Sunday, 24 August 2014

Safety in numbers

This blog post is going to start out boring. On a scale of one to boring, it's really fucking boring. But this may be the last boring post I have to write, so bear with me, and I'll add in some less boring stuff just as soon as the boring bit is explained because, like a good deal of boring stuff, it's kind of important.

As of four days ago, we entered into the "safe" window in terms of the time I'll need to get paperwork for the USCIS if they were to send me a Request For Evidence (RFE) before the middle of November (the earliest time at which I will be able to obtain the paperwork needed for an RFE). It now no longer matters if they do send me an RFE, because I will be able to obtain the required documents within the USCIS-set 87 day limit.

This still doesn't mean I'm in the clear as such, as there is still an interview and an assessment as to my "good faith" status, but it does mean that six whole months have passed since the panic of February when I realized just how complicated things could get due to North Carolina state-specific laws. Add to that the fact that everything was bona fide, without a doubt done in good faith, and then collapsed around me beyond my control, and I'm feeling a whole lot better about bureaucracy right now. Not confident, not presuming anything, but certainly not as crappy as 24 weeks ago.

This date seemed so, so far away back in the spring. 182 days on, and today I can hardly believe I'm looking at life starting afresh. That's possibly a dramatic interpretation, but in true Rogerson style, I'm throwing a bloody big party next weekend (that has been planned since February, regardless of how August was going to be looking), to celebrate life moving on. It's time to get exuberant, however small the triumph. The numbers may have seemed insurmountable but, like so many things this past year, they have not been.

Numbers that have helped during this time have been my four amazing family members back home, my four incredible women right here in Charlotte, innumerable friends in two different countries I can consider home, two wonderful fuzzballs with whom I share my house and my walks and most of my life, and one fantastic job filled, again, with too many fantastic people to count. I may not do math very well, but these are numbers I truly understand.

This blog, then, is likely to move away from numbers and back to words. With 7.184 billion people on the planet, it's about time I got back to focusing on being among them, in a country I face not alone, but as an independent woman who's still in the first three years of living abroad. It's time for new adventures, and I for one can't wait.

Friday, 4 July 2014

We're all somewhere in the middle

Here we go...
The next phase of paperwork is done. I've submitted the I-751 (removal of conditions) with around 400 supporting documents via my attorney, my application was accepted, $590 has been taken from my checking account for the filing fee, and I've received confirmation and a letter detailing my biometrics appointment for mid-July. My right to work has thus been extended for another year and HR have updated my contract. I spent a lovely afternoon at the DMV (!) renewing my driver license this week, and am now all set until I have to file my waiver (providing the timing works out and I don't get an RFE too early). So that concludes the USCIS update. Just have to sit tight now and try not to watch the clock and/or over-think the next stages and cause myself a mild heart attack.

This is what love looks like.
In between paperwork preparation and emotional maintenance, there have been some lovely travels since I last wrote, namely visiting my wonderful MumBun (a work colleague from back home, but more than that, one of my dearest friends), as she and her husband flew to NYC and I was able to join them for a long weekend. Secondly, I took a vacation (yes! First vacation Stateside) to Wilmington, NC. The photos from the trip are here on the QE Facebook page. It was a really great experience to see another part of the state, not to mention spending some time by the water. And the dogs joined, too! They were less keen on the water... Finally, I had the huge privilege and joy of not only attending but capturing the wedding of two of my most beloved friends here, my old roomies Cathy and Brit, in Charleston, SC. The day was absolutely magical, and I couldn't be happier for them. Some of the pics are posted on the My Other Limb Facebook page, if you want to check them out!

In terms of how I am... I can't say I've been 100% (ha!). The medications I was originally prescribed caused all kinds of awful side effects, so my doctor has switched me to three different ones to try to help with depression, anxiety, and sleep issues. The former does seem to be abating, but at the cost of panic attacks and generalized anxiety being increased, oddly enough. My sleep is definitely the most improved of the three, and that's having some benefits during the day, of course. I've been struggling with self-concept, security, and my identity as a whole. I seem to fall down a lot (figuratively, though those who know me will also know I tend to also literally fall down a lot, although the two things aren't related) and I often feel lost. But this week I've been consciously trying harder to find and accept myself as I am now, and to look at the positives more intentionally as much as is possible. I'm not really sure what to say other than I cognitively know that I am very fortunate with the support and love and opportunities I have in my life, and while only I can truly help myself back to who I want to be, focusing on those things and making an effort to take the same care of myself as others do of me can only be a step forward. We'll see how things go. There is always hope.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Bloody, but unbowed

Recovery is a funny state. It's been a couple of months since I last wrote anything for QE - or anything at all, for that matter - and during that time it seems like there has been greater change than in the seven months prior to this more recent past.

As per my usual writing style, I don't want to get too personal because it's not really the place. This is an expat blog, not a venting ground or somewhere to bleed. However, I'm a strong advocate for sharing experiences that might be helpful to others, particularly when it concerns mental health, and in spite of the possible cost of compromising one's privacy. Compassion, shared experience, and reduction of stigma are all more important than the latter, in my opinion (getting personal already, see?!).

About six weeks ago I went to see my doctor for my annual. I asked if I could also discuss my insomnia issues, because it'd been some months (in fact, it had been almost seven) since I had been able to truly rest. I either couldn't get to sleep, couldn't stay asleep, or would be so fitfully asleep that restoration just wasn't happening. My body was starting to fall apart and just the thought of trying to sleep was making me anxious. Focus and energy during the day were all but gone - I needed to do something.

Because I've dealt with insomnia on and off for almost all my adult life, for one reason or another, I thought perhaps I could "reset" my system with a short-term medical solution; that some sleeping pills would kick-start a new period of decent sleep hygiene, where I wouldn't fear going to bed or get so worked up if I did keep waking up in the middle of the night. However, when I spoke to my doctor, his understanding and compassion absolutely blew my ideas out of the water. He explained that - as he knew I was aware, with a background in mental health and a passion for neuropsychology - insomnia is not an illness, it is a symptom. He then asked me a few more questions: how was life generally, what had been going on recently, how many times a day was I crying? As I answered the questions, I still felt like my answers made perfect sense: life was generally unpredictable and there were some days I didn't want to be conscious, but other days I could sense the joy I used to feel about living as though it were just out of sight, about to come into view at any moment. Things that had been happening recently had caused me indescribable and intensely confusing pain, but that was to be expected, given the nature of how everything broke down. I felt like the fact that I could still sense happiness and see that it is possible to appreciate positive things that happen even in this dark period meant that I was simply traversing some rough territory at that point. I'd been through worse, so I knew I would survive. I just wanted to sleep. It would be okay if I could just sleep.

That last question, though? I was crying about five times a day. Without fail, and often without an obvious precursor, and always with no control as to when. There it was: evidence of a real issue. And even then I objected: I've been through this kind of struggle before; my brain plays tricks on me but I know I can fight it; I'm in nowhere near the black space I've inhabited previously. 

Then came the coup de grâce, "Eve, just because you feel you've been through worse doesn't mean that you're not suffering." I think I'll remember that forever, and the palpable relief that came right after hearing it. I was allowed to say I didn't have any more fight in me; that I was drained and without hope and it was, in fact, all too much. That I wanted to let it envelop me; sitting in the darkness was starting to become a choice rather than a consequence; that I couldn't cope with the wreck that had become of me and how my conflicting emotions were torturing me on their terrifying daily roller coaster. That my anger and frustration and disgust were eating me up. That perhaps I just wouldn't be okay again, that the pain was so acute that I just didn't want to be anymore, and that was just something I had to accept.

But fuck that. Fuck it, and fuck it hard. That's not who I am.

The doctor's advice was a course of two medications combined, designed to elevate mood and help with sleep at the same time. He diagnosed me with 'adjustment disorder' (which I feel I should be able to make funny somehow because it just sounds so silly), otherwise known as situational or reactive depression. The way I was feeling had been going on too long to just be sadness, he said. Although he knew I was resistant to taking medication because I felt my emotional state was logically justifiable (yes, I just wrote that), and because I did not and do not want to be on some plateau of middle-ground feeling neither joy nor pain, he advised it was worth trying for a few months to see if it could help me to be peaceful. I relented. Peace is something I knew I needed.

I'm now in the sixth week of treatment, and about 10 days ago (after several weeks of some seriously spectacular side effects as my body adjusted), I noticed that I wasn't dreading the day as soon as I woke up. It wasn't so much that I was happy about the new day, but more that I sensed the absence of my usual trepidation and hopelessness upon waking. I had a good day. I had two together, back-to-back. I was starting to catch up to that joy in the distance - it was in view. By this point I'd already had so many ups and downs that I had learned to take each day at a time. It's very important not to assume you are suddenly fine and then punish yourself when you realize you're still working your way uphill the very next day. If you have a good day - hell, if you have a good hour - then appreciate that. It doesn't have to mean anything. It was good, and that's good. There's nothing more to it.

Keeping that in mind, I've now had more good days than bad this week, and that's the first time that's happened in months and months. I'm more energetic. I'm listening to my friends again rather than finding it hard to focus on anything other than my own misery and need for solitude. I'm smiling a lot. I'm connecting again, and I'm softer. My anger and deep sadness have made way for an acceptance of sorts and, although those negative and defensive feelings are definitely still there, they aren't aggressive in the way there were before. I'm not hurting myself further by harboring emotions that contradict who I want to be, who I am as a person. As Jung says, "I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become".

It's more than that, though. It's recognizing that life is a path, and there's no end point (except for the final full stop that is actual death). There's no ultimate goal of total healing or wholeness, just a string of (often marvelous) events that we get to experience while spinning on this relatively tiny planet. So, while I mean no disrespect to Jung, I think that Maya Angelou put it better:

"I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it."

This, along with what the wonderful Cheryl Strayed suggests to the left, is where I believe the true healing will be - where it is starting now. We are, as animals, a collection of cells and experiences. You quite simply are what you go through; you are changed by what happens to you because you react and learn in response to those events. But that isn't all you are. There are choices as to how you apply that learning, once you get to a point where you feel able to engage again. That's what I'm advocating now. With the right help and support (which may or may not be medication; I'm not pushing one method over another but rather saying that getting some sort of help is so important) you can be pulled to a place where genuine recovery begins. You can start to process what you're going through and accept it as part of your experience of the world, while not letting it define who you are in it. Beyond this place of wrath and tears is the possibility that each tomorrow could be a good day. Here's to that tomorrow.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

There, there baby, it's just textbook stuff

A quick update, post-attorney:

  • He's handled lots of cases like this, and did not show any concerns about the case itself. It is clear that Ben and I had a genuine relationship and have a huge amount of admissible evidence to support that fact.
  • Timing-wise, I need to file my petition to remove conditions on my residency as late as possible (towards the end of my green card's validity) with a cover letter explaining that Ben and I are separated. Later filing should allow me time to file for divorce (see below).. 
  • I will then receive an RFE (Request For Evidence) asking me to provide the USCIS with a decree absolute, proving my divorce, and request a waiver for the joint filing requirement (due to NC law, I cannot file for divorce until Ben and I have been separated for a minimum of one year).
  • That is where the timing issue comes in: I will have a limited time (87 days) to provide the USCIS with the documents requested from the date of the RFE. The date of the RFE is not guaranteed. It could be issued as quickly as six weeks after my petition is received. It could be months longer than that. 
  • If I receive the RFE before I will be able to get the decree absolute, then I'll be in a bit of a sticky spot. It is considered unlikely this will happen, but it is possible.
  • If it does happen that I can't get the decree absolute to the USCIS within the time frame, I will have to write to them and explain why I cannot give them the documentation they need. I'm not sure how this works exactly, but I am given to understand that they will be aware of state-specific marital laws, and that they will simply issue another RFE for the decree absolute when it is available. I have to check on this, however. ***Update 2/25/14*** Two attorneys and the USCIS helpline have confirmed that no extensions are granted for RFE requests for I-751 petitions. If you can't get the documents they ask for in time, the deny your petition and send a Notice to Appear.
  • Either way, when they receive the decree absolute, they will waive the joint filing of my petition and consider me as a divorced individual who came to the USA on a K-1 visa.
  • This will mean that I will likely be called for an interview, during which they will assess whether the marriage was entered into in good faith and not for the purpose of circumventing US immigration laws (if Ben and I were still together, it is unlikely we would have been called for interview but had we been, we would have to prove that it was entered into in good faith and that we had a genuine, ongoing relationship - but clearly they will not be assessing this in my case). If the interviewer accepts that we entered into the marriage in good faith, the conditions will be removed from my residency and I will receive a 10-year, unconditional green card. Should I want to, I can apply for citizenship five years after receiving this, I believe.

So this year is going to be a little stressful. I keep reminding myself that these kind of things happen all the time (marital breakdown is hardly an unusual occurrence) so it won't be out of the ordinary for the USCIS to deal with a case like mine; that the timing while a little uncomfortable is likely to work out; that the USCIS are familiar with varying state laws; that there is no need to worry about things I have no control over; that there is no need to worry because there isn't actually anything wrong in terms of how our marriage happened (other than the resultant pain of having to go through how wonderful our relationship was when we were together - it's like breaking up all over again, and I've had an actual, physical chest pain since the beginning of the week which I am sure is associated with having had to do this). 

There it is, then. Not impossible. Not unusual. And yet entirely horrible in my head.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

With my memories and photographs

Warning: Boring, technical, nitpicking content.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, it's that time again: immigration paperwork! I currently have what's known as a 'conditional green card', which means it's a green card with a two-year lifespan (the norm for anyone on an initial K-1 visa to receive post-wedding). Therefore, three months before it expires, I have to apply to have the conditions removed by way of providing evidence about my life here and will then, if the petition is successful, be granted a 10-year, unconditional green card - with the option of applying to become a US citizen after a certain period of time.

As learned from previous experiences of providing all the documents ever, I've already got every available piece of evidence listed already lined up; I've written a cover letter with a full contents breakdown of aforementioned evidence; I've practiced filling in the form (the I-751); I've checked and re-checked the fee required ($590); and I've also retained the services of an attorney, at least for the initial stages of the process, due to my having to file as married while Ben and I are and remain separated. This is the only 'relationship status' option available to me on the I-751 form, as we are not divorced, I am not widowed, I have not been subject to abuse, and returning to the UK would not cause me 'extreme hardship', which are the only allowed categories were I to file to waive what's known as a 'joint petition' and instead file on my own.

Under NC marital law, a couple cannot file for divorce until they have been separated (in separate residences) for at least one year, and so due to this state-specific legal nuance and consequent mismatched timing of this window with that of my green card's expiration, I am bound to file my USCIS petition as a married person (legally this is sound) because there is no other option. Were we able to file for divorce earlier, I would then be able to apply to the USCIS for a waiver for the joint filing requirement, include my divorce decree as part of my documentation (just then having to prove that the relationship was entered into in good faith and provide proof of its existence up to the point of divorce), and ask for my petition for removal of conditions on my green card to be considered based on me and me alone. This is not uncommon, and other people in my situation who got married and/or live in other states have followed this path, as they are not required to wait a full year before filing for divorce.

So, that is the cause of my filing confusion (not to mention anxiety), and why I will be seeing my attorney tomorrow to work out how best to approach this particular nuance of North Carolina law. I always aim to be honest and straightforward, because that's who I am and, especially in this case, because I haven't done anything wrong. Presenting a joint petition when I am separated makes me anxious, and I do not want to appear to be misrepresenting myself. I did not move to the US with anything other than happiness, hope, and a sense of magic about what Ben and I were embarking on as a couple. The US, and Charlotte in particular, have become so important to me, but they were not the reason I came here in the first place. This just happened to be where Ben was from. That the Queen City has since become my heart's home is a beautiful - and now immensely soothing - sidebar.

I'm told I'm probably worrying about nothing; that cases like this are seen all the time; that it may not even be called into question and will simply be an administrative matter that will be more annoying than stressful; and that if it is called into question that there are several appeals processes I can follow. I know this is a legitimate, genuine case all with good intent and plenty of evidence to show good faith and a bona fide relationship - because that's what was there. But the idea that my staying here could be tenuous, that I could be torn from my friends, dogs, house, job, home now because I have no real claim on my own life here... I think I'm dealing with a different kind of heartbreak at the mere possibility.

Friday, 14 February 2014

You're why I feel found

I meant to write something for QE in January, I really did, but the month sort of got away with me. In between my family returning to the UK, the spring semester starting up at work, making all the bookings for 10/26 adventures this year, and the ridiculousness that became my friends' plans for my birthday celebrations (or 'Birthmukkah', as my beautiful friend Nico called it!), there wasn't much time for writing. 

At the Wine Vault at the end of 'Birthmukkah'
L-R: Jess (wife); Nico; Lesley; Steven;
Josh; Sanya; Brad; Marissa; Cathy & Britt.

The Sisterhood of the Clams:
Christine (Neldie), me, Lesley, and Cassie. 

All the girls took a day and planned something, including Wine & Design, a day trip to Salisbury, dinner at my place, and a surprise faerie feast, all over a long weekend. So, what could have been a really shoddy birthday turned out to be one of the best I've ever had, and I have the beautiful people above to thank for making it so wonderful. They truly make this place a community, a family, and a home to me.

On top of that, I've been to Asheville to visit the lovely Rae and caught up with an old friend and now fellow expat (the fabulously talented Oli Brown, who was performing there - small world!), finally went to the Biltmore, celebrated my two year friendiversary with Nico by attending a local performing arts comedy evening, topped up my massage points by way of an evening at Urbana with my neldie Christine, and made several new friends, all of whom I'm really enjoying getting to know. So even though I have moments, hours, even consecutive days like this:

Can't be mad when it's so perfect, can I? Thanks, PostSecret.

...I'm generally doing well. I have the best few weeks coming up too, the highlight of which will be my beautiful "wife" Jess (see above) moving in as my permanent housemate! I'm so excited. We've lived together once before but just for about 10 days - which were brilliant! - so this time it's going to be superawesometastic. Which is now a word.

Per my last post, it's been snowing in Charlotte since Tuesday afternoon, and there was actually a genuine need for the three consequent snow days we've had this week. There's at least 10 inches of snow on the ground in my area, and apparently south Charlotte is even worse. Add to that the fact that it's compacted and iced up overnight, plus that NC is not known for its skilled inclement weather drivers, and you have a recipe for winter wonderland disasters. So I've been at home for the last three days, snuggled up with Bertie and Satine (although sometimes not so snuggled, as we've been out to play in it, of course!), and generally enjoying resting and catching up on all the things I've not quite got around to when I should... Like this blog. *sheepish grin* Standby for an immigration-related post soon!

My furbabies in the snow.

Me in the snow!