For me, 2022 was a profoundly strange year, filled with ups and downs. We finalized adopting our cat and moved from Mexico to Virginia, I succeeded in my 100-lb weight loss goal, took a road trip to Florida, started my fourth tour in Washington, DC, and visited the west coast three times in one year. I got promoted, saw my favorite band live, took fun beach trips with my husband, and took a family trip to Europe. But I also was knocked off-center by the traumatic death of an old friend, struggled at times to learn my new job, and dealt with illness – both my own and that of multiple family members.
I technically started my job in the Office of Children’s Issues (CI) – part of the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ Office of Overseas Citizen Services at the State Department – back in early March after my home leave ended. The position is as a country officer working on international parental child abduction (IPCA) cases; CI functions as the U.S. Central Authority for the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
In a nutshell, the convention is a treaty whereby the U.S. and other countries agree that matters of custody and visitation of minor children between parents should be decided in countries where children are habitually resident, without one parent removing the child to a different country in order to prevent or limit access by the other. In other words, we want to avoid or remedy situations where one parent abducts their child to (incoming) or from (outgoing) the United States.
More on that work at a future date, but for the time being, suffice it to say between training and onboarding, the time it took to receive a regional portfolio assignment, and various technical difficulties with getting up and running with the database access I needed to begin actually doing my job, the first several weeks weren’t as productive on my part as I’d expected. I felt guilty my colleagues were so busy while I largely spent March and April waiting to start working. I felt like I burned up a lot of time doing online webinars and bugging IT folks, and walking around my neighborhood at lunchtime only to return to an empty inbox.
Year in Review: 2021 Blog Stats and Recap + Eight Years in Blogging
The post with a year-in-review and blog stats is usually the post I publish in January of a new calendar year. However, that didn’t happen this year for a few reasons. First and foremost, we packed out our house and departed our third diplomatic assignment before mid-January, so I was crazy busy with work and life transitions. Second, there were a lot of things in 2021 I hadn’t processed adequately by New Year’s or in a superficial way felt I didn’t want to reflect on or remember. And third, 2021 marked the first year the blog did not receive more page views than the year before. Every year since I started writing in 2014, the number of views and visitors have each steadily risen, making it something fun to announce the following year.
In January writing this post out of a sense of forced obligation – particularly at a time when I was honestly pretty down on a lot of aspects of this career as well as struggling with health and moving – didn’t seem like fun. So I decided to write about whatever was on my mind as it came to me, and shunt a blog stats post from last year off until a future date when I actually felt like doing it. And as the blog celebrates eight years today since its very first post, today seemed apropos.
Giving From Abundance
While abroad, many Foreign Service Officers find community through professional and social networks at the embassies or consulates where they serve. The Community Liaison Office at a post, known as the CLO, does a lot to foster this, hosting social events, planning outings, and celebrating American holidays. Participating in this community, which also includes locally engaged staff, can help us navigate a new environment while still holding on to a little bit of home. Especially during service at small or high-hardship posts, or where the culture is very different than in the United States, for example, the embassy community tends to be strong. Despite our perception in Uzbekistan that it was a bit of a fishbowl, that community was important in connecting us with information there, where we – and especially V, who’d had no Russian training – faced a higher bar to speaking the language, self-organizing domestic trips and outings, and performing daily activities. Alternatively, Australia was an English-speaking country where we were as likely to hang out with our Australian neighbors as with our American colleagues despite having two hard-working CLOs. Two posts – two different types of community, and yet both played the same role in terms of a community abroad.
And in Mexico, a much different scenario despite the warmth and hospitality of the CLO and the Mexican people. We arrived and departed during the COVID-19 pandemic, never fully settling in or getting a sense – beyond virtual events here and there – of what we understood had been a vibrant, robust consulate community. If that weren’t challenging enough, after a year of “we’re in it together” protective measures against the coronavirus, the whiplash of my feeling left behind when society decided 96% of people being safe actually was good enough and removed their masks as the Delta variant arrived and I suspected, correctly, that asymptomatic spread was occurring, made me feel erased from the consulate community in Juárez entirely.
Of course, we still had the broader El Paso community only four miles away – a key benefit of serving on the border. But ultimately it wasn’t enough, and as I could no longer stay safe in my workplace or expect the same chance everyone else there had received to emerge immunized from the pandemic, I decided to remove myself from that environment. It was in this context that I arrived just under three months ago in my adopted home state of northern Virginia feeling angry, isolated, and ejected from any sense of equity or belonging to the people and space around me.
Retreat: Home Leave 2022
This period of home leave between my third and fourth diplomatic tours has been a time to rest, recuperate, and set up life in the United States again after spending most of the last seven years abroad. At 35 business days, it has intentionally been my longest home leave since joining the Foreign Service. Counting from the day after our PCS travel to Virginia ended, to the day before my next assignment starts (holidays and weekends don’t count), I have taken exactly seven weeks. Uniquely, for the first time, I’ve spent it all on the east coast.
1,940 Miles Later…
We arrived in northern Virginia two weeks ago, and have been at an extended stay hotel suite on Temporary Quarters Subsistence Allowance (TQSA) until the house we rented is ready for us to move into. My orders authorized up to 60 days of TQSA, but fortunately our house will be ready this week and we were able to put enough survival furniture together until our household effects arrive to make things comfortable for the two of us.
I have been on home leave, but V has been teleworking literally beginning the day after we rolled into Alexandria on a freezing late afternoon and unloaded two carloads of stuff into the hotel. On my orders overseas he is always my Eligible Family Member (EFM) or “dependent,” but he is also a civil service federal employee in his own right. Therefore, when we departed Ciudad Juárez after my curtailment, his arrangement as a Domestic Employee Teleworking Overseas (or DETO) came to an end. Now that he is back at his regular duty station – Washington, DC – it’s back to business as usual for him… and in the pandemic that still means remote work.
How I Lost 100 Pounds in 2021
The title of this blog post sounds like one of those sensational click-bait articles you read because its title is too hard to resist. They usually turn out to be disappointing and filled with spammy pop-ups. This won’t be that kind of post. No spam, no gimmicks, no affiliate links. I’m not selling anything or trying to convince anyone of anything. And I’m not going to tell anyone how quick and easy it was to lose 100 pounds, because honestly, it wasn’t. At times it was very difficult, especially at the beginning. It also isn’t my intention to suggest being overweight is unacceptable or something in need of correction; we – and in particular women – hear enough of those messages.
What I will do is share my honest journey to lose weight and regain my health after five years of illness and injury, which was necessary and medically indicated for me. I will outline my weight loss strategies and the lessons I learned to satisfy the curiosity of the many who have asked me how I did it. But I want to caution that although my methods worked for me, they won’t necessarily be successful or appropriate for everyone. This is simply what has worked to bring me to the place where I am today. I have learned a huge component of a weight loss journey is knowing yourself well enough to understand what your individual triggers, strengths, needs, preferences, organizational style, medical history, and discipline will require and allow. And speaking of reading, like most things I write, this post is not a quick scroll. It was a complex and personal journey and not easy to write out. I tried to organize it in a way that’s easy to read and follow, but like the journey itself, I didn’t find shortcuts in getting to the end.
However, I hope the road I took and my results will be inspiring, interesting, and motivating to others. So if you’re interested in why I decided to lose 100 pounds in 2021, how I succeeded, and 12 lessons I learned in doing so – keep reading!
My last night of every overseas tour, I have traditionally bid the assignment goodbye with a post I draft and publish upon my departure the following day. As much chaos as a PCS entails, once the packout is over, the badge is handed in, and the suitcases are packed, I will find moments of calm to reflect upon such an exercise. I did so in 2017, in the wee hours before the expeditor came for us in Uzbekistan, filled with gratitude and nerves. I did so in 2019 as we wrapped up our last breakfast in Australia on the back veranda, when the only thing that kept my heart from bursting was that winter had made our vibrant, colorful yard cold and still.
And now I’m getting ready to do it again in 2022. This morning we will load up our cars and begin our nearly 2,000 mile drive across Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee to our new home in northern Virginia. The end of this tour feels both too soon and like it should have happened months ago. I probably won’t truly understand how I feel about it for a long time, but it’s a definitive goodbye all the same. As we start over we will carry with us a piece of this place we barely got to know, and I will leave a piece of myself behind.
Suckerpunch II: The Last Guardrail
As Christmas approaches, I am in a period of reflection and gratitude, but you might not know it from looking. This is the first year since 2006 that I haven’t put up a Christmas tree, and the only year I haven’t really bought Christmas gifts or sent a single holiday card. I’m not making Christmas cookies or any special holiday food. On the Autoimmune Protocol I can’t have the vast majority of it anyway, and modifying all the recipes would take more creativity and talent than I have at the moment. V didn’t put Christmas lights outside this year, or plug in our obnoxious inflatable snowman who rose with a wave for the last 15 years to greet anyone who approached our home for the holidays. It’s quite different than the enormous effort I made last year. And frankly all the years.
I’m not sad about it, although I admit it does sound sad. I love Christmas. Every time someone asks me, “Are you ready for Christmas?” with a bright smile, I smile back under my mask and say, “Yes I am.” I don’t say I am conserving my energy because I am exhausted, or it snuck up on me, or I’m busy covering my job and my boss’s job. I was doing all that last year too, and I still bought the gifts and trimmed the tree and cooked the dinner… even with a spinal cord injury!
I say I’m ready because we’re not doing it this year, so there’s nothing to get ready for. Our priorities have shifted: we are in full PCS mode. I have decided to end my assignment in Mexico, and in early January, we will pack out our house and return to Virginia.
To the Woods: Cloudcroft + Introduction to AIP Eating
A couple of weeks after we returned from our Iberostar vacation, I sat in my office tangled up in bureaucracy and my to-do list. Finding myself in need of solace and something to pull me into the future, I scrolled quickly through AirBnB options for the weekend. A bunch of cabins in some wooded mountains caught my eye. I remembered Cloudcroft, NM was less than 120 miles away. Doable for a short hiking trip, and startlingly, we’d not been there yet. My boss, born and raised in El Paso, had told me about the town of less than one thousand inhabitants the year before. Sitting at an elevation of almost 8,700 feet above sea level, nearly a mile higher up than Ciudad Juárez, there the golden desert landscape transformed into a green alpine coolness we’d never seen in the southwest. I texted V, “Want to get a cabin in the woods for an overnight this weekend? There are pine trees.” At first he didn’t believe me. I didn’t mention it might be cold. Then the affirmative answer came back pretty quickly.
I Left My Heart at the Iberostar Grand Paraíso
The morning V and I left with my dad and stepmom L for our flight to Cancun, we were up and packed well ahead of time. We even ate a good breakfast. They’d been visiting us in Juárez for a few days and we’d kept it low-key, hanging out around home and El Paso. But like most travel days, our control of things ended when we left the house. The shuttle I’d booked to Ciudad Juárez’s airport, where I’d never been and which required travel through a red zone, arrived a few minutes late and was a small sedan – not at all a “shuttle.” The trunk could only fit three carry-ons, so we had to ride three to the backseat and V in the front, all four of us somehow holding our large wheeled bags on our laps with V’s backpack slung behind my head in the back window. At first I was ticked off and embarrassed. I had explained when making the reservation we would be four adults, two traveling internationally, with luggage! Dad and L are in their 70s. I apologized to them but they are tough and good sports. After a few minutes we took selfies and started laughing about our stupid predicament. At least we all fit in the car, which to be honest I hadn’t been so sure was possible when it first rolled up.
Fourth Tour Bidding, Part I
As I mentioned in September, towards the end of this past summer, I decided to cut out the third year of my tour and bid for my onward assignment.
When I arrived here in July 2020, I agreed within a month to a third year extension. Most mid-level Foreign Service assignments are already three years in length. Some higher hardship posts like Ciudad Juárez are only two-year assignments, the length of entry-level tours, but grant mid-level FSOs who extend a 15% pay bonus called Service Need Differential (SND) for each of the three years. FSOs must serve all three years to receive the money; the SND cannot be prorated. If you receive some portion of SND money and don’t serve the full term, you have to pay it back. At this particular post, you can even extend to four years, and many do. It’s not a bad gig, so close to the U.S. and if you can stick out three years, the financial incentive is great in addition to getting off the death march of moving every other year.
The Land of Enchantment, Part II
The first week of October, we took a long-awaited trip back to New Mexico for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Albuquerque is about 280 miles due north, or four and a half hours away, and it was a first visit for both of us. From the first time I saw a postcard of hot air balloons floating over Albuquerque stuck to my nana’s refrigerator as a child, I was mesmerized. Fortunately, after weather foiled several attempts to balloon in New Zealand in 2006, I got to experience hot air ballooning with V during our diplomatic assignment to Australia in 2018 – in Canberra where we lived and over New South Wales’ Hunter Valley as we celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary.
In Albuquerque we opted not to fly this time, due to cost and the inability to socially distance from other people in a hot air balloon basket. Instead we watched the 49th annual dawn Mass Ascension spectacle from the ground as more than 600 hot air balloons launched from a 78 acre field. This also gave me a better chance to see and photograph the balloons instead of being absorbed with our experience and logistics. While in town, we also visited the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History, stumbled into a fall festival at the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden, and went hiking at two of the three Petroglyph National Monument sites – Boca Negra and Rinconada Canyon.
Over the last couple of months as spring has turned into summer, I have found solace spending time outdoors. While I have deferred real hiking in well-known places, the dry heat and flat desert-like walks over the border in El Paso have provided me with a number of things I need: the mood-lifting and weight loss benefits of exercise, continued healing from spinal surgery, arthritis relief, fresh air, and safety and solitude away from others.
The last several weeks have been among the most difficult in my Foreign Service career. From my perspective, life has been worse overall these past two months than during the prior 14 months of the pandemic put together. This might be hard to understand and even a little hard to believe, given how many people – at least in the U.S. – seemingly feel their lives are finally returning to some sense of normalcy. But it isn’t hyperbole. As an immunocompromised person who has been living with autoimmune disease since my late 20s, and who is currently slipping into the public policy and social chasm between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, I truly feel left behind and isolated during this stage of the pandemic. Although I continue to be employed, meet my weight loss goals, and heal from back surgery, the rest of my life has become a slow rolling nightmare I never anticipated. I’m surrounded by a society that feels ignorant and selfish at best and eugenicist at worst, and rocketing towards a future where COVID-19 is endemic and those of us with compromised immune function face never getting our normal lives back, as everyone unapologetically eats cake right in front of us that we once talked about eating together.