Monday, December 30, 2013

Christmas for the Kids

This year, Eric and I are giving my nieces and nephew Kiva gift cards.  My mom has let them help her pick her Kiva recipients before, which involved finding countries on the map, learning a little bit about each country, then picking one at random.  Now that the kids are a little older, I hope they'll delve more deeply, finding a country that interests them and learning about it through their loans.

Part of this gift-giving goal is that I don't want to give them things they won't use, and I haven't been around them enough in recent years to know what they'd really want.  (At this point, aunt hannah and Uncle Eric are more ideas than real people, and when I do see them, they are a little shy for a bit before coming round.)  Part of it is that I want to give the gift of charity to them - they have plenty of crap, as do we all, so giving something to others is a good value to inculcate from a young age.  Eric and I asked for charitable donations instead of gifts for our wedding, and it's something I would like my nieces and nephew to understand as well.  Finally, I want to give them a little bit of wonder about the world.  As far as I know, no one in our family really ever left the country before I moved abroad (sans a trip to France or a cruise to the Bahamas), but I don't want to be an outlier.  My mom has a world map up in her house, with pins up to represent places I've lived or visited.  Some day, I want to have a map with a different color pin for each of them, showing where they've travelled and explored.  But first, we'll start with DC - I think some combination of them will come spend Spring Break with us, which is basically the most exciting thing that I can consider.  I can't wait to give them a tour.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

PTSD, part 1

It's amazing how fast time flies when you aren't miserable.  I've already been home for almost six months, and tomorrow will be four months since I started my current job.  It seems every weekend we have a plan - going to an event around town, going to a party, or hosting brunch for several friends.  Our Sunday brunch tradition is back in full swing after a year hiatus - in a switch-up of roles from Turkey, I'm now the primary cook, and Eric and friends handle the clean up.  That means I get to finish the mimosas - oh, how hard is my life.

We've settled into the neighborhood and know most of our neighbors.  We have our routines: buying vegetables at the farmers' market every Sunday, CSA delivery on Thursday after work, and baking most weekends.  Some good friends from Turkey moved in a block away from us, and my best friend from high school lives a twenty-minute walk to our east.  I didn't get furloughed, Eric has a new, more interesting job, and we're all in good health.

Things are going well.

I struggle with PTSD - I'm formally diagnosed with it now, which shouldn't surprise anyone.  I'm a lot better than I was even two months ago; I went to a crowded bar for a party on Saturday night and stayed for three hours, when over the summer I would have had a panic attack within 15 minutes.  I'm still waiting for how I feel about my PTSD to solidify into something I can write about; writing is very therapeutic for me, but when it comes to something this personal I don't think I can write about it until the time is right.  It's still too raw.  I can talk about the daily grind with people, and in fact I like to do so, because it both helps me come to terms with it and it also makes people aware that PTSD is a disease you can't see but whose effects linger for a long time.  I don't really care if others want to be educated, if someone asks, I tell them.  :)

What I can say is that everyone's PTSD is different, but that all of us who were in Libya last year are still suffering in our own way.  The biggest help for me - outside of my therapist, who specializes in treating Vietnam veterans and Holocaust survivors - has been hearing that everyone else who went through it with me are suffering too.  It sounds morbid, but sometimes it's just really, really nice to know that you're not alone.  I know that every time I have a bad day, when something triggers me that no one else would even notice, I can call a friend who was there too and who gets it.  I don't have to explain why it's traumatizing for strangers to ask me for quotes for their latest partisan rant about who's at fault.  I don't have to explain why I can't bear to watch the news in America anymore, because of the sheer idiocy of the public debate over Benghazi.

I'm tired of other people trying to fit me and my experiences into their narrative.  Any story I tell no longer becomes my story, if it's taken and used for someone else's gains, and I don't want to be used.  I live with my memories every day, and I don't want them and the memories of others who died or who continue to suffer to be disrespected.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

My own little mezuzah

Back at work - it's busy as hell, but I love the issues and the people I work with.  I'm sandwiched between the Syria and Egypt teams, so there's no shortage of work and bustle in my office.  I'm enjoying it.

I've finally gotten to the point where I can walk past the memorial wall in the main entrance hall at State without crying - the first month was hard, but I'm okay now.  However, I can't walk through that hallway without going up to the panel and running my hand over the names of those I know.  It's not just those who died in Benghazi; I have other friends who died at post whose names are on the wall.  I don't go through the hall often, maybe once a week, but I feel like I have to do something to acknowledge those who died.  It's become my own mezuzah of sorts as I come in and out of the building.

I'll probably get to the point where I don't have to engage in this ritual.  Not there yet, though.

Thursday, June 06, 2013


By now most everyone has figured it out, but I left Libya a month early to take an extra-long vacation before I start my next job here in Washington.  It was a quick decision, and once I made it I was out of the country in under two weeks.  I flew out of Tripoli on 3 May, got home on the 4th, and I don't start work for another ten days.  In the last month, I've relaxed, visited family, helped set up the new house, played with our kitties, and reconnected with Eric - silly as it sounds, we are learning how to live together and to live like normal adults again, after a year of being apart and in successive short-term apartments.

It was not an easy decision to leave early.  As I've said before, I love Libya - I love its people and their passion for debate, I love the country and its wobbly trajectory of freedom, I love the work I was doing.  But the accumulated stress and grief since September combined and weighed me down so much that I was doing no good to anyone, certainly myself, by staying the extra month in Tripoli.  My productivity at work was down, and I found myself hiding in my room staring at a wall when I wasn't at my desk, trying to work.

It wasn't a sense of danger that caused me to leave, although the 23 May bombing of the French Embassy in Tripoli certainly increased my conviction.  In my last ten days in Libya I vacillated between elation (going home to my family!) and guilt (how can I give up on something and leave my coworkers and friends in the lurch here?).  I still feel a substantial amount of guilt for leaving, but there's also a lot of relief.  Being home has made me a healthier, happier person, and while I'm still Not Right (my family would question whether I ever was to begin with), I can feel myself growing stronger.  I have days when there are setbacks, but I'm getting better.

In this job, where you move every one to three years to start an entirely new position in a new place, learning how to let go of your previous portfolio and hand it over to your successor is a hard but vital lesson to learn.  You have to know the art of the hand-off: how to hand over your contacts, passions, accumulated knowledge, and experience to a stranger and not spend too much time worrying if he'll do the job with as much love as you did (or, conversely, if he'll do it better than you).  By leaving early, I created a bit of a gap before the arrival of my successor, but I have hope that he'll jump into the job feet-first and love the work.  We've been talking via email since he bid on this position last summer, and he is enthusiastic and far more knowledgeable about Libya than I was when I arrived.  He'll be great, so that assuages one side of the equation.

On the other hand, because I left so quickly, I didn't get to say goodbye to the Libyans and internationals that I'd worked with and come to know during my time in Tripoli.  Most of all, I didn't have time (due to a few local holidays) to say goodbye to most of the Libyan local staff at the Embassy who have been such good friends and coworkers to me during my year there.  I miss them, and I worry about them every day.  I feel ashamed for leaving like that.

I miss Libya.  I keep up with its news much as I used to do when I was there, talking to people on Twitter, reading the papers, and asking questions, but since I'm not there, it doesn't have the sense of immediacy it used to.  I've become a foreign observer, instead of someone in the thick of things.  It sucks.  I've sulked a little bit and have been slow to respond to emails from some of my Libyan friends since I got back, which is entirely my fault and due largely to my conflicted emotions about how I left.

This is my goodbye-for-now letter to Libya - I say for now, because I'm determined to return in the future for another tour, in better times and when my family can come with me.  I want to visit Ghadames and see the famous warren of earthen houses.  I want to go to Tobruk and see the Allied cemetery from World War II.  I want to visit Leptis Magna and Sabratha (and don't even ask why I never went to them, it's a pathetic story).  I want to go to Sabha and Marzuq and Ghat and meet people there.  I want to visit the famous rock carvings in southern Libya that represent some of the earliest human settlements.  I want to visit Benghazi and lay flowers at the site where my friends were killed, and then I want to go to Freedom Square and celebrate Libya's rebirth in freedom.

To my Libyan friends, thank you.  Thank you for taking me under your wing and explaining to me what was going on.  Thank you for trusting me enough to talk to me, in public and in private, about your hopes, fears, and goals for your country.  Many of you I never met in person - after Benghazi, I had to rely on nontraditional means to connect with Libyans, and you welcomed me to your online discussions.  When I come back, I hope we can meet again in better times.  Please know that my home is always open to you, wherever I may be in the world.  Just send me a DM!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


I was home for two weeks in late March and early April for my final R&R before I leave Libya on 1 June.  Eric and I had hoped to close on our house, but that didn't happen - process has been delayed and now won't happen until next week, most likely.  (Buying a house is complicated, y'all.)  Still, we had a good time - we shopped for furniture for the house whenever we DO get it, I got to drive around town and cook dinner for friends, and Eric and I went on a five-day vacation just by ourselves for some us time.  We're both looking forward to living together again and having a normal married life - which, technically, we've never had, since I moved away from Turkey right after we got married and Eric never got here.

I realized while I was home just how much my time in Libya has affected me.  On the flight into Washington, everyone else in my cabin enjoyed watching Argo on their entertainment screens; I cowered into my seat, tried not to see the scenes of the embassy takeover, and tried to keep the tears from being too obvious.  I've always had a cynical, somewhat dark sense of humor, but during the trip I made a few jokes that made even my closest friends stop and stare at me.  Things that pass for normal humor here are too much for polite conversation, apparently.  An article in The New Yorker by a famous Libyan novelist and dissident reduced me to sobs, because Ambassador Stevens always had the latest issue - it seemed to be his only pleasure reading out here.  I remember a journalist contacting me last year to tell me what he'd found when he went through the compound in Benghazi - a ton of internal papers and a smoky, damaged copy of the latest New Yorker, still sitting at Amb. Stevens' bedside.  Ever since then, I can't read the magazine without a twinge of sadness.

While at home I also had a good look at myself in a mirror and realized how much weight I've put on in the last few months.  I weigh more now than I ever have in my life.  Grief eating and stress drinking will do a number on your body - I've got stretch marks on my thighs and abdomen from the rapid weight gain.  Since it's not easy for me to replace my clothing due to the slow mail service we have here, I'm stuck wearing things that are less than flattering.  Thankfully Eric didn't marry me for my body - it was never willowy, but it's taken on a decidedly Rubenesque character in recent months.

And icing on the cake, the day I flew back in to Tripoli, I found out a colleague in Afghanistan and several others were killed in an attack on them in Kandahar.  I didn't know the woman who was killed, though many of my friends knew her well from their own stints in Afghanistan.  What struck me most was that she and I both joined State at age 22.  She volunteered for a difficult, dangerous assignment.  There but for the grace of assignments officers go I...  One of my friends from Tripoli who was not able to return here after the evacuation ended up going to Kabul instead, so she had to go through a second "ramp ceremony" for a fallen colleague in six months.  She said it was pretty rough for her, but she's trying to turn her experiences after Benghazi into an opportunity for people in Kabul to talk to her and vent with someone who understands what they've been through.  (A ramp ceremony is when remains are loaded onto a military cargo plane with full honors and returned to the US.  Usually the members of unit or agency to which the dead belonged attend the event; in this case, almost the entire Embassy turned out.)

What can I do about the mental and the physical poor health?  Well, for one thing, knowing that in six weeks and change I'll be home for good keeps me pretty balanced right now.  I can serenely blow off things that used to push me over the edge, because I know that I'll be gone soon.  I've started planning for how I'll eat healthier when I'm back home, with an emphasis on vegetables, fewer processed foods, and fewer grief-induced midnight binges on snack foods.  I am not comfortable using the gym here, but once I'm home I'll walk a lot more (taking mass transit to get to work, increased mobility because I won't be living on a tiny compound, etc), and I hope to start some regular exercise scheme for the first time in my life.  I also want to find a good therapist or grief counsellor when I'm back - one who specializes in military cases or in civilians who've served in war zones.  I don't know how long it will take for me to come to terms with what I've been through, but I don't think I can move on without some substantial lifestyle readjustments and help from friends, family, and professionals paid to deal with me.  I'll bear the scars of this year for a long time to come, both mentally and physically, but I hope that in the not-too-distant future I'll be able to point to them as reminders of what I've survived, not impediments to my daily life.  

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Back in Tripoli

It's been a hell of a month, with lots of ups and downs.  Today I got back from R&R in Washington, and saying goodbye to Eric yesterday was harder than it's been at any other point in this tour.  Eight months down, four more to go.