How did you end up spending so much of your life living abroad?
My father was an entomologist and was doing research in the former Czechoslovakia so my whole family moved there in 1968. My father had Slovak family so we did have some connections. Communism was promoted in the schools and we were seen as the enemy – capitalists. We experienced the Warsaw Pact Soviet invasion in ‘68 and we were refugees in Fischamend, in Austria for a month after war broke out.
I ended up studying Russian in Montreal and then lived in Russia from 1977 to 1997, working with companies like Philip Morris, KPMG, Ben & Jerry’s and Motorola – and I experienced first hand the plight of the expat. These companies didn’t understand how tough it could be for their expat employees – the time difference, the language, the food and so on. Many of my expat colleagues had gambling and alcohol problems, they were falling apart.
Is this what inspired you to become a therapist and counsellor?
Yes, it was in Russia that I really had the vision that I could work with expats to help them. I always felt like a ‘third culture kid’, I spoke Slovak and Russian but didn’t really totally fit in – back home when I visited America or in my adopted country. Going back ‘home’ becomes a culture shock because things change so much and your friends and relatives don’t necessarily understand what you’ve been through and how you’ve changed. So I can really identify with children who grow up with English speaking parents but become immersed in another culture and language – becoming multilingual and bi-cultural. The challenge for their parents is not to rely on their kids as a resource, which can cause problems and resentment.
I also worked in Holland with business startups and in human resources, helping employees with cultural adjustment. Many expat employees end up wanting to leave their jobs because they find it so difficult having to adjust to a different culture. They are dealing with issues like loneliness, boredom, marriage conflict and trailing spouse resentment. These are some of the issues that I work on now in my marriage and family therapy sessions. It has been rewarding for me to see couples who work hard turn around their marriage in just a few months. However, the expat experience can also really help to bring a family together, there are many positive things about living in a different country. And it gives your children a broader life experience and world view.
Why did you decide to settle in Vienna?
I’ve lived in Vienna for two years now but it’s my fifth stint here. I first came here in 1968-70 and 1980-1987. I was teaching English to people from Eastern Europe and I also worked for the IAEA, in HR. Of all the places I’ve lived I like Austria and Vienna the most. I enjoy the customs, the food, the long holidays and the feeling of being connected to Central Europe. I also love the architecture and culture of Vienna.
I lived in a small community in Lower Austria for three years, which was very isolated, but taught me some valuable lessons about making friends and also gave me an appreciation for the beautiful countryside here.
Helen offers expatriate marriage therapy and counselling in English to couples, individuals and children, with face-to-face sessions and via Skype.
She also leads team building workshops for businesses – aimed at helping expat employees work well together by understanding each other's different work style using the Myers Briggs Personality Type.