It was a thick, wet day in 1995, when a cab picked me up from SeaTac airport and drove me to the temporary apartment I’d rented in Belltown. The sky and land were heavy and dark . The landscape blended into one inky Rorschach test. “What am I even doing in Seattle?” I thought as I stared forlornly through the rain-spattered window at Lake Union. “I don’t belong here.” The cabbie let me off in front of a brick apartment building just below the monorail and a stone’s throw from the Space Needle. I stood in the rain with two medium-sized pieces of luggage, containing all of my possessions in the world.
I was repatriating to the States after 10 years in Asia and London. I’d grown up in rural mid-America and hadn’t traveled the States. I knew more about Europe and Asia than I did about my own country. I’d chosen to return not to my home town, but to Seattle, simply by metaphorically throwing a dart at a dartboard. Why was I even back in the States? I didn’t want to be here. I reminded myself there was a reason; I needed to heal, and the missing pieces of myself were here — back in my country of origin.
I’d come home to face my demons.
Who knew that the lessons I would soon learn would hold me in good stead decades later when a virus would shut the entire world down?
Repatriation is a notoriously difficult transition. You’re a different person, and home is no longer home. Fitting in is next to impossible, and no one really wants to hear your stories. Culturally, you feel isolated. It is difficult to explain the despair and anxiety to anyone who hasn’t been through it. The hardest part is you no longer know who you are.
To say the next three years were the most difficult of my life would be an understatement. I barely survived them. I’d been a journalist at major newspapers in Tokyo and London, and a travel writer through Asia. Now, new to Seattle, I couldn’t find a job.
It took years of trial and error, but I did find myself, among the ashes. As I go through the Covid-19 crisis, some days I wonder if my entire expat/repat experience happened to prepare me for this current state of the world.
Look at how closely tied some of the repatriation issues are to our current pandemic.
- Identity issues
- Financial hardships
- Changes in work
I’ve found over the past month, I keep turning to the methods I used then to cope to see me through now. Here are the lessons I learned, and the promises I still keep.
- Go deep inside to find the answers.
Because I was isolated, I was forced deep inside to find my center, my core. I had the time, as well as the physical and the mental space, to hear my own still small voice. Journaling and writing daily helped me then, and helps me now, to understand and nurture my path.
- Read inspiring books.
I found solace in books. I read Jung, re-read The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Tao Te Ching, devoured books on Buddhism. (Just yesterday, I collected my spiritual books, and put them by my beside table.)
- Find a mentor.
I had phases of no income, but still paid what I could to work with a mentor. She saved my spiritual life, and my literal life. She helped me focus the internal healing I was already doing.
- Get healthy.
In London in the 90s, one could smoke cigarettes in post offices, banks and on the buses. Everyone I knew enjoyed a good pint. I had a vision in Seattle, that repatriation was like climbing Mount Everest, and I needed to put down the cigarettes and the beer or I would fall. I gave up most of my bad habits, and took up biking Seattle’s steep hills. Health helps you manage stress better than any pill.
- Keep busy.
Do what you love, and do it with a vengeance. For me, the earlier isolation led me to find myself as a novelist and visual artist. I set a writing and art schedule then and stuck to them (a schedule I still use now). Such focus can turn a day of fear and anxiety into one of fulfillment and joy.
- Be of service.
The moment I realized that the only way to truly heal was to give back, was the moment I turned a corner. I became a writing teacher, and later a book coach. Many people need our help. Let’s help them.
My five-novel series follows a woman seeking purpose in a world out of balance. The fourth novel, WATER, (coming out soon) is a fictionalized version of my repatriation and search for healing and purpose. I believe I was led to start writing my novels 25 years ago, to address the time we’re going through right now. We are ALL needed right now to give the gifts we have. Yes, of course, feel your feelings — the anxiety and isolation and fear — but pull yourself up and get to work; the world needs us now and it’s going to keep needing us.