There is a romanticized ideal of life abroad. It’s one where every day is full of new friends, carefree afternoons and spontaneous weekend trips. Life abroad seems like constant a fairy-tale land where expats clink glasses in honor of avoiding ‘the real world’ while basking in their new-found utopia.
While this does happen, it isn’t always like this.
FYI: problems can still find you no matter where you go.
Struggles, issues and insecurities don’t cease to exist just because you’ve moved to another country. The trials and tribulations of growing up don’t get easier just because you aren’t at home.
In some ways, all of life’s complications are actually amplified abroad. Away from the comforts of family, friends and cultural norms, dealing with even the smallest issue can feel like climbing a mountain.
In my 3+ years as an expat, two in Korea and one in Spain, I’ve basically been through it all. One issue being depression.
How I felt
Although I’ve always been a bit hormonal, dramatic and full of worry, I never had any major issues. I was social, outgoing, confident and positive. I had a lot of friends and I could get along with most anyone.
Towards the end of my first year there I went through a period of 2-3 months where I was a completely different person. I didn’t have the energy to do anything. I dreaded going to work for no particular reason. Even the smallest task seemed like a devastating ordeal. I would cry for long periods of time over the silliest things.
I felt anxiety about social situations. The thought of trying to “act normal” and hide how I felt stressed me out to a point of tears. I didn’t want to hang out with friends. I even told myself that the people I hung out with weren’t even friends at all. I convinced myself they didn’t like me.
Many times I went out anyway, afraid of being looked at as boring if I stayed in. This usually ended up with me drinking too much. I did stupid things, I turned mean and I hurt people.
It took two things for me to come to a realization I had a problem which was bigger than just “being down”. For one, I finally reached a point where the drinking had to be confronted. One New Year’s Eve turned into a nightmare and I woke up knowing that things couldn’t continue like this.
The second hint was much smaller. In February I was headed to Thailand, a place I had been dreaming of visiting for years. I wasn’t excited in the slightest. Travel, the biggest love of my life, couldn’t even get me to a happy place.
Although the lack of motivation, the social anxiety and the excessive hangovers should have been my wake up call, each of those came with a logical excuse. “I’m just tired,” “these people don’t like me anyway” and “everybody drinks too much in Korea” all redirected the source of the problem.
When things hit rock bottom I had to be proactive about it. I found a Western doctor, had a few blood tests to see if I had any deficiencies (I didn’t) and eventually went on temporary antidepressants. I stopped drinking so much and took that much needed vacation to Thailand.
All of that, paired with a vacation home, a lot of support from Simon, new goals and motivations (I started this blog!) I came out of the slump of depression abroad. By spring I was back on track.
Why I think it happened
There are a lot of reasons which I can now attribute to playing a role in my temporary stage of depression. For one, in Korea I went through my first real winter. Starting towards the end of October and lasting until April, Korea sees blistering cold temperatures.
For the first time in my life I was truly freezing every time I went outside. The amount of sunlight my body received was at its all time lowest.
After getting through a second winter in Korea and then a minor one in Spain, I now know that seasonal affective disorder is a real thing.
Even mild Spanish winters (mild compared to Korea that is) still change my mood. While I don’t slip into a full-fledged problem, I definitely start to feel different. This seasonal slump is no longer a coincidence.
Secondly, I think the extreme cultural differences and isolation played a role in my mental health. While I didn’t realize it at the time, I can now see how it slowly ate away at me.
I’m a cultural traveler and like to connect with the country I’m in. In Korea, I couldn’t speak the language, my English speaking Korean coworkers rarely spoke to me and some cultural norms were impossible for me to wrap my head around. Also, when I wasn’t around Koreans, I was surrounded by Brits. I found our own cultural differences to be surprisingly drastic. I struggled feeling comfortable and I couldn’t keep up with the back and forth banter. (Us Americans can be sensitive!)
Lastly, I was drinking way too frequently. In Korea, drinking is a cultural norm and the expat community makes no exception. All-nighters and 2-day benders happen almost every weekend. No social gathering or outing (even during the day) goes without a beer. After a few months of this lifestyle I feel like these habits sent my body into a downward spiral. I was depleted, mentally and physically.
My first real winter, the isolation and the drinking was just all too much at once.
Advice for getting through depression abroad
Just because you are living your dream of moving abroad doesn’t mean it won’t come with dark times. Everyone goes through slumps. The key is acknowledging the issue if it becomes more than that.
1. Don’t make excuses for your sadness
Blaming other things for why you are feeling down can just cause you to avoid confronting the situation. Try to take things at face value and be proactive about the situation.
2. Don’t be afraid to go ask for help
Just like you’d do when you suspect a possible physical health problem, go speak to a doctor if you feel mentally unwell. Of course, doctors in some countries provide medicine way too easily, so talk to your family and friends and ultimately follow your instinct. I only took medication for about a month and when I felt better I stopped. Short term help combined lifestyle changes were the key to pushing me out of my dark times.
3. Chart how you’re feeling
If you start to feel down for longer than a few days, write it down in a calendar. Being able to actually visualize the good days compared to the bad can be an easy way to come to terms with a possible problem.
4. Try and bite your tongue when it comes to expat frustrations
Not only did I have social anxiety from feeling so down, but I also started pushing people away in two ways. For one, I started convincing myself that no one liked me. Having these insecurities didn’t make me a very fun person to be around. Secondly, I was very negative. I couldn’t help but complain about all the things that bothered me in Korea.
Although all expats love a good healthy vent, no one likes a negative Nancy %100 of the time.
In turn, my negativity surely affected my relationships (and ability to make more). It would have been in my best interest to bite my tongue when I felt like saying something negative and just saved the venting for friends and family at home instead.
5. Trust your gut about if it’s time to go home or push through
I didn’t want struggling with depression to be the reason I went home. I also didn’t have a plan for what to do in California (job or otherwise) that would make me happy. For that reason, I knew going home wouldn’t solve anything. My intuition told me that I could get through it and give not only myself another chance, but Korea as well.
If you know in your gut it would be best to go home, then do so. You are more brave for going with what you feel is right then pushing through something that feels wrong. By going home you aren’t giving up, but instead being strong enough to take care of yourself.
6. Don’t Feel Guilty
Just because you are living abroad doesn’t mean life has to be perfect. While you should try your best to appreciate it as much as you can, hard times will come. Don’t beat yourself up about not having the time of your life if things aren’t going well. Being proactive to solve it is the most you can do for yourself, then try move on. Not everything abroad will be cookie-cutter perfect, and that’s okay.
It took me a while to be able to understand the situation I went through. Regardless of it, and other hard times I’ve been through abroad, I wouldn’t change anything. Travel has opened my eyes and helped me learn not only about the world, but myself.
And maybe that’s the most important.
Can you relate? Have you dealt with hard times while living abroad?