An Unwelcome Visitor: Depression and Moving Abroad (I’m fine!)

Disclaimer: To reiterate the title, I’m not depressed at the moment! Which is why I’m feeling brave enough to do this post, although as you can tell from the fact I started it last year, it’s been a hard one to write. 

Why I’m writing this

Before leaving for France, I spent weeks reading personal blogs and sites like thirdyearabroad.com to allay my numerous fears. This was mostly informative and reassuring, but I was surprised to notice an absence of helpful internet musings about my biggest worry: coping with depression on a year abroad. I’ve therefore ambitiously decided to tackle the topic myself. I can only speak from my own experience, and I’ll focus on the aspects that seem relevant to Year Abroad Stuff, but if you’re interested in more comprehensive information about mental health and depression, I’m sure Google will do an admirable job of turfing up articles.

I don’t expect my opinions to make much of a dent in the internet, but I have a second reason for posting: I strongly believe that openness about mental illness is crucial in raising awareness and reducing stigma, and yet most people reading this probably don’t even know I’ve had depression. The act of publishing this is my attempt to prove that I don’t think it should be considered shameful or taboo. 

On that note, here are some of the things I’ve been pondering. I’ll give a quick rundown of my encounters with depression, before looking at the ways it could have could affected a long-distance move, and the strategies I’ve found for managing my addled brain.

Background 


Since starting uni I’ve had two diagnosed episodes of depression and anxiety, before which I knew almost nothing about mental illness, except that it didn’t happen to “normal people”. This meant that it took two terms of becoming progressively more miserable and obsessive about work until it was pointed out to me (at a family gathering which I spent working, or crying uncontrollably, or both) that I should maybe see a doctor. Once I realised I was ill, and not just the most pathetic human to disgrace the face of planet earth, I managed to get some help and things gradually went back to normal. 

However, as demonstrated by the fact I fell face-first into the same pit a year later, acknowledgement is only the first step towards a cure. Last december, I was battling my second bout of depression whilst planning my year abroad. I didn’t think I’d get through the rest of our holiday in Australia, let alone the next term in Oxford, and surviving abroad on my own was out of the question. I blindly followed my tutor’s suggestion (which, fortunately, was a good one) to study in Montpellier, largely because I couldn’t bear to think about the future. In the spring I proceeded to slowly and miraculously get better.

Yep, it’s even possible to be depressed here. The fact I’d relapsed had the extra-special bonus feature of persuading me that my illness would come back in appropriately boomerang-like fashion FOREVER.

 

Depression abroad

 
Minor blips aside, I’ve been in a really good place since last Easter, and plan on staying there. (That place being “not depressed”, rather than France. Although France isn’t sooo bad.) I’ve had a lucky escape, touch wood, but I could have found myself facing a lot of very scary things in an unfamiliar place. Here are some of the worries I had, which I’d like to at least open up a discussion about.


The glamorous brooding stuff

The feelings typically associated with depression – a sense of emptiness, hopelessness, and constant lethargy – are obviously rather unhelpful if you’re supposed to be carpe-ing the diem and throwing yourself into your new life. If I were depressed this year, I doubt I’d have managed to get to my classes in the morning, let alone persist in chasing up choirs and volunteer work. This highlights the importance of somehow continuing whatever treatment works for you, despite the logistical difficulties inherent in awkwardly continuing to be ill whilst also being out of your home country. 

It’s hard to make apathetic administrators side with you when you’re indifferent to the whole universe and would rather it went away.

Isolation

There’s a reason metaphors for depression often involve being trapped behind a transparent screen; when I was ill, I realised how possible it was to feel unutterably alone, even when surrounded by loved ones. This disconnect from the world makes it hard to interact with strangers, who probably aren’t aware that you’re secretly walking about in a giant bubble, from which all the lovely life-affirming stuff in the outside world is visible but completely irrelevant. Thankfully, I’ve basically always managed to avoid meeting new people when I was feeling really low, but obviously being a social recluse is not a fantastic way of settling into a new country, and I’m not sure how I’d have dealt with this. The presence of a language barrier makes things even more difficult, and means that it may not be wise – especially when feeling vulnerable – to eschew all English-speakers in a bid to become proficient in French. One thing that’s really helped me feel less cut off is finding ways to stay in touch with people at home, in my case by buying a decent smartphone; if a wobble comes along, it’s nice to know I can use Whatsapp or Skype and talk to someone familiar and comforting.


Trapped, trapped!


Low Self-Esteem and Guilt

Thanks to my own personal black dog, I’ve become uncomfortably familiar with the most malevolent part of my brain, which amplifies everything negative about me, and makes anything positive seem fake or trivial. This is another difficulty in meeting new friends, as it’s hard to sell yourself when you think you know, incontrovertibly, that you are the most hopeless, bland, morally reprehensible, revolting piece of turd in the universe. Guilt is also a major problem, as being depressed can feel like a weakness rather than an illness, meaning that I’ve often ended up not asking  friends for help for fear of burdening them. This is something where individual people can make a huge difference; while it can feel impossible to help a depressed friend, I guarantee that you will do more good than harm by regularly offering your company rather than waiting for them to ask for it. You might even convince them that you actually like them.


Low self-esteem means you quickly become paranoid about any little rejection, and draws away from successes, making you less likely to expose yourself to situations where you might otherwise make friends.

 

Anxiety

Another thing that can make it hard to meet people is that when I’m not well, things sometimes suddenly get too much. The thing that tips me over the edge can be someone tapping a spoon on the table, or an argument I’m not even involved in, or having to make a minor decision, but there often comes a point when I absolutely cannot stay in the room any more. This can be tricky to explain, and is another circumstance where people being aware of why I’ve behaved in a slightly bizarre way would be very helpful. Hopefully, one day, mental illnesses will be seen as such a normal part of life that it will be ok to give a genuine explanation for why you’ve been sobbing into a pillow all day, instead of pretending you just watched the beginning of Up.
 

Getting (and staying) better

 

I think that most people who’ve suffered from some sort of mental illness will be familiar with the terror of falling apart again. No matter how much better you are, the memory of your lowest moments is always there, and this is what made it so scary for me to move abroad; I was afraid I wouldn’t cope without the support network I have at home, and about what would happen if I relapsed. Perhaps it’s mostly down to luck that I haven’t, but there are also various positive actions that have definitely helped me feel more balanced and secure. Here are a few suggestions for anyone who’s been in a similar situations, although it goes without saying that different things work for different people.

Taking back control

All of the above can be pretty intense and scary, given that basically your mind has got out of control and taken you on a terrifying death-spiral. I’ve found that even when I can’t do anything about the thoughts themselves, it helps to focus on aspects of my life that I have genuine influence over; little, regular tasks and short-term projects like learning a piano piece. This is all the more important when you are genuinely taking on a project you can’t control the outcome of, as is very much the case with a year abroad. It’s hard not to ruminate on the big, scary questions in life when you’re about to plunge recklessly into the unchartered territories of a far-flung land like France, but inane things like daily to-do lists can actually invaluable. You just have then not fill them with huge and impossible tasks like “Plan Next Year” and “Sort out CAF.”

Little things – Just being nice to yourself and doing things you know make you feel better – taking a bath, seeing friends, eating well, hiding in a cupboard for several hours, whatever floats your boat – can make a big difference to your moment-to-moment quality of life, even if they aren’t going to actually solve the problem.

Exercise – They genuinely prescribe this to people with mild depression. Endorphines are pretty powerful things, and it’s easy to underestimate the positive impact of getting outside, especially if, like me, you really need a high dose of sunlight each day to remain a functional human being.

Counselling – I’ve tried three different counsellors, two of whom were really helpful. It must be noted that the third was extremely unhelpful, imparting such wisdoms as “Maybe you feel like life is worthless because ultimately, it is.” She also pointed out that my parents are likely to die one day, and used the phrase “existential crisis” with total sincerity. (Ironically, her sheer unwitting tactlessness was the first thing to make me laugh in weeks.) To her credit, once our sessions had concluded with basically conceding defeat, she did at least pass me onto the thing that actually seemed to work…

Mindfulness meditation – I realise that to a lot of people, my past self included, saying “meditation cured me” is a surefire way of getting branded as a new-age hippy nutter. However, it WORKED, despite my initial skepticism. To the uninitiated, mindfulness is a non-spiritual form of meditation which involves becoming more present in the here and now, thereby reconnecting you to all the stuff depression tends to cut you off from, such as beauty and fun. Its great advantage is that it allows you to cope with anything in infinitely small chunks, making life much more manageable. It’s also got Actual Science behind it, having been fairly rigorously tested and even found to significantly reduce the risk of relapse. I fully recommend trying it, even if you’re totally fine.

Mindfulness can give you space from your own thoughts, which is good when your thoughts are filled with misery, panic and self-loathing.

Being open about how you are – Obviously, there is a point at which this becomes antisocial; the cashier probably doesn’t want an in-depth account of your experiences with unhelpful GPs. However, telling appropriate people (e.g. friends) how you actually are can save a lot of time and heartache.

This brings me back full circle, to the idea of openness and destigmatization. I don’t think the world can change overnight, but things are already improving, and I want to add my two cents (Euro cents, because I’m French now) to the pile. I hope this has explained some of my own behaviour, and provided food for thought – maybe it’ll even encourage one or two people to share their own answers to the very many questions that haven’t really been addressed yet. Normal light-hearted service will be resumed very soon.

BONUS LIST!!
Here are a few of the very many people who’ve (probably, according to my unreliable friend Wikipedia) suffered from depression and managed to do awesome stuff anyway: 
Buzz Aldrin 
Zach Braff
Agatha Christie
Johnny Depp
Eminem
Beyoncé 
John Lennon 
Marilyn Monroe 
Susan Calman
Amy Tan
Vincent van Gogh
Charles Baudelaire
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15 thoughts on “An Unwelcome Visitor: Depression and Moving Abroad (I’m fine!)

  1. How old are you? I assume similar to Elly Stan…. but mentally you are far too intelligent and wiser than your age xxx I know a little about depression it gets easier to cope with and you are doing really well at probably the worst time as your hormones are all over the place and life is changing every day. Well done xx lynette

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