Reflections on 3.5 Years Abroad, Part 2

This is Part 2 in my mini-series, Reflections on 3.5 Years Abroad. You can find Part 1 here, or follow along using the reflections on expat life tag. Stay tuned for more tomorrow and Friday.

Darren and I rang in 2011, and some things started becoming clear: 1) Darren was either going to be moving to Amsterdam later that year, or leave the world of physics; 2) my health was very quickly deteriorating.

In 2010, Darren and I spent a week in Amsterdam getting a feel for the city, and to see if living there was something either of us was willing to do. Early on, we decided it was a decent place to visit, but neither of us wanted to live there. For me, getting to the office took too long, the people using public transport in the morning were too pushy (mind you, I don’t commute through Central London, but I’m sure the same is true here), and the idea of moving to Amsterdam made us both feel like we were settling for a less-than ideal situation.

It was clear at this point that Darren would need to consider other options in terms of his career. The exciting possibility was that Darren could look for a job in London, and we could live in the same country again. I think we both mistakenly thought that being together more often would give me warmer feelings about staying in London, but as we eventually found out, things were more complicated than that.

After a relatively short job search, and a number of interviews, Darren found a job with a hedge fund in London (don’t ask me how, but he assures me that what he learned from physics is applicable in the world of finance). By mid-April Darren had joined me in London.

I was stoked that the endless traveling was finally going to stop, and that we could be together again. But work-related stress was mounting for me, my stress-aggravated Crohn’s got a bit angrier, and I soon found myself sicker than I’d been in the past 12 years. I’d finally managed to sort out a visit with a gastro consultant in February, but we were essentially starting at square one. In mid-March, I’d paid my second visit to Accident & Emergency (A&E) since I moved to the UK because of severe Crohn’s pain, dehydration, and vomiting (the tell-tale sign that I’m super-sick). This was followed by my third visit just a week later. Things were looking grim on the health front, but I was at the mercy of the NHS, and was waiting on some vital tests to determine the long-term treatment of my disease.

Meanwhile, Darren was preparing to move, and I’d been taking driving lessons in the UK so I could take the driving test and have a valid driving license for an upcoming trip to America. My California license had expired a few months after I moved to the UK, and not wanting to muddy the waters in a delicate tax situation, I decided not to renew. The driving lessons were going well, but the day I took my driving test, things started to change for the worse.

It was May 11–only a few days before I was going to set off for the US. I’d taken many driving lessons, and had finally grown comfortable with driving on the left side of the road, shifting with my left hand, and navigating roundabouts. My driving instructor picked me up two hours before my test, and we did a bit of driving to review maneuvers. Then we parked alongside a very narrow road in Isleworth for a few minutes so I could relax and regroup for the test. My instructor joked about me becoming one of the few students who passed without errors, and I said I’d do my best, but made no promises.

I drove to the testing center, and waited for my turn with the examiner. He was Scottish, and gave terse commands for navigating the roads of the Richmond and Hounslow Boroughs. I didn’t feel much at ease, and the stress was getting to me. I started feeling stomach pains during the test which didn’t go away for nearly four months (they may have eased off at times, but it was fairly constant). I made it through the test without errors, and the driving instructor drove me home. I was proud of myself for making it through the test, and passing without any faults, but I felt miserable.

Over the next few days, I monitored the situation to see if I could still manage the trip to the Midwest. One of my very close friends from middle school was getting married in Chicago, and I didn’t want to miss it. The trip was hell. First, our flight from Heathrow was delayed by an hour and we automatically missed our already tight connection at O’ Hare. Then we ended up taking a three-hour bus journey to get to Madison, Wisconsin so my parents could pick us up. This wouldn’t have been so bad if I didn’t feel as though I should be in an Emergency room rather than a bus.

I spent most of the trip in agony, and in bed. The day before we were meant to drive the 90 miles to Chicagoland, I was really ill, and doubting that I’d be up for making the journey the next day. Luckily, when I woke the day of the wedding, I felt much better, and was careful not to eat, instead drinking my calories for the day instead. My friend’s wedding was beautiful, and I was feeling much better than I had been for the last several days. At the reception, I let my guard down and stuffed myself silly. A huge mistake.

Shortly after we’d finished the meal, I could feel my stomach quickly bloating. My dress was becoming uncomfortable, and stomach pains were quick to set in. We left the reception early, and went back to our hotel for the evening. I changed into my pajamas and sat down for no more than a few minutes before I felt a very urgent need to be sick. I dashed to the loo as quick as I could, but it wasn’t quick enough. I very nearly hurled on Darren, and managed to trash parts of the hotel room in just a matter of seconds.

This was the night I realized Darren was most definitely a keeper (saint, more likely). Not only did he stick by me while I was feeling so ill, but cleaned up the mess I made without complaint. He was willing to do whatever it took to make me feel more comfortable.

By the next day, I felt significantly better, but had to make a tough decision. Originally, I had wanted to stay home to celebrate my mom’s birthday with my family. I wasn’t sure if I could make it another week, and even if I could, I didn’t want my parents to see me so ill for another week–they’d seen enough of that when I was growing up. I made the tough decision to leave my family and my cats a week early, and returned to the UK with Darren the following day.

Before I departed the Midwest, I sent my gastro an email asking for advice and wanted to see if there was any way I could be seen sooner rather than later. Ultimately, this was the start of my three-month hospital stay (you can read about that under the Crohn’s category, otherwise, When Crohn’s Takes Over sums up how I dealt with my Crohn’s for the period between moving to California and moving to London).

While I was in hospital, I couldn’t help thinking how much more quickly I would have been treated if I was in the US. When I was ill as a child, I never spent more than a week or so at a time in hospital, and overall, I was given treatment much more quickly than I was on the NHS. Sure, it was nice to not worry about the cost of care, sick leave, or any of those complications, but if I could have had surgery and been out of the hospital within a week in the US, none of those would have been a worry anyway.

My dad came back to the UK the day before I was released from hospital. I needed someone to help me carry things while I recovered, and it was nice to have a familiar face to help me get through, and get over, my difficult time in the hospital.

My outlook on expat life changed significantly while I was in hospital–I couldn’t be bothered to think about it. I was ill, and I wanted nothing more than to be well again. By the time I was released, I was just happy to see the outside world again, and cherished the ability to travel without pain when Thanksgiving came around. I spent extra time back in the US that Thanksgiving, which ended up being a bit of a mistake, but the problem didn’t arise until I came back.

Often when I travel back to the UK from America, I suffer some jet lag related sleep issues. I’ll feel super tired the first evening I’m back and try heading to bed a bit earlier (usually around 9 or 10p.m.). But what almost always ends up happening is that I wake up 45 – 90 minutes later, feeling tired and confused. In this state of confusion, I often forget where I am, and I start losing it. I get frustrated about being back, I start feeling homesick, and usually have a big emotional breakdown. If there’s one thing that terrifies me about Transatlantic travel, it’s the jet lag-induced emotional roller coaster that ensues the evening I arrive back in the UK.

After I’ve had a good hour or two of crying, feeling frustrated, and over-tired, I fall asleep, and go on with life like none of this ever happened. Although every time it does, I wonder how much longer I am willing to deal with the unhappiness.

In Part 3, Darren and I get married, I reach breaking point with my job, and an ultimatum is made. Tune in tomorrow for more Reflections on 3.5 Years Abroad.