Warning: This post talks about depression and suicide. If you are easily triggered, please be cautious when reading.
There seems to be this idea that expat’s live these happy-filled, glamorous lives. That we’re rich, privledged – in a bad way – and that we automatically think we’re better than others. Oh, and if you’re American, you’ve somehow betrayed your country and you should just stay out of the US.
I’m here to say that these things can be true to an extent, but we’re typically far from these ideas. In fact, being an expat is like feeling adrift, even if we have a home in the foreign country we live in, we aren’t always just settled, and many times this is based on our reasons for being in the foreign country, whether it be because we married a foreigner, or started a job, or maybe to study…and yet things could change in an instant and we could find ourselves moving somewhere else or even having to return to our home country; hence the reason we are adrift. And it’s hard to deal with this feeling. It’s hard to just grab onto one culture, and then suddenly find ourselves going back to our own. Being an expat means changing everything we know. Not just language, but cultural ideas, food, etc. And so we find someone else deep inside that we never knew existed until being in a position that makes us have to change who we originally were. It’s having to change our personality, which is nearly impossible. And so we find ourselves fighting the old us so that we can be accepted in our new life, however long it may last. And for some people, especially those who already know the language and cultural ques of a country, this is easier for them. But for those, who like myself, are thrust into a country where they know nothing, nada, zip, zilch, rien – this is extremely hard for us. And more likely than not, we fail, fail, fail…and then we end up fighting beasts that we didn’t see coming. Depression & anxiety.
Yes, expat depression & anxiety exist, and it’s something that I have grappled with for almost 2 years. And I didn’t see the warning signs until it hit me full force, like a hammer striking a nail, striking and striking until it’s in the wood…and then nearly impossible to get back out. It comes in stages, and this is why I want to talk about this, so that any other expat can see it coming before they find themselves imbedded so deep that they can’t get out.
You’re excited. You’re scared, but in a good way. You daydream of how your life will be in another country, and these daydreams are definitely romanticized ideas that aren’t plausible. You build this whole word of how it will be…and this is just disastrous. It’s good to have goals, but don’t come at expat life with preconceived romanticized notions like it’s going to be GREAT. Like you’re going to become fluent in 3 months. Like you’re going to make a ton of friends, simply because you’re a foreigner and people will find you interesting. Like you’re going to be soooooo good at your job or easily find the job you want.
You get the idea. Be RATIONAL. But it’s hard to be rational when you have been given this new opportunity. It’s hard to beat down that ego. That perfect little world you have built in your head. This is one of the main mistakes I made, and boy, when my perfect world didn’t work…it was like a swift kick in the gut, followed by a punch between the eyes.
When I moved to France after marrying my Frenchie, I loved France. France was the best thing. France was way better than America. Better healthcare, better food, a sexy language, and living in Paris was like being in a movie. France was…the shit. End of story.
I don’t know how many hours I spent debating with my friends back home about how much better France was than America. It wasn’t enough for me to just be there, I had to prove that life was better than any place but America. This is a fun stage, an irrational stage. It’s the stage where possibilities are endless. I wish I was still at this stage…but I wouldn’t be writing this if I were.
You’re just going through the motions. You’re dealing with all the shity bureaucracy that you must deal with. You still love living in the foreign country. But now you’re getting a good ol’ dose of cultural reality, but you kind of refuse to see it. Maybe you’re not teaching foreign kids in schools, or maybe you’re teaching some English but barely making ends meet. Maybe that nanny job with privledged kids is driving you butt f****** crazy. Maybe your spouse/boyfriend you moved here for is not really prince charming. Hey, these things do happen. When I entered this stage, I was a nanny to two spoiled brats. I loved them, but it was a battle every day to get them from school, to making sure they took baths, to even doing homework. They screamed and cried about everything. I wanted to beat my head against the wall. And at the same time, I was taking French language courses. I hated it. I hated the teachers who talked to us, her students, like we were stupid. Who would suddenly call on me to respond to her, when all I could do was “Oh, ummmm…”
I cried almost everyday after my courses. I was put in a more advance school, which didn’t make sense. All of this so that I could take a test and prove that I spoke just enough French. Simply because I was the spouse of a French citizen. I also had to take civic’s courses, and endure a chest x-ray with my tits out just to check for u tuburculocious. I was doing it though. I was living in Paris, hosting travelers in our apartment, having picnic’s by the Notre Dame or in front of the Eiffel Tower…I was living a dream that many others would wish for. I actually felt important, entitled. I hated that feeling most of all, what it was turning me into. But I started to notice things…things that just set my teeth on edge.
You hate it. Maybe you should go back. Maybe you made a mistake. But you have nothing to go back to because you sold everything you had to start a new life here. You don’t keep in contact with your friends from your home country anymore. You hardly even talk to your family. You exist only in this place that is slowly crumbling down around you. You hate hearing the language. You just want to speak your own language, in slang, so that you can talk without having to over pronunciate and say things only people from your home country understand. You might even miss your own culture. You start to see the ugly and the bad. The truth. And then you start to feel…less. Smells and sounds done seem the same. You’re still operating each day, but now you feel like a robot. You might even end up moving from a large city to a small town, where making friends is even harder. And worst still, there are hardly expats, or the kind of expats you want to be around.
When I hit this mark, my depression was slowly creeping in. I didn’t know it for what it was at the time, and I wished I had because nothing could prepare me for what I was about to go through. And worse, all the things I just mentioned slowly crept up on me. My husband and I had moved from Paris to a small town in the West of France called Niort. I hated it and still do. There is no wonder here, just nothing. I started to hate everything French. I started to hate the language. I started to become annoyed with all the dog shit on the streets (Really France, you have a major problem with leaving dog shit in the streets. It’s nasty). I didn’t want to talk to anyone because everytime I tried, my brain had to go into overdrive to translate what people said to me, and I also had a hard time trying to communicate my feelings. And I realized, when you speak a different language…you’re not the same person you were when you spoke your mother-tongue. It’s hard to find who you are in another language, to be able to express whats truly coming from your heart. I felt like nothing, I didn’t feel like me. I began to lose myself in a grey cloud of nothing.
Something is definitely wrong. Maybe you feel off, disconnected from reality. Things don’t look right. Everything is grey. Just a relentless grey, and it’s not going anywhere. You refuse to go out, but only when you absolutely must. You don’t laugh. You find yourself annoyed with people who are not like you. You stop speaking the language, and you continue to avoid, avoid, avoid so that you don’t have to speak it. Maybe you begin to panic and think that maybe there is something physically wrong. The headaches come. There are moments during your day where you just breakdown crying, and you don’t even know why. Maybe you’ve felt this before and know what it is, but if you’re like me and you have never felt the chains of severe depression hold on to you tightly, then you begin to panic even more. Something is wrong.
I didn’t know what was wrong. I felt so bad and so cut off from the world that I thought for sure I was physically sick. I saw my doctor countless times, getting MRI’s, blood tests for lyme disease, anything and everything. I was convinced that there was something but they just couldn’t figure it out. Later, I would realize that I was dealing with something called Depersonalization…and it’s very hard to describe, but it is a dissociation disorder. You can read more about it here.
It wasn’t until I was lying in bed with my husband one day, after crying about how scared I was, and how I felt like I was going insane. He told me that I was depressed…and then something just clicked for me. I’ve experienced depression before, but not on this level and when he told me his thoughts, I realized that I was severely depressed. I was…very, very sick. I didn’t want to be put on medication. I’d never once touched psychiatric meds. But as months went on, I started to break even more. That nail was going deeper and deeper. And it hurt so much that the pain just kind of went away…and was replaced with a feeling of emptiness.
My anxiety was getting worse and worse. And to top it all off, my anxiety was so extreme that I was paranoid about anything and everything. I was basically scared of my own heartbeat. When I tried to sleep, I couldn’t. I would toss and turn, and when I was on the cusp of sleep, I would wake up frantic and crying. I started to fear that I had bipolar disorder, or that I was becoming schizophrenic. And then… my ocd kicked in. I don’t have your typical OCD. What I have is something called Pure O. Pure O tends to have a theme, and mine was one of the worst. It’s called Harm OCD, where you have this irrational fear that you’re going to hurt or kill someone. I don’t want to go into detail about this, because it tends to make people uneasy, because they simply don’t understand this disorder. But those with harm OCD are the least likely to ever hurt someone intentionally. But I didn’t know this is what I had at the time…
The End Result
I thought I was a psychopath, that I was going to freakout and hurt someone, and I countinued to be plaged with horrible intrusive thoughts. What followed was 9 months of hell where I hid knives or threw them away, avoided looking at people, found nothing enjoyable at all, and many hours spent on the phone with my family to explain what was happening to me and expressing thoughts of wanting to end my life. Everyday I would look at the stairs leading to the second floor of our house, and I would imagine hanging myself from the banister. I spent the majority of my time avoiding my husband, sleeping all day, and even avoiding going places by myself because I would have a panic attack. I would like to tell you about all of my feelings during this time, but it’s hard for me to really remember it all. Or maybe I don’t want to remember it because it was that horrible. Even while writing this, I’m shaking just remembering that dark part of my life…because now, I truly understand what it means to want it all to stop. To be dead by my own hand. To simply step out in front of speeding car and hope that it killed me instantly. To end it because I was just this negative weight in my husbands life, and I thought he would be better without me. I had dragged him down with me because he was my anchor and I the weight that sunk us to the bottom of the deepest, remote part of the ocean. I’ve told you so much about how I felt, and yet I haven’t even touched upon what this did to my husband. How he told me that everyday, he feared coming home to find me dead…but in the end, I chose to hold on because when I thought about killing myself, I thought about what it would do to my family back in the US, my family who couldn’t reach me because we were an ocean apart. And my husband…
I didn’t want to take what I had been going through, only to kill myself and cause depression for others because of a stupid choice. Because no matter how much I wanted to be rid of this world, I knew I was better off fighting. Better off being here, even in a small way, for my family.
At the end of it all, when I was at my worst, I was finally admitted to a psychiatric facility, and under observation for 5 weeks to understand what was really going on. I was diagnosed with OCD, severe depression, Borderline Personality Disorder traits (though my psychiatrist didn’t give me an official diagnosis, she mentioned that I had some of the traits, therefore it’s not full-blown borderline PD), and anxiety. I was put on some heavy meds to help me deal with this. I currently take Paxil, Quitiapine, tercine, and sleeping pills.
Am I any better? Well…I’m a lot better than I was before. I can function more easily, and I have a small job. I still deal with harm ocd and I still have days where I lay in bed all day long. And worst of all, I still feel like there is something wrong with me. But it’s hold on me isn’t as bad as before. I’m still learning how to cope with it all, how to be “normal” whatever that is. But I’m also looking into other reasons for my mental state, with the help of my psychiatrist. I do have a problem with vitamin d deficiency – which can cause depression – and I’m still struggling with low iron problems – which studies have shown to cause a significant amount of mental health issues. I’m also having problems with my periods, and this can cause depression and anxiety, too. I’ve also started a secret mental health expat group on Facebook, specifically for those who live in France. I wanted to create a safe place for those expats who are dealing with not only depression and anxiety, but also dealing with chronic mental disorders. I have a wonderful moderator who helps me to run this, as I wouldn’t be able to do this on my own. And it makes me happy to know other expats can talk about their problems without being judged by the expat community in France.
If you’re an expat, or even if you’re not an expat, I just want you to know you’re not alone. Because feeling alone during moments like these is worst. I’m here, and so are the many millions of others who suffer just like you. I’m here, I’m here, I’m here…