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.
First Christmas “At Home” in Eight Years
If we were to discuss what sucks most about the Foreign Service lifestyle, the majority of Foreign Service Officers would agree missing holidays or special occasions with family back home ranks near the top of the list.
Last December I went to the west coast to see my parents for Christmas. It marked our first Christmas holiday together since 2014 when I got a few days’ reprieve from full-time, mandatory Russian language training and flew with V to my mom’s for Christmas. If someone would have told me back then I wouldn’t come back for Christmas until 2022, I would’ve been dumbfounded.
On the Road Again: Coast to Coast
As I mentioned in my Road Trips 2022 roundup post last December, I not only drove by myself from northern Virginia to the west coast in June, but also in November to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family. I left at the end of a busy work day the Thursday before the holiday, fighting my way through rush-hour traffic on the beltway to get a head start on my journey.
And as usual when you’re trying to leave the office for a couple of weeks at a time, I had an active international parental child abduction case with two children returning to the United States from Venezuela in-progress that very afternoon. Thanks to the help of my excellent colleagues, I was able to track the return up until I needed to walk out the door, and then hand the case off to my backup. As I crossed my first mountain pass in Pennsylvania’s Alleghenies against pelting snow, she worked to monitor the landing of the children’s flight in Miami and update our leadership on their reunification with the left-behind parent. When I finally checked into my motel in Ohio and caught up with my work emails very late at night, I was elated to see all was well that ended well. Fortunately for me, my road trip went just as smoothly.
Mental Health is Health
I’m continuing to catch up with blog posts from a few months ago to bring us to the present day. September 2022 marked one year since the death of my longtime friend T who I met in 1998 and who was my boyfriend off and on for a few years while I was in college. It hardly seemed possible a year had elapsed, since I’d only learned in April that he’d already been gone for seven months. It still felt new and unfathomable to me. In an attempt to find answers and process his passing, I’d gone to California in May and visited his grave, worked on a memorial plaque, and found lots of books and podcasts about suicide and grief.
In honor of T’s life and September being National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I tried some volunteer activities I’d hoped would help me feel like I was doing something that mattered. I couldn’t help the one person I really wanted to try and help, so maybe I could help someone else. But I slowly began to understand I couldn’t “action” away my grief with memorial or suicide prevention activities, nor did “grief brain” allow me the ability to take on a lot of new information or tasks. As time passed and my shock wore off, I actually felt worse as people were expecting me to start feeling better. I saw I needed to take a step back to process. Because grief is an individual journey and everything you feel when grieving is normal and OK, even if it doesn’t meet others’ expectations or even your own.
Balkan Summer 2022 Trip, Part VIII: Skopje & Demir Kapija, 20 Years Later
After returning from our 10-day, whirlwind 2,000 kilometer road trip around the former Yugoslavia last summer, we only had one full day remaining in Macedonia before our flight home to Virginia. My husband V and I decided it made no sense to return the rental car to the airport, only to turn around and take a taxi back to the airport for our early morning flight less than 36 hours later. Instead we skipped going to the airport twice and paying for taxis in favor of just keeping the car and leveraging it for a short visit to my former Peace Corps homestay family.
They lived a couple of hours south of the capital city, Skopje, in the town of Demir Kapija. We knew paying them a weekday morning visit was probably not ideal; we were on vacation but that didn’t mean anyone else was. Fortunately, (a) it’s Macedonia and (b) we had already been in touch with them to align schedules. We certainly couldn’t visit everyone we wanted on this trip because of time constraints; for the first time, I never made it to the far east, back to the site where I had served as a Peace Corps Volunteer. But as they had once opened their home to me, I did not want to leave without seeing them. It seemed apropos that 20 years after first coming to Macedonia I was returning to where it all began.
Road Trips 2022
I’m not yet ready to publish a reflection on 2022 as a whole, but as we get ready to welcome 2023, I added up my 2022 solo/sole driver road trip stats and was amazed.
I am months behind in my blogging. We are somehow now less than two weeks from the end of 2022 and yet – writing life-posts chronologically as I prefer to do – I’ve most recently only written about my May/June road trip to the west coast.
As I have dealt with personal and family illness, workplace disappointments from Juárez, the January curtailment halfway through my Mexico tour, and confusion from the suicide of an old friend for most of this year, this blog has not been the platform to write about some of the darker grief on my mind. I’ve had good blog posts in draft for months, on topics from our late summer trip to the Balkans, to getting promoted in the Foreign Service, to a follow-up to my wildly popular post about Foreign Service housing, all in various stages from partly-done to mere sketchy outlines.
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month: What Everyone Should Know
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month in the United States, and September 4-10, 2022 marked National Suicide Prevention Week, an annual campaign to educate the public and promote increased awareness about suicide. On a personal note, one year ago this month an old friend and someone important to me took his own life, so I’d like to use this post to discuss suicide awareness. Suicide is a heavily stigmatized topic many people avoid and consider taboo. But it’s not a contagious disease. It touches so many of us and is getting harder to ignore.
In fact, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), in the United States in 2020, there were almost 46,000 reported suicide deaths; a shocking 53% of them were firearm suicides. During the same time period, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports an estimated 12.2 million American adults contemplated suicide, 3.2 million made a plan, and 1.2 million Americans attempted suicide. (The true figure could be much higher, since some suicide attempts go unreported.)
Stop for a moment and consider the human toll beyond the statistics. How many friends, family members, classmates or coworkers are connected to each of those individuals? The AFSP estimates a staggering 53% to 85% of Americans have been affected in some way by suicide – whether it’s trauma from witnessing a stranger’s suicide, coping with losing a loved one, or suffering with suicidal thoughts themselves. You may know someone like this, or this may be you. So if you’re wondering whether you can do anything to help, the answer is yes. And I’m asking you to try. Suicide prevention is officially everyone’s business.
Go West, Part IV: What About Your Friends?
In mid-June, after leaving California, I spent almost a week in Washington state teleworking and otherwise helping out my dad during my stepmom’s hospitalization. In late 2018, they had made their relocation from California to Washington permanent, selling their primary home outside Monterey and moving the last of their things north.
After enjoying the uber-green surrounds plus the most alone time I’d had with my dad in years – wonderful, but a sad result of my stepmom never being released from the hospital during the duration of my visit – it was time for me to start heading towards Virginia and home. “Back east,” as west coasters say. My dad and I checked the Volkswagen’s oil and kicked the tires, and then I set off on my first leg for Idaho.
Go West, Part III: Social Media is Disconnecting Us All
After driving cross-country like an arrow in under four days, I arrived in my hometown on the last day of May and sat at my friend T’s grave. I then spent half of June teleworking from my mom’s house in California, and later made my way up to Washington state to see my dad and stepmom before turning the wheel back east towards Virginia and home.
I didn’t take much leave during my three-week road trip west. The deal I’d hastily cut with my office had been to work remotely from California so I could spend time decompressing with family while not leaving our team in the lurch. I did, however, voluntarily and consistently work on east coast time. I aligned my schedule with my colleagues’ by signing on at 5:00 a.m. west coast time, taking my lunch after my family arose for breakfast, and signing off by 2:00 p.m. Thus I was free relatively early each day to enjoy some sun and do whatever else I wanted. That mainly involved spending time with family and old friends, sitting quietly in the cemetery, or visiting places I had memories with T where I needed to be alone and process my grief.
Go West, Part II
Last August, I left Ciudad Juárez on vacation and drove across the deserts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada to visit my family in California for the first time in about two years, logging 1,279 solo miles in just under 36 total hours. Five weeks ago in late May, I also set off west; the same destination in mind, but this time from Virginia. It was the biggest solo road trip I’d ever embarked upon, and I’d done so with less than 12 hours’ planning, deciding around 8pm on the Friday evening preceding Memorial Day weekend to leave Saturday morning and leverage three days off in a row to get out to California where I could continue remote working as I do here at home.
I was in a state of acute grief at having learned I’d lost an old friend and ex-boyfriend, T, to suicide and that – unbeknownst to me until late April – his family had buried him privately in our hometown in January. I was distracted, upset, unproductive. I needed answers, I needed to say goodbye, I needed to see my family.
I let my mom know I was coming. In the Foreign Service lifestyle, this would not always be possible. Fortunately, we are still in a pandemic and remote working up to 80% of the time, we are on a domestic tour, my car had recently been serviced, and I was on top of my laundry and bills. A few thousand miles could not faze me. I made a packing list and executed it. Barely four days later, I rolled up in front of my mom’s house with an extra 2,723 miles on the Volkswagen’s odometer and dirt from 13 different states on the undercarriage.
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.
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.
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.