A few months ago in an expat group I follow on Facebook, an American woman living in France bravely posted about her struggles with depression and anxiety ever since moving here.
She was looking for support and probably thought a few people would do their best to help, but to everyone’s surprise, over 100 people in the group replied with their advice, words of support, and their own personal stories of experiencing the same thing. No trolls! No jackass comments!
Their words of encouragement and willingness to lend a hand were really touching and reassured all of us that we’re not alone and that kind people out there genuinely do want to help. The woman who posted about her struggles encouraged me to write this post, so to that end, I’d like to take a moment to talk about the dark side of expat life that so many foreigners abroad are afraid to speak up about.
The dark side of expat life in France (and where to turn for help)
This isn’t a fluffy feel-good post on how life in France is OMGAMAZING 24/7. Nowhere is perfect day in and day out and that’s the truth. This is a post about mental health. I don’t think it does the expat community any favors by sweeping this extremely important topic under the rug and pretending it doesn’t exist. So let’s talk.
Let me ask you a question. Do you tend to react positively or negatively to the more challenging things in life? 2017 Diane is going to choose the positive option 98% of the time because if it’s in my control, I’m going to see the glass half full. Mentally I feel better choosing this option and others perceive us more positively as well.
If you’ve been here awhile or know me in person, you know I love the life I’ve created abroad 98% of the time, but life has a habit of getting in the way every now and then.
It’s OK to talk about the struggles we face.
Talking about them doesn’t mean we’re being negative; it means we’re just going through life. The hard times are more bearable with a caring support system and people to turn to. I also mention France specifically in this post because that’s where I live but foreigners living anywhere will be able to relate to this post. It’s by no means France specific.
My goal with this post is threefold:
1) To let anyone out there who is struggling know they are not alone. So often we keep feelings of sadness, anxiety, and depression to ourselves thinking people won’t understand, don’t want to be bothered with our “negativity,” or worst of all, that there’s something wrong with us if we aren’t 100% in love with life abroad every second of every single day. We’re ashamed, scared, or want to pretend like we’re fine.
2) To provide resources (scroll to end) for anyone who doesn’t know where to turn.
3) To let prospective expats know that life abroad isn’t always easy, in case they thought otherwise. Living in France is not always in line with romanticized versions we so often see. That might sound like a major “DUH, Diane, of course it’s not always easy,” but you’d be surprised at how many people I encounter via my blog who have their rose-colored glasses strapped on with duct tape unwilling to let any clouds of reality peek through.
I’m asking you to read on with an open, empathetic mind. I’m sure that someone in your life is struggling in silence (or has in the past or will in the future).
If you’ve lived abroad for any length of time, you’ve undoubtedly confronted one of the issues in the InterNations graphic below:
Even experiencing just one of the issues pictured above can add fuel to an already burning fire with no extinguisher in sight.
Now hold up a second.
I’m sure that at least one of you out there reading this right now is thinking, “Oh I’m sorry to hear life isn’t easy for all of you who chose to move, but I love France and think it’s great. I would never have trouble like that!” or “When I move to France, it’s going to be perfect because I know so many people, etc.” or “Sucks for them but this would never happen to me because I don’t have mental health problems” or maybe “If you have so many issues, go home!”
None of these reactions is helpful or kind.
I assure you that many of the people who I spoke to before deciding to write this post did and still do love France. They came here prepared and with high hopes. Many came with a French partner, a job, and decent French skills that have only improved over time.
Depression and anxiety don’t discriminate based on age, gender, class, or anything else. The way our body reacts to life is not a choice and is not always in our control.
On keeping it real
If you’ve been reading here for any length of time, you’ll know that I try to paint an even picture of what life can be like for a foreigner in France. But I admit, the majority of posts here show La Belle France in a positive light. Why? Two reasons. Because the truth is that I love living in France. My life is good here and I enjoy sharing my travels, cultural commentary, stories, and photos with all of you.
But I also keep it positive because I know that’s what people want to read.
No one likes a Debbie Downer although there are plenty of less-than-perfect things to share about life abroad. Or life anywhere.
There’s a difference between being negative and being real.
By only talking about the positive aspects of life in France, I’d be doing my readers a disservice. I’ve written before about how living in France is completely different than vacationing in France, that no one is “lucky” to live abroad, and a big ol’ post on reflections after 5 years. The whole “living in France is real life and not a 24/7 vacation” point is one that is lost on a lot of people who see France only through their rose-colored glasses.
This mindset of “perfect France” is generally from people who have never lived here, or if they have, it’s only been for a year or two.
They seem to take any critique about France — no matter how valid — personally. It’s like they think of France as a human friend that we’ve just offended that they need to defend.
It’s the strangest thing.
Some people also like to blame the person suffering for their own problems, as if anyone would actually choose to feel miserable all the time.
Along with that, when foreigners in France complain or courageously speak up about feeling depressed or needing help, people who don’t get it respond with, “How bad can it be, you live in France?” as if simply living in France is a cure-all for all of our problems. Or worse, “Well, then just go home if you hate it so much!” or “Stop whining!” or “You don’t deserve to live abroad,” as if it’s a prize.
Again, not the right answers at all and certainly not helpful. I see it play out time and time again on my own social media networks.
In other life situations where people are having a hard time, are we so dismissive and critical? Imagine telling a new mother who is having trouble adapting to life with a newborn that maybe she should have never had the baby in the first place. She complains that she has no time for herself and it’s taking a toll on her well-being. Would we tell her, “Well, you chose to have a baby!” or that she doesn’t deserve to be a mother? No, we’d offer a supportive ear!
Before you say, well, that’s different, I assure you that it’s not! Someone having a hard time is speaking up and if they deserve anything, it’s our support.
It’s responses like these and people’s unwillingness to try to understand that make it harder for people struggling to speak up and get help.
It’s why bloggers sometimes focus on only the great aspects of life abroad and pretend that shades of gray don’t exist and that the hard times are just minor things not worthy of discussion.
Alexandra Guitelmann over at Les Lolos writes,
“There are so many articles selling expat life: What a wonderful, fulfilling experience it is; how you should embrace your host country’s culture to truly appreciate it. Not enough prepare you for balancing a foot in one place while the other’s back home. No one teaches you how to cope with the constant anxiety of something happening to loved ones 10,000 miles away. You’re certainly not prepared for sadness sneaking up on you, triggered by a Facetime with your best friend showing off her latest Monoprix purchase. Or simply the absence of the daily phone call. That one hurts, too.”
If we’re made to feel ashamed, it’s much easier to put the negative feelings aside and try to distract ourselves. But sometimes that’s not enough. It’s not a sign of weakness to speak up and ask for help. There’s no shame in reaching out to a therapist or support system. Or taking medication. Or writing posts like this one.
I think it’s very easy to focus on the positive sides of life abroad so much (especially the first couple of years) that we almost feel guilty if things aren’t always amazing.
We feel even more guilty if we’re dealing with anxiety or depression and that something must be wrong with us if we’re not loving it all the time. Or when a life issue like job loss, divorce, addiction, health scare, or death gets in the way of us being able to live life to the fullest. Especially when someone close to you is struggling with one of these issues very far away and you’re not physically there.
Life can be hard anywhere.
Add in a new language, culture, job, family, and things can even get worse. The dark side of expat life begins to rear its ugly head.
Feeling like you don’t belong anywhere while watching others around you seemingly move forward can be crippling. Alex Ellsworth, a former New Yorker living in Seoul, South Korea, wrote in this New York Times piece:
“Expat life has a dark side: getting stuck in limbo, neither here nor there. I’ve watched as peers back home have married, had children, bought houses, advanced in their careers. Meanwhile, most of us here in Seoul find ourselves living Peter Pan-like existences. I’m entering middle age with nothing tangible to show for it.”
The hardest part for me?
For me personally, integrating and making friends has been the biggest challenge. While I speak French, there’s always more to learn and I don’t think I’ll ever be as precise in French as I am in English.
Even after 5 years here, I don’t think I’ll ever have “real” friends, despite my best efforts to network and put myself out there. And that hurts because I’m a social person who thrives on personal relationships. I realize this is not a France-specific problem and that people anywhere deal with the same issues, even those who move within their home country.
That’s not to elicit sympathy but to show that it’s not always simple to just pack up your life, move abroad, and live happily ever after.
M.E. over at Surviving in Italy writes, “What I’m NOT saying here is that you shouldn’t live abroad because it’s hard… I’m also not saying that living abroad is hard for everyone. Every situation is different and sometimes getting away and moving to another country can be healing. My first two years in Italy were like a wonderland la-la fest and the best time of my life. The subsequent three years were filled with stress, anxiety, and feeling more alone than I ever have in my life. What I’m saying is this: Prepare for the struggle and get help when you need it. It’s okay to ask for help.”
I want you to truly hear that. It’s OK to ask for help.
The snowball effect
Another point I want to bring up is how life abroad can play into one’s overall well-being — even if you’re “fine” at home. Life problems can affect us anywhere and it’s when they snowball that I personally have the most trouble. Even if you were able to deal with similar issues in your home country without a hitch, your experience abroad may not be the same.
Take, for example, a bad day at work where you arrived late and then messed up a presentation. You brush it off and move on. Then you get into an argument with a friend back home via text message over something trivial. This gets you down. Then a few days later you get some bad health news about someone you love or yourself. Then you lose your job, etc. Then you snap at your husband. It’s all just too much to deal with.
Maybe all that is a little extreme, but even just 2 or 3 little things together can have you hating life — and they often sneak up on you.
That’s when I tell Tom I hate France.
But it’s not France that’s to blame. It’s just life. Being far away from what’s comfortable can make life struggles — that can happen anywhere to anyone — that much harder to handle. I choose positivity when I can, but I’m not immune to feeling down or getting into a funk. And that’s OK. We can talk about these things. 😉
Now for some resources….
Mental health resources
(Please note I have no affiliation with any person or business listed below.)
Dr. Julie is an Anglophone Counsellor / Psychotherapist with over 20 years of experience, working with individuals, couples and families. She’s based in the Mayenne (53) region of France, and services can be offered face to face, or via Skype for clients living in other parts of France and Europe.
An English-speaking therapist in the Lille, France, area.
A licensed Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in coaching and counseling for children, adolescents, individuals, family therapy and play therapy. She maintains a private practice in Hawai’i and an online practice worldwide.
Dana is an American psychologist practicing in Lyon who specializes in counseling and psychotherapy for adults and adolescents. She explains what she does best on her site: “[I help those struggling with] emotional and psychological difficulties and who want develop greater self-awareness and self-compassion, feel more grounded, and develop more meaningful and satisfying connections with those around them. I also specialize in working with intercultural couples and couples whose relationships have been impacted by their life abroad.” Be sure to catch her podcast here for “expats and other overseas adventurers in search of some guideposts for emotional wellbeing and resilience in their lives abroad.”
A great directory of therapists of all types offering therapy in English throughout France.
A website with over 2,000 licensed therapists where you can get help in English.
If you’re struggling with the dark side of expat life, I hope the resources above will be of some help. I invite you to share other resources you’ve come across in the comments.
Lastly, if you have no one to turn to and think the people in your life won’t understand, email me. I’m not a therapist and can’t solve your problems, but I care and am always willing to listen. I truly mean that. You’re not alone. We are not alone. There is no shame in talking about mental health.
Sending you all some virtual support. Be good to one another. Hoping a few of you will chime in below if you’ve experienced the dark side of expat life.
Feel free to post under a pseudonym if you’re more comfortable with that…