There’s a Good Chance That Today Will Suck: Dealing With Depression Abroad

In the Doldrums, Wellington, New ZealandInstallation Piece in Downtown Wellingotn

You know how I know I’m depressed?  It’s 9:30pm on Saturday night and I’m lying in bed, lights on, fully clothed, listening to Radiohead.  Given that my musical tastes tend to be more bubblegum than bittersweet, when my personal soundtrack features angst-filled alt-rock, you know things are bad.  The only thing missing was a rain-streaked bay window for me to look out while running my fingers through my tousled hair.

In my defense, I was nursing a wicked hangover and had just returned home from a day of arguing with customers over the injustice of being charged 10 cents for a plastic bag (‘all proceeds go to charity’) and helping middle-aged women locate science fiction-romance novels written by # 1 New York Times bestselling authors (a distinction I used to cling to like the ‘verified’ status on Internet auction sites, until I realized that earning that title is a lot like being crowned Prom Queen: some writers are better than others at printing buttons and baking muffins).  Although, I must confess that when the store is exceptionally ‘quiet’, I pass the time reading summaries of these books in our catalog:

When Luci, a beautiful archeology student, decided to spend her Spring Break in the Arabian Desert, she had no idea of the      treasure awaiting her.   Trapped in a terrible sandstorm, Luci is rescued by a mysterious stranger on horseback.  Who is this handsome but guarded to whom she owes her life?  Slowly, Luci digs away at his layers, and uncovers two shocking secrets: he is a Sheikh, and a werewolf.  The next full moon is fast approaching.  Will their undeniable sexual chemistry be strong enough to overcome their differences in class and biology?

To make matters worse, the owners of the house were I had been staying were due back the following morning; the place was a mess and my personal belongings were everywhere.  Still, on the eve of the big move into my new flat I should have been elated, not stewing in a pot of my own purple funk.

There is a widespread misconception that when you go abroad, it’s all sunshine and roses.  Allow me to clarify: it’s not.  I’m not being negative or pessimistic.  Just think about it: can you remember a six-month period of your adolescent/adult life when you were happy every single day?  Probably not, because bad days happen, even to the best of us, regardless of where we are living.

Yet, most of us, myself included, naively believe that when you leave home, you leave your troubles behind.  Unfortunately, many of your problems sneak into your suitcase while you’re not looking.  Your support system and comfort zone, on the other hand, see you off at the airport.  Even worse, once you land, you pick up new issues that you’ve never seen and for which you have no remedy, like mutant strands of psycho-emotional swine flu.

The stigma attached to being depressed at home is nothing compared to the shame associated with being down in a different country.  We all secretly hope that going abroad will be the best time of our life. Consequently, when you feel lonely, homesick, frustrated, or confused, you also feel like a failure.

In an effort not to disappoint or worry, you write a lot of emails that sound eerily like the letters you used to send your grandmother from summer camp: “Everyone here is really nice. I’m having a lot of fun and the food is better than I expected.  I miss you.”  No one, especially your mother, wants to hear about being defeated by the subway; getting ripped off by the laundry mat, which dry-cleaned all of your clothes, including your socks; or eating meals at McDonald’s because you’re too intimidated to sample the local cuisine.  They want to hear about the different accents you’ve slept with; the nights you’ve spent partying until dawn; the spontaneous weekend getaways; and the sophisticated dinner parties hosted by foreigners that you’ve attended.  They want to picture you in paradise, with a spare bedroom for visitors.

Now, I’ve had plenty of great trips that have played out like a montage of best moments.  However, sometimes things just don’t work out in your favor.  You choose a destination based on the best information available to you at the time.  But there are things that you can’t know about yourself or the place you are going until you get there; and there are factors that will influence your experience that are simply beyond your control.

Transitions are hard. Period.  Some days, you will feel like you’re recovering from a head injury: you have to relearn how to talk, getting dressed is a challenge, and feeding yourself is a notable accomplishment.  An expat friend living in Auckland told me that during her first few weeks in New Zealand, she began each day by telling herself, “there’s a good chance that today will suck.”  Then, she got out of bed and forced herself to do something – sign up with a temp agency, take a class, go for a walk – even if it felt like a lost cause.   Earlier this week, I decided to take advantage of my part-time unemployment: I visited a museum, treated myself to lunch at a café, and spent the afternoon reading and writing.  Normally, I would describe such a day as my version of Christmas morning; but given my current state, it felt more like a white elephant gift exchange.  Still, it certainly didn’t suck.

Depending on circumstances and personal characteristics, some people adjust, adapt and settle more quickly than others.  Often, it’s just a matter of stamina, like one of those “last man standing” competitions where you can win a new car simply by touching the vehicle for long enough.  The trick is not to lift your hand too soon; and not to let your sense of proportion cloud your sense of perspective.  When you only plan on being somewhere for a short while, a few difficult weeks represent a significant percentage of your total stay.  Taking a broader view, your overseas experience, whether you consider it a vacation, gap year, or working-holiday, is just another chapter of your life; and what are a few bad months over the course of a lifetime?

Try not to judge the city, or your connection to it, until you’ve managed to crack the surface and throw down some roots.  Be patient, be resilient, and most importantly, relax.  Moving abroad is an inherently stressful situation; seasoning it with your own special blend of neurosis is a bit like squeezing lemon on a grapefruit.  Once you’ve done your part, and while you’re waiting for the Universe to meet you half way, try to have fun.

Unfortunately, sometimes the Universe stands you up, leaving you sitting alone on the curb like a total chump.  In which case, unless you’re an actor, putting on a non-stop one-man show does you no favors.  You can’t fix a problem until you admit that you have one. I know this because I recently took that first step: “Hi, my name is Amy and I’m not happy in Wellington.”

The truth is that so far, not so good.  The possible reasons why are endless: simple incompatibility, unrealistic expectations, bad timing, global economic crisis, wrong approach, and the list goes on.  (Remarkably, everyone with whom I’ve shared my predicament has been amazingly supportive and managed to say the right things.) All I know is that my present situation is untenable, financially, emotionally, and psychologically.  Rather than invest more time, energy, and savings to maintain the status quo, it’s time to explore other options.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a thin line between quitting and hubris.  Walking away from something that isn’t good for you; isn’t actually what you want; or can’t offer you what you need, is not admitting defeat; it’s taking care of yourself and moving on with your life. There’s no shame in trying something new.  Once you hit your wall, don’t torture yourself with “maybe if I stay longer, things will get better” or “maybe there is more that I could be doing”.  All you can ever do is your best; give it a fair chance, and then come up with a plan B.

No final decisions have been made, but I am currently contemplating ideas for my immediate and short-term future – moving to a different city (other than the one in which I was born and raised) where I have friends and there are things to do other than drink coffee, applying to master’s programs in creative writing – some of which I had never before considered.  When I was living in Buenos Aires, I rode the bus everywhere.  On certain occasions, when made to wait an unreasonable amount of time, I would change my mind and decide to take a taxi or walk.  Without fail, the bus would pull up an instant before I turned away.  Now that I’ve genuinely committed to looking elsewhere, one of two things will happen: Wellington will show up at the last minute; or it won’t, and I’ll go through with my exit strategy.  Either way, I no longer feel stuck.

You know how I know that I’m going to be okay?  It’s Sunday evening, a week after moving into my new flat, and I’m finally unpacking my suitcases.  In the middle of hanging up my clothes, a Justin Timberlake song comes on and I stop organizing my belongings to stage an impromptu fashion show/music video in front of the mirror.  As long as there is choreography, lip-synching, and catwalking in my life, all is not lost.

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23 Responses to “There’s a Good Chance That Today Will Suck: Dealing With Depression Abroad”


  1. 1 shari June 19, 2009 at 11:18 am

    First of all…I’m sending you a huge hug the best way I can from here.

    Second of all…you are always welcome here. I have a spare room and I’m not in the city (or state for that matter) where you grew up.

    xox
    shari

  2. 2 maggi July 4, 2009 at 9:46 am

    I am glad you wrote this and I am glad I found you.

  3. 3 K September 17, 2009 at 6:02 pm

    Thank you for this. I’m abroad right now and feeling rather miserable, so it really helped to read that this is a normal way to feel.

    • 4 amyfrances September 18, 2009 at 11:45 pm

      Hi K,

      While there’s certainly nothing fun about feeling miserable abroad, there’s nothing abnormal or uncommon about it either. Based on personal experience, I can say with confidence that it can and will get better. I hope that you figure out what it is you need to be happy so that you can start enjoying your overseas experience!

      Best of luck,

      Amy

  4. 5 Julie October 3, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    Thanks. I am sitting in Rio after a horrible day, and reading this made me feel a lot better.

  5. 6 wendy October 31, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    Wow. I’m not usually the type to leave messages for people I don’t know, but thank you for sharing this. You’ve managed to beautifully capture exactly how I feel after a couple of big moves.

  6. 7 Liz December 28, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    This was passed to me by a stranger on a web forum, where I posted a question about dealing with homesickness while living abroad, and I’ve found what you wrote a reflection of what I’ve been going through, too. You really capture some of the essence of homesickness and the nuance of how spending time abroad fits into your life. (And I really appreciate what you wrote about “quitting”!) I hope that you have found a nice next step for yourself, whatever it is.

    • 8 amyfrances January 8, 2010 at 6:22 pm

      Hi Liz,

      Thank you for your feedback. I’m always happy to hear that other people can relate to and benefit from my experiences. Thankfully, things have improved dramatically since I wrote that post. It’s amazing what a difference time and a healthy dose of honesty make. Hopefully, your homesickness has passed as well and you’re enjoying life abroad.

      Also, I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind sharing the name of (and link to) the web forum where you found my blog?

      Thanks and happy new year!

      Amy

      • 9 alex April 27, 2011 at 5:27 pm

        it’s incredible to me how totally right you got how i’m feeling at the moment. I feel selfish because I only moved from England to Italy, but seem to be able to relate to everything you have written. It wasn’t a big move, physically, but emotionally it really seems to have messed with my head. I, for one, never though a country like Italy could be so stressful.

        i’m also in shock as to how you have managed to take my thoughts and put them on paper so clearly. You have managd to write my exact feelings. It’s honestly like reading my own diary.

        The part about writing copious e-mails and letters sounding like the ones you wrote to your grandma from camp put me in tears.

        But this has actually made me look up, enabling me to see my time abroad as just a test of character. I am not obliged to stay, but I will do it because it’s all character-building. Knowing there are other people who have gone through, or are currently going through, the same emotional roller-coaster as me really gives me hope. Mostly that I am not actually going crazy, and after I move back, I will become normal-me again!

        Thanks so much for writing this – I’m gonna try and start enjoying it again.

        Alex

  7. 10 T January 27, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    hahaha! am in the office right now in virginia , outside DC. i was bored stiff till i came across your article. “sqeezing lemon onto a grapefruit” LOL! i just sent that to 5 of my african collegues here, hilarious. am completing my masters in December and taking the next available flight home, Africa!

    Living abroad is certainly not what i had imagined, talk about carrying your documents everywhere, learning how to talk, eat , sit and even finding an acceptable way to sneeze LOL! to everyone living abroad, just remember what your goals are and just focus on that and quit trying to write to oprah hoping she will pay your tuition LOL! I love you all warriors! lying to the families back home so we dont hurt their feeling or worry them, yall deserve a pat on the back! Putting up with them long lists from the extended families back home asking for a coat they saw Missy Elliot wearing on channel O while you cant even pay off your rent, talk about a lease you cant escape or a t-mobile contract you cant get out of!

    stay blessed warriors!

    • 11 Sandra July 27, 2011 at 4:27 pm

      Greetings from a Californian living in Chile
      Been here 1.5 years, they really are very nice, but I’d really rather be “home”. Sigh. Love the “warriors” idea, thanks ever so much for making me smile!! Stay safe and sane, Sandra

  8. 12 drk April 8, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    I read your post and it is quite a relief to find someone who feels the same way.
    In my case I am getting tired of Tucson, AZ. I will cut my loses once the unemployment rate decreases.
    I don’t know how much I can stand the desert, blazing heat and small town atmosphere… it sucks (that is just my opinion, a lot of people do like the dessert… which I can not understand! 😛 )
    Thank you for your post and hang in there… I know I am… there are good days and bad… but, professionally, I think this is the best I got now, which makes it bearable, but not enjoyable.
    Cheers!

  9. 13 N July 11, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    Wow, almost a year after you wrote this and I can only say I wish I had found it sooner. It’s nice to feel a little less crazy knowing that someone once felt the same way I do at this very moment… like “what, I’m having fun!…um… right? Sigh.” Well its been about three weeks now since I’ve hit that “what this is real life?!” wall and getting out of bed really seems pointless when Im just going to feel guilty for not having a fun adventure all day.

    Living in Asuncion Paraguay, and working with popular peasant movements… this adds exponentially to the not-having-fun-guilt since I now also feel guilty for coming from the states and living in total opulence compared to these people.

    The worst part is (shh don’t tell anyone) I secretly just want to go home and indulge in all my disgusting capitalist luxury even though this goes against pretty much everything these people are protesting and I used to agree with… well until I got homesick anyway…

    Hoping this phase of self-loathing/ boredom/ loneliness/ restlessness will pass soon so I can get back to the adventure…

    Well… anyway… today didn’t totally suck! Thanks so much for writing this!

  10. 14 Alex May 9, 2011 at 10:08 am

    I’m so glad I found this I’ve been feeling the same way and if I try to talk about it A) I feel guilty and like I’ve failed as you say and B) people either feel offended or look at me like I have 3 heads

  11. 15 Sharon Michelle August 13, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    Oh i needed this…I have been abroad 5 weeks and feel like I have lost my mind. I cry every morning and cannot call my family. The strangest things induce complete depression. I cannot look at anything from home..Please tell me it gets better. I have been waiting but nothing has gotten better. I cannot spend the entire year depressed. 1 year is not that long, but right now it feels like forever! I have been having panic attacks and nightmares…but I don’t know if that part of homesickness is normal..I just want to be happy again!!! But happiness is at home, far away.

    • 16 amyfrances August 19, 2011 at 11:20 am

      Yes, it’s get better! I promise! What you’re experiencing is totally normal. It takes time to get used to your new hometown and to stop comparing it to home, and to find things unique to where you are now that bring you as much (or more!) pleasure and purpose than what you are used to. Keep an open mind and don’t try to replicate home. Try things you wouldn’t have had the time, courage, or opportunity to try at home. It also sounds like you could use some expat friends to help you transition. Find out where they hang out and go after them! Most importantly, remember that most people don’t even have a passport, so the fact that you are abroad and battling it out at all is a big win that you can be proud of. Cheers, Amy.

    • 17 Alex August 19, 2011 at 12:21 pm

      It gets better. Keep yourself busy, and not with work-related things. Find things to do around where you’re living. Meet the local people. Try and make this time as good as you possible can, even if it does totally suck! If you are there for work you wont be there forever. If you are not there for work/educational reasons, and you don’t feel you could even last another week without feeling completely suffocated, then get out. you dont have to stay!

      Also, happiness isnt just at home. Happiness can be found, sometimes, in the strangest of places.

  12. 18 Jeremy from San Francisco January 3, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    Thank you for writing this. I’m in Paris, France – it sounds so nice on paper but I want nothing more than to run home to California where I worked twice as hard for everything but at least felt a since of purpose and had my support network of friends.

    I put a lot of time and energy into coming here so I’m leaning towards sticking it out for another 6 months. We’ll see what happens, I am hopeful though 😉

  13. 19 Mary September 10, 2012 at 7:49 pm

    I am so glad i found this!! I a studying abroad in Budapest, and I am finding it a lot harder than i imagined i would. i get very lonely, and in turn feel awful if im not having fun every second. It may feel normal but it sucks 😦 i really want to stick it out, but it is soo hard right now! xxxx

  14. 20 Sophie December 6, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    I’m so glad to have found this post. You very eloquently describe exactly how I’m feeling. It is nice to know that this, and the stilted communications with home, is normal. Thanks.

  15. 22 Sandra Barr December 13, 2012 at 7:02 am

    Hey Everyone! Sandra in Chile here (I wrote a year ago). I am feeling better now about being so far home so wanted to give you all a shout out. The feeling of isolation does lessen. My biggest problem has been the language- I do speak Spanish but as it turns out proper “Spain Spanish” is not Chilean Spanish and the city I live in is 5 hours from Santiago so more provincial and not used to foreigners. Because Chile was colonized so differently from Mexico or Peru, the language here evolved away from Castilian and is a quirky hybred. Pues (“well”) became “po”, and “mas o menos” is “ma-o-meno”. “Estas” is “estae”, and if you pronounce the “ll” sound correctly you get jokingly booed at as being Argentinian- and so forth. So I now realize that every time that I speak I likely get corrected unless I go local. (Hard for the ego- I am a PhD and teach at a University here- but yes, I got over myself 😉 I do have more friends here than I did in the States but yes, it is still hard to be here.
    Stay well and Happy Holidays-Sandra

    • 23 amyfrances December 14, 2012 at 9:15 pm

      Hi Sandra,
      Thanks for the update – I’m so glad to hear things are going better! I have some pretty funny stories about misunderstanding Kiwi English when I worked at a bookstore in Wellington. Well, funny for me, not so much for the woman I was helping. Not to mention from when I lived and traveled in South and Central America. Happy Holidays! -Amy


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