save that treat for when I’m outside the house.

“There’s not alcoholic in the world who wants to be told what to do. Alcoholics are sometimes described as egomaniacs with inferiority complexes. Or, to be cruder, a piece of shit that the universe revolves around.”
Anthony Kiedis, Scar Tissue

I hope November has been good to you. Have you read any good books, seen any good movies or performances, binge-watched any television series? Have you encountered any challenges or jumped any big hurdles? Have you welcomed any visitors? Have you wandered or journeyed; have you dreamed any dreams? Have you had any massages? Gone to any exotic restaurants, cooked any new dishes? Have you embarked on any new endeavors?

Our month started out well enough.  My son’s girlfriend Maddy was still here and he was occupied with her, though he still hadn’t returned to work. I think they had worked out Maddy would pay for everything while here, as he had spent all his money in Australia.  He wasn’t working so had no income coming in.

I was trying to play catch-up with some free webinars offered by a friend of mine, Pooja, under her business name of Daring Daydreamers. I hadn’t been able to attend the live versions, so I was trying to catch up on the first two replays: “Vision Boarding for Success” and “Intentional Mind Mapping,” in preparation for the third one, “Communicating Your Vision with Ease” on Friday, November 3.   After attending this webinar live, I signed up for the two-hour “Business Planning Workshop” which was on the 16th.  Pooja had given all attendees a Business Planning Worksheet to complete prior to the webinar, which was fairly easy to do as I had started creating a business plan before I left for Japan.

I also set a goal for myself to write two draft chapters of my memoir each week, and except for Thanksgiving week, I did just that, although I must admit they are very rough drafts.

I saw a lot of movies this month, probably to make up for not seeing a single movie in the theater in October, and to escape the house.  I go often to Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax on Senior Wednesday for $5.50. I went to see the adorable movie Lucky, about a 90-year-old atheist who, after a sudden collapse in his home, has to accept that his good health may be declining and that his life may be coming to an end.  He’s a gruff but endearing character who gets up every morning and does a few yoga poses in his underwear, puts on one of the five identical plaid shirts he has in his closet, and goes out for a walk, smoking cigarettes along the way and encountering his fellow citizens in his small derelict town. He questions his neighbors’ beliefs and fine-tunes his own along the way.

Mike and I enjoyed a fun vegan taco dinner with our friends Karen and Michael on Saturday, the 4th.  This was the first time we’ve visited them in their new house and we had a great time. On Sunday afternoon, we went together to see The Florida Project, a depressing and hopeless story about poverty and generational problems in the shadow of the make-believe land of Disney World in Florida. It definitely gave us something to talk about, especially how the mother’s behavior in letting her daughter run rampant translated into a bratty spoiled child who didn’t have any likable qualities about her.

November 7 was Election Day and in Virginia, it was an important election as we were voting for a new Governor (Ralph Northam won!), Lieutenant Governor (Justin Fairfax), Attorney General (Mark Herring) and a new delegate for the 67th District (Karrie Delaney). It turned out to be a Democratic sweep, thank goodness, a clear message to Trump that Virginians want nothing to do with his brand of hatred.

After I voted I went to my tailor and asked her to take a picture of my “I Voted” sticker; it was recommended we put pictures on social media to remind others to vote.  It just so happened the picture showed her “Alterations” sign on the window, and I noted on my picture that I voted for “Alterations” in our current government.

Election Day – hoping for ALTERATIONS in our current government!

I found a picture on Pinterest, which I don’t often look at, of a meal that inspired me to make this meal of quinoa, black beans, roasted butternut squash, avocado, arugula & yellow tomatoes.  It was delicious!

my concoction: quinoa, black beans, roasted butternut squash, avocado & yellow tomatoes

On Wednesday, November 8, I went to see Victoria & Abdul, about the aging Queen Victoria and her unusual friendship with a young Indian clerk.  I always love Judy Dench, and she was her superb self in this movie. We’ve also recently watched the first season of the TV series, Victoria, about Queen Victoria’s early life.  Now we just need the middle part filled in.

On Thursday, November 9, I went to visit my father and his wife in Yorktown, but I stayed less than two hours.  I have a fraught relationship with my father and I haven’t seen him since I threw a birthday party for him in September of 2016.  At that party, his wife Shirley told me Dad wanted to cancel three weeks before the party, despite the fact that I did everything in my power to get everyone together for that party, even my sister in California who hates to fly and rarely travels.  Luckily, Shirley talked Dad out of cancelling or I would have been furious.  He told me at that party that he would never make the trip to northern Virginia again (about a 3 hour trip by car under the best of traffic), yet he continues to travel about 30 minutes south of here to visit his wife’s family. He’s also a Trump supporter and a racist, so I really can’t take much of him. I know he’s getting older and more frail, so I try to do my daughterly duty periodically.

After a tense conversation, I left his house and went to Richmond where I met Sarah and Alex at Joe’s Inn, where Sarah has worked as a bartender and waitress for nearly 10 years.  They were finishing up their drinks and Alex had to run off to meet someone, so we shortly left. Sarah and I went by ourselves to share a lovely dinner at Demi’s Mediterranean Kitchen.

On Saturday morning I went for a walk in Sarah’s neighborhood of Woodland Park while she took her dog for a slow walk.  The trees were beautiful in her neighborhood.  Then we had a delicious lunch at Chopt Salad at Willow Lawn.

trees in Woodland Park, Richmond
leaves in Woodland Park

I loved all the fallen leaves in Woodland Park.  I don’t know why it makes me so happy to shuffle through colorful fallen leaves in autumn.

colorful leaves on the road in Woodland Park

We celebrated our anniversary (29 years minus a handful of gap years) at Maple Avenue Restaurant in Vienna on Monday, November 13.  Earlier that day, my son’s girlfriend Maddy left to return to Australia.

This night, though fun while we were out, marked the end of innocence for our family. Little did we know this would be the beginning of a spiraling decline in our son’s life.

me at Maple Avenue Restaurant

At this point, still foolishly believing life was good, we enjoyed our dinner. I had an appetizer of crispy broccoli with panko breading, gold raisins, caraway, and yogurt herb sauce.  It was a little too heavily breaded and deep-fried for my taste; I was expecting a light dusting of bread crumbs. Mike’s appetizer of house spreads was much better: burrata, liver mousse, bacon jam, herb ricotta, currant jam, and crostinis.  For dinner, I somewhat enjoyed my Arctic Char Fillet with fresh herb spaetzle pasta, oregano, and smoky tomato sauce.  Again, Mike’s meal was better: pork confit steak with fingerlings, brown butter, sweet potato, eggplant caponata, and chimi churri.  I’m not generally a pork eater, but this dish was lean and flavorful and surprisingly good.

Finally, to top off our meal, we had fried apple pie with lavender honey, dulce de leche, and old-fashioned ice cream.  This time mine was better than Mike’s Lithuanian Honey Layer Cake with cinnamon, allspice and caramelized honey, and whipped sour cream.

I continued to take my 3-mile walks all over the place, but on this Thursday after our anniversary, on a walk around Lake Audubon, the trees were glowing.

around Lake Audubon in Reston

On Friday afternoon before Thanksgiving, I met my friend Leah in D.C. at Pearl Dive Oyster Palace for brunch and bottomless mimosas.  She lives in San Francisco but comes home to D.C. to visit her father each year around Thanksgiving. Leah got the most delicious Chopped Salad with Buttermilk-Jalapeno Dressing, Market Vegetables, and Popcorn Crawfish, while I enjoyed a small portion of 3 Cornmeal Crusted Chesapeake Oysters served over Andouille Sausage & Sweet Potato Hash.  It was a tiny meal but delicious.  No matter, I was mostly focused on the bottomless mimosas for $20. This Bottomless Mimosa Brunch is hosted every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm with Reggae tunes playing in the background.  We had a great time all around, catching up on our lives while also bemoaning the state of our government in the last year, with the despicable and greedy Republicans in charge.

We passed by Birch and Barley, which looked to be closed but I found out later is not.  I recognized it as the place where my CELTA class colleagues and students went to celebrate after our last day of class in October of 2015.

Mike and I went to Arena Stage to see the musical The Pajama Game on Saturday, November 18 after eating at Masala Art, our favorite Indian restaurant in D.C. Here’s the review in the Washington Post: Splashy ‘Pajama Game’ at Arena Stage Aims to Seduce with 1950s Style. It was fun, and some of the music was great, especially “Hernando’s Hideaway,” which I played on Spotify on the way home.

The Pajama Game was first produced in 1954, with catchy tunes and sexy dance numbers.  The musical’s themes revolve around protest and inequality in the workplace.

The Pajama Game at Arena Stage
Mike at Arena Stage

I finished reading three books this month: first, I finished Water from heaven: An American woman’s life as an Arab wife, by Anne Schreiber Thomas.  I met Anne and her husband when I lived in Oman and she and her husband lived in Abu Dhabi. The story tells of an American woman, Cindy Lou Davis, who met and married Mohammed Ali, a Muslim from the oil-rich United Arab Emirates.  Anne knows Cindy Lou and she did a great job of capturing Arab culture in UAE, not too dissimilar from Oman’s.  I also finished Losing Julia by Jonathan Hull, which I really enjoyed.  Lastly, I read the bizarre book, The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris, by Leila Marouane.  I started reading this book because I planned to join a book group that is reading books from all the countries of the world in alphabetical order. The story actually takes place in Paris but it was chosen as an Algerian book, since the protagonist Mohamed Ben Mokhtar, who has Frenchified his name to Basile Tocquard, and his family are Algerian.  If you’re interested in reading my reviews of these books, you can probably find them by clicking on the title links above. 

On Sunday, November 19, Mike and I took a walk along the Fairfax Cross County Trail.  It was a beautiful crisp fall day, but I was feeling a little anxious about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.  Worried about our son’s drinking, I had counted the number of wine bottles, and was certain that two had gone missing.  I knew when Sarah and Alex came for the holiday, the wine would be flowing and I didn’t know how Adam would cope.

a glowing tree

On Tuesday morning before Thanksgiving, I woke up to hear a tense discussion in the basement between my husband and son, and I found a note under my empty wine rack.  I had hidden all the wine bottles on Monday, but on Monday afternoon I had bought two more for the holidays and thought, He wouldn’t dare take these when they’re the last two. The note said, “Sorry for taking wine. I love you.  Thank you.”  Apparently he had drunk the two bottles over the night and was drunk first thing in the morning. A huge argument ensued with screaming and yelling.  Things got so nasty that I threatened to call the police.

Slowly, we all calmed down and had a long talk, made up, cried and hugged.  Later in the morning, I invited Adam to walk with me, again on the same Cross County Trail.  We had such a wonderful day, talking about everything, about how difficult it was for him when in every social situation people are pressuring him to drink, and how he felt powerless.  He talked about wanting moderation, being able to have just one or two drinks, but how he couldn’t seem to stop once he started.  We talked about how it was important for him to go to AA so he wouldn’t have to go it alone, so he could have a community of people who also struggle with addiction. We could send him to rehab, I could drive him to AA, he could join some Meetup groups of people with similar interests so he didn’t feel so isolated. We talked about how he’d cope over Thanksgiving when people were drinking.  We loaded him up with Kombucha, so he could drink that while others were drinking wine.  He seemed receptive.  After our walk, we went to Mom’s Organic Market so he could pick out some healthy food (he’s very picky about the kind of food he’ll eat) and we shared some healthy bowls at the Naked Lunch Cafe.

See how much help I tried to offer?!  See how foolish, and how crazy, I was?

Trees on the CCT

On our way home, Adam told me how he’d like to make some suggestions to his boss to improve his business so his boss wouldn’t be so angry all the time.  It sounds like the business is growing and needs more employees, so I immediately thought of ZipRecruiter, an advertisement I hear every day on Modern Love: The Podcast. (Again, I’m so full of helpful ideas!)  I told Adam that I listen every day to Modern Love and they play the same two ads: ZipRecruiter and, about pee-proof underwear for women.  We laughed about those and then he was interested in hearing the podcast to hear the advertisements.  It just so happened the next podcast up on my list was this one: “Take My Son To Jail: Modern Love 72.”  The essay, read aloud on the podcast, was about a son who was diagnosed with various things over the years, from autism to schizophrenia, but nothing ever seemed right.  It turned out the son had told his mother at 18 that he wanted to be treated like an adult.  Then he went through a stretch of time where he lied about everything and then stole his mother’s car.  When the police in their small town called the mother, she told them to take him to jail, because he’d said he wanted to be treated like an adult and she was sick of all the lies and his behavior.  She did it lovingly.  Sadly, many years later, the son was found dead in his apartment at age 28 with no known cause of death.

We weren’t finished listening to the podcast when we pulled into our driveway, but Adam wanted to finish listening to it after we got in the house.  As I had just threatened to call the police this morning, maybe he could identify with it. I hoped that maybe he understood where I was coming from.

We hadn’t shared a day that wonderful in a long time. All seemed good.  And hopeful.

“I felt empty and sad for years, and for a long, long time, alcohol worked. I’d drink, and all the sadness would go away. Not only did the sadness go away, but I was fantastic. I was beautiful, funny, I had a great figure, and I could do math. But at some point, the booze stopped working. That’s when drinking started sucking. Every time I drank, I could feel pieces of me leaving. I continued to drink until there was nothing left. Just emptiness.”
Dina Kucera, Everything I Never Wanted to Be

a few colorful berries

But. Hope is fool’s folly when dealing with an addict. This is the dilemma. As his parents, we love him and want the best for him.  We want him to be happy and productive and responsible.  We want him to be a man. We are willing to do anything to help him.  And this is where the problem lies. WE CANNOT HELP HIM UNLESS HE WANTS TO HELP HIMSELF.  And though he SAYS he wants to help himself, he doesn’t actually take action to do it. This is where we want so desperately to believe, but we’re fools for doing so.  In our belief that we can fix him, we’re as insane as he is.

Before he left for Australia in mid-September, he was doing so well.  He was working, saving money, paying his debt, working solidly on a podcast which I thought was very well done. He was proud of himself for being clean for 70 days.  But once he got to Australia, he was pressured constantly to drink, and apparently he did drink, so much that he didn’t like how he was feeling and acting, so he quit cold turkey.  He said that weekend after he stopped was hell because everyone else was partying like their lives depended on it and he felt outside of things.

While in Australia, he lost his momentum on his podcast and spent all his money.  And then he brought Maddy home with him, and he promptly got sick and didn’t go back to work.  He and Maddy broke up and she left earlier than she originally planned.  Maybe their relationship was doomed because of the hopelessness of being on opposite sides of the world.  Maddy doesn’t want to leave Australia and he doesn’t want to leave the U.S.  He has no career and no direction and knows he needs to get his life together, but he just can’t seem to muster what it takes.

This is the nature of the addict.

“A man who drinks too much on occasion is still the same man as he was sober. An alcoholic, a real alcoholic, is not the same man at all. You can’t predict anything about him for sure except that he will be someone you never met before.”
Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

treetops and blue sky

Thanksgiving actually went pretty well.  Sarah and Alex arrived, they drank wine and Adam drank Kombucha.  We enjoyed chatting and we all watched several episodes of Fresh Off the Boat together, all bundled together under blankets on the couch in the basement. The next day, we worked together to prepare dinner, enjoyed our huge meal, and then played a rousing game of Malarky together.  It was great fun; I haven’t laughed so hard in ages.  But where all of us could laugh, make fun of ourselves, and relax, Adam seemed on edge, testy.  He always wants to win and takes it personally when he thinks he’s going to lose. He can be condescending and difficult to be around.

The day after Thanksgiving was worse, with Adam staying mostly to himself and Alex working out. Sarah was her easy-going self.  I suggested we all go see Lady Bird together and everybody was up for it. I enjoyed it.  Sarah said it reflected perfectly the struggles of her generation.  I’m sure all my kids could relate to the mother-child struggles, with the mother pushing her child to be the best she could be.

But later, Adam sat in front of the TV, lost in his own thoughts, not talking to Alex or Sarah or any of us.  He was supposed to go to work Friday night, but called in sick.  He should have gone Saturday, but he didn’t then either.  Sarah and Alex left around 11:00 on Saturday, and Adam went back into his shell, seeming more depressed than ever.

“I was drawn to all the wrong things: I liked to drink, I was lazy, I didn’t have a god, politics, ideas, ideals. I was settled into nothingness; a kind of non-being, and I accepted it. I didn’t make for an interesting person. I didn’t want to be interesting, it was too hard. What I really wanted was only a soft, hazy space to live in, and to be left alone. On the other hand, when I got drunk I screamed, went crazy, got all out of hand. One kind of behavior didn’t fit the other. I didn’t care.”
Charles Bukowski, Women

On Sunday, Adam got up early and went to work.  He was at work from 7 in the morning till 7:30 at night.Mike and I went for a fun hike at Maryland Heights.  In the evening, we got a text that he was going to his friend’s house.  I know he needs to have friends, but I know these friends like to drink.  I was on edge all night.  He never came home until 9:30 Monday morning.  I didn’t know if he’d been drinking but I couldn’t help but suspect it.  He steered clear of me and later in the day, I found him sleeping the day away in the basement.  I asked if he’d been drinking last night and if he was going to an AA meeting we’d told him about on Monday evening.  He answered no to both and said not to bother him, he was napping.

fallen heroes

Later in the evening, I was determined that we talk to him together.  We went downstairs and told him we wanted to talk to him about going to AA.  Highly on edge, he said he wasn’t going and he didn’t want to talk about it. We insisted that we need to talk about it because our agreement was that he would start going to AA if he lived in our house.  Tempers escalated and things got ugly, ending with him pounding a hole in his door, another hole in the wall, breaking his computer, and picking up an ottoman and trying to throw it at a TV.  He said horrible things to us and was out of control. He told us he was more powerful than us and he became threatening.  I threatened to call the police.

When things escalated even more, the decibel level nearly explosive, I did just what I threatened.  I called the police, telling them we had a domestic situation.  Adam left the house and sat outside waiting for the police.  He wanted to tell his side of the story first, I guess.  It was a horrible night.  I told the police I wanted him out of the house. They told us we couldn’t just throw him out at that moment.  They told me there was nothing they could do unless he actually hurt us.  Wow, that might be too late, mightn’t it?  The officer was a good man, kind and sympathetic. He said, with all his experience over 20 years with this kind of situation, there is nothing we can do to help our son unless he wants to help himself.  He told us our options; we could go to the Sheriff’s Office and file eviction papers, post them on our house, and have him evicted in 30 days. We could file charges for property damages. He suggested we should wait till our tempers had calmed to continue our discussion.  Then he left the house.  I stood up, said I was done talking for the night, and went upstairs to bed, saying I had nothing more to say.  But.  I couldn’t sleep because I could hear Mike and Adam talking for two more hours, voices raised.

Later, Mike told me that in two hours of talking, our son said that when he came home from Hawaii, he spent two full weeks trying to detox by sleeping and spending a lot of time alone. He said Mike didn’t know how much he suffered because he was at work all the time (I was in Japan).  He said he really does want to change.

I won’t believe it until I see it.  I’m ready to file eviction papers at a moment’s notice, but I said I’d see how it goes over the next week.  I hate the thought of evicting him in the middle of winter, but I don’t know what else to do.  We have absolutely no control over him and I actually feel threatened in my house. 

“You’re walking down Fool’s Street, Laura used to say when he was drinking, and she had been right. He had known even then that she was right, but knowing had made no difference; he had simply laughed at her fears and gone on walking down it, till finally he had stumbled and fell. Then, for a long time, he stayed away, and if he had stayed away long enough he would have been all right; but one night he began walking down it again – and met the girl. It was inevitable that on Fool’s Street there should be women as well as wine.

He had walked down it many times in many different towns, and now he was walking down it once again in yet another town. Fool’s Street never changed, no matter where you went, and this one was no different from the others. The same skeletonic signs bled beer names in vacant windows; the same winos sat in doorways nursing muscatel; the same drunk tank awaited you when at last your reeling footsteps failed. And if the sky was darker than usual, it was only because of the rain which had begun falling early that morning and been falling steadily ever since.”
Robert F. Young, The Worlds of Robert F. Young

Difficult Valley Stream

On Tuesday night, we watched the DVR of Madam Secretary we had recorded on Sunday. In the show, President Dalton was upset because his son, a drug addict, had checked himself into rehab.  After an international incident in which the U.S., at the President’s insistence, tried to negotiate with Mexico to turn over an imprisoned drug lord to the U.S. to be prosecuted, Secretary McCord tells the President she’s sorry about his son.  He says the worst thing is that no matter how many times his son goes to rehab, and how often he gets clean, he’s always going to have that demon on his shoulder, threatening to send him spiraling again.

Why has it taken us so long to face the fact our son is depressed and an alcoholic?  Sure, we’ve had our suspicions.  But I have tried to normalize it. I know depression runs in our family and all of us have grappled with it.  I remind myself how many young people drink, how much I used to drink when I was in my 20s.  But, then I never drank alone.  I was always able to get up and go to work.  Could I quit after two drinks?  I often didn’t, but could I have?

How many times have we deluded ourselves? I’ve lost count. I had a wonderful day with my son on Tuesday before Thanksgiving, my sweet and brilliant son who was once so close to me.  Now, less than a week later, we are in dire straits. I never know when another bomb will drop; it’s like I’m living in a war zone.  He is depressed but refuses to seek help because he doesn’t trust doctors and he refuses to go on anti-depressants, yet he continues to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. He is isolated and lonely, but he won’t go to AA. He thinks he’s more powerful than we are and we can’t force him to do anything. And he’s right about that. If he won’t help himself, how on earth can we help him?

Plainly and simply, we can’t.

But we can’t let him drag us down into his abyss.  That I know.  I am considering options.  I am leaving open the eviction option.  I am considering leaving the house and going to stay somewhere else until he’s out of the house.  I am figuring out ways I can take care of myself and stop offering him help and solutions.  He doesn’t want our help anyway, and in fact resents our meddling.  I will work on myself, as I’m the only one who is any of my business.

“There are millions of people out there who live this way, and their hearts are breaking just like mine. It’s okay to say, “My kid is a drug addict or alcoholic, and I still love them and I’m still proud of them.” Hold your head up and have a cappuccino. Take a trip. Hang your Christmas lights and hide colored eggs. Cry, laugh, then take a nap. And when we all get to the end of the road, I’m going to write a story that’s so happy it’s going to make your liver explode. It’s going to be a great day.”
Dina Kucera, Everything I Never Wanted to Be

I grew up with a mother who was paranoid schizophrenic and who attempted suicide (and failed) too many times to count.  The first time, she walked in front of a neighbor’s VW van when I was 13 years old.  Another time she drove into a tree. She was in and out of mental hospitals, undergoing electroshock therapy, and she was constantly on cocktails of anti-psychotic drugs.  She was also an alcoholic.  I survived those years by detaching and I’ll have to survive this by detaching.  I love my son deeply, but I’m going to stand back for now. I have to, to keep from going crazy. Until he gets his life together, I need to keep distance between us. The whole environment is too toxic and too heartbreaking.

It may seem strange to be writing about anniversary celebrations, going to movies, reading books, meeting friends, and celebrating holidays in the midst of the hell we are going through.  But that is life, isn’t it?  We can choose to sit around wringing our hands in desperation, hoping that something good will come of all this or, alternatively, bracing ourselves for something horrible to happen. Or we can try to eke out moments of happiness in whatever ways we can in the midst of it all.  I’m going to try to do the latter, for my sanity, which I’m determined to preserve.  I did it when growing up with my mentally ill mother, so I’ll do it with my son as well.

We are at a stand-off now.  I haven’t laid eyes on our son since Monday night, and he lives in our basement.  Mike goes down once a day to check to see if he’s still alive.  I cannot forget our terrifying Monday night and I’m sure he is furious at us.  He probably feels hopeless, and that makes my heart break. But we feel hopeless too. Forgiveness will be slow in coming.

On Wednesday, November 29, I went again to Senior Wednesday to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.  This may have been one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.  The characters were complex and grew and learned from their experiences.  It gave me a little hope for all of us.

Friday, December 1:  I went to an Al-Anon meeting today at an Episcopal Church I used to attend.  This group works on the 12 steps, one step each Friday at noon. Today, it so happened that they were working on Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. It helped me to listen to nearly 20 people share their struggles with the alcoholic or drug addicts in their lives. It helped me feel part of a community, that all is not hopeless, and that I need to focus on myself and to ask for help from a Higher Power.  One thing I learned in Al-Anon today is that I have to trust in my Higher Power, whatever that means to me, and then I have to let go and believe that my son has his own Higher Power who will take care of him.  They said to me: “Keep coming back.”  I’ve dropped into Al-Anon meetings in the past, but only periodically, when things were in crisis mode.  This time, I need to commit to going regularly, at least once a week, if not more.

Many people may be put off by my sharing of something so personal.  But I am a strong believer in deep sharing, rather than superficiality.  Looking at social media, one would think everyone’s lives are fine and glorious things. There is deep shame in society about talking about mental illness, depression and addiction.  But I believe if we don’t talk about it, and we continue to sweep it under the table, it will continue to infect our societies, generation after generation, ad infinitum.

One day, you might be able to read all about all of this in my memoir.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll tell me something about your November, your life, your experiences, whether exciting or challenging.  Anyway, I wish you all a fabulous December and a festive holiday season. 🙂

reverse culture shock: the elusive “american dream”

Sunday, December 15:  I’ve been home now for almost five months, after having lived abroad for two years in the Sultanate of Oman (a nomad in the land of nizwa) and a year in South Korea (catbird in korea), with a six month return to America in between.  During this resettlement time, I’ve been contending, once again, with reverse culture shock, that uncomfortable and disoriented feeling you get when you don’t quite fit back into your own country after spending an extended amount of time abroad.  I wrote about this when I returned home from Korea in 2011 (six months of reverse culture shock), and then again briefly in August, a month after returning home (feeling reverse culture shock: escaping to blackwater national wildlife refuge on maryland’s eastern shore).

Reverse culture shock is a real and well-documented phenomenon.  People who have never lived abroad, who have remained firmly grounded at home, have a hard time understanding it. I would relate it to the feeling you might have if you died and were able to come back to life after being gone for an extended period.  You would find, I think, that everyone you knew and loved had somehow moved on without you.  The void that you imagined existed in their lives by your absence would have been filled with other people, other activities, other stuff.  All of you that existed would have disappeared into a big black hole, never to surface again.  Maybe, just maybe, given enough time and enough effort, you can pull yourself back out of that black hole and wiggle your way back into people’s lives.  It is said that it takes over a year to do such a thing, and it doesn’t happen easily.

it can be bleak being back home
it can be bleak being back home

I have experienced all of the documented symptoms of reverse culture shock, and then some:

1) You feel disconnected from the people you love because their lives have gone on in the same predictable ways, while meanwhile you have been flitting around the world.  Your family members don’t understand your restlessness and you find yourself becoming frustrated with their firm grounding.  A huge gap exists between you and them.  

The first thing that hit me a month after I returned home was the news that a fellow blogger, Anita Mac, committed suicide after struggling with a broken heart.  Her post, What do you do with a broken heart?, was the last thing she wrote on her blog before she killed herself.  I don’t know the details of her death, and I never knew her personally, but her last post really broke my heart.  The sad thing is, I could identify with everything she wrote in her post.

She wrote: After all, while I am an adventurous wanderer with a thirst to explore, I also have some homebody tendencies.  I love having that home base to come home to with my people, my things and memories.  I love having that partner – you know, the one you can’t wait to share your stories with!  Your victories and your defeats…the shoulder to cry on and the person to share the Sunday paper with (guess who always reads the travel section!!!)

I can understand Anita’s words.  I am adventurous and have undeniable wanderlust, yet I also have some homebody tendencies. My husband Mike, from whom I’ve been separated for almost 7 years now and with whom I’m hoping to reconcile, doesn’t share this wanderlust.  Whether we reconcile or not, we will likely remain friends forever.  But there is no doubt that we are opposites in our personalities.  In our relationship, he is the anchor, and I’m the boomerang that wants to fly off into the world, returning home at my whim.  I have a hard time understanding his tendencies to be settled, and he has a hard time understanding my restlessness.  My relationship with Mike sounds much like Anita’s relationship with her partner, the partner who eventually broke her heart.

At the time Anita wrote her final post, her father was dying of cancer and her partner of six years broke off their relationship.  She wrote: Can a travel writer find the balance between life on the road and a life at home? I am tormented by the situation.  I would not have been able to live with myself if I had denied who I was and my passion for travel.  Life is too short to fake it.  You have to be true to yourself.  But what do you do when you are the one who wants to have a home life and a life on the road….such a conflict.

Anita’s Travel Destination Bucket List was an inspiration to those of us filled with wanderlust.  It breaks my heart that she took her own life.  Yet.  I can understand her feelings perfectly.

I should add that I’m not the kind of person who could or would take my own life, but I DO relate to Anita’s struggles as she shared them in her final post.

gray days
gray days

2) You’re only vaguely interested in catching up with your old friends, and if you do, you feel like you don’t have so much in common with them any more.

I admit I’m guilty of this.  I don’t even know who I feel like hanging out with anymore.  I’m too busy at my job to find time to spend with friends, and frankly, I don’t even know who my friends are anymore.  People I thought were my friends ever since high school have judged me for choosing to live abroad rather than staying home with my family; others have chosen to cut me out of their life and death struggles, despite my efforts to reach out; others have not bothered to contact me at all to welcome me home after two years away.  In return, I haven’t felt like bothering either.  I wonder, What is the point?  If they don’t care enough about me to welcome me back and include me in their lives, why should I bother?  I feel like I need to start anew with people who can understand me, or with people who WANT TO MAKE AN EFFORT to connect with me.

finding the path back home
finding the path back home

3) Nobody cares about your travels, but you’d really love to tell them.

I find many times I’ll say, “When I was in Korea….” or “In Oman…” and people glaze over, totally disinterested.  I find sharing travel stories with like-minded people much more intriguing and fascinating than talking about boring and mundane life in America.  When I mentioned to one long-time friend that I was already bored with my same old routines in America, she said, “That’s life.”  As if I shouldn’t expect anything different.  As if I were foolish to want more.  I couldn’t help but say, “That wasn’t my life for the last 3 years.” Though many parts of my life abroad were also mundane and repetitive, at least I always knew adventure could be found around any corner.

confused and frustrated
confused and frustrated

4) You find it hard to accept some of the ways people do things at home, and you find yourself questioning habits and customs that have been a part of your life for a long time. 

I find myself irritated by America’s consumer culture.  What used to be the start of the Christmas shopping season, Black Friday (after Thanksgiving), is now encroaching on the Thanksgiving holiday itself.  Stores open at 8 pm on Thanksgiving or at midnight on Thanksgiving night, and I have seen newscasts of people actually fighting over products on the floors of Walmart (a place I have never been tempted to shop!).

I get off work at 5:30 pm every weeknight, and what is a 25 minute commute in the morning is an hour-long commute coming home.  Traffic in northern Virginia at rush hour is incredibly frustrating.  I find myself wishing for my half-hour, traffic free commute in Oman.

I used to spend a lot of time running errands, driving on automatic pilot from one end of Fairfax County to the other.  Now I minimize my errands.  I would rather do without more stuff if possible, and simplify my life.


5) You find your home landscape to be dramatically altered.

When I returned home, I found a whole new shopping center, the Mosaic District in Merrifield.  It’s full of healthy eateries such as Mom’s Organic Market, Four Sisters Vietnamese restaurant, and others. It also has an amazing multi-story movie theater that shows both blockbusters and independent and foreign films.  It’s a fantastic addition to the landscape of Fairfax County.

When I got on the highways, I was confused by the new “hot lanes” that have been added.  If you have an E-Z pass transponder, which deducts money from your credit card automatically when you drive through sensors, you can speed past the traffic jams for a fee.

When I went to Reston, I found new shops have been added to Reston Town Center.  Yet the only bookstore in Reston, a Barnes & Noble, has been replaced by a Container Store.  So now, instead of a place to buy books, a place where we can expand our minds, we have a place to buy containers in which to store “stuff,” the stuff Americans buy, buy, buy in this mass consumer culture.  This was one of the most disappointing alterations to my home landscape.

6) You wish you were back on your trip or living abroad, and you spend a lot of time keeping in touch with the people you met during that experience, or looking over your pictures from your travels, or reading your old blogs.  Or simply daydreaming about the parts of the life abroad that brought you immense pleasure. 

I don’t spend a lot of time keeping in touch with people I met during my time abroad, mainly because I don’t have time.  However, I do spend a lot of time daydreaming about parts of my life abroad that brought me great pleasure, especially during my horrendous one hour commute home every night in Virginia.  I most often find myself listening to Tibetan chants in my car, remembering the laid-back vibe, the stunning views of the Himalayas and my peaceful strolls along the lakeside in Pokhara, Nepal.  I listen to Fado and dream about the Moorish and fairy tale castles of Sintra, Portugal.  I think about lovely walks with my embassy friend in Lake Langano, Ethiopia, in the blue light, with pelicans and acacia trees against a backdrop of dramatic skies.  I think about sitting in cafes in Rethymno, Crete, Greece and drinking wine and eating Greek food and feeling infinitely happy.  I dream often of Korea, a place I was happy to leave, and find myself walking through the Boseong tea plantations and Suncheon Bay Ecological Park.  I often think of returning to Korea, as unbelievable as that would have seemed to me in 2011. And in my waking dreams, I’m most often hanging out in Oman with my friend Mario, who I miss beyond anything I can describe.  I miss our wine and cheese, our contagious laughter, and our companionable walks through the ruins and wadis of Oman, snapping photos as if our lives depended on it.

searching for belonging
searching for belonging

7) You encounter people who are possibly intimidated that you have experienced something they haven’t, or maybe they’re just plain irritated that you have done so. Possibly there is jealousy or just plain disinterest by other people.  Whichever the reason, you find people just don’t know how to engage with you anymore. And neither do you know how to engage with them.  Or maybe, just maybe, nobody feels like making the effort because you seem to have become a non-entity to them and them to you. 

Actually, this doesn’t happen at all to me.  That’s because I don’t encounter any of my old friends.  Period.  Oh, except one, my dear friend Jayne in California, who I can only talk to by phone, frequently.  My old “friends” have disappeared into their own lives, as if I never had a part in them.  As if they were never really my friends after all.  As if their friendship was all one big delusion.

8) You find there is no job for you in your home country, or if you are returning to a job you had before, everything has changed.

I found when I returned to Northern Virginia Community College, the entire makeup of the school’s population had changed.  Instead of the mostly Asian students I taught before, now we are overrun by Saudi Arabians and Emiratis.  I don’t know what is happening, but as I left Oman partly to escape the Gulf culture and the immature, unmotivated and entitled students, I am incredibly frustrated.  I spend much of my class time in classroom management, trying to discipline adult students who act like middle schoolers.  If I wanted to teach middle school, I would go work for Fairfax County Schools, where I could make a lot more money and have benefits and paid vacation time.  However, I DON’T want to teach middle school, under any circumstances.  Sadly, that is exactly what I’m doing.

The next bad thing was that the college, due to lack of space, moved all the ESL language courses to a building off campus.  This building has very little office space for teachers.  It is not a college atmosphere at all.  It’s a very depressing place to work.

In addition, I had forgotten how low the pay is.  I make one-third less than what I made in Oman.  Considering that my housing was provided and I didn’t have to pay taxes, the real income was much more in Oman.  Also, this lower pay at the college is for MORE contact hours: where I had 20 contact hours a week in Oman, I have 25 contact hours here.  Because the administration in Oman made up tests and planned the entire semester for us, I NEVER had to take work home with me.  Although my work in Virginia is more challenging, because I plan every lesson myself, and make up every test, it is also extremely time-consuming.  I spend many hours, hours that should be my free time, working.

frustration in the usa
frustration in the u.s.a

9) You find it hard to survive financially in your home country.

I’m constantly amazed at how expensive everything in the USA has become in my absence.  On the measly income I make from my job, I could NOT survive.  I would be living beneath the poverty line.  It’s ridiculous that educators are not valued, that we are taken advantage of so blatantly.  Believe me, this, above all, makes me consider moving abroad again.

10) You often feel depressed and anxious. 

Oh yes.  I feel depressed and anxious almost constantly.  I go to sleep easily every night after reading for about 15 minutes, but at midnight, or at 1:00 or 3:00 a.m., I wake up wondering where I am, and what I’m doing here.  My mind starts racing, bouncing into every dark corner of every conceivable subject.  I toss and turn for hours, thinking surely I will fall asleep again at any moment. I give up on sleep and read Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and eventually I start to drift off.  I turn off the light and it hits me that I’ll never be the confident writer that Ann Patchett is. Then I start berating myself for my lack of talent, my lack of confidence, my fear of failure.  I’m exhausted in the morning from all the useless activity that’s going on in my mind.

During these dark hours, I think about how unfair it is that I can’t get a job in international development with the obviously useless Master’s degree that I worked so hard to earn.  With all the talk and laws against discrimination by American companies, I believe companies regularly discriminate if you are over a “certain” age.  One of my colleagues said to me, after she and her husband returned home from abroad and searched unsuccessfully for jobs, “At least you have a 5 in front of your age.  Try finding a job when you’re over 60!” I don’t think it makes any difference whether you have a 5 or a 6 in front of your age.  You’re screwed either way.

I think how, if Mike and I divorce, I want to move to Richmond, or even move abroad again. Then, I think, if I do the latter, I’ll lose my connection with my children.  I think: I wish I could get up the nerve to devote everything to writing, and to truly believe in myself, but then I go into self-attack mode, and tell myself I’ll never make any money; I’ll never make a go of it.  I remind myself of positive feedback I got from writing professors and classmates about my writing, even as far back as 2000, before I ever started blogging, and then I tell myself I really have nothing to say.  I want to cry but I can’t.  Sometimes I think I will just get on a plane and drop myself in Nepal or back in Asia.  But how would I live?  Sometimes I think I will drive west in America and land wherever I will land, and just disappear.

What is wrong with me?  Reverse culture shock?  Is that all it is?

Part of my anxiety and confusion has to do with the unresolved issue of my marriage, but it also is related to frustration with my job and all the unknowns about my future.  I’m constantly feeling torn between a pull to a life abroad and life at home.  Oh Anita Mac, how I relate to all the struggles you went through before you took your own life.

how do i find my way back?
how do i find my way back?


Silver lining?

I’m trying hard to find the silver lining to being home in the USA. Of course, I have total freedom of speech.  In Oman, I heard of bloggers who were arrested, so I was afraid to totally speak my mind.  I’m happy to be home in the house that I decorated and made cozy.  I’m happy to be with my family, even with the unsettled account of my marriage.  I’m thrilled to experience four seasons and the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.  I’m happy to have a huge choice of movies to watch within 5 minutes of my house, instead of having to drive 1 1/2 hours to Muscat from Nizwa.  I’m happy to be in the midst of my huge book collection, and I’m happy for every minute I can find to read.  I’m happy to find a great variety of wonderful ethnic restaurants on every corner.  I’m happy to explore the beauties of Virginia and the east coast in the few hours of free time that I can carve out.  And I’m happy to know I do have a home to come back to in my country. Many expats living abroad no longer have a place to call home; they are adrift in the huge wild world, with no anchors, no ties.  Though I’m envious of their freedom, I’m also grateful to have this place I can call home.

I found this quote recently which just might help me make it through:

“If I feel depressed I will sing. If I feel sad I will laugh. If I feel ill I will double my labor. If I feel fear I will plunge ahead. If I feel inferior I will wear new garments. If I feel uncertain I will raise my voice. If I feel poverty I will think of wealth to come. If I feel incompetent I will think of past success. If I feel insignificant I will remember my goals. Today I will be the master of my emotions.”  – Og Mandino