Transition: when health imitates geography

As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been very quiet here lately. Three and a half months ago I slipped at home (just a silly accident) and managed to hit the tile floor so hard I gave myself a nasty concussion. Recovery has been slow.

I’ve always had chronic health problems, but in the past year I’ve been pummelled with new and scary situations. All while still transitioning to a new life and new career path in a new-old country alongside my newlywed husband. I’ve navigated these critical health situations in my second language, struggling to breathe in one case and with a brain injury in the other. It hasn’t been easy, for me or for my husband. And that’s definitely an understatement.

Lately I’ve been thinking about parallels between my health journey this year and the emotional upheaval of moving to a new country. Applying the same strategies I offer for dealing with geographical and relational transition to my health situation has really helped me – long before I realised that’s what I was doing!

An important thing I share when speaking on transition is that it’s all about losing your automatics and adjusting to a new normal. When you start over in a new place, you are left without competencies you took for granted. It takes time to learn how to live well in your new situation. You need to be kind to yourself, and patient, as you develop new competencies. You need to leave space to grieve what was while persevering in developing a new life. You need to lean on the supports available to you, including professional help. It also helps to celebrate small victories! (See more of my transition advice here.)

The concussion stopped my world. Through all my lifelong issues with chronic pain, my mind has been my refuge. I also honed an ability to push through pain and discomfort, often to my own detriment. The concussion took those options away. Both my mental and physical stamina dropped away to almost nothing. I couldn’t think clearly for weeks. Even now I can’t focus the way I’m accustomed to, can’t hold more than one thing in my head at once – which means no multitasking, and processing a lot slower. I’m still a bit forgetful and sometimes stop mid-sentence, grasping for a word I can’t find.

Conversation is fairly easy, although I tire more quickly than I used to. Focused concentration is my biggest problem. I can only read and write in short bursts – the more concentration required, the shorter the burst becomes. Short single-idea thoughts shared on social media are usually fine, but reading a book is still beyond me. I started writing this post (in short bursts) six weeks ago but had to abandon it when the attempt left me with a two-day headache.

Pushing through has not been an option. At the start a five or ten minute walk gave me a headache that would last through the next day. The same would happen after two or three hours out of the house. I’ve slowly been building up my capacity. I can now manage (even enjoy!) a 12 hour day out of the house, but it leaves me flat the whole next day. I measure time at the computer in minutes. At first it was 10 minutes, then 12, and 20. Now I can manage up to 80 minutes, two or maybe three times in one day – as long as I don’t think too hard. Every week is a bit better than the week before.

My whole life has had to change, to adjust to my new limitations. I have had to learn to pay close attention to my body, to recognise and respect its limits – even if they don’t seem to make sense, and even when I’m frustrated with them. I’m in the same apartment, the same life, but I’m not the same. I can’t live the way I used to. My capacity has changed. My expectations have had to change.

And that brings us back to transition.

During this process I have needed to tell myself all the things I say in my tips for transition. That this situation is hard, and it’s okay that I struggle with it. That I need to be patient because things will change but they will change slowly. I’ve had to depend on my friends around the world to lift me up when I’m discouraged, share their stories of similar struggles, and remind me to be kind to myself. I’ve put myself in the hands of professionals. Progress is slow, but steady. Every week I’m a little closer to normal.

This concussion will resolve completely with time. (I’ve had an MRI and other tests, and there won’t be a long term problems.) But my other health issue this year is severe chronic asthma, and that will not resolve itself. Over time, with good management, it should become less severe, but the likelihood is that living with asthma is my new normal.

The reason I started pulling all these thoughts together is that I had a small victory in regards to adjusting to my new normal of living with asthma. I felt something wasn’t right with my body, and I did all the right things. I noticed the change and responded to it immediately. I adjusted meds, reached out for advice, and made an appointment to see a respiratory doctor the next day. I managed the appointment, subsequent tests, and follow-up on the results all in my second language without getting overwhelmed. I made my concerns clear, they were taken seriously, and I was involved in the decision of how to treat the diagnosed infection. All that would be worth celebrating any day of the week; post-concussion it was a huge achievement!

I felt very validated that I had made the right choices and done the best thing for my health, without anyone needing to push me. I realised all on my own that the strategy I’d lived by in the past (“wait and see””) is not the appropriate choice in my new situation. My body can’t fight off an infection in the same way it used to, and in the mean time the consequences could be dire – literally life-threatening. So I dealt with it head on, which means I am learning how to navigate my new normal. I am finding my way through the transition to life with asthma.

And as the transition parallel occurred to me, so did something else. I regularly talk about how it usually takes 12-18 months to adjust to a big life change. That the second year is when things start to fall into place, because there’s familiarity at having done certain things before. I realised it’s been less than one year since the asthma first occurred – and suddenly I felt really encouraged! Look how far I’ve come in learning to cope with this new normal! I reflected on all the small ways I’ve adjusted and learned to cope with my post-concussion symptoms. In both cases, there are struggles. Yes, it can be really frustrating. Yes, I miss who I used to be, what I used to be capable of. But also – I am learning and growing. There are ups and downs, but I’m working my way through this unexpected transition to a new way of living.

Click here to read more articles about cross-cultural life.

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