In the Doldrums, Wellington, New Zealand
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.