You hear the term ex-pat a lot.
I’ll be honest. I never really knew what it meant until I started teaching ESL. I associated the term with retirees sipping piña coladas on islands in the Caribbean. Just in case you are like me and don’t know the definition, the Oxford Dictionary defines an ex-pat as a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than their native country.
Come to find out, the term actually applied to me. Who knew? My guess is that it might apply to you, too. You see, I’ve lived in Germany twice in my life. I lived their temporarily while studying and later while doing an internship. And, let me tell you…
I did not make a good expat. There was neither piña colada drinking nor much enjoyment at all for that matter. In fact, I was terribly homesick both times.
This homesickness led to a pretty debilitating depression. I managed to fulfill my responsibilities at school and work, but outside of that, I spent much of my time sleeping and eating to numb my blues.
This was my reality, and there is no reason to hide it.
In fact, I want to share my experience and elaborate on the lessons I learned because I imagine that my response to being thousands of miles from home was and is quite normal. I’ve talked to enough clients to know that many expats suffer from homesickness and depression.
And, the symptoms are very real.
According to Adele Wilde, a counselor and psychotherapist in Australia, a person with homesickness “experiences intense feelings of longing due to separation from home environment and loved ones. The feelings that are most identified with homesickness are nostalgia, grief, depression, anxiety, sadness, and withdrawal.”
I’d like to draw your attention to the word grief. Grief is the type of sadness experienced with loss or death of a loved one.
Grief is very serious business.
But it makes perfect sense, right? You’ve left behind your life, your home, and your identity. You are completely separated from your support system (i.e. your friends, your family, and even your significant other sometimes), yet you have the same or more responsibilities than before.
Added to the mix, you often have to learn an entirely new language.
Sometimes with a completely different alphabet than your own.
Whoa! Who would sign up for this?
People who crave adventure.
People who crave a good challenge.
People who love learning about new cultures.
I get it; I’m one of those people.
So, why did things go south for me, and what I could have done differently?
I don’t generally like to live in regret, but sometimes it’s useful to look back on an experience and consider how I could have handled things differently. This helps in two ways.
1) If I find myself in that situation again, I will already have an action plan.
2) The lessons I learned from my “failures” (I put this in quotations because they aren’t really failures but opportunities to learn) might help another person in the same situation.
So, upon much reflection, here are some ideas that my “Now Stephanie” would share with my “Then Stephanie”:
Sometimes you have to be your own parent.
What I mean here is that ultimately we are all still little kids trapped in suits and skirts. Or, let me put this in the first person: Despite my age, sometimes I’m still just a little girl at heart. That means that I need my mom; I need someone to hold my hand and tell me that it’s all going to be okay.
Sure, I could pick up my cell phone and message my mom or call her on Skype. But the disconnect can still be felt. We’re talking, but she’s not really by my side. I can’t feel her energy and the atmospheric shift that happens when someone is truly present in physical form.
So, sometimes I have to be my own mom, and I have to offer myself the soothing words that she would share.
“Yes, you are in a really difficult situation right now.”
“Yes, you feel lonely.”
“Yes, it makes perfect sense that you feel this way.”
My mom would never tell me to just “suck it up”! She would give me permission to feel sad and depressed. This is a crucial step because I need to allow myself the feeling before I ever stand a chance of extracting myself from the pain.
On the other hand, if I keep telling myself that I need to “stay strong” and just “deal with it,” I will never ask for help. I won’t be honest with myself or others, and I will stay stuck in an endless loop of depression.
So, be your mom. If your mom was mean, be a kind and gentle version of your mom because she is what you need right now.
Consider online or in-person therapy.
Seriously. Once you have given yourself permission to feel the way that you do, go get support. You need it. I didn’t have access to the internet when I was an expat, but I imagine that if I had explored my options further, there might have been an opportunity to meet with a therapist or a psychologist in-person who could have supported me on my journey.
Nowadays, there are websites like Talk Space where you can meet with an experienced therapist on demand. In addition, some large companies offer Employee Assistance Programs, which include assistance for mental health issues. This is a benefit provided to you as part of your compensation package, so check to see if your company has one.
My “Then Stephanie” would have been over the moon to find such convenient help.
Now, I get it. Having a therapist is not for everyone. I’m from America where everyone has a therapist (I’m exaggerating a little here), and one in six people take some type of psychiatric drug (On this point, I’m not exaggerating; this is according to a 2013 study cited in Scientific America).
I understand that not every culture has the same opinion on the benefits of these types of treatments.
So, yes, I am approaching this problem from a very American perspective. However, I do believe that seeing a specialist like a therapist that specializes in depression can open so many doors for healing. I know from experience that being so far away from home, can trigger very deep feelings of abandonment. Yes, you chose to move or maybe you were asked to move for your company, but the result is that you feel isolated and alone. Like I mentioned, it can make you feel exactly like a little kid, left alone intentionally or unintentionally by his parents. This little kid is crying for help.
Know before you go.
Maybe you are fortunate enough to be reading this article before your departure to your new life and country. If so, you have such a huge advantage. You have the ability to research the heck out of the country and town you are moving to. You can learn in-depth knowledge about the culture, the people, and the priorities of the people. You can learn beforehand what company benefits are available to you. Lucky you!
I wish I had done more research. I wish I had asked more questions. I was cocky. I thought homesickness and depression wouldn’t happen to me because I was such a “go-getter” and a person who got along with anyone. How could I ever feel isolated?
I didn’t know that German culture and American culture could be quite different. In America, you make small talk with the person standing next to you in line at WalMart. In Germany…not so much. I didn’t expect this and didn’t have the tools to negotiate this new landscape. My stereotypical American friendliness didn’t get me very far at all. I felt like a fish out of water and didn’t know how to find my way back.
But I made it back – both metaphorically and literally. And, I’m thankful for my experiences in Germany. They created in me a deep empathy for others on their ex-pat and language learning journeys. Before Germany, I would not have been able to connect with people in the way that I do now.
My hope is that instead of being a “Debbie Downer” on the topic of being an expat, my story will resonate with at least one person who needs help. Perhaps what was once a time in my life when I felt shame and embarrassment will become a beacon of hope for someone else.
Interested in learning more? Visit us at www.talaera.com.
Stephanie Schottel, M.A. is an ESL instructor at Talaera and the owner of Cup of Tea Language Coaching, a Houston-based business that specializes in one-on-one ESL coaching that empowers English learners to express themselves fully and confidently in their communities and workplaces. By using her own experience of studying and working abroad in Germany (and feeling unable to express her true self with the language tools she had), she brings insight, empathy, and knowledge of the language learning process into every session. She is passionate about helping ESL students to master the language so that they have the tools at hand to convey their ideas, values, and personality without compromise. When she is not teaching English, you will likely find her doing art projects with her daughter, on a jog or on a paddle-board, or looking up new German vocabulary words in her 25-year old German dictionary (that is literally falling apart).