The Truth About Mental Health and Living Abroad
I've written and rewritten this several times. I've put off writing it for months - and with World Mental Health Day today, I've run out of excuses not to write it. It probably won't be a well-crafted blog post, which is something I'm having a hard time letting go of, and it'll most likely be a bit rambly, to be honest. It's in my nature to put a positive spin on things, but to do so here feels inauthentic and a bit blasé. I want to be as upfront and honest as possible.
The truth is, I still have a hard time talking about my own mental health. I'm more than happy to help a friend if they're feeling down, but when it comes to asking for help, I need a lot of work. It's ironic that I've almost adopted the "keep calm and carry on" mentality of the British since living here, because mental health was never really something I seriously considered before moving abroad.
There are so many upsides to living in a foreign country, and given the choice, I would choose it every time. However, there's a darker side to it that's so rarely talked about. While what you see is the ability to travel, learn about new cultures and meet new people, living abroad can be incredibly lonely and isolating.
When I made the decision to move to the UK, I was 23. I was barely out of college, and still very emotionally dependent on my family and friends. I've been incredibly lucky in life to have a close relationship with my family, and a group of friends in college that felt quite a lot like family, as well. While my college friends were all moving to New York together, I moved to the UK. I packed my life up and got on a plane by myself - I didn't think it was very scary at the time (perhaps because I was too young and too one-track-minded), but I quickly found that living apart from everybody and everything you know - and, importantl, apart from your immediate support circle - can be really lonely. It was isolation at a formative time in my life when I was already trying to figure out my next step and my own path. I'm so thankful that Jack has such a great mix of friends in the UK that really immediately welcomed me in and made me feel accepted. However, it takes time and effort to make friends on your own as well - ones that you feel you've gained on your own merit. Not only that, but I really feel it's importance to have friendships independent of your spouse as well so that you retain a sense of freedom. However, because I had such a great group of friends back home, it meant that I was always seeing them getting together for parties or events that I wouldn't be able to attend. Living abroad means that you miss out on a lot of life milestones of your loved ones, and vice-versa. I've missed births, birthdays, weddings, and they’ve missed mine too. I've missed getting to watch my friends in Broadway shows and tours, and I've missed Bachelor marathons and superbowl parties. I've grown apart from people I really love, because it takes a lot of effort to maintain healthy long-distance relationships. I'm not saying this to gain any sympathy. It was my choice to move abroad, and my close friends all knew that and have supported me in this. However, that doesn't make it any easier when you get that horrible FOMO feeling.
When I first moved to England, I very quickly developed a fear of standing out for being different. Whereas in London, there are people from all sorts of countries and walks of life, where we initially lived in North Hertfordshire was a little bit less diverse. All of a sudden, people were staring at me once they'd heard my accent, or asking me where I was from and why I'd moved abroad. Everybody I encountered was very genuine and nice about asking these questions, but it got to the point where I would pre-emptively assume that people knew I was different or foreign when I spoke. I developed anxiety about answering the phone, because I worried that people wouldn't be able to understand my accent, or I wouldn't be able to understand theirs. The first three months that I lived in England, before I was legally allowed to get a work visa, I truly lived in fear of taking a phone call - which was incredibly debilitating as I was simultaneously trying to plan our wedding and then look for work. It also felt shameful, because speaking to people is something I consider myself to be pretty good at - it felt as though my identity of being a "people person" was somehow stripped from me by my newfound anxiety. It sounds so silly to me now, but I began almost adopting a slight accent for when I was in quick social interactions - somebody at the grocery store on on public transport, so that I would “fit in” more easily and not draw attention to myself. However, this meant that my encounters with others always felt incredibly false, and I never went out of my way to put myself out there and make friends with anybody I met out and about, because I was always trying to make my interactions with others as fleeting as possible. Being somebody that’s always thrived in social settings, that loneliness really hit me hard.
When it came to job searching, I quickly found that my American qualifications meant next to nothing to the UK job market. I had to convert my GPA and my degree qualifications to something that roughly made sense to recruitment firms in England. Not only this, but any connections I'd made in my industry through my university were all back in the States. I felt as if any progress I'd made in my career was suddenly null and I had to start over. The things I'd taken for granted like my education and ultimately my sense of self were brought into question. I had to learn to navigate not only a new country and culture, but an entirely new job market, and so I felt directionless for a really long time after moving to the UK.
The problem with depression and anxiety is that once the seed of it forms in your brain, it takes root and spreads to other areas. I started developing a fear of flying, which I'd never had before, and a fear of choking to where I couldn't eat certain foods or had to chew everything I ate very slowly. Suddenly, things I loved about living abroad, like travelling and trying new cuisines, became additional sources of anxiety for me.
So what have I done to combat these feelings? I've started being much more open with myself, with my friends and family, and with my husband. I've learned to love my own company a LOT more. I've written down my thoughts, and done a whole lot of yoga and breathing exercises. The truth is, I'll always have these feelings. Anxiety and depression aren't things that just magically go away, or have some sort of cure. A lot of days I'm fine, and busy and happy and feel incredibly lucky to live where I live and have the life I have. But some days, the feeling of loss from being apart from my life in the States really hits me. Last week was my dad's 60th birthday, and I wasn't able to be there, which - I’ll be honest - absolutely crushed me. I've gone over a year at times not being able to hug my sister. I've called my mom crying about being homesick more times than I could even tell you. Unfortunately, these things just part and parcel of living halfway around the world.
World Mental Health Day is October 10th. If anybody is going through any sort of tough time or stresses, please know that my inbox is always open. In the UK, we've got fantastic programs like MindUK that offer professional advice and help. It's important to recognize that during these unprecedented times especially, you are not alone in feeling isolated and shut off from the world. Reach out to your family and friends, and tell them you love them. Do something kind for yourself every day. Remember that your feelings are valid and important, and don’t be afraid to talk about them, or write them down. Or maybe - write a blog post about it! I can tell you from experience now, this has been surprisingly therapeutic.
As always, thanks for listening.
Want more? Follow my day to day life as an American expat through my Instagram, at @elisedumont!