Let’s talk about the thing that nobody ever wants to talk about because it sucks: Depression. Usually, it’s only a matter of time before expats experience some form of situational depression, anxiety, or the need to hide under their bed with a bottle of wine for days on end. Hell, you don’t even need to be an expat. Sometimes life is just overwhelming and hard. Sometimes we are all going to deal with depression. It sucks. It’s hard. But at least we have each other.
Living abroad means a lot of things, a lot of conflicting things. One minute life is a paradise and you find yourself drinking cheap wine in a vineyard, tasting olive oil in an olive grove, laughing to yourself as old men wave to you in the street. Then five minutes later your world is full of confusion, humiliation, it’s a cataclysm of WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING!? This “what the fuck,” moment often happens after your dog poops in the street and an angry shop owner comes out to scream at you while you’re cleaning it up, your papers have been lost or denied by the consulate, your partner moves you into a family commune, or you end up in a house in the middle of nowhere surrounded by wild boars and the sound of deafening silence. Sometimes a breakdown can happen if you’re spending too much time alone or surrounded by people you like but don’t at all identify with.
I’ll never forget the first time I had a total mental breakdown. I was at one of my husbands’ friends’ home and everyone was joking around and laughing but I couldn’t understand why any of their jokes were funny. I just couldn’t get it. I was sitting at a merry table, while everyone was having the time of their life and I was totally bored out of my mind trying my hardest to relate to anyone on even the most basic level. It was as if the room froze, I looked from face-to-face, then back to myself and thought, “I don’t belong here.” I went to the bathroom and held back tears. Nobody was being mean, nothing was terrible, but it finally hit me that I didn’t connect with anyone in Italy at all at that point. And I didn’t understand it because at home I could get along with just about anyone. I felt like an asshole and totally isolated. It was really, really rough.
Expat depression and overall insanity is totally common and you know what? It’s normal. One of my best friends just moved to London from Utah. She’s been totally dying to get out of Utah for years but when I Skyped with her and her husband the first thing they both said was, “This is really difficult. How did you do this?! Having a mental breakdown is a very real thing! Who knew?!” These are intelligent, hard-working, totally amazing, normal people. Okay, normal is a stretch, since she’s one of my best friends, but you get the idea. Living in a foreign country is really difficult for everyone at one point or another whether or not you speak the language. Living in Italy is even harder for us from the anal-retentive English-speaking world because the culture is so different from ours. Dr. Kirsten Hogh Thorgersen wrote, “When you arrive in a new culture, you’re shaken in self-confidence, and the more different the culture is, the greater the challenge.”
The difficulty of living abroad often leads to anxiety or depression. In my case, it leads to some weird form of social anxiety and agoraphobia where I would come up with any excuse I could to avoid leaving the house. And despite what many people think, depression doesn’t necessarily mean that you feel sad. You could be depressed and not even know it. Signs that you’re depressed:
- difficulty concentrating
- insomnia or oversleeping
- significant changes to eating patterns
- lack of interest
The worst part about being depressed abroad is you feel totally isolated and misunderstood within your new country, but also nobody at home gets it either. I mean, you’re abroad! How can you be depressed!? Well, unfortunately, it can be really depressing even if you live in a century-old city with incredible food. It’s okay. You’re okay! Every day I receive emails from expats who are struggling abroad. They feel stupid or confused, they’re angry or isolated, and I do my best to remind them that they are all epically awesome because despite the difficulty they keep on keepin’ on because they are total badasses. That’s right! Even if you’re in Italy having a hard time, you’re a badass! And you’re not alone. You’re a part of the expat mafia, a group of rogue crazies who had the guts to put themselves out there even when things became rough. Sure, an old woman called you a foreign sack of shit, some embassy denied your paperwork, and your in-laws are trying to move into your guest room as you read this sentence…BUT! At least you’re doing something that most people would never get the opportunity to do in their lives. So, it sucks, it’s frustrating, but it’s an experience that can help you grow in new ways, too. And we’re all growing together! That’s exciting, right? I know, I know, but it feels terrible.
I’m a perfect example of a romantic, Europe-obsessed woman turned Italy-repulsed homicidal maniac. It can happen to even the most positive, happy, well-intentioned of us. You’re not broken or somehow deranged for experiencing frustration. You’re in a foreign place and it’s normal to have one or two-hundred major meltdowns for various reasons. I mean, for the first time since being a child you’re thrown into a place where you don’t know how to navigate anything. Plus, you have to start over. It can be frustrating to start your life all over from scratch. New friends, new city, new apartment, new coffee maker. It’s a lot to take in, guys. And there will be days when you don’t even recognize yourself anymore. That was the hardest for me because I liked myself before I moved to Italy, dammit.
So how do you deal with it all? How to help alleviate that sinking black feeling, that rapid heartbeat, or that strange new fear of going outside?
Take it one day at a time. On days that are really bad just try to focus on one positive thing. Write it down, put it on your wall! Or in my case, I combatted my depression with goals and activities. I started THIS BLOG (thank depression for that!), I wrote a book and a screenplay, I also learned how to Flamenco on YouTube. Yes, seriously, I’m terrible and it’s embarrassing but now you know my secret. I’m sure the people who lived downstairs wanted me to trip and die. Depression is hard but you can beat it! Beat the shit out of it. And, more wine, of course.
FIVE WAYS TO COPE WITH EXPAT DEPRESSIONS (Kick It’s Ass!)
1. Make a goal or a list of goals. If you’re working towards something you’ll feel accomplished. Have a task to do every day. Take some pictures, spend the day outside stalking people like an anthropologist. You’d be surprised by how relieving it can be to follow someone in a supermarket whispering, “I’ve just spotted a middle-aged Italian woman buying what seems to be some kind of bread. She’s making her way towards what appears to be salami! Just get a look at her in her natural habitat! She’s examining it! She’s purchased the salami with tiny, round metal objects and paper squares. How fascinating!” Start a blog, or keep a notebook! Venting can be very helpful. Get it out! Take some online classes or take a class in your area. Painting, language, cooking, whatever! Check off some goals you’ve always had but never had time to accomplish!
2. Yoga. Every morning when you wake up, tune into YouTube and do a yoga video. Those videos will really help you to relax. Exercise is a great way to combat fatigue, depression, and anxiety. Plus, it never hurt anyone to get a smokin’ healthy bod.
3. Hang out with people you love from home! Sure, you can’t invite them over but you can do activities with them on Skype or Facetime. Invite one of your friends to do a cooking date with you. You guys can cook together, drink wine, via Skype! It’s totally fun and worth it.
4. Get out of your house, even if it’s just to read a book at a cafe. If you’re anything like me, I get depressed when I’m home too much but I also hate leaving my house when I’m depressed. It’s a pain in the ass, really shitty, super frustrating cycle. Force yourself out! Sign up to one of those meet-up websites like http://expatitalian.meetup.com. Always take a friend with you or meet in a very public place though. People are usually friendly and normal but can be rapey and psychotic. Go volunteer to walk dogs at a local shelter or buy cheap dog toys and donate them. Teach English.
5. Learn everything you can about the culture. The more you know and understand the less you’ll feel like an outsider. I mean, you’ll probably always feel like an immigrant, but at least you won’t feel like a total weirdo who is always in the dark. Plus, you’d be surprised by how useful it can be to be a cultural know-it-all! Learn the history, the language, the art, the food, become a master of it all and then just rub it in everyone’s face. Just rub it right in. That feels nice, right? Rub a dub.
Bonus: Try to remember that expat depression is usually situational and temporary. If you push yourself out and on you’ll improve hugely. If you have a history of depression or your depression persists and you’re thinking about suicide or self-harm please seek out a therapist for help. I’ve been to therapy and it’s awesome. You’re important, you matter, and I’d miss you.
Have you experienced depression or anxiety abroad? Please, share your story in the comments below so others can learn, relate, or find ways to cope. And of course, “share,” if you’re feeling sassy.
*This post is just suggestions and personal experience. I am obviously not a doctor or any kind of professional.