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Facts & Fixes for My (Really Bad) Semester Two Blues

by Kristen K. Brown, Secondary Coordinator/HS English International School of Monagas, Venezuela

I’ve never been formally diagnosed with clinical depression, but January 2016 greeted me with a full-blown case of the seasonal blues. Of that, I’m quite certain.

I traveled home to Texas for the holidays, heeding my own advice. I embarked on my traveler’s holiday bliss by surprising my two teenagers with a much-needed trip home for Christmas. I literally didn’t reveal our travel plans until outside the Caracas international terminal prior to boarding for Houston. The kids’ expressions were priceless, marked by the excitement one would expect from a genuine feeling of homesickness. My in-laws were equally surprised when I called from my mother’s home outside of Dallas upon our arrival and asked if we could meet up for lunch. “How do you plan on doing that?” my father-in-law curiously posed. Upon learning the grandkids were in town, the collective cries of Roy and Molly Brown’s joy over the phone line could be heard through the rosebushes, clear across the yard at a neighbor’s house.

Priceless. Memorable. Epic. Best $3K I’ve ever spent. I will be trying to outdo my own stylings of Christmas 2015 for the rest of my days.

The kids and I returned to Maturín, Venezuela well rested, completely shopped-out, ready to settle in and begin Semester Two.

And depression hit.

So why did I return to classes on Monday, January 11th with my Understandings by Design (UbDs) in hand, lesson plans ready, copies made – DEPRESSED? What was my problem? By the end of classes Monday and Tuesday, I felt like I owed Administration, coworkers, and my students a formal apology for the inexplicable funk wherein I found myself wallowing. It was like I forgot how to teach, how to bend, how to encourage, how to lead, when to listen, when to speak, when to remain silent and let others lead.   Somewhere, 30,000 feet above the Caribbean, before we touched down at the Simón Bolívar Maiquetía Airport, I had forgotten how to me.

I left work on Monday and promptly slumped in a chair watching brain-rot sitcoms in my apartment. Strange, considering I don’t even like TV. Tuesday rolled around and like a bad ex-boyfriend, my hormonal appetite kicked in the door, threatening me with weapons of cheesecake and pizza. I succumbed to the inner demon and ate both (dessert first). While it’s not completely in my character to give the furniture a workout and sulk the evening away, this is precisely what I did. I had no valid explanation for such sloth-like, uncharacteristic behavior.

However, I woke up Wednesday and felt rested and ready for the day. I tweaked lesson plans, conferenced with a few students, and felt nearly brand new. So why did the doldrums hit in the first place? With all the joy and love and fun experienced back in the States, what on Earth brought on my New Years Blues? I postulate on a few facts and accompanying fixes:

FACT #1: Yearnings for Family.

It was wonderful seeing friends & family back home, seeing the kids sparkle and shine treading into familiar territory, and hugging my husband, Muscles, for only the third time this year. However, I saw how much my mother had aged in a mere five months – YES, five months. It is one thing to say goodbye, smooching my sweet Swedish mother’s cheek with the comfort of a strong assurance that I would see her again in just a few months. This I know: we never really know how much time we have with someone. The five month span between July and December made me remember our limited time with one another.

Two-Sentence Fix #1:

Cherish every moment. Every blessed in-person, Skype, and FaceTime moment, ‘cause you just never know….

 FACT #2: Shopping, Sadness, and the South American Stalemate.

America is the Land of Plenty. Contrast that with Venezuela, the Land of Beauty Coupled with Dire Need. So many people crave EVERYTHING here. U.S. retailers offer an overwhelming mass availability of bulk items at U.S. retailers. Contrast that with the empty shelves in EVERY Venezuelan grocery store saddened me beyond belief. I was sad not for me, who returned to a developing country with all the health and beauty supplies a mom and two teenagers will need to fill the gap until June, but instead I was quite sad for the Venezuelan people who have no escape to the Someplace Betters of the world. I was sad for the Venezuelans who work so hard and plod along resiliently, in spite of the economic turmoil that burdens their bank accounts, salaries, and dinner tables. Their predicament isn’t mine, but I see the situation with eyes wide open and can’t ignore my friends and acquaintances and the struggles they face today and will continue facing well into the decades of tomorrow. Seeing that in-your-face, drastic contrast of cultures within such a short span of time seemingly did more harm than good.

Two-Sentence Fix #2:

Ease into the randomness and inefficiency of life in Venezuela by remembering Helen Keller’s timeless advice: “All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming.”

FACT #3: Preparation and Counting Calories.

Call me a workaholic if you will, and I admittedly flew back early to get a jump on lesson planning, copying, etc. My motivated self got everything done before school started and still, when Monday arrived, I wasn’t entirely thrilled with what I had planned for my students. I especially realized this when I saw my students’ little faces and knew my best laid plans weren’t jazzy enough. I immediately felt I had disappointed them, and this disappointment ebbed and flowed back to me. Ergo the cheesecake and pizza dinner.

Two-Sentence Fix #3:

Those empty calories (did I mention I ate the cheesecake first?) failed to fill the evening void and sense of failure that had invaded my psyche. Next time I get a three-week break from school, I’ll take it – all of it.

FACT #4: Muscles Atrophy.

While I miss Muscles, we have somehow learned to live apart ever since he began contract work in Spring 2011. Seeing him again reminded me of our unique connection and that lyric popularized by the band Journey in the song “Faithfully,” that goes, “I get the joy of rediscovering you…” What a great way to sum up what we must do twice a year: we do what best friends who haven’t seen each other in eons do – inexplicably pick up where we last left off as if the clock had stood waiting for our reunion to tick again. But we’re more than friends. We share children, holidays & vacations, memories, favorites, stored household goods, vows, secrets, debts, dreams. Seeing him, laughing with him, watching him teach our son how to shave, his giving our daughter dating advice – it added to the cache of all that matters to us both. The thought of growing too accustomed to a life lived in this same across-the-miles manner made me sad. For now, there resides an undeniable hollow in me.

Two-Sentence Fix #4:

I carry in my heart a token from Jon Krakauer’s biography Into the Wild about the ill-fated backpacker Chris McCandless: “Happiness only real when shared.” My head, however, remembers that Muscles and I will be together again soon enough.

FACT #5: Chaos Withdrawal.

Which leads me to loneliness. This must be an anomaly that affects expats once in awhile. It’s a strange thing – working alongside a throng of students all day, all week, for years at a time, and then coming home to a quiet apartment where my own flesh and blood inserts earbuds, crawl inside their electronics, and tune out Mom. It’s the chaos that we, as teachers, live for. All the while, that’s the same stuff that drives us bonkers. Then, like the sound of a rusty dripping shower head, we peculiarly miss that old, familiar, disturbing, disruptive sound once it’s been quelled. I, too, missed the chaos and felt strangely empty when sleepy high schoolers resumed classes in less than full throttle mode.

Two-Sentence Fix #5:

Remember who I am – a wife, a mom, a daughter, a teacher, a friend. It is to my and my students’ benefit for me to develop an appropriate work-family-cooking-cleaning-shopping-grading papers-laundry-reading-traveling-blogging-life balance.

FACT #6: Awesome Weather & ADD.

Lastly, there’s Venezuelan weather and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Don’t get me wrong – Venezuelan weather suits me just fine. It’s perfect and kind of like Southern California, especially in Caracas. From my current location, I can work on my tan at a pool ten minutes away. I can be in the mountains in about two hours. The kids and I can play at a beach three hours away. Other than the occasional 30-minute torrential downpour in Maturín, the weather here is rather tranquilo. The predictability of Venezuelan weather differs greatly from the ADD of Texas weather I know all too well. In Texas, one day it’s sunny & 75 degrees. The next, there’s perplexing black ice blanketing the roads that shuts things down for three days straight. Speaking of ADD: like depression, I’ve never been formally diagnosed with that either. However, having worked with thousands of students over the years, I can see the tendencies of Attention Deficit Disorder in my own daily habits. For example, I possess these traits:

  1. Thought patterns switch at the drop of a hat.

  2. Like a well-oiled V8 engine, my pistons are firing in many directions all at once.

  3. Where I’m the student, I must force myself to focus.

  4. Starter, but not finisher, of several projects.

  5. Reader of many books in simultaneous stretches.

  6. I require frequent change so as not to crumble under the pressures of boredom.

  7. I fall asleep when the storyline gets boring. (I’ve paid for many $8 naps at movie theaters over the years.)

  8. Organized on paper, but struggle with bringing an organized plan to fruition.

  9. I innately study facial expressions before garnering the content of a speaker’s message.

  10. I frequently obsess over little things that others would arguably claim are trivial.

  11. If I place my keys in other than a predesignated spot, my day is sunk.

Overall, I’m certain my list would earn me a Winner’s Card on some ADD chart somewhere. So how could near-perfect weather contribute to my case of the Semester Two Blues? I think the answer to this lies in my own frequent need for variation.

Two-Sentence Fix #6:

The ADD that likely lives in me is not necessarily a bad thing. Over the years I’ve learned to appreciate change; being flexible in diverging situations actually helps weather the storms life brings.

BOTTOM LINE: Unbroken at Home.

I know I’m not beyond repair. But the holidays yanked me away from being me, the me who lives for most of the year in this familiar place. The me who goes home twice a year to another familiar place. The me who has found a comfortable spot with friends and family in both places.

After some introspection, my usual zest for life, being a mom, teaching – it all came back to me. All told, by Wednesday of the first week back from the holiday break, I remembered how to Mom, how to Venezuela, how to Teach, how to Me. Focusing just a little on myself empowered me to cherish, to transition smoothly, to dine sensibly, to remember the virtue of patience, to find an appropriate balance, and to admire my own quirks paved the not so far-fetched journey back to doing what I do best – living thankfully, thoughtfully, joyfully, properly – being simply me no matter where I roam.

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