Wednesday, June 12, 2019

A Sandwich of Sickness Stories

Hot season is over and the rains are here.  They say it never rains but it pours, and we recently had a week that felt like everything thing happened.  Let’s call it our Sick Week.

In the beginning...

How does a biracial family access health care?  The lack of trustworthy medical care in Cambodia was terrifying when I first arrived back in 2006.  I was told there was one specific clinic I could go to if I got sick. Seeing a doctor cost about a month’s worth of rent. That was the information given to foreigners at the time. There was no way the average local could afford that. There were other clinics for them. 

If I was going to marry a Cambodian and look after our babies here, how was that going to work? And what of our extended family? Those were my thoughts about 13 years ago, and I had cause to reflect on them this month during our Sick Week.  

It felt ordinary like bread on the first and final days; while the central day was more intense, like meat seasoned for a sandwich filling.

Wondering why he was contradicting himself
First Day of Sick Week

“Your son has chicken pox, he will be contagious for 7 days.”

“So I should keep him home from play dates and parties?”

“No, no need.”

“But those spots are from chicken pox? Is he contagious?”


“So I might not take him to visit friends this afternoon.”

“No need to stay home.”

I was wondering why the doctor was contradicting himself, when he was usually so helpful.  
Four years of respect and trust for him was the only thing that prevented me from getting angry and leaving in frustration. We tried to communicate about this but I was just left wondering. 

It wasn’t until later I realised what was going on as I interacted with parents of various nationalities over the next few hours. I was equating “contagious” with “stay away from other kids”. I stayed home from school when I had chicken pox, because it was contagious.  But for Khmer parents, those two things don’t seem to go together. Of course their kids will get chicken pox at some stage, no need to stay away from sick people.

My brain repeating that emotion from years ago
Central Day of Sick Week
My fear response was taking over my logic.  I was at the medical clinic with my son and his scary looking infection.  Over 7 years ago I felt like my husband was moments from death and that feeling keeps getting replayed. When it is triggered by things such as seeing family members in pain it doesn’t matter that I know things are probably OK, my brain tricks me into re-living that old emotion.

Spookily (but in a comforting kind of way) I happened to be reading about trauma as I sat in the waiting room with my son. It was as if Someone was with me, explaining what was going on. A woman called Marsha has her brain scanned while she re-lives her trauma. The Body Keeps the Score (chapter 3) explains what happens in her brain. It was similar to what my counsellor had explained to me about my own brain only in more detail.

It wasn’t only my 8 year old emotion that was being repeated.

Last July I was at the medical clinic with my husband and his scary abdominal pain.  Over 6 years ago I felt like my husband was moments from death and that feeling keeps getting replayed. When it is triggered by things such as seeing family members in pain it doesn’t matter that I know things are probably OK, my brain tricks me into re-living that old emotion.

Spookily (but in a comforting kind of way) I happened to be reading about trauma as I sat in the waiting room with my husband. It was as if Someone was with me, explaining what was going on. A friend had just messaged me a link to this blog post about trauma. It was similar to what my counsellor had explained to me about my own brain only in more detail.

Getting the post exposure rabies shots
Final Day of our Sick Week


Our daughter came in crying.  She was bleeding from a dog bite. I’d seen other expat friends rush to get the rabies post exposure shot so I knew that’s what we needed to do. Even though there was a really small chance she was infected, it was such a serious thing. I began urgently asking on Facebook which clinics in town had the vaccines in stock.

Soeun drove our daughter straight to a clinic and got her first of five shots done. Phew! I breathed a sigh of relief and so did the friends on Facebook.

In sharp contrast, a local woman in the waiting room told Soeun he was being ridiculous. He was advised by his fellow Khmer that washing the wound was all you need to do. The shots are just so the doctors can make money. I guess she hadn’t seen all my expat friends running to the doctor, but I’m sure she’s seen people getting bitten.


You can experience the exotic by eating in a Chinese restaurant or watching an Indian movie. Relying on doctors in Asia for my children’s health has given me another way to gain insight.

War is part of this country’s recent history so I’d read about post trauma issues before I came to Cambodia; but having a personal taste of it feels like the beginning of a different level of understanding.

Hopefully I’ve been able to share some of that insight and understanding with you here. Stories like the chicken pox and rabies shots are our usual way, using the Khmer doctors’ expertise but sometimes in a different way to their other patients. Whereas the central story of re-living emotions feel like the start of something new.

 Photo by Jonathan Pielmayer on Unsplash

Saturday, June 08, 2019

Taking care of your heart well

It was exciting to be part of a big campus ministry. So many things happening. New training programs for believers. Creative outreach ideas. People reading new books about evangelism and old books about the Bible. Conferences out of town, big events on campus and meetings about meetings.

In all this excitement I remember feeling surprised that the director kept talking about something that seemed so ordinary and mundane. Bible reading and praying. Throughout the two years I kept hearing this mentioned as the main thing that needed to happen, the most important thing. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised but all the events were all new and exciting to me, while reading the Bible and praying seemed like such a normal, boring, everyday thing to engage in.

I was reminded of this when I was reading Serving Well, in a section called Taking care of your heart well.

"We need so much more than yesterday’s manna, so much more than the gorging of conferences or the regurgitations of famous teachers. We need time with God and his Word. Today.

Each bite will not be Instagrammable. Each bite will not be magnificent and earth-shattering and memorable, and that’s as it should be, because sometimes you just need the calories. Regular, non-crisis reading of the Word may seem to make zero difference in your life today or even tomorrow. But I promise you, in a year or ten or fifty, the consistent ingesting of the Word will make all the difference."

Friday, May 31, 2019

How do you pronounce your husband's name again?

"like a pair of old shoes, we are useless without each other (well, I’m useless without him, but I think he’d do okay without me since he’s way better at parenting and adulting than I am). Thank you, Lord for my other shoe!!!"

From an article about marriage on Velvet Ashes.

That's how I feel too, about Soeun. The fact that he can pronounce my name correctly every time but I can't do the same for him is indicative of our language and culture skills.  He knows how to function in my country, Australia. And I quite happily live in his country Cambodia but probably with a lot more limitation. It doesn't feel limited to me on a day by day basis but if I were suddenly dropped in rural Cambodia it would be quite a shock. Conversely if he were dropped out back of Bourke he would probably be OK.   

People often ask me what is hard about cross cultural marriage. I used to try to think of something interesting to say, while secretly wondering if we were doing it wrong. Was it meant to be hard? Why did people keep asking me that question, why didn't an answer come to mind? I think Soeun does most of the language and culture work in our relationship so to me it just feels like home.

Five Minute Friday free write link up. This week the word is: NAME

Edit update: Just now I was with some English speakers. A friend was explaining to a new person about my husband.
My friend turned to me and asked me something along the lines of "How do you say your husband's name?" (Which made me laugh as I had just  written this.)
"Soeun"  I said
But then my daughter piped up, declaring to a table full of adults, "But his real name is Daddy."

Friday, May 24, 2019

Culture Gap between generations {fmf}

“Yucky” was my son’s first reaction when he saw people wearing shoes inside. It was his first ever visit to Sydney, Australia.

It was alarming for him when he was handed a drink of tap water.  “But that will make me sick.”

I was amused. After growing up in Australia I have lived in Asia most of my adult life. I always find it weird going back to Australia and doing those things again, after not doing them for so long. But for my son he is not doing them AGAIN, it was all new to him.

My children are Australian. I'm Australian. We all live in Cambodia together, but our experience of this is different. My children are having their developmental years here, forming their identity.

When I came across this article about the Culture Gap I realised I needed to learn more.  

This gap can go unnoticed which creates frustrations and kids growing up overseas usually feel misunderstood by their parents. Most of culture is like the bulk of the iceberg, hidden under the water. Things like shoes and taps are easy to see and talk about, but most things aren't. There is a reason the author called her book Misunderstood. 

Hopefully we as parents can notice this gap and learn to see the world from our children’s point of view.  

I don't know if I explained this very well. If you are a parent bringing kids up overseas I encourage you to read this, or this. Or these. Or watch this 3 minute video.

This week the Five Minute Friday free write word prompt is CULTURE

Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Counselling is like trying to photograph a gecko skeleton

I wasn't sure what to expect when I became a counselling client. Here is how it worked out for me.

Regrouping after realising something was wrong

Living in the tropics we have geckos flitting all over our house. My son was fascinated when he discovered a gecko skeleton on the floor and asked for my phone to take a photo. At first he was frustrated. He couldn’t see anything on the phone screen.  Taking a photo up close with auto focus was harder than he thought. After some playing around he found the gecko on the screen and eventually we got it clear enough to take a photo.

It reminded me of how a year and a half ago I came to realise that annoying blur on the edge of my life was actually something. I wasn’t just going to get over the weird feeling I had when I thought about the start of my husband’s chronic illness.  Even though it had been more than 5 years it was still an issue. I felt like I had been defeated by my emotions and needed to regroup although I didn't even know what the blur was.  

The word prompts for A Chronic Voice blog link for this month help describe the last 18 months.

Regrouping. Investigating. Boosting. Setting. Reviving

Read on to find out more and visit over here to see what other chronic illness bloggers up to in May. 

Investigating the issue

Counselling sessions gave me a chance to say what I was actually feeling, not what I thought I should be feeling. All those years ago when my husband was debilitated by dizziness, it didn’t seem like the problem was that big. People who I asked for help told me I would probably be fine soon.

But early 2018 I realised what happened in 2011-12 was still impacting me. I spend two years feeling like my husband was dying or dead. I only came to realise was a big deal after having to articulate the emotions I had during those years. The first counsellor (TFC) called this unresolved grief.

To help process this grief TFC suggested journaling. In theory it sounded good but I didn’t really feel like I had anything to write about. Even though I journal and blog I came up blank at that suggestion. Where would I start?

At last the blur had a name, it became a shape, something I could talk about.

Boosting my understanding

After the second counsellor (TSC) heard my frustrations of not being able to get over it she said it had probably changed my brain. TSC called it “big T trauma”.

Despite planning a “fail proof” trip back to the place where it happened (Australia) I still had that weird horrible feeling. I had been calling it anxiety.  I thought I was scared of something that might happen in the future. But that weird feeling I had when I was forced to think about the events was not anxiety about the future.

I was actually re-living a feeling I had had in the past! My brain was tricking me.
This clarity relieved a lot of frustration.
The blur that became a shape now had a more defined outline.

Our son took a blurry photo of his watermelon drink

Setting out to learn more

So there I was realising finally that I had suffered grief and trauma back when my husband was first sick then I read about a type of traumatic unresolved grief.  

I was excited to find a more specific way to describe it: Ambiguous loss.

This concept popped up on my screen thanks to Marilyn Gardner (the third counsellor?).

 “  "I move on and find out there are two types of ambiguous loss: One is that the person/place/family is physically absent, but psychologically present, in that they may reappear. This can be loss from divorce, moving, boarding school, migration. The other is that the person is physically present, but the core of who they are is absent. Examples of this are people with dementia or alzheimers." 

It had  felt like my husband was absent but he was actually physically present so it didn’t look like a loss. Reading more from Pauline Boss, who coined the term, things makes a lot of sense. It explains why the magnitude of my loss wasn’t acknowledged. The loss was unclear.

I feel like I could write much more about this but for now I’ll just say it is such a relief to have someone else explain what happened and why it is so painful after not being able to explain it for so long.  

I wrote about this feeling of clarity the week I first came across it. You can read it here: Frozen Sadness.  Interestingly at the time I did note here that he felt more present when he was away in Cambodia while I was still back in Australia.

The shape on the screen had even more than a clear outline now, I could see some details.

Reviving my going forward strategy  

I’ve found some clues to help me go forward. Looking at my timeline of post trauma events I can see what helps and what doesn't.

Where I felt forced to be in certain situations it just made me feel worse. “Rip the Bandaid off” was my method at one point when I thought it was something I would just have to get over; but so far that seems ineffective. Ignoring it for years also didn’t help.

Writing about it is one thing that helps. I think I’m going to call my blog the fourth counsellor. Perhaps it’s because I’m recalling the memories myself without the presence of the weird feeling.  I think TSC mentioned this would help separate the memory from the stress hormone reaction. And TFC also mentioned writing. An example 5 ways living with an undiagnosed illness in the family is stressful. Also this has more about writing.

The blur, became a shape, with an outline, then a few details and now with writing feel clearly defined.

So there you have it. Its only the tip of the iceberg but hopefully this gave you an idea of how counselling for me has been like focusing in on what it is going on and finally seeing the details. 

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

Friday, May 17, 2019

Feeling betrayed {fmf}

He laughed and talked for ages in the local language. All that smiling I assumed it promised happiness. But later the missionary told us he had been talking about some really tragic and sad things, such as his child dying. When I was new to cross cultural life I felt betrayed. I thought the smile promised happiness, but it didn't.

My husband, full of relief ran to the library to borrow a stack of books to read for his essay. We thought a pain free day was the promise of good health. But later the sickness consumed him again and the stack of books went unread. When we were new to chronic illness life we felt betrayed. We thought a good day promised recovery, but it didn't.

I felt betrayed in both cases, but actually promises were never made. Learning to reinterpret has been part of learning our new normal as we cross cultures and live with pain.

This week the Five Minute Friday link up word prompt is PROMISE.

Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

Friday, May 10, 2019

4 reasons I hate going to church {fmf}

I feel like I never get anything out of it, or put anything into it.
Plus it throws off my kids sleep so we all get extra tired and grumpy on Sundays.
The practical side of taking 2 kids to church is hard.

But while all this is going on- the getting there, and finally being there, but not involved in the main meeting, there is a fourth reason I hate going to church. I'm also dealing with a broken brain. Whenever my husband has to miss church due to his chronic illnesss, my brain tricks me into re-living the feeling I had when he was first sick. It was a long time ago but it was traumatic.

So with all this as the norm, it makes it really hard to get there each Sunday. Why do we do this? What is the point of the practice of going to church if  I can't hear a Bible talk or pray with people? If I'm never going to be able to sign myself up on any rosters? (Our church fellowship is run by others like me, we don't have a pastor.)

With feelings of exhaustion and without answers, but still feeling like I need to be at church (am I just being graceless, legalistic?), Sunday just feels like an insurmountable mountain.

I was particularly overwhelmed this Sunday just gone. It was potluck week. Eating dinner together is such a great practice for a group of Christians. But getting food for myself and 2 little people after playing in the hot sun for two hours? Not so great. The table of food looked inviting, but the people chaos was too much, I stepped out of the line with my 3 plates and 2 kids.

Why hadn't I gone home earlier as planned? I knew this was going to be too hard. The tears that had been trying to escape for the last couple of hours were almost having success.

But then two kind people grabbed a plate each and started getting food for the kids.

Suddenly things felt much easier, and I had an answer to my question. Why do I go to church when I end up exhausted with nothing to show for it?

Community. I'm part of the church.

Maybe for now all I need to be doing is being there.

Turn up and hand the plate over.

(End of 5 minutes.)

This week’s Five Minute Friday writing prompt is: PRACTICE

I'm sharing my story with you for the same reason as Fruitful Today

"My prayer is that your church relationships will be strengthened through this series (of interviews), whether you’re living with an invisible illness, or seeking to better support those in your church family who live with ongoing health conditions." 

"I hope you enjoy these glimpses inside the minds of your chronically ill brothers and sisters in Christ!" 

While brutal at the time, the issues with kids feels a bit easier than the chronic illness one for me. Many other people have done it, or a doing it. Plus its a temporary situation. In 5 years time the kids will be 5 years older!  
For more on going to church with kids The Gospel Coalition has this : 5 reasons to keep going to church with baby brain.

Photo by Charles Etoroma on Unsplash

Friday, May 03, 2019

What happens when you don't give yourself an opportunity? {fmf}

My relationship with thankfulness soured when I realised I'd used it to paper over pain. At the time I thought I was doing the right thing, being thankful. I've been wondering and trying to get a new perspective on this. I don't want to continually feel cynical every time there is an opportunity for gratitude. I don't want to stop being thankful altogether. 

I think I found what I was looking for today when I read this Power's Out Protocol on A Life Overseas. On the surface it is about how one American family is coping with heat and humidity (here in Cambodia) while the power and water keep going on and off like twinkle lights. Well, maybe more off than on. If you've lived in tropics you know how essential a fan and water are when the temperature is hovering around 38 degrees (which is about 100 degrees if you are from Myanmar, Liberia, America etc). And the humidity... 

Step One of their protocol was to give themselves the opportunity to acknowledge how hard it was (actually they suggested swearing). It wasn't until step FIVE the author said it was time to say something you are grateful for. 

From step one:

"1. @#(Q^&#!!!! (bleep)
We don’t STAY here, in the first step, but we do allow it. The alternative is to try to rush past reality, forcing ourselves and our children into a hazy universe where Christians are never uncomfortable, where Christians aren’t allowed to feel (or voice) difficult emotions, and frankly, that’s not very Biblical."

And from step five: 

"5. Say something you’re grateful for
This isn’t just some kitschy saying, belonging on hand towels at your grandmom’s house. This is actually evidence-based. And Biblically-based, turns out.
This is step five, NOT step one. That’s important. We do want to shepherd our kids and ourselves into an overarching attitude of gratefulness. But forcing gratefulness too soon just leads to hypocrisy and resentment." 
So I think that is what I've been looking for. It is not that thankfulness is bad but when I was in pain I skipped past step one, I didn't give myself the opportunity to realise things were hard . My pain was an ambiguous loss, related to invisible illness so it wasn't obvious to me or those around me. I just skipped over that fact that I felt like I had lost my husband and went straight to all the many things I could be thankful for- food, friends, shelter.

"So my husband is in unending pain, but at least I have bread and milk." write for five minutes flat on a one-word writing prompt:opportunity ...

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Take a tour of the blog

A guided tour of the blog.
I write mostly about 3 things:

1. Cross cultural life 

As an Australian living overseas in a cross cultural marriage and bringing up cross cultural kids I'm reading and writing my way through this adventure - join me! 
Maybe you also live between worlds or maybe you are seeking to support and understand those who do? Most of these posts are my thoughts after experiencing and reading about issues such as Third Culture people and re-entry. 

Others can be found tagged as 

2. Chronic illness related issues 

The starter pistol story of my chronic illness interest can be found here: 

Some other chronic illness posts are: 
Better yet?

Soeun and Katherine, February 2010, Mondulkiri Province, Cambodia.
One year before the Dizzy Monster joined us. 

3. Chronicling our life 

In "time capsule" posts I share our news and photos from the month
(mostly tagged as journal).

Other ways to explore my blog

I'm also writing about Books I'm reading these days and Homeschool

For fun I sometime do a Five Minute Friday free write tagged as fmf, and the monthly link up with A Chronic Voice

Popular posts in the sidebar are another way if you want to have a look around, or the tags/labels if you scroll right down (web version only).

Friday, April 12, 2019

What do poor people lack {fmf}

It has been a long hot humid day here in Cambodia. Feeling so tired and slow, but wanting to try the 5 min free write today anyway.... hope it makes sense. Linking up with FMF. This week the word is LACK.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" A common question children get asked in some places. But it makes no sense to others.

According to When Helping Hurts, rich people describe poverty as lack of food, money, water, medical, housing etc. A focus on the material. Where as poor people emphasize things like shame, inferiority, powerlessness, fear, voicelessness etc. More social and psychological than material.

I know the bad that can come from a medical misdiagnosis. You end up not getting better, sometimes getting worse. The authors say this is what happens in poverty alleviation. The rich people don't know what the actual problem is (but they think they do) so they might go about solving it the wrong way.

I skim read this article today, about how we equate having a life with having choice. It reminded me of a weekend away I went on in my first year of uni. At that stage of life it is all so exciting to be choosing a career and working towards it but stressing about it too. We were reminded for most people in the world that stress is actually not an issue as there is no choice, its about survival.

 Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

Hot Season, Homeschool and Holidays {A Chronic Voice linkup}

The last few months I've been enjoying A Chronic Voice linkups. Chronic illness bloggers use Sheryl's 5 word prompts and write a post for the month. You can see the other April ones here.

Its Khmer New Year here in Cambodia! And hot season season- with humid weather and power cuts just to make sure we get the most out of the season.

Prompts this month: Tiring, Educating, Giving, Receiving, Quieting

A Khmer New Year powder fight a few years ago.

Tiring- hot season and health

Now is not the time of year to work out if the fatigue is a medical problem, everyone is so tired and hot and grumpy, I was definitely sick throughout cool season and I’m pretty sure there is still something different now, but I will wait until this hot humid weather is over to think about it.
Do less. Drink more water. My hot season motto.

Educating- Homeschooling our kids

I was surprised to learn that kindergarten kids only need to do a really short amount of school work each day/week.  A few years ago I met with an educator and mother to ask her about homeschooling and I think she said something like just maybe 20 min in the morning, and just maths and reading/writing were important at that age.

When I was 6 I was spending the whole day at school so I think I assumed that homeschooling would be school at home, and would take maybe 5 or 6 hours a day. And maybe it does when they are older, but for early primary school just a bit of the 3 Rs is most important. The rest of the time they play, we read to them, they make things, they help cook and clean, they watch things on YouTube- sometimes just for fun, sometimes to answer all their science questions.

Being a homeschool family is more of a lifestyle or mindset for us at this stage, there is some testing we can access but it doesn’t start until the child is 8 years old. It’s cheaper than school for us here in Cambodia which was the impetus. Happily it also gives us flexibility to spend more time together as a family, which counters the disruptive unpredictable flares of chronic illness.  

Giving and Receiving- Personal holidays

Soeun and I give each other days or time off from the kids. As much as we love them and like spending time together we need time to ourselves too.

Giving Soeun time off could look like keeping the kid occupied at the front of the house, while he is in his office at the back. Or it could mean taking them out to visit a friend or play at the mall.

Receiving time off sometimes means having rest or read in a room by myself.  Often it means riding my bike into town and reading/writing in a cafĂ© or even a guesthouse. The fun of living in a tourist town means even though we don’t really have parks or cool weather there are still places I can go to read.

Quieting- a foreign concept in April

Between tired grumpy kids and Khmer New Year celebrations its not within my control to quiet things down. This time of year Cambodia goes crazy. Everyone is travelling, drinking, throwing water and powder, dancing and turning up their music. Even during long hot power cuts the karaoke will not be quieted!

Friday, April 05, 2019

Offering Comfort {fmf}

The other day was a long hot day of being around my kindergarten aged children. I was exhausted and wishing I could take a break. But that night I was reading a bit about young children going to boarding school,and the pain this causes and felt glad, that despite the stress I could be around mine 24/7.
Having that perspective helped me, but I remembered a time when it was actually harmful.
Many well meaning people  said things which sounded comforting when my husband was sick, so I said “thank you”. I could see they thought they were giving me a soothing mug of chamomile tea, but if felt like they were stabbing me with a blunt knife.  

“At least things aren’t as bad as they could be.”

“But you have so much to be thankful for.”

And I also talked to myself in this way. From this distance of over 6 years later it feels like these conversations made things worse. Like I was ignoring the fact I was going through something like the trauma and grief of losing a spouse  (although he wasactually present despite it feeling like he was absent) and just focusing on thing like how nice it was to drink milk again after living in Cambodia for five years.  

Why did I say thanks when I was being stabbed? Was it because I thought those words should help, because in previous times of stress they had? Was it because I was confused about how I felt as I didn’t have my husband to talk to and work it out? Was it because I wanted to let people feel like they had helped me and end the conversation on a high note? Whatever the reason I’m glad to be reading Megan Devine these days.

 Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash

Linking up with Five minute Friday.  free write for five minutes flat on a one-word writing prompt. (OFFER)