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Life Update: Life in Australia One Year On

A social distancing sign beside a walking trail in Melbourne.

Well, nomads, it's been a year since we moved back to Australia from Japan, and while I had always planned on writing this update a year on, I, like everyone else on the planet, never thought it would look anything like this.

Like I usually do when I write an update post, I went back and read what I wrote a year ago, to see how it compares to things now, and, as suspected, I was in a flood of tears. I was taken right back to how hard it was to leave, all the small things that felt like the biggest things when faced in the depths of heartbreak.

Even the fact that the meal we had at Narita Airport was uncharacteristically terrible, just made me feel ‘Why? After everything, couldn't the airport experience at least not have felt like someone was piercing my heart with a knife?' I feel that raw emotion just as much as if it was yesterday.

As I told you then, things were so rushed right up to the moment of getting on the plane, that there was no time to say goodbye the way I had wanted, let alone process anything. That made things especially hard as I didn't feel at peace with the decision when we left.

I remember on the flight one of the flight attendants, whose Australian accent sounded so distinct to my ears, asked if he could get me a birthday drink. The birthday that I was supposed to be celebrating just 48 hours earlier, but was in a sea of final admin tasks.

Instead of having a last hurrah in our beloved Tokyo, I remember emerging from the post office, where we had been trying to post the few very important and meaningful things we wanted to take back to Australia, in the dark of night. After having already been there for hours, the post office had now already closed, and knowing that it would take more hours for them to work out our boxes, the staff asked us to return the next day to complete the transaction (which ended up being a multi-day saga). I remember the staff leading us through the back filled with parcels and out onto the elevated delivery dock where the delivery trucks pull up to drop off and collect mail, because the front doors were already automatically locked.

Getting in the car as we drove back to our friends' place we were staying at during the final days, tears started streaming down my cheeks knowing that my birthday had already slipped away and with it our chance to take in the city and its lights one last time. We only had one more full day in the country, the boxes weren't sent yet, and we still had so much more to do. Hai looked over to me, “I'm so sorry,” he said. “I just wanted to do one thing (fun/commemorative). It's not just about my birthday.” “I know,” he said. “I know,” as he put his hand on me knee at the traffic stop.

On the plane, I was so dazed for a moment when the flight attendant dropped the reference to my birthday that my reaction was a little delayed and clearly not what he had been expecting. “Oh,” I said, still gathering myself. “It was your birthday recently, right?” he said enthusiastically. “Yes, it was. Thank you.” “Can I get you something to celebrate?” while also rattling off a stack of alcoholic beverages he could get for me.

Not knowing that this all felt far from a celebration nor that I was pregnant, it seems, I felt bad for meeting his middle of the night enthusiasm with an order of plain juice and water. While I barely drink at all and obviously not while pregnant, how I wanted to tell him that a stiff drink would actually be the order of the day if I could have it.

When I posted the last update, it had been just a couple of weeks since we'd arrived back in Melbourne and as you'd expect, we were still feeling odd about everything. Yet, we had no choice but to hit the ground running. Not only was I quite far along into the pregnancy and needed to slip back into the health care system here, but I'm also Rhesus negative, and needed to get an Anti-D injection ASAP.

If you're not sure what that means, it's about blood type, specifically the Rhesus factor (RhD), and its impact on pregnancy. In addition to our blood group (A, B, O, AB), we are either positive or negative, which indicates if we have a protein known as ‘D antigen’ on the surface of our red blood cells. Being RhD negative isn't usually a problem, unless you are pregnant and your baby could be RhD positive. Small amounts of the baby's blood may enter the mother’s bloodstream during pregnancy or birth, triggering an immune response and the mother producing antibodies against the rhesus positive cells.

In essence, your body will try to attack and destroy the baby's blood cells, which can lead to serious health issues and even premature labour or stillbirth. But these complications are now uncommon if Anti-D is administered. In Australia, this injection is given to RhD negative mothers at 28 and 34 weeks, and also after birth if the baby turns out to be RhD positive. I was basically bang on 28 weeks when we arrived back, and while there is a little leeway, I needed to be seen as soon as possible.

That meant an appointment with my GP just a few hours after landing (which I had arranged by phone from Japan) to get the necessary referral to get the appointment I needed at the hospital for the Anti-D and everything else. Once I had the first Anti-D, it was a relief, as even the fancy clinic I had been going to in Tokyo didn't really know much about it, and that was one of the things that was stressful for me about the possibility of proceeding with the pregnancy in Japan. In Australia it was standard and ‘Anti-D' even had its own little box on appointment slips. I felt a lot better that at least that was now in order.

But those final couple of months of pregnancy were pretty manic with things both expected and unexpected. Hospital visits, tests, childbirth education classes, clearing and cleaning an entire house worth of stuff (a long story that had definitely not been on our list – hello having to re-do everything we just did in Tokyo!), researching and buying baby necessities, maternity clothes and nursing bras, taxes, and an epic battle with our packages.

Yep, remember those packages we had spent so much time packing and arranging to be sent, giving up our final days in Tokyo so that we could keep these precious few things from our Japan lives? Well, one day most of the packages we had sent arrived. I had hoped this would lift my spirits, to be reunited with those pieces of Japan, but it was heartbreak all over again.

I remember sitting on the floor with the open boxes sobbing, just holding onto a pillow case I had kept that still smelled exactly like our old apartment. And then crying more that some of the contents came damaged. The boxes had clearly been thrown around. While there was damage and we had insurance, we figured we were going to have to write them off since they weren't worth much in monetary value.

The other two packages, I could write a thesis about the ordeal that ensued, but let me just give you the TL;DR here. These were the more expensive items on which we made sure to get extra insurance to cover should anything go wrong. And well, everything went wrong.

My Mac Pro was bent out of shape, warped, broken beyond repair. The other electronics ended up being stuck in customs in Sydney for the longest time and took many hours of phone calls, forms, physical visits to government offices and even to Tullamarine Airport before an email finally got the goods released and sent on to Melbourne. Of course, after all that, it was damaged too. And we couldn't even claim the insurance from Japan Post as Australia Post did not approve it, despite it being a genuine claim and AusPost staff admitting the damage was “significant”. Like it ‘had been dropped many times from a great height onto concrete' type significant.

So after all that time spent in Japan and then many weeks in Australia spent dealing with it, we were now worse off than if we'd just given away every last item in Tokyo for free.

I waddled out of the post office 9 months pregnant, Hai and I having just picked up our damaged items (the only thing left to do), tears welling in my eyes, knowing that this other piece of our Japan, also expensive and important to our work, was now as broken as my heart.

Still, our focus had to remain on our impending arrival. And finally she did arrive safely one week after her due date. She did end up being Rhesus positive so that was another injection for me to avoid the build-up of antibodies to protect a subsequent pregnancy, should I ever have one.

She was and is magic, and given all that 2020 has thrown at us, among all the challenges, her giggles and growing personality have been a welcome distraction and brought smiles to our faces on even the hardest of days.

I'm not going to lie though, those first few weeks of new parenthood were especially hard. Not only are you suddenly looking after someone who is dependent on you for everything, while you are completely exhausted and still recovering, but Maika was not gaining enough weight those first few days and we had to work really hard at breastfeeding. We had four home visits within the first week before we were graduated out of hospital care and then into the community health system. We got to join a local Parents Group and meet other new parents, which was really lovely. I'm so glad we got to have that support before face-to-face appointments and gatherings became something that we so revere now.

Things were getting easier, both physically and mentally. We had found our groove and even though we had to adjust and readjust constantly, we were doing alright. And did I say she is magic? But then between Christmas and New Year I injured my back, and it turns out this was just the tip of the iceberg for what 2020 had in store.

It happened suddenly one day and I now know this was as a result of abdominal separation from childbirth. Essentially because my abdominals were so weakened, my back was trying to overcompensate for that and was taking all the load. This was the beginning of what has been the most debilitating injury I have ever experienced. I went from one moment being fine to can't move or speak, and the back spasms, oh, the back spasms.

Getting in and out of bed or the car or a chair, holding anything, anything at all, became the most gargantuan of tasks. I couldn't pick Maika up, I needed help and a good half an hour to be able to maneuver myself out of bed and get to the bathroom, which is a huge problem when you're a new mum still recovering from childbirth with pelvic floor issues.

I cried so many times when Maika would wake up wanting a feed and I couldn't get to her immediately. “I'm so sorry, baby,” I would sob as I shuffled inch by inch, leaning up against Hai and walls and doors. On many occasions I cried, “I'd prefer to be in labour than this.” At least there is an end to that. Things didn't improve at all. In fact they got a lot worse for a long, long time before they got any better.

All of this was happening amid Australia's bush fire crisis, and the haze from the smoke blanketed Melbourne. There was one morning when Melbourne had the worst air quality of any city in the world. So we were already needing to stay inside as much as possible and wear masks to avoid breathing in the toxic air.

It was so bad at a point that postal workers couldn't deliver mail. I still have a gift for our postie from January for saving a package from Amsterdam that would have been sent back because of an incorrect address that I haven't been able to give him because I haven't had contact with him for months. It's still sitting on the shelf here thanking him for that and everything he was doing to help us continue getting mail during the fires. How long ago that seems now. Little did we know that this would just be a precursor to what corona would be having us doing just a short time later.

My back injury was impacting every aspect of my life, and caring for a newborn on top of that, it was hard. I went to a slew of medical professionals – GPs, women's health physios, remedial massage therapists, an osteopath, and it's been such a long, tough road.

One thing that was really helping me was going to the swimming pool. I got a pool membership and went every day without fail. I had to get through this, I just had to. I wanted to pick my daughter up. I wanted to play with her. And her needing me was the only thing that got me through the pain on those hard days. There were times when I could not move in the pool. I'd be at the pool's edge battling spasm after spasm for twenty minutes and would literally have to take the most minuscule sidesteps until I got back to the shallow end. I couldn't use any of the steps in the middle of the pool because I quite literally couldn't get up them.

First I only did a couple of walking half laps to the point where I could still stand – going to the deep end was not an option as I couldn't even doggie paddle at this point. I eventually was able to do ten of those half laps, and made that my goal each session, and then sat in the spa with the jets on my back for 15 minutes after. I remember having to brace for the pain just to lift the lock on the gate to the spa area.

Author takes a post-swim photo of herself reflected in the windows at the indoor swimming pool. Behind her other patrons are doing laps in the pool.

One day as I was counting my ten slow walking laps, a woman coming from the opposite direction on the other side of the lane stopped me to tell me that I was doing a great job, and said that she had been paralyzed too in 2003 and had begun walking again in that pool as well. I was so grateful to her for saying that and I also thought that I must look like I'm in really bad shape for her to say I was paralyzed TOO.

It turned out she was very religious and said that she was brought back by Jesus and that he loves me too. It could have easily become an annoying encounter, sort of akin to having Jehovah's Witnesses show up at your door, being trapped with someone who is pressuring you to go to their church. Even though I don't believe in any one religion, when she said “Jesus loves you, sis” I simply replied “You too!” with a big smile and kept on going.

We ended up side-by-side again in the spa. I already knew she was the talkative type and she already started talking to me before I had even sat down. But I just rolled with it and eventually an unsuspecting German tourist saved me by sitting on the other side of her. He had a tattoo on his back, the woman asked if it was Arabic. He said, “No, it's Elvish.” She looked confused. “You know, from the Lord of the Rings movie. It says that all you have to do is decide what to do with the time you have been given.” Of course that lended very nicely into her story about being saved by Jesus in 2003, which she retold to him too!

Apparently he had been travelling around NZ for 15 months and was now in Australia, fitting out a camper van and planning to do the same here. He had simply Googled the nearest swimming pool and here he was. I was reminded of travel and the spontaneity of those decisions. I realised that I had been missing that and his tattoo quote felt very poignant somehow.

All of that seems so quaint now, given where we are today, and travel being off the cards for the foreseeable future. I sometimes wonder what happened to that German tourist. Did he end up going back early? Is he still here somewhere in his camper van?

One day back at the pool, I was actually able to use a kickboard to lean forward and days later, swim to the other end of the pool. As I reached the deep end and was about to return back, a man who was at the water's edge there said, “Excuse me, hello.” I smiled and said hello back. “I couldn't help but notice that you've been coming every day. I just wanted to tell you, you are doing a great job, and to keep going. I've been so happy to see your transformation. I mean, you couldn't even walk, you couldn't even walk when you first started coming. And now you are swimming. It's quite unbelievable.”

It was the compliment from a stranger I didn't know I needed. It lifted my spirits instantly. I thanked him and explained that I had injured my back. “I wanted to talk to you before, but I didn't know if it would upset you. I thought, ‘My god, what has happened to this woman?' I thought you must have been in a terrible car accident. And I didn't know if you are friendly because I didn't see you smiling, but you are like me, you don't have much expression on your face. But when someone talks to you, you are very friendly and your smile is so nice.' I must have been channeling some true resting bitch face, but that's what pain does to you. All you can focus on is just getting through it and how much you are radiating ‘come talk to me' vibes isn't top of the list.

We ended up talking for twenty-five minutes, just holding onto the edge there at the deep end. He told me all about how he migrated from Serbia to Australia, his family and his grandson. It turned out that others had noticed my progress too and over the coming days and weeks I had several other conversations with people who noted I was a new regular and were working on a health issue at the pool too or had overcome one.

They told me about the best jets in the spa for a back injury and offered to switch spots with me when I got in so that I would heal faster or at least get some momentary symptomatic relief. I made friends and it started to feel like a community. An Australian man of Chinese descent always said hello and commented on how lovely Maika is. I looked forward to seeing him every day.

But then the coronavirus situation started becoming more and more concerning, and going to the pool with everyone putting their heads under water started to feel like a high-risk activity. Even before the pool officially closed due to Stage 3 lockdown, I didn't feel comfortable going the last couple of weeks beforehand.

There was even a day when a girl spat, yes spat, in the pool. Not that kind of spit that Olympic swimmers might do at the end of a race as they look up to see the results. This was a very deliberate, full-on harking back that she walked over to the pool to do especially. She looked me dead in the eyes as it landed right next to me, before turning on her heels to go back to the benches. Gross at the best of times, even more alarming during a global pandemic.

What it all meant though was that the one form of exercise I was able to do, and was making a real difference, I suddenly had to stop. I walk and stretch as well, but nothing has been as effective as the pool. From going to the pool, I went from having three fingers' of separation – that's how they measure the gap between your abdominal muscles, how many fingers fit in the gap – to just one finger within two weeks.

While the back spasms went away (thank goodness), the pain has been radiating from my lower back through my glutes and all the way down my left leg. The leg pain was getting so bad I couldn't sleep. This was until a few weeks ago. But while I still have the pain, I feel like I have turned a corner. It's manageable now and I feel that my goal of recovering from childbirth within 9-10 months – 40 weeks to make her, 40 weeks to recover – has basically been achieved.

I've finally been released from the care of the hospital physios as well, so no more annoying bladder diaries for me, where you have to record the amount and type of fluids you drink and measure your urine for three day stints at a time. It's a real drag.

Of course in amongst all of this has been COVID and its impact on our work. Working in the travel industry, suddenly our income was completely decimated and we are still working on what are the best paths moving forward, especially as things seem to be getting worse here, and we don't know how long travel will be affected and what travel will look like in the future. Chances are, the way we travel will have changed in at least some ways forever.

Four family members have also passed away this year. And I randomly found out that two friends had passed away far too young, one in 2014 and the other in 2015, and I had no idea, so it was a shock. We have also witnessed good friends go through devastating loss of immediate family members this year and then there are all the strangers in our communities and all over the world that we mourn for, lost to COVID and other disease, police brutality, accidents, disasters and suicides.

There is so much to process politically in the US and the Black Lives Matter movement. We worry about many of my friends, in the States especially, but also around the world. I feel that is a subject for another post(s) as I don't want to just gloss over it in amongst all these other topics. But I want to make it clear that we are watching and listening, and learning, unlearning and relearning, for the long haul, not just as long as it takes to post a black square on social media.

So how are we feeling about leaving Japan one year on? Sometimes I can trick myself into feeling as though we never left. We still feel very connected to Japan, and given that we have many friends there and we follow so many Japan-related pages, some days it does feel like we can just hop on a train to Shinjuku or pick up that item that someone is giving away on Facebook. And then other days it hits me and I remember that we aren't actually there anymore. Sometimes that raw emotion comes in the way of tears. I'm not sure I'll ever feel the way I do about any city as I do about Tokyo.

But we are also extremely grateful to be here in Melbourne too. Things were and are hard, but we genuinely do believe they would have been many times harder had we stayed and had the baby in Japan, and if we were experiencing COVID there right now. We're also grateful to have seen and reconnected with family, as well as a couple of friends before this whole thing went down.

There was a huge typhoon that came through Tokyo around my due date and a number of my Japanese friends messaged me to say that they were glad we did not have to go through the potential situation of not being able to get to a hospital. Given everything that has happened with COVID and non-Japanese residents not being allowed back into the country, things would have been very complicated if we wanted to come back to Australia now, or wanted to leave Japan with the intention of going back.

I thought by this time I might have been feeling a lot more jazzed about our new lives in Melbourne. But honestly, it's not really fair to judge Australia on the year we have had. Domestic travel was one of the ways we had thought we would cope with leaving Japan. That we would find cool spots in Australia too and get excited about the things we could see and do. Expand our business. Build a community here. But a lot of that has not been possible, apart from a short trip we did to South Australia and the new friends we have made at the pool and with other parents in our local area through the Parents Group.

Now we are in Stage 4 lockdown for at least the next six weeks, and another birthday has rolled around that didn't look anything like I had imagined either. And I still can't have that drink.

Things are happening though. Exciting things. We're getting clear on what we want to do next. We're loving spending time with our daughter who, when we put her down for the night, we just stare at and say to each other, “Isn't she just the best?”

We are doing what we can to get things done, to accept that not everything will get done, and putting our faith in the magic that somehow manages to present itself when we need it the most.

I warned you that our last update wasn't very upbeat, and this one hasn't really been either. But as always I prefer to be real, to faithfully pen the words as they are felt. We want to express the lows as much as the highs, because this is real life and we're all on this roller coaster together.

What has your 2020 been like so far?

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Alison and Don

Saturday 8th of August 2020

OMG Jess! What you've been through! And are still going through. I know transitions are difficult, but this is piling on! Leaving your home of ten years is enough of an adjustment in itself, let alone changing countries (even if it is back to one you're familiar with), then the bushfires, and becoming a mum, and your physical problems, and effing Covid on top of it all! Sending hugs and love. Your resilience is as impressive as your tears are natural. It feels as if the universe sent a tsunami at you :( and now you can start to maybe peek out the other side of it. At least now you're somewhat better physically - may that healing continue. May you adjust well to life back in Oz. Alison

Jessica Korteman

Saturday 8th of August 2020

Thank you for this lovely comment, Alison! It really means a lot. I'm so glad that I shared this post, even if it's not what I had hoped for. It really only struck me how much has happened when I tried to pen it all here. I had almost forgotten major things just because it has all been so much. There was an additional 6,000 words I had written about all the other things that "went wrong" over the past year and I was still typing. But I decided it was already enough of an essay and you didn't come here to read a novel! Haha A year it's been indeed. For all of us, in many different ways. I do feel like we are personally starting to peek out the other side of it though. And starting to feel better physically is huge for me. I can now look beyond the pain and concentrate on things without being distracted by it. Thank you so much for all your love, support and healing vibes. I appreciate it more than you can know. x

Britt Skrabanek

Saturday 8th of August 2020

First I have to say...holy effing shit. You have been through so much in the past year and you are such a badass for coming through with your spirit intact. I was crying as I read this. I am so happy you are doing better and that you are together with your family. I don't want to give you the cheerleadery "things will get better" or "hang in there" speeches. I will send hugs and love to you though. Hope that helps!

Jessica Korteman

Saturday 8th of August 2020

Thank you so much, Britt. I will receive your hugs and love with open arms! Your message means so much. It's been rough and putting it all here on the page kind of makes me realise how intense this past year has been. You don't really process it when you have no choice but to just deal with the next thing or many things simultaneously. I was so glad to be able to do your podcast though. That was a real highlight. Although I was covered in heat packs and I'd just woken up (lol), it really was so lovely to talk to you. :)

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