From the Bloggess

I love the Bloggess, especially when she writes about her mental health issues, her depression, her anxiety, and her just general bizarreness.  (She has also written a lot about her rheumatoid arthritis and other physical issues, which I’m sure readers of mine understand that I relate to closely.)  Her amazing candor has helped me come to grips with a lot of my own mental problems (mostly depression) in a lot of ways.  I know that reading her book Let’s Pretend this Never Happened helped me accept taking antidepressants.

Her most recent post was about Mental Health Awareness Month, which is apparently May.  She said that most people (or at least those who read her blog) are already aware of mental health, and so she changed it up.  She asked her readers two questions.  Here are my stabs at some answers, and my other general thoughts on the subject.

HOW HAS MENTAL ILLNESS AFFECTED YOU PERSONALLY?

In many ways, I’m one of the “lucky” ones.  As far as I can tell, I’m only dealing with garden variety depression, the kind that makes it hard to get up and get moving every day.  Even then, it’s not so bad as to actually keep me from doing that (yet).

And I’m pretty sure that my physical issues loop into and reinforce the mental ones (and vice versa).  Depression causes pain; pain causes depression.  Pain causes me to be exhausted, which leads to my not doing much, which leads to be being sad about everything that didn’t get done.  I’ve made some efforts to stop this (see: aforementioned antidepressants).  I make myself get up and do shit anyway, but there are a LOT of things I miss out on because I just have no energy or willpower left.

So, it has affected my social life, and sometimes it has made work harder.  (The pain can affect things as much as anything else–there have been days when either due to stomach upset or horribly painful joints I couldn’t work.)  But, my awareness of my problems has also led to my being more empathetic than I used to be, particularly about other forms of privilege that I might have been blind to.  As a straight white cismale, my life if mostly on easy mode.  (Not saying my life has been easy, just that there are many ways in which life could have been harder.)  I did not realize how much privilege I had until this one was pulled away, and then it became more clear.  I care more about social justice now than I probably did in college.

WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM IT THAT MIGHT HELP OTHERS?

The most important thing I’ve learned is that there are people who will support you, who will help you, who will back you up.

See, I’ve realized that I’ve dealt with depression since at least middle school, if not earlier.  I remember days when, halfway through the school day, I just had no more energy left to deal with things, even just holding the bow for my string bass.  (Reminder for those who don’t know:  depression is not sadness.  It is a loss of interest, energy, and desire.)   But I didn’t know that’s what it was.  I didn’t realize I had a problem, or that I could talk to someone, or get any kind of help.  (And to be fair, I probably couldn’t have then–it’s not like we had the resources.)  Now, there are a million people online, going through similar things, who I can turn to.  (Not to mention my wonderful wife, who gets me in ways I never thought possible.)

Number two, as the Bloggess always puts it: depression lies.  There are worries I have that are pretty unlikely to come about, such as losing my job entirely, having to retire early, etc.  I know that I do a good job, and that I will likely make Senior Foreign Service and enjoy the hell out of it.  But, when it flares, it’s hard to remember, and all I want to do is hide away and pretend I don’t have responsibilities, and I worry some day I’ll give in or have to give in.  And I have to remember, no, I can do this and I will.

Number 3:  Be kind to others.  Show empathy.  Lift others up when you can.  You have to look out, realize where you are privileged, and use that not just for yourself but for others.  Do not assume you have it worse off, or make fun of those who have problems that don’t seem as bad as yours.  It can be hard, sometimes, but it’s vitally important, especially if you want others to help you.

So those are the lessons.  Depression and other diseases lie, you are not alone, and damn it babies, you’ve got to be kind.

Guangzhou!

We haven’t done a whole lot other than get settled in since arriving, but I figured I should share something about that.

I will admit that our first night involved me breaking down crying.  The trip over was crazy stressful, as can be seen in the last post, and my whole everything had just had it by the end.  I continued to be jet-lagged for a whole week.  Which was uck.

But! Our sponsors took really good care of us.  Our first full day in country, they took us shopping at the big supermarket, showed us where the “wet market” (more on that later) was, and helped us get both our cell phones and subway cards set up.  Shout out to them for that.

In most ways, the difference between here and Togo is night and day.  Some pictures from either our apartment or nearby to demonstrate:

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That’s a Ferrari and Maserati dealership, next to a each other, inside the courtyard of our apartment complex.  I’ve also seen Rolls Royce and Bentley dealerships.

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The Pearl River.

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Skyscrapers!!

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Our street at night!

One thing that felt kind of familiar, but just MUCH bigger, was the “wet market.”  That’s where you can buy fresh vegetables right from someone who brought them in.  Oh, but you can buy so much more, including living seafood and fresh meat.  (Mostly pork, but hey, it’s China.)  I believe it may be the Teacher’s favorite thing so far.

We’ve also found some great local food, which makes me very happy.  Overall, we’re settling in, and we’re doing well.  Our apartment is beautiful, our neighborhood is wonderful, and we’re very happy.

Getting to China

So, our trip to China took a lot longer in many ways that our trip to Togo did, all of which led to me crying into my new pillow unable to sleep.  (In fact, as of writing this on Friday, I still haven’t really slept since waking up in San Fran on Wednesday.)

It should be noted that, as this is a move, we have everything we can possibly bring with us with us.  That’s four HUGE duffel-ish bags, two carryons, two backpacks, and the cats.  So, each step in this is a huge undertaking.

A quick chronology:

My brother and his wife helped get me and the Teacher to Dulles.  I had been told (and wrote down!) that all we had to do with the cats was bring them and a copy of our orders to the desk, and we’d be set.  (Oh, and pay out a fairly large sum of money.)  We get there…and they have no idea who said that, but they know for sure we don’t have a reservation and we need to go to the United Cargo building (which isn’t actually in the airport) to get the cats prepped to go.  Now, we arrived with about 3 hours to spare, give or take, but we needed almost all of that to get from United, to United Cargo, and back and to our flight.  We had to call the booking person again, get everything re-set up (because if there had ever been a reservation, it was totally lost), and then get back in time for our flight.  While tight, we made it.  (Of course, the cats weren’t at all happy about this.)  Also, the guy at the United Cargo building at first was not remotely helpful, just saying he couldn’t do anything to help us.  When we called up the United Petsafe people, he got a bit less hostile, but ugh.  Just…ugh.

The flight to San Francisco was one of the least comfortable ever.  The plane was at capacity, there was nothing to help pass the time, and no food.  One drink.  For a five hour trip.  We ended up buying one of their overpriced snack boxes just because we were so hungry.

We got off the plane in SF, picked up our bags, and went to get a cab to take us to the SF cargo building.  The cabbie refused!  He said that a short trip that took over 30 minutes would cause him to lose his place in line, and he would have to wait forever for another fare.  I told him that we wouldn’t take any time at the cargo building, if it took too long he could leave, etc., just so he would take us.  (We were already exhausted from the ordeal in Dulles and the damn flight.)  He eventually relented, and acknowledged that the time at cargo was really short (they, thankfully, had everything figured out and gave the cats over quick.)

The hotel staff were nice.  I found the La Quinta Airport North in South San Francisco pretty decent.  Not especially nice, but considering they just let you have up to two pets per room, it was definitely very good for the money.

But, when we arrived, we had another issue–no litter box, nor any place to buy one near by.  There were no Targets, Dollar Trees, etc., within walking distance, nor was there a nearby BART (metro) station.  I walked about 20 minutes to a store, found out they had nothing, walked on further and found a store that sold litter and little, wide buckets for carrying things.  (Instant litter box!)  So, while hotel was good, location was lacking.

The next day was actually great. I got done with my consultations very early, and we went out to dinner with my Oberlin “little sister,” her boyfriend, and another old friend.  The Teacher got some extra piercings she’d long wanted.  The third day was also good, despite the most mediocre Mexican food I’ve ever had.  (In SF! And I’m from KY!)

An aside:  One other exception was my experience with taxi drivers in SF. Between the ones who got lost, who had to rely on me and my smart phone for directions, who were just rude, and the one who was blaring conservative talk radio the whole trip, I don’t think I’ve been to a city with worse taxis.  Ugh.

But dear god, Wednesday.  It started early, with us going to SFO VERY early to make sure everything was good.  Which was good, because while it wasn’t as much running as it was at Dulles, there was still some running around!  We got to the desk (and I was apparently pre-testy, perhaps due to our experience in Dulles), and they started to say something about how they could only do this for military, and we weren’t military, and I almost exploded, until I heard him say “only military get free pet shipping” and I explained that I knew we had to pay for it, and that was apparently the only actual discrepancy.  But, we had to go to QuickPak (which took forever to find), and then back up to our flight.  We were able to semi-upgrade to an exit row, so we had a lot more room to relax on the 13 hour flight.

I want to stress that the United people in SFO were all lovely, and I feel kind of bad for being short and testy with them.

That flight wasn’t so bad–it was just LONG is all.

We got to Seoul, though, and we had to run all over that airport to get our kitties taken care of.  First we went to information, who told us that United had taken care of everything, but that we should check with our next airline (Asiana) to be sure.  We finally found the Asiana desk, and they said, no, we needed to see United to transfer the cats.  We got lost, but eventually found the United desk (which required us to go through immigration).  United then took us to quarantine.  The lady there said we needed extra paperwork we didn’t have (that China doesn’t require).  We explained that we weren’t bringing the cats into Korea, but instead flying on with them to China.  So, they had to refigure that, basically how to move the cats from one airline to the other without going through quarantine and such.  When they got that settled, I thought we were told to go on to our gate, which we did.  We got there hours before the flight, and once the attendants were at the gate, I asked them if everything was good and we were set up.  They told me yes.  And then, about 10 minutes before boarding, they asked if I’d paid.  I hadn’t yet, thinking I’d do that at the gate, and then I had to run back to the main Asiana desk and back down to the gate.  (And Becca didn’t even know where I’d gone, which made matters worse for her.) All the running around in Seoul left me absolutely exhausted, and admittedly cranky.

I wish I could tell you much about that flight, but I was so exhausted (I had been awake for something like 25 hours, I think?), and I collapsed into one of the most painful naps of my life as soon as I sat down.  I was extremely sore and kind of cantakerous when we touched down in China.

The China part was not nearly as dramatic as the Seoul part, thankfully.  We went through immigration (which, being a diplomat meant that we could go through the “special” very short line), and then picked up our bags for customs.  This took forever, and then we had to get the cats and go through quarantine.  There was some confusion about where the cats were, as apparently they’d changed up the baggage carousel at the last moment, and everyone assumed our cats would be on the carousel, but in reality the airline was nice enough to just wheel them out to us.  Quarantine wasn’t too bad, but took forever, as didn’t know our Chinese address or phone numbers yet. By the time we got to our sponsor, who had been waiting to meet us since we were supposed to arrive at midnight, it was about 2:30 in the morning.  (Meaning:  I had been up more or less for 30 hours.)  We took the cats home, set up the little jerry-rigged “litter box” our sponsor gave us, and tried to go to bed.

The next part of our story, settling in to Guangzhou, will be less a factual story and more about my own emotions and such, and so will be another post, when I have the energy.

Update on Chinese, Tenure, and Life

So, a few weeks ago I finished Chinese training.  Since I’m going to an Entry-Level Officer position with a “super-hard” language, my requirements weren’t as high as they usually are in State.  I needed a “2/1″, meaning limited professional proficiency in speaking and conversational reading.  (Normally, a 3/3, or professional proficiency, is needed.)  Due in large part to my past experience and the wonderful teachers at the Foreign Service Institute, I actually got a 2+/2!  This means extra money!  I’m ecstatic on that front.

A week or two before testing, the “tenure list” came out.  This is a list of all the people the State Department officially recommends to Congress for tenure.  While theoretically Congress could ignore it or change it, it never happens.  So, I have tenure!  What does that mean?  A few things:

1) They like me, they really like me!

2) I’m eligible for a promotion to FSO-3.

3) I won’t get fired after my fifth year.  (This can and does happen, though not often.  You have three chances at tenure, and if you don’t get it, you have to leave.)

All of that is exciting enough, but now we’re also preparing for our move.  Lots of shopping, lots of everything really.  Tomorrow we have our going away party (we don’t leave for another two weeks, though–but in that time we’re planning a quick trip to WV to see my wife’s family.)  I’m both sad and excited–We’ve known we were going to Guangzhou for over 3 years now, and it’s finally happening!  But, at the same time, there are so many friends here in DC and around the country that I haven’t seen enough of (or just haven’t seen!  The Cleveland crew in particular is sadly missed.)  This is the biggest paradox with this life–I love moving and seeing new places, but I constantly miss those left behind.  C’est la vie.

So, that’s what’s up.  I’ll try to remember to post more once we’re safely in China!

Boston!

So, President’s Day Weekend, the Teacher and I went to Boston!  We have a friend who lives there, and it’s our last long weekend before China.  Of course, that’s the same weekend a blizzard blew in.  Que sera. 

We didn’t have a whole lot planned, anyway.  Trip to the aquarium, eat some seafood, hang out with our friend.  That’s about what we did.  Neither I nor the Teacher had ever been to an aquarium, so while it was smaller than I expected, it was a lot of fun.  (Also, due to our friend’s membership it was pretty cheap too!)  For a Valentine’s Day gift, the Teacher asked for a salt lamp, which is really pretty but also odd.  (As she said, she will not buck the tradition of women asking for large minerals.)  I also got her two stuffed animals, an octopus and a humpback whale.  They’re adorable.  (She’s been sick recently, and she’s taken to napping with one or the other.)

The seafood was good.  At Legal Seafood, our friend and I split some oysters, while the Teacher had some baked fish.  We all shared some exquisite calamari. I also tried raw clams for the first time, and quite possibly the last.  (They weren’t bad; they just were really, really oceany.)  At that point, the snow had begun, so we made one more stop at Flour Bakery, to pick up the surprise Boston Creme Pie our friend had ordered us.  We wanted to try a few other things too, and so I got some bread pudding.  I never knew bread pudding could be light and airy, but this was.  It was wonderfully subtle, something I’m not used to from bread pudding.

Aside from that, we just pretty much hung out at our friend’s and watched the snow pile up.  He braved the cold and brought back a few pounds of lobster meat, which was the first time for the Teacher.  I usually find lobster horribly overpriced, but this was really good and fresh.

Fortunately, the snow stopped early enough on Sunday that we had no problems with the airport Monday morning.  Unfortunately, I learned an important lesson–I’m too old/sick to do 6AM flights, esp. when the snow means it takes an hour to get to the airport.  We ended up getting in on time, but I needed the next snow day for my body to recover.  Lesson learned.

Overall, I like Boston, and could see visiting more often, but our friend is moving out (probably) in August, and so who knows when we will get back.

Chronic Illness and the Foreign Service

So, I’ve been diagnosed with (at least!) mild Sjogren’s and hypermobility. Also, obvious to those who see me, I also suffer from obesity.  Throw in some depression, random joint/muscle pain (likely caused by the hypermobility, but possibly having other causes), and general fatigue, and I think I count as a full-on Spoonie (sufferer of chronic illness).

This honestly doesn’t work well with the Foreign Service culture.  I’m trying, but it’s hard.  Foreign Service Officers tend to be extremely active, constantly on the go, work-hard-play-hard types.  I do not have the energy for that shit.  Networking and hobnobbing are hard.  Many of them are runners, while I remember when I tried to become a runner and the horrible torture that it was.  They want to go out for happy hours, bar crawls, etc., when I want to curl up at home on my couch.  (Yes, the FS also has a TON of extroverts, but that’s probably obvious.)  I like seeing people and hanging out, but I can only do so much of it before all my spoons are gone.

That’s not even talking about the travel that is (of course) expected.  I mean, a vacation in a hotel with my wife, where I actually get to rest, etc., is easy.  But I had friends who were constantly taking short, overnight trips up-country (aka away form the capital and decent bedding), and wondering why I didn’t do more of those.  (Now, the constant moving I can deal with, as long as I get a couple of days to decompress upon arrival.)

Healthcare is a special worry as someone with chronic illness.  I learned in Togo that the med units don’t often fully understand what I’m talking about, though having a med unit in the work office was extremely helpful.  It also meant that I tended to be the most frequent visitor.  “My stomach is upset; is it normal upset or do I have dysentery again?”  “I’m extremely weak and tired; is it a normal flare up, or malaria?”  Etc.

That’s not to say I can’t do my job.  As a political officer, it was my job to go to some of these events, including cocktail parties and boring conferences.  (I am slightly afraid that there might be footage of me falling asleep at a conference–that’s the general fatigue thing kicking in.)  Analysis and reporting, I can do.  I’m also good at languages and one-on-one meeting with people.  In fact, I LOVE those part of my job.  (We’ll soon see how I handle hours at a visa line.  Cross your fingers for me.)

I wouldn’t change jobs for anything.  This was my dream since I left college, 11 years ago.  It still is.  The work is interesting, it’s not too physically demanding, and I get to experience more than I ever could have any other way.  (I also have great health insurance, which I am using to the utmost!)

I really just want to 1) help other spoonies (including possible future FSOs) know about what life in the FS is like and 2) hopefully open my colleagues eyes to the extra struggles of spoonies.

So, I’ll end this with a call for questions.  Comments are open.

Chinese!

To take a break from the family woes, let’s talk about what I’ve been up to since I got to DC back in September: Chinese language classes!

Many of you know that Chinese was my major in college and that I’ve been a couple of times.  So, I know a bit about studying the language already.

Here’s the main thing about Chinese:  When you start, it’s really, really hard.  Nothing, other than the basic grammar, makes a lick of sense.  Wait, how does this (羊) mean sheep?  And why does putting that with big (大) like so (美) suddenly mean beautiful?  (And America, for crying out loud.)  There are no cognates, except for some food items (tofu=doufu, coffee=kafei).  And, of course, tones.  The way I pronounce the sound ma can mean mother, marijuana, horse, to scold, or just turn a statement into a question.

But, unlike some languages (French, Russian, etc.), the more you learn the more manageable it gets.  There are no crazy tenses, no “politeness” levels, no declensions.  Subordinate phrases in a sentence can be tricky, mostly due to a lack of punctuation, but no worse than any other language.  Some even just get turned into modifying phrases (instead of “the ball that hit the car” you’d just have “the hit-the-car ball”).

So, in short, I feel like I’m getting somewhere.  (Your tax dollars aren’t being completely wasted here!) Part of it is the sheer amount of class time  I have 3-6 hours of Chinese class a day, depending on the day.  A typical day is two hours of reading class in the morning, with three hours of speaking in the afternoon.  (Short days cut out two hours of speaking; long days throw in an extra hour of “consular Chinese” class.)  The program is good; it’s intense, but it never feels overly stressful.  The Chinese I used to know came back VERY quickly, and for the last several months I’ve been learning almost all new words.  I feel confident that I’ll pass my test, and maybe even score high enough to earn a bonus.  (Most people in my program do.)

This is just one more way I’m a lucky, lucky man.  I’m getting paid to learn a language, before being sent for two years to use it.  Despite other problems in my life, I’m going to continue counting my blessings.