I never would have imagined that a Netflix horror show would help me relax but, in the spring of last year Stranger Things provided a much needed escape from reality. Every night my husband and I would take our places on the sofa and slip into the world of missing children and monsters as a way to get our minds off the apprehensiveness of our impending move.
As I watched the kids on Stranger Things make sense of the alternate reality they called “the upside down”, I couldn’t help but draw a comparison to my feelings about our move. Just like the inhabitants of Hawkins, I was going along in my normal life but knew there was a different reality out there that I would soon inhabit. It would probably look something like my life now — school, work, travel, laundry — but be different as well. Hopefully it would not be dark, frightening and full of slime, but when I felt fearful, that’s how I imagined it. When my anxiety about our move was at its highest, it was like the Demogorgon coming out of the wall and roaring in my face.
We were in the “in-between” stage of expat relocation. We had decided to leave our current posting and we knew where we were going. I had started to think about packing and to contemplate how I wanted to say goodbye but it wasn’t quite time to start assembling the boxes. My son needed to complete his IB exams and my daughter was still fully engaged with her friends. It was too early to be the end of our experience and too late to be the middle.
I wish I could have been as active as the characters in the show in figuring out how to deal with the “in between”. Maybe I should have given everyone in the family walkie talkies and strategized about how to get through it. Admittedly, I was not in mortal danger like on the show, but I did feel like my life was about to be tossed up in the air and I hoped my family and I would be happy when we landed. I mostly felt a numbing inertia during this time. “I should start throwing things out, I should make a ‘bucket list’ of last places to visit in South East Asia,” I told myself. Where was I going to find the energy? Every ounce of it seemed to be directed towards managing the tumult of emotions — sadness, anticipation, fear, excitement, curiosity — I was experiencing all the time as well as helping my kids manage those same feelings.
So what helps us get through the “in between” so we can keep from going upside down? Here are a few things I have found helpful from my experience and from lots of reading on the subject of transitions:
Be in it. I have been through the “in between” several times and it always feels uncomfortable. Part of me wants to hit “fast forward” and just get down to the business of leaving. The other part of me wants to ignore the approaching departure and pretend like nothing is happening. Neither of those choices is possible and I find the feeling of limbo hard. Jodi Harris, the founder of World Tree Coaching, addresses this in her most recent blog, “Expat Life: Living in the Middle”. She encourages us to try to “be comfortable in the liminal space” and to see each moment as a beginning and an end. She recommends “owning that we are in-between people” and that all of life is a series of beginnings and endings. I find her reflections to be a comforting reminder to respect and honor the in-between spaces instead of just tolerating them.
Differentiate between change and transition. In the Preface to the Second Edition of Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, author William Bridges makes a distinction between a life change and a transition. A change, he explains, is situational while a transition is psychological. Transition involves the inner re-orientation that you must go through to incorporate a change into your life. Bridges explains that it is often transition, not change, that “blindsides” us and without allowing for a period of transition, changes do not “take”.
I believe the in-between time is vital in the transition process. If we can resist the impulse to start doing and focus on how the change feels, we position ourselves to better manage the emotional impact of the change. Processing the shift, imagining our new life, feeling each emotion, even if they are contradictory, helps us integrate experiences and create meaning in our lives.
Rest up. We know from nature that even when fields lay fallow, they are going through a process of rest and regeneration in preparation for the next crop to flourish. Plants often enter into a state similar to hibernation during the winter in which they slow down in preparation for rapid growth. We also need to take the opportunity to rest between the drama of deciding to move and the turmoil of the actual relocation. Perhaps, like trees, we need to allow ourselves some quiet reflection and emotional reorganization before the rush of the spring-time growth.
Use what you know. Chances are you have been in the upside-down or in-between before. It is almost impossible to go through life without some major transitions. Perhaps you move frequently and have gone through this very process. Or you can think back to when you were waiting for your first child to arrive or had accepted a new job, but not yet started. How do you manage these times? What worked for you and what didn’t? What is your “go-to” emotion or state — anxiety, excitement, denial? Try to use the self-care techniques that work best for you in times of uncertainty or reach out for help if you tend to make unhealthy choices.
The in-between of expat relocation does not last forever. Soon enough we are plunged into the frenzy of good-bye dinners, tearful farewells and the excitement of a new place. Even if it’s difficult and scary, take a cue from the brave characters from Stranger Things who, despite their fear, grappled with the Demogorgon and the “upside down” to save their friend and restore peace and consistency in their lives.