The side that you don’t see: The not so ‘perfect’ year abroad.
Updated: Jul 4, 2019
Today is World Mental Health Day. When I woke up this morning I had no intention of writing a blogpost, let alone about a topic quite as personal as mental health. However, after seeing the positive and honest messages that people have been sharing on their social media accounts throughout the day I felt inclined to write and put down my inner thoughts.
**Disclaimer** I’m not trying to jump on a bandwagon of any kind. I myself have been struggling with my mental health for a while now, its worsened since I’ve come to Spain and today seemed to be the push that I needed to talk about it head on. I’ve been having conflicting emotions about whether to post this or not, this is by no means a cry for help but rather a candid, stripped back account of how my year abroad is actually going.
I’ve found that when I tell people ‘Oh I study Modern Languages and I’m on my year abroad’their first response is to say ‘Wow that’s amazing- it’ll be the best time of your life’. But I want to talk about the times that are often ignored, the side that people don’t talk about; the difficulties of moving abroad, leaving your friends and family behind and starting a new job/ university course. When you think about it like that, it sounds so overwhelming. Now I don’t want this post to sound like I’m complaining at all or ungrateful for the opportunities that I have been given- I am super aware that I’m in a privileged position to even have the option to work abroad for a year. Nonetheless I want to stress that those of us who are struggling, our worries and concerns are legitimate and there is no shame in saying ‘Hey I don’t have my sh*t together and I’m not okay but you know what? That too is okay’.
For the most part I have had a fantastic year abroad so far. I started quite early in July and began working for a co-working company in Paris as an office manager. I really landed on my feet finding the job, however the build up to my year abroad was stressful. No one really tells you how difficult it can be to find work placements/ internships- particularly in a field that you are genuinely interested in. You find yourself competing for positions with native speakers sometimes or other students. I was searching for my summer placement in Paris for a good 4-5 months before I found something. Even then, after having secured my placement, I didn’t know what to expect but I was so happy that the search was over. Anyone who knows me well can tell you that the months leading up to my year abroad I was extremely anxious, I was sleep deprived because I was panicking about not finding a placement, I hadn’t yet found out where I was for my British Council placement- and for me, being someone who loves to be organised and in control - the latter was exacerbating my anxiety even further. I must admit that a lot of my anxiety was self-inflicted but I felt as though I couldn’t put my mind to rest. My parents were extremely supportive, as were my friends.
I hated that period of time as my mood swings were heightened, I was feeling a flurry of emotions all the time; I didn’t know what mood I would be in when I woke up that day. I think I’m pretty good at hiding my emotions- my mum would say otherwise but that’s because she’s my mum- but during these rocky few months I found that the only way I could really feel like I had my sh*t together was by going to the gym, taking on extra shifts at work- basically anything to distract myself from how I was feeling. I admit that it worked for a while but it does catch up with you in the end and I found that I had to talk to someone. My dad- who is genuinely my rock and the nicest man you will ever meet- was there for me so much. He listened to me crying throughout my two-hour phone calls, even when I was going round in circles, devising terrible hypothetical situations and overthinking every situation. He made me feel like my worries about my year abroad – although it hadn’t started yet- were legitimate and I wasn’t being stupid for feeling the way I was. He gave me the clarity to put things into perspective yet he also didn’t brush off my worries. So thanks dad (and mum too, you’ve also been really fab) for being there to help guide me.
When the time finally came to leaving for Paris I was a bag of nerves. I knew two people there beforehand, I had nowhere to live and I hadn’t practised French for months. Thinking about it now in hindsight, moving away was such a scary thing to do, but I tried to rationalise with myself, knowing that I was only going to be working for the summer and if it was really that bad I could come home. That summer turned out to be one the best I’ve ever had. I managed to put myself out there- something which I thought was impossible for me. I was extremely lucky because I found a group of friends from Durham/Oxford/Edinburgh Universities who were also doing their year abroad. I had a solid group of friends- something which I haven’t had properly in a long time and I felt comfortable around them. Even though I was working 35 hours per week I would still push myself to go out into Paris with my friends or on my own and grab every opportunity with both hands. That included randomly deciding to take a Cuban salsa class, walking round a museum on your own, heading to a language exchange or even starting a blog. Things were going great and I convinced myself that things wouldn’t change- that I’d be this happy for the whole year abroad. I hadn’t felt lonely or isolated, I missed my family but I wasn’t terribly homesick and I’d fallen in love with the city.
The thing that changed was finishing my first part of the year abroad. It was like I was high on life all summer and now I was on a comedown. I was leaving all of my friends in a city that I loved and I had to start over again. I had never felt so comfortable so quickly before. For me Paris was my happy place. I had given myself one week at home to kind of acclimatise and get back into the swing of things- which in hindsight wasn’t a good idea. I think if I could pinpoint where things starting to decline I would say it was here. For me, being at home felt kind of alien to me. I know it sounds strange since I was only away for two and a half months but when you fully immerse yourself into a new culture and you’re starting to settle, heading back home feels kind of disorientating. I felt like I was experiencing a reverse culture shock. The bustling streets of Manchester and Market Street and the trams are different from the busyness of the 1st and 2nd arrondissements in Paris and the metro system. I started to pine for Paris and my friends, even though I knew that in a week’s time I would be off to sunny Spain. I had spent so much time enjoying myself in Paris that I had neglected my Spanish, I had left all of my paperwork until last minute- which is simply not like me and I was for some reason feeling anxious to leave home again.
At the time of publication I’ll have been in Spain for two weeks and I can already tell you that my mental health has declined. In all honesty it’s the little things that seem so big to me and I don’t feel like myself. I often ask myself ‘Why do I feel like this?’
1. I live in a fantastic apartment with the most amazing housemates, which we found quite easily.
2. We all get on really well and there are so many young and cool people to meet, as it’s a big city with a lot of Erasmus students.
3. Valencia is beautiful; the culture, the architecture and the food are phenomenal. It doesn’t feel like a real place sometimes because it’s so nice.
4. I really like the school that I’m working in and feel like by the end of the year I’ll have made a difference to some of these students’ experiences of English.
At first glance everything seems fine. On my social media it seems like I’m having a great time too. If you were judging from my Instagram it looks like I’m out every other night drinking wine or sangria or on the beach all of the time. That is not the case- and that’s a prime example of why social media can be so misleading. We only show our highlights- literally you can ‘highlight’ your favourite memories and photos. Of course I wouldn’t post a picture of my curled up in bed feeling like cr*p as it doesn’t fit in with the ‘shiny, perfect life’ that everyone seems to be portraying on social media platforms. But I feel like I have a duty to be honest with you guys and to myself. At this moment in time my year abroad isn’t going perfectly.
And that is okay.
I have days, like today, where I feel low.
1. My confidence speaking Spanish is nil and void, I feel like people laugh at me when I try and I feel so embarrassed every time I have to speak it in case I made mistakes. I doubt myself at every opportunity even though I know that I’m being ridiculously hard on myself.
2. No one tells you how much bureaucracy there is when moving abroad: setting up a bank account, house viewings, insurance, registering as an foreign worker. Every time I think I’m on top of things I find out that I still have a million and one more things to do which makes me even more anxious and panicky in case I miss important deadlines or straight up forget to do something.
3. I don’t feel settled or fully at ease here. Even though it’s a student city and so vibrant I still feel out of place and like a tourist. I know that has inly been two weeks and I know deep down that it will get better, I feel like I stick out like a sore thumb and on edge a lot of the time
4. I miss my friends in Durham and in Manchester. Although I’d rather be here than writing a dissertation FOMO is definitely real and social media really intensifies this.
5. Every time I try and get organised I’m always waiting on one thing or another or I get knocked back- for example I tried to set up a bank account yesterday and the lady who worked their was so rude she made me feel so small and idiotic for asking for help. Little situations like these have a greater impact on my mental health than I imagined.
6. I feel tired and drained all of the time and have little to no motivation to do things I like i.e. writing my blog because I feel so discouraged- hence the big gaps between posts.
Despite all of these things, despite everything, I still think its important to say ‘Yes I’m on my year abroad and yes its supposed to be one of the best years of your life. But if it isn’t at this moment in time, that is okay’. I have a quote on my wall (yes I’m one of those girls) and I see it everyday that before I leave for work. It says ‘Be kind to yourself… you’re doing the best that you can’. I think everyone should take on that bit of advice.
Do be kind to yourself.
Mental Health should not be a taboo.
Tell someone when you’re not feeling like yourself.
It is okay not to be okay.
It may last for an hour, a day, or even months, but your mental health is so important. I was embarrassed to bring it up with one of my housemates, as we’re still getting to know one another but I built up the courage to tell him ‘Look I’m not having a great day, I’m struggling a little’. Even just staying the words aloud made me feel a bit better. I’m not an expert at all and you don’t have to take everything I say as gospel, but as someone who has been dealing with their fluctuating mental health for a few years now, I can honestly say talking to someone, whether that be a counsellor, a friend, a teacher or a family member really does help. We shouldn’t be afraid or ashamed to say ‘I’m not okay’. We are not perfect, we’re not machines. We’re complicated, multifaceted beings who experience a range of moods and feelings- it is totally normal and more common than you think to have these thoughts and feelings.
Writing this blogpost today is both for myself, as a cathartic exercise but also for anyone else who is on their year abroad, or who will be starting their year abroad. Yes it is a great experience, yesthere are so many opportunities and yesit may be the best time of your life but we need to remember to put things into perspective. The good goes hand in hand with the bad and nobody is perfect. I want to keep it real with people when I say I’ve been on the verge of tears so many times this week, I’ve felt alone even when I’m with other people. I’ve doubted my abilities and told myself I can’t do this.
But it will get better.
I know that this will pass. These feelings are not permanent, even though it may seem like they’re sticking around for a while. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health and don’t ever feel like you can’t speak up or that your feelings aren’t valid.
A few links to some resources and sites: