Group Therapy with a Lemon Twist for Expats #
The blues can strike anyone at any time, but for expats, it’s a whole different kettle of fish.
Culture Shock noun The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes
As expats, we’re all in the same boat. By definition, this is true. Moving away from kith and kin to live in another country, we all have this commonality that binds us together. Another thing that many of us share is something few of us talk about, and even fewer of us knew we suffered with until we came out the other end. It has several names; culture shock, unprepared expat surprise, acculturation… Call it what you want, but it can lead to feelings of isolation, despair, and hopelessness. By recognizing signs, in yourself and your loved ones, you can get help, and quickly resume your life in a happier, healthier way.
Why It Happens #
Being the “new guy” in general can wreak havoc on the psyche, but couple that with a massive move, language barriers, and unfamiliar surroundings, no matter how pleasant, and it’s a recipe for stress. Many of us are not expecting our grand adventure to be this way We have envisaged something exciting and wonderful but forgot to expect the pitfalls that come with any big change. This can lead to feelings of disappointment, anger or the fear that we’ve made a HUGE mistake.
The worst part is that many of us are shy about expressing these feelings. We rationalize it, telling ourselves this move was a decision we made and we need to keep a stiff upper lip and put on a brave face. It also can be a bit embarrassing to admit to friends and family back home that life in your new home isn’t as perfect as all that. And so the spiral begins.
This witches brew of emotions bubbles to the surface and starts affecting daily life. This comes in many forms, most common of which are: depression, loneliness, frustration, anger… and lead to destructive patterns and behaviours. Some people overeat, some turn to alcohol, some retreat from society, whatever it takes to fill in the hole where your life used to be. And down the rabbit hole you go.
If this sounds at all familiar to you, please, read on, and know you are not alone.
My Story #
When I first moved to Europe from the States 16 years ago, I was full of hope. I had met my then-husband and it was all so romantic and fairy tale-like. But then reality set in and I changed. I railed against my host country’s inconveniences, the people’s lack of sympathy for my less-than-perfect language skills, the complicated health care system (I had a baby not long after moving), and my husband’s inability to understand why it wasn’t ok to leave me 12 hours a day for his job with no family or support system to help me. In short, I turned into a real bitch. And an exhausted one at that. I slept as much as possible. I was in bed by 21h and took naps in the afternoon. At first, I chalked it up to the normal post-natal tiredness most every woman experiences. But as my daughter got older (yes, this went on for years), it slowly dawned on me that it was ME who was the problem, not the external noises in my life. It took time, and a bit of therapy, but my mood and perspective shifted and one day I realised I felt true and actual joy again. I’ve not looked back.
Two additional international moves later, I’ve finally got it sussed. I’m not saying it was easy, but it hasn’t been a nightmare, and the ghosts of the past haven’t reinserted themselves into my life.
How to Make It Better #
One of the biggest challenges we face when it comes to taking back our lives is managing expectations. It's ok to have a certain level of them, but expectations have a way of taking over, making real life impossible. Getting a grip on this and levelling out are easier than it may seem.
Part of the problem when arriving somewhere new is the disruption of routine. We all get settled into a rhythm, and when it has been thrown out the window, it's easy to feel lost. By getting involved, in your new community, in a job, in your kid’s school, or with a club, you become part of something bigger than you and have a chance to meet new friends. The focus is shifted from how annoying it is that Mercadona doesn’t deliver to how to organise a beach clean-up or throw a block party to get to know your new neighbours. If big socials aren’t your cuppa, then getting involved in a sport or craft that you like also is a great way to meet people and change perspective. Meetups for various local activities are abundant on Facebook, and chances are good that you will be able to find a new book club, coffee clatch to improve Spanish, yoga class, or candle-making club… anything to get you out of your own head and into a situation that makes you feel included.
Find A Good Friend
A large part of the transition from discontent to contentment involves surrounding yourself with people, or just one person, who you can count on as a friend; someone to grab lunch with, someone to pick up your kid from school when you’re stuck at the vet, someone to call when you’re having a really bad day. Don’t underestimate the power of having one good friend. Having a friend is like having an anchor in your new life, and by getting involved and meeting potential friends, you are taking positive steps in a positive direction.
Watch Out for Yourself
Looking after your general health is also hugely important. No one who hasn’t been through an international move can understand the stress, and we all tend to play that down. Don’t! Give yourself time to be tired, time to reflect, and time to adjust. Eat right. Sleep. Do activities you enjoy. Pretending it isn’t difficult, only it does you a disservice and disallows those around you who would like to help the chance to do so. Talk about what is bothering you to your pastor, your spouse, or your teddy bear. It doesn’t matter to whom, just do it. The frustration dissipates once it has been unloaded
Get Professional Help
And if none of these things are working, get professional help. Immediately. There is absolutely zero reason you should suffer when help is out there and available. There are several English-speaking options on island, readily found online, and here to aide and guide you during your transition to your new life.
Remember, this move is an opportunity to reinvent yourself into who you want to be now and for your future. Don’t let the expat blues mould who you choose to be. Make this new you the best one ever!
By Stephanie Horsman
12 March, 2019