Dangerously evocative reading for those acquainted with the invisible assassins Culture Shock and Depression.
Describing an encounter with depression during her family’s expatriation to Houston, USA, Laura J Stephens’ memoir will strike a chord with displaced souls everywhere.
While those on nodding terms with ‘the black dog’ will undoubtedly find something of interest here, the expat niche is where ‘An Inconvenient Posting’ will garner its greatest appreciation. As a professional psychotherapist Laura was better prepared than most for the changes she anticipated yet still found herself stalled by the rictus of morbidity that settled over her. In her deceptively down-to-earth style, she captures the emotional vortex of the expat experience so skillfully that I found myself reliving the dramas of my own. Corresponding memories continued to re-surface long after I’d put the book down. Details like glancing at the clock to gauge the time on another continent when thinking of absent loved ones bring visceral authenticity to the account, and the practical guide that follows offers advice and resources for anyone currently struggling with depression or preparing for expatriation.
The devil in the detail
While it’s the dramatic, life-changing events that capture our imagination, in reality, the tightening screws that stretch our lives and test our endurance make themselves felt in more subtle ways. Laura documents the almost imperceptible slide from fully inclusive functioning to becoming an outsider in your own life that so characterizes depression. As readers, we share the dilemma of conflicting thoughts, vacillating between “something’s not right, but I probably just need time to adjust” to the insistent whisper “how far down can you go before you can’t get back out?”
In an unflinchingly honest description of psychological displacement, she lays bare her insecurities, hopes and naivetés, so that like Doubting Thomas, we can approach, poke our fingers into her wounds and see for ourselves the discomfort and distress she overcame. She creates a window of understanding for those who’ve never expatriated and the opportunity for deeper self-knowledge for those who have.
We travel with her as she leaves the familiar, ‘the lattice of small white frames of my Georgian kitchen window… the sunlit autumn garden strewn with dead leaves and worm casts’ for ‘the world they had only previously seen on TV’ familiar on the surface but deceptively alien in practical terms where she often feels ‘like an actress in the wrong role’.
‘No one had died on the journey and yet I felt bereaved’
Reassembling the Self
Working through her thoughts and feelings with therapist and Life Coach Gretchen, Laura draws back the curtain on the more intangible aspects of the process of acclimatization, demonstrating how, even if you’re living as expected, ticking all the boxes – getting the driver’s license, attending the gym regularly – it’s no guarantee you’ve reached your equilibrium. She conveys the frustration of the ‘trailing spouse’, bereft of professional identity and diminished in social stature. She also discovers how past experiences can have a significant influence on subsequent postings as her new situation resurrects old ghosts.
The biggest obstacle to overcome in any expatriation is recognizing ‘we can only live in the present however much we look to the future.’ After a year of torturous adjustment and a return visit to her homeland, Laura finds her perspective has shifted and she is able to better appreciate the opportunity to have seen what was previously unseen. On her return to the US she finds herself welcoming routine and reconnecting with family life. Somewhere along the way Houston has become home.