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Surviving life in the “deep field”: No thanks to HQ

Sunday, October 14, 2007 by Marianne Elliott

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On Friday night I was in Kabul, enjoying a radical change of scene from Ghor. We had a dinner party to celebrate the upcoming almost-nuptuals of a colleague (she and her partner are travelling to NZ to register their partnership as a civil union – I had a tiny little bit to do with the policy process behind the Civil Union Act, so I felt very happy to see it being put to good use).

At this dinner party I sat next to a new friend, and Australian who grew up in Papua New Guinea, where I also spent a few years as a child. He is a straight-talking guy who I always feel I can take entirely at face value. He decided to tell me that he had heard rumours coming out of my organisation that my employers and colleagues were concerned about my mental health up in Ghor after receiving (and I'm quoting here) "erratic emails" from me.

As he told me this I felt an immediate emotional reaction. A wave of righteously indignant anger rose up from my stomach. Angry Frida was yelling in my head "how dare they!", "you must fight back", "your professional reputation is at stake".

I thought immediately of a friend and colleague who had likewise been posted to one of the very remote provincial offices for the last six months of his time in Afghanistan. Everytime I came into Kabul people in HQ would take me aside and ask me how he was doing. His emails, they would whisper conspiratorially, are a bit odd. I told them then what I think I may have to tell them now –

"If you send someone to live and work alone in a remote office under difficult conditions and then get an 'odd' email from them, get on the fricken phone and call them to see if they are alright. DO NOT simply start gossiping about them."

I am very honest in my emails, even with work colleagues. Last week I had three really bad days. Two days when I literally could not face getting out of bed. Instead of lying to my HQ boss I told him in an email. Listen – I said – the weekly report will not be ready on time because I am having a moment of being completely overwhelmed and I think I may just go back to bed and cry.

I know that this kind of honesty is very rare in this business, and that keeping up the appearance of "toughness" is highly valued. But that is not my style. I'm not tough, I do get knocked over. But I am very resilient and I will get up again.

So – here is what I plan to say to my colleagues/employers when I get into the Kabul office on Tuesday.

"If you get an email from me saying that I'm about to spend a day in bed then do feel free to give me a call and see if I think I'll be in bed for just the one day or whether this is a more serious/long term condition. But do not leave me up there with no communication from you (and no fricken care packages despite your repeated promises to send them) and spend your Friday morning sitting in a cafe in Kabul gossiping about whether or not I'm losing it."

Does that seem fair to you? I think that angry Frida has receeded sufficiently to allow rational Frida to get the better of the drafting here, but now that I know my mental health is under the microscope I'm a little more concerned about not letting my emotional response get the better of me.

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19 Responses to "Surviving life in the “deep field”: No thanks to HQ"

  1. cath says:

    miss frida, how brave i think you are… to have a bad day, accept that you are going to go back to bed and cry, and to communicate it to those who need to know…
    but how unusual it must be for so many that someone might actually admit that!! it makes sense to me that a message of that variety may be interpreted as an “erratic email” (i’m sure that many people in your situation would not only not realise what was going on with their emotions – but try to ‘hide’ it if they did)… but if indeed ‘they’ are worried about your mental health, then ‘they’ should surely attempt to do more about it than gossip!! for goodness sake – angry frida, in my opinion, has every right to rear her head!!!
    i do hope that you’re ok!!
    much love! x

  2. Margaret says:

    Emotional honesty is what this patriarchal world needs. I am sorry that your colleagues reacted to you this way, Frida. Remember, it is their issue, not yours. You are the one in Ghor and perhaps they envy your courage and your ability to show emotion. And there is nothing wrong with a day in bed if you need it. Last year, I developed bell’s palsy and couldn’t close my right eye from the stress of my work. Now I take time off when I need it. I don’t care. I do my work and I do it well. Just as I imagine you do. Unfortunately, your work environment is more male oriented than mine. Turn it around and realize that their gossip is coming from a weakness on their part. What power do they really have over you? If you need to e-mail and vent more, you know how to reach me. You are not alone, Frida.

  3. katie says:

    Your response seems not only fair, but both appropriate and honest! There’s nothing worse than hearing a false summation of yourself, especially from someone you actually like/care about. Remember: ” Nothing is so strong as gentleness. Nothing is so gentle as real strength.” – Frances de Sales. Give ’em hell Frida. And where can I send you a care package?

  4. Mandi says:

    Sounds spot on to me!

  5. Lynn says:

    Yeah, why is it so much easier to gossip than to allow oneself to care and show concern? I think you should spell that out to HQ. They’ve done this before and will do it again without someone taking the time and energy to show them a better way.
    Thanks to your book recommendations I’ve been reading Pema Chodron’s Start Where You Are and all I can say is be gentle with yourself.

  6. Swirly says:

    I am blown away by all of this – by the fact that so many people did make the choice to say these things about you instead of checking in with you to make sure you are OK. I will finish this thought in an email to you right now…too much to write here. xoxo

  7. clara says:

    The angry or emotional me usually handles these things all wrong so my advice may not be appreciated. I do admire others who can laugh at this type reaction to your email and turn it around into something positive.
    You were simply being honest and straightforward and there is nothing wrong with that. I wish all that gossip didn’t happen and you could go back to the feeling of the first paragraph where you sounded like you were enjoying yourself. Hold your resilient head high and keep being you.

  8. Becca says:

    I am constantly astounded by people’s willingness to gossip about others; but, in this case, it is more than gossip. Your co-workers have some responsibility for your well-being. They should have cared enough to call you immediately and discover how you were/are. Alone in a demanding, challenging location means you have to have support from those who sent you. I think your email to them sounds very fair, honest and extremely well thought through and sane!

  9. Becca says:

    I am constantly astounded by people’s willingness to gossip about others; but, in this case, it is more than gossip. Your co-workers have some responsibility for your well-being. They should have cared enough to call you immediately and discover how you were/are. Alone in a demanding, challenging location means you have to have support from those who sent you. I think your email to them sounds very fair, honest and extremely well thought through and sane!

  10. susanna says:

    WTF! Goshdarnit, I want to fly over to Kabul right this very minute and throw their espressos on the floor and give them a piece of my mind. You’re handling the gossiping with more grace and level-headedness than I would have, Frida. I think your email is straightforward and will not offend anyone. Hopefully they’ll get the point(yeah, you ARE in remote Afghanistan afterall!) and call you on the phone to apologize or at least to see if you are OK and to say that a package of organic dark chocolate and a dvd of Heroes (befitting you) will be arriving to your post within days. Hang in there!
    PS – I’m so looking forward to meeting you later this month! Hooray!

  11. sassy says:

    Sounds like common workplace politics, talking behind someone rather than checking on them. However, your job being rather uncommon, I am suprised. I spent time in Pakistan and India, and remember sometimes struggling with simple things due to the heaviness of the athmosphere and life around me. You are surely stronger than you realize. Being honest is proof to that.

  12. christine says:

    Hey Frida – with all of this to contend with I think the universe was very much on your side in lining up your visa and passport….what more can be said about your supervisors that hasn’t already been said…what is so obvious to you and to most women who read this is beyond them…go enjoy your r&r, regroup and breath.
    Christine

  13. Paris Parfait says:

    Excellent response, Frida! It never ceases to amaze me how in situations like this people talk to each other and worry and wonder, rather than asking the person involved what’s going on. It is so unfair – good job that guy told you about it, so you know what you’re dealing with and can combat the idle gossip. Sometimes it is really all too much and infuriating! Sending a big hug your way, you wonderful strong woman, you! xo

  14. Paris Parfait says:

    Excellent response, Frida! It never ceases to amaze me how in situations like this people talk to each other and worry and wonder, rather than asking the person involved what’s going on. It is so unfair – good job that guy told you about it, so you know what you’re dealing with and can combat the idle gossip. Sometimes it is really all too much and infuriating! Sending a big hug your way, you wonderful strong woman, you! xo

  15. Lin Malan says:

    Hi Frida,
    I’m so proud of you!!!
    I know how difficult it is to be your rational self, when you think that your angry self can say EVERYTHING just sooo much better!!!! But then you b r e a t h, D E E E E E E E P P P P P, and remember that everyone doesn’t think/feel the way you do…and that there really is another world out there….and they do not respond the same to a situation as you do…
    i say again…I’m so proud of you…and to be able to get up, realise that today is a day for bed, and to choose to get back in bed!? High five!
    Thinking of you often.
    Here is something I read which I think you will appreciate…
    As you go on in this world…
    always BELIEVE in your dreams.
    Keep looking forward to the future
    to all you might be. Don’t let old mistakes
    or misfortunes hold you down.
    Learn things. Learn something new every day.
    Be INTERESTED in others and what they might TEACH you.
    BELIEVE in yourself. So long as you are TRUE to the STRENGTH within your own heart…you can never go wrong.
    Big hug…
    Lin

  16. Mardougrrl says:

    i think that was a perfect response. It’s so disheartening to see this small, petty side of people, no, even people who are doing good things (like your colleagues)? Ugh…take care of yourself, dear. I hope you feel better/more centered soon.

  17. HiK says:

    Girl, I thought Afghans gossiped alot…until I met the expats here!
    Seriously, out of control.
    I hate crap like this, they just want to add drama to their lives…
    I hope we get to have coffee today my friend. You didn’t sound odd to me in any of your emails, just in touch with yourself and very strong.
    Love,
    HiK

  18. ceanandjen says:

    Okay, angry Jen is bubbling to the surface after reading this, because it is unfair and inappropriate on so many levels. They may expect tough, and you are tough…you would not be there if you were not. That being said, you are also HUMAN, and without your emotion, compassion and acceptance and honesty about your bad days, you also would not be there.
    I find it amazing that your mental well being would be questioned in anyway, never mind behind your back in this manner. I applaud you for being honest with HQ, and I especially applaud you for being honest with yourself, because how do you go on and continue to due good if you do not acknowledge those bad days and tend to them?
    I think that what you have crafted as as a response is extremely level headed,appropriate and rational. How easy it is for them, who are not in the situation that you are in to make judgements and accussations but then not truly follow up on your well being.
    Okay, getting off my soapbox here. 🙂
    Continue being you; there is no other way. And, you are amazing.
    xoxoxo

  19. melanie says:

    this sounds like an appropriate response to me. I hope it turns a leaf in your relations with them.
    happy travels

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