When you move to another country, the whirlwind of emotions begins to wreak havoc before you even take the suitcase out of the closet. Anticipation. Fear. Sadness. The entire spectrum from a childlike eagerness all the way to paralyzing despair. Trading in home, friends, family, your native language, and all that is safe, comfortable, and familiar for a strange and uncertain future is scary, but exciting. Profoundly exciting. I often deal with complex emotions and challenges in one of three ways: 1) writing about them 2) completely avoiding them with chemicals and escapist entertainment 3) Googling the shit out of every aspect and detail until I fill my brain with enough information to comfort myself, or ignite a full-on freak out.
In 2005, I scoured the Internets and found mountains of bullshit about what moving to Paris is like for an American. Intimidating bullshit that made me feel like a sewer rat. These blogs and sites were written by people very different than myself. Mostly, I found information on being an American in Paris written by the kind of people who had never worn handcuffs, lived in a trailer park, worked the graveyard shift in a factory, or slept in an abandoned bus. They wrote things about how to behave in Paris, (some of it within reason) how to dress in Paris, how to eat, how to take shits, and that no matter what I did, I would still be a gross, American piece of shit compared to the divine and mystical French women who never get fat, never need make up or shampoo and rise in the morning looking like pouty Victoria’s Secret models.
It was depressing. So, I’d say, “fuck those snobby rich shitbags,” then turn on the escapism and down a few pints of Guinness while watching Moulin Rouge! for the 3,467th time to remind myself that Paris was a magical place made especially for writers and weirdos.
I felt better for a little while, comforted by the knowledge that once I arrived, settled in, and made a new life in the land of Writers and Weirdos, everything would work itself out, and nothing but happiness would remain. Because life is that easy. Of course it is.
Adjusting was difficult. I’ve written about the learning curves a lot over the years. But, it was interesting and each day was a bizarre mix of frustration and awe. Most days after French class, I took the line 4 métro with my friend Roberto from Brazil who moved to Paris a few months before I did. We talked about things we loved and detested about our new home; about things we missed from our old homes.
“Sometimes, I cry,” he said, watching the doors as the opened and another surge of bodies filled the car.
“Me, too,” I said.
“I’m learning how to live here, though.” He turned back to me. “It takes time.”
I sighed, feeling less alone, but not so reassured.
Roberto looked past me, out the window and onto the subway platform. “What is that?”
I followed his gaze to see yet another amazing, larger-than-life weirdo that is commonplace in big cities. We laughed, happy to be exactly where we were in that moment, knowing we were right where we belonged, our homesickness and tears forgotten until next time.
Having someone who understood was nice. I do not make friends easily, and had grown quite attached to the ones I’d made back home. Some of them had been in my life since grade school. I moved abroad before Facebook. I spent a lot of time reading and writing emails, investing time in each relationship individually. As the calendar pages fluttered by, Colorado, along with everyone and everything in it pulled farther away from me. Social networks didn’t help to nurture any relationships with people I’d been close to, but did wonders for engaging with people I had never met, or hadn’t seen for several years.
Years passed by when I wasn’t looking, as they do for everyone. My husband and I bought a house in the countryside. Our house was in a remote location, surrounded by fields and forest. It was a beautiful house, with quiet, natural surroundings. It seemed ideal. Quiet. Isolated. Peaceful. One evening not long after we moved in, I was alone, curled up on the couch with a book. The serene cloud of quiet isolation turned into a toxic fog of restless anxiety that began smothering and choking me in an instant. Darkness fell outside. I closed all the shutters, then snuggled up on the couch again. But, it wasn’t cozy. It was cold and creepy. I found myself repeatedly looking over my shoulder. This house was too big and surrounded by too much nothing on another continent, and a country that was not my own. I was too alone, even though I’d always been someone who cherished a large amount of alone time.
It turned out that for me, that level of isolation and permanence in a house of that size stifled a part of my being. Something inside me began to wilt and die. One day, as I looked out the front window, I thought to myself, “This can’t be the last place I ever live. I don’t want to die here.”
For the next four years, I began to fade away. When I looked in the mirror, someone else was standing there staring back at me; a stranger with dark eyes and a drawn, expressionless face. If I stared at her hard enough, I could see me trapped behind her, but I couldn’t reach myself. I didn’t have the strength to pull myself out from the grip of the sad morass of the person in the mirror. The me I used to be, who I knew I could be again, was engaged in a struggle. Like Gandalf facing down the Balrog, the me I’d lost was facing down a monster depression that was pushing her over the edge.
I stopped taking care of myself. My hair grew out and hung limp in my face. I’d gained weight after I quit smoking, which was a good thing, but now I’d started to get fat in a way that was sloth-like and unhealthy. Getting dressed to go eat dinner in a restaurant with my husband became a terrible ordeal. Taking a shower, grooming myself, dealing with my hair and face and clothes that weren’t sweatpants became a stressful and overwhelming process. I spent entire evenings sobbing uncontrollable tears about one thing or another. The deep, hyperventilating sobs of a hysterical child. I tried to reconnect with a few people that I had lost touch with over the years, including an estranged relative, but discovered that in this amazing era of FaceTime and Skype, most people can’t be fucked to communicate with more than a Facebook comment here and there. I tried to engage with other expats in France, which was easier in Paris, but was now quite difficult since I was the only one for miles around. Besides that, I might not have been much fun to engage with. I was sick of France, sick of everything, and wasn’t exactly affable or congenial. More than normal, I mean.
Existing became an ordeal. Simply being a person became a confusing and exasperating thing. I began to sincerely reckon with the fact that I was falling apart, sinking into an overwhelming depression, and might need some serious help. Aside from my husband, I didn’t talk about this in depth with a single person.
Then my cat died after nearly twenty years of being my trusty companion. After grieving for a couple of months, I decided to finally do something with myself, so I went for a haircut. Evidently, I’d walked into some wacky comedy instead of a salon, and my hair was butchered by someone masquerading as person who could cut hair. Patches of my head were cut with a razor, and others with scissors. One side was long, the other short. This confirmed for me that daily life was too difficult. My husband began to worry that I would harm myself, which I didn’t plan on doing, but did like that the option was there.
Instead, I went to another salon and got my butcher job repaired. The French stylist looked at me, ran her fingers through my hair and said, “Don’t worry. It can’t get any worse.”
And I laughed. I laughed, and it felt good. When I left the salon, I wasn’t the me I used to be or could be again, but I thought that maybe, just maybe… I could handle putting on a pair of jeans and sitting in a restaurant to eat with my husband. A couple of more months passed by and we went to the animal shelter and adopted another cat. It wasn’t the same, but having a feline in the house again helped a little. I continued taking tiny steps. I spent my mornings meditating and writing. In the afternoons, I’d summon all of my will and take my dog for a long walk through the big open fields near our house. This was all much harder than it sounds.
Somehow, without me noticing, I had decided to let go of trying to connect with people who were “too busy” to respond to messages. I stopped sobbing every night. Memories of my fallen feline comrade morphed from sad to happy. I got out of France for a short time and took a trip to NYC.
We decided to leave France.
Not long after arriving in the UK, I looked in the mirror. I stretched out my arm as far as I could. She was there, that me who had slipped away from me. She reached out, and I pulled her back in. She’d aged a little and was a little worse for wear, but was feeling pretty feisty and ready to rock the fuck out.
C’mon. You knew how this would end. Gandalf fell when he battled the Balrog, but he beat it and came back stronger than before, and with a fancy new hairdo. Basically the same story, give or take a few Orcs.
Before I moved overseas, I found a shit-ton of information warning me how to dress and how to act in Paris based on the experiences of some rich white people who I would never relate to or even know how to talk to. That was in 2005, and thankfully, the Internet has a lot more information now and has a wider range of voices. There are plenty of resources now to assist people with expat depression. Yes, it is a very real thing. Nothing I read online all of those years ago warned me that it could happen, only that I should never wear tennis shoes anywhere near the goddamn Eiffel Tower. (Which I did, you fucking snobs, and nothing bad happened.)
Did I have expat depression? Sort of. I’ve had depressed phases for as long as I can remember, but none as profound and prolonged as this episode was, and I’d never felt as though I’d morphed into a complete stranger like this. The bottom line is, no matter where you live, it’s important to talk to someone if you feel yourself slipping away. I wanted to write this to tell you that. I wanted to tell you that it’s okay to fall apart, and to forget who you are. It’s okay to ask for help. I think I need to say that for myself, too. If I lose myself again, I hope I’ll remember that, because maybe I would’ve clawed my way out sooner. I tend to let my pride get the best of me.
And I wanted to tell you that escapist entertainment is pretty great. Especially movies about writers, weirdos, and wizards. Trust me on this one.