Covid-19 has entered our world. The uncertainty and restrictions are testing the limits of our resilience. Australian Psychologist Leigh Matthews from Therapy in Barcelona is here to reassure you that Barcelona’s internationals have what it takes to handle this.
As expats we share unique challenges in this time. We are concerned about ageing parents, or loved ones, in countries of origin we can no longer travel to. Borders are closed and 14 day quarantine periods make it untenable to visit or vacation. Many of us are cautious about air travel and risk of infection. For a population of intrepid travellers, travel restrictions are maddening. Many of us are suffering a severe case of itchy feet with no panacea in sight.
A virus has thrown our world into a state of suspension, restrictions, uncertainty and masks. The comfort of our daily routines were snatched away and, overnight, we were thrust into 100 groundhog days of confinement. For parents, put upon with the haphazard juggling of work from home and crisis schooling, feelings of guilt, burnout, anger, exhaustion and despair compounded the undercurrent of anxiety and grief accompanying the covid crisis. An American Psychological Association poll* found that 7 out of 10 parents experience their children’s distance learning as a primary source of pandemic stress (71%).
Unexpectedly, we have had to adapt to a state of profound uncertainty. The truth is we never had certainty because all our well-laid plans have always had the potential to be thwarted by life happening. However, we HAD the sensation of certainty and covid-19 burst our bubble. As a psychologist, I see the opportunity in this state of uncertainty. On the one hand, we can (and do) focus on the unanswered questions and anxieties about the future state of travel, school, work, health, finances, jobs, life as we knew it and the state of the new normal. On the other hand, tearing the thin veil of certainty allows us to see life for what it is and to live what many spiritual teachers and schools of psychology purport: all we have is NOW and we better be mindful of it. We are in the midst of a mindfulness class, on a global level. There is no escape.
All that we could do has been stripped from our lives: travel, future plans, the “doing” of life, the routine of life. We have been forced to pare everything down to the essentials: family, health, psychological well being. We have been confronted with the opportunity to embrace the ambiguity of our relationship with the things that are important: loving our children but wanting them out of the house; loving our spouses but also wanting them out of the house; enjoying home time, but also wanting to jump on a plane to our next destination; being grateful for our jobs but also struggling with the blur of work and home life as we #stayathome.
We have seen acts of kindness and community in this difficult time. Some of us have blossomed in the crisis. Many have baked, triumphed over sour bread, crafted, gardened, completed online marathons and hallway sprints. Some have achieved the most difficult of yoga poses: the one-handed tree yoga pose, physically, or psychologically in their adaptation. There is that covid coping crowd, and their covid contenders: those who find this crisis, its restrictions, the circus ring juggling of kids, work and the ‘full catastrophe’, as unbearable.
Not everyone is mastering the state of uncertainty, dependent on the resources and ground of wellbeing they came into the crisis with. Relationships are under pressure, drug and alcohol issues and abuse may be intensifying or becoming obvious under the circumstances. Introverts have come into their own, revelling in the solitude and the absence of social pressures. Extroverts, in general, not so much, but we have all used the technology at our disposal to connect with family and friends.
“Can you hear me o.k.?” This would have to be one of the most used phrases in 2020. I am still marvelling that we can launch rockets to the moon, but cannot achieve a seamless online call. Our frustration tolerance has been put through the paces as calls dropped in and out and we, or others, have fumbled with tech issues. My first week back in the office, I still had a sensation of working with avatars. My mind couldn’t seem to grasp the presence of humans, less so because we are now so far apart in our new socially distanced reality.
We are surviving, continuing to live with the lost time, the cancelled visits and vacations, some of us with businesses folded, lost income, furlough, unrelenting days upon days of nonstop parenting and remote schooling, morphed in to the: “what are we going to do for 3 months of school holiday” angst. And, masks are the new sunglasses.
We’ve found ourselves on the rollercoaster of the Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle, shifting haphazardly through denial, anger, bargaining, despair or depression and, some days, acceptance and making meaning of this crazy time.
The thing is: there is no escape. What we have at our disposal are distress tolerance, self-made routine, connection, sleep, nutrition, exercise, humour, flexibility, adaptability, mindfulness and radical acceptance.
And you know what, Expat? You, above all humans, possess these qualities. By the very act of throwing yourself into a foreign country, you have proven yourself capable of sitting with ambiguity, adapting to a new normal, proceeding ahead blindfolded, leaping into the unknown and surfing the waves of the Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle. Maybe you’ve been dunked and whirled around in the topsy turvy waves of emotion gone wild more than once. And, you’ve triumphed by coming up for air, disoriented but armed with your support network for ventilation, and your art of reframing situations from dire to it’ll pass or, unbearable to manageable pain, or different, not better or worse (even when it is worse). You’ve self-cared and found a way to create pockets of comfort and security in a world lost in translation and upended with a new set of cultural values and social norms. Expats Abroad: doing isolation, alienation, dislocation from friends and family, villageless parenting and online connection with the people we love since [insert date of your expatriation here].
Keep engaging your resources, kiss the difficult ground you have walked on in your expatriation and cultural adjustment, and know that this too shall pass and you will adapt to whatever that new normal will be. Masked we proceed.