Navigating the In-Between: How to Survive PCS Season

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Kaitlyn Stafford, LICSW-PIP (AL), LCSW (FL), Doctoral Student at Regent University

As military spouses who work in behavioral health, we likely find ourselves in one of the following three categories at any given time:

(A) Patiently waiting for our PCS orders and thinking about how it will affect our personal lives and career paths.
(B) Recently receiving PCS orders and thinking about how it will affect our personal lives and career paths.
(C) Transitioning to a new duty station and worrying about a job, school, licensure status, social life and thinking about how it will affect our personal lives and career paths.

As a result, I have personally renamed the term PCS to persistent chaotic state. Because, no matter what side of a PCS I am on, the adjustment period that comes before, during, and after always leaves me with a level of ambiguity about the future that I can never quite wrap my head around. Nonetheless, as each of you can probably attest to, with each PCS we endure, we gain a little piece of wisdom to take with us for the next one.

For me, the most difficult season associated with a PCS is what I like to call The In-Between. What’s the In-Between you ask? It’s that period of time from when your family receives (almost official) or official PCS orders to a new duty station to when you actually get settled into your new duty station after the PCS. For me, the In-Between time is so in-between my two ears. The storm of thoughts that pop up in my brain during this time look something like this: “Oh let me look on Zillow to search the market in that area. Yay! We are going to Hawaii this is so exciting. Wait, I have to pay to ship my own vehicle?! Oh, man this move is going to be a ton of work. Hmm, when should I tell my boss? Or when should I tell my clients? Hold on. No, wait. I love my job. I do not want to leave! Well, actually a change would be nice. Ok, maybe I could do private practice in our new duty station? Oh snap, I have to get a license there? Not another licensure board!”

I could keep going on forever but then this blog post would look more like a therapy session and you lovely behavioral health clinicians might want to charge me and well let’s be honest, since I am in the In-Between right now, I need to save up to ship my personal vehicle and to get a new social work license!

Okay, funny thoughts aside, the biggest dilemma during the In-Between is how to navigate the challenges of PCSing. I think as professionals who work in behavioral health we often expect that we would be unaffected by events like PCSing. We gear up for the adjustment period by holding it together for our families, our friends, and our clients. Yet, the reality is, beneath our superhero helping cape is a human who needs the space to adjust to the changes in our lives -- both personally and professionally. So, I offer the following suggestions to each of you as I personally struggle to practice what I preach. Speaking of…

·      Practice what you preach. We tell our clients to take good care of themselves. We say: Eat well. Exercise. Get good sleep. Find time for yourself. Go to therapy sessions. All the while, we are working and/or studying for ten hours a day, coming home to ruminate unproductively on the never-ending PCS to-do list, occasionally crossing off the PCS to-do list after work or school, and caring for our families while never taking a moment to take our own advice. So…

·      Take time for yourself. It is especially important that we give ourselves the rest, nutrients, exercise, socializing, and space we need to process the stress, grief, and other emotions that come with such a large transition. For me, this means that when my brain starts going down the spiral of ruminating thoughts I either head to the yoga studio or find a downward dog or warrior one in my living room. It also means I schedule a session with my own therapist so that I can process all that is going on internally so that it does not spill over into my relationships with family and colleagues or worse, my clients.

·      Knowledge is power. Once you have official orders, it makes sense to start preparing in ways that will help decrease your stress not increase it. So, make a to-do list that includes everything you will need to do for the move both personally and professionally. Write things like: tell my boss I am moving; start licensure application for new duty station; book hotel in new duty station, etc. I have separate lists for each role that I hold. I have a grand list with everything I have to do (professional, moving tasks, doctoral program, family, health, etc.). Then, I break that large list down to more manageable weekly and/or daily tasks as the move gets closer. I also write down target dates for each task and set aside a time, usually one morning a week or daily as it gets closer, to prioritize tasks and do research. I do the same thing when we arrive at the new duty station.  When my mind starts to race, I remind myself that I can put that item on the grand list and forget about it until it’s on my weekly or daily to-do list.

·      Use your support system. Reach out to fellow mil spouses who know what you are going through.  Sometimes it is frustrating to hear friends and family say “Oh you’re so lucky you get to move or what an exciting adventure.”  It’s not that you don’t think that sometimes it is pretty neat to see other parts of the country or world, but this is your life and not a vacation.  Find people you can be authentic with and don’t be afraid to be transparent with your friends and family. Tell the people in your life how they can support you through your PCS. Also, reach out to your professional network to see if they can help you network for jobs or volunteer opportunities.

·      Be present AND practice self-compassion. Lastly, try to live your life in the present as much possible. Go to lunch with your colleagues like you always do. Stick to your regular routine as much as you can. You know the things that keep you feeling grounded, so do more of those things. Say yes to professional opportunities available to you before or after you PCS. If you meet a new friend a few months away from your move, go grab that coffee with her! But, if you’re having a hard day, feeling the weight of the move, experiencing the challenges of trying to get your license in a new state, or just feeling the grief of the process, know that you are not alone and that its 100% okay to give yourself the space you need.

Here’s to navigating our (persistent chaotic state) current and future PCS’s together!