Expat Sadness and Depression Survival Kit

by Rebecca A. Watson on December 6, 2013

in expat, Germany, life, moving, travel

You may or may not have seen a picture on my blog last week of a shopping cart sitting in my garage. I live about 200 meters away from a grocery store, and sometimes the bags are too heavy, or I need to return our glass bottles.

When this happens, I just calmly walk the grocery cart from the store to my home. People park outside my house and shop, afterward bringing the cart with them to their cars, so I don’t really see this as much different. My spacious, 2 bedroom “car.”

When I got together with my friend Amy who also moved here from the States, she told me she had a good laugh about the post and then said something that really captured how it feels to be me in Germany sometimes:

“You must have set the world on fire. I can just feel the mounting tension as you walked further away from the store and closer to your garage.”

And she was right. There are so many times I feel so out of place here doing something that in Santa Cruz would be considered completely normal. (I realize this is a completely unfair comparison, as Santa Cruz has one of the oddest populations on the planet.)

Amirite?

Amirite?

The looks I get when I run/dance with my iPod are only humorous for awhile. It starts to grate on me. I don’t always want to be different. But I want to be me.

Combine this feeling with the freezing weather, and I feel like I’ve moved back to Minnesota, only now I’ve lost the ability to communicate completely.

All of this has brought me to a place I don’t really want to admit to. I’m feeling depressed, lonely, irritated and confused about what exactly it is I’m doing here.

I’m also feeling selfish, ungrateful and completely idiotic because I’m pretty sure my former self would tell my current self to wake up and realize what an awesome opportunity I’ve stumbled into.

Because of these conflicting feelings I’ve decided that the only way out of all of this is to create a list of things that I think have been helping me to deal with this conundrum.

Expat depression (or whatever you wanna call this) seems to be pretty common, as evidenced by posts I’ve read with titles like “There’s a Good Chance That Today Will Probably Suck …

We teach what we need to know, so I’m writing this not only for the folks out there in Internet land but also for myself (I often refer back to my blog when I’m feeling out of sorts).

1. Look at how people deal with managing run-of-the-mill depression. Exercise, healthy eating, laying off the booze, art, etc. For me, this is my go-to because I’ve struggled with depression for more than a decade. All of this stuff seems to help lift my mood.

2. Learn the language. I’ve been taking German for a little over two months now. I wouldn’t say I’m awesome, but I can order in a restaurant, introduce myself and chat a little at a stitch ‘n’ bitch.

Sie sticken sehr schnell!

Sie sticken sehr schnell!

I didn’t think all of that really mattered until we visited France for a day. The feeling of not being able to communicate at all was so horrible. I had forgotten how that used to be how I felt most days in Germany. Learning the country’s language (even just a little bit) will help immensely.

3. Find something you really love about the place. Is it the food? Or maybe just how people greet each other? The plant life? The weather? For me, it’s the amazing amount of good gluten-free foods along with how easy it is to not drink. (A very pleasant surprise considering when Americans think of Germany we often think of beer.)

4. Find something your really hate about the place, and learn to laugh at it. OK, admittedly, this one isn’t as fun as the last, but laughter cuts everything down to size. Trust me. Especially because most of what you hate is probably really petty.

Like for me, it was the garbage/recycling situation here. (See No. 5 on this blog.) Exactly. The thing I complain about most is how I must organize our trash. That’s pretty ridiculous. And once I saw how silly it was, it has become more of a joke than anything.

5. Seek out something that reminds you of your country. Maybe it’s a theatre that shows movies from where you live. Perhaps there is a restaurant that serves your favorite cuisine. Or a park or lake that just feels like home.

Go to these places often. For me the woods behind our house has a section that feels like Nisene Marks, a state park I love. I also head to the Real occasionally, which feels just like a Super Target and has things like Cholula hot sauce and baking soda.

hot sauce

Lord knows what the check out lady was thinking.

6. Keep in touch with your friends, wherever they are. Yes, they may not see you more than once a year but good friends can pick up where they left off so don’t forget about them.

Plus, they may be able to offer you some comfort. Who knows? They could really help you put things into perspective. I have several friends who have been (or are still) expats. That reminds me: Must call Iain.

7. Know that things will take longer. Everything will take more time than you think. Of course I mean things like getting used to your neighborhood or getting official documents. But I also mean things like grocery shopping and other errands.

It’s not only a new town you’re living in, it’s a new culture. Moving to another place in your own country is a struggle, but at least you’ve got similar products, language and ways of doing things.

Now everything is different. So even if you are still making the same things you always have for dinner, don’t expect your trip to the grocery store to be a quick in-and-out.

8. Plan something to look forward to. Whether it’s a weekend getaway to another part of the country or just a picnic lunch in the park this coming Sunday, plan things that you can get excited about. It’ll keep your mood up.

A weird bonus about taking trips and coming back to your new home is that you suddenly feel like it’s more your home. This happened to me after a trip to the U.K., which totally surprised me because I thought after hearing English I would hate coming home to German, but I didn’t. And a few weekends later we went to France. Freiburg never looked so good after our trip.

Although Stasbourg was pretty amazing at Christmas time I will admit.

Although Strasbourg was pretty amazing at Christmas time I will admit.

9. Find other expats. At first I really only wanted to have German friends so that I could truly acclimate to the culture. I thought hanging out with expats was cliché, an easy way out. But it turns out that isn’t exactly true.

Expats really understand what you’re going through in a way that no one else can. Not your friends back in your homeland, not the folks who are native to your new home. They can relate to you, tell you funny stories and give great advice.

My best friend in Germany is someone I’ve called on the phone crying about German classes 1) because she’s been there and 2) because she wouldn’t think I was a totally ungrateful brat for feeling a certain way because HELLO! I was living in Germany and learning German! Shouldn’t I be thanking my lucky stars every day?

I hate to say it, but if someone called me with that struggle before I lived abroad, I think I’d have a hard time being sympathetic. But she had no trouble empathizing and helping me through, because she gets it. Most expats do.

10. This too shall pass. Loneliness is part of the process of moving, whether it’s across the state or across an ocean. Greif and sadness is normal: you’ve experienced a loss.

But these things don’t define you or your life moving forward. They are a temporary and valid part of the experience. In fact, it would be worrying if you didn’t have some of these feelings.

Whenever I have a depressive episode and talk to my hubby about it, he reminds me that this too shall pass. It is just a moment and it’s very likely that five years from now this won’t matter a bit.

It will be part of your story, but it won’t be the whole story. Hell, it might not even make a full chapter.

Here’s to all of us who are trying new things. It doesn’t matter if you love it, are ambivalent or would rather move along, there is something very special about being able to live abroad. Yes, it can be difficult and yes there are days I hanker for something easier, but when it comes down to it, life is pretty amazing.

strasbourg

Did this post resonate with you? Check out my Expat Loneliness & Making Friends 101 or Read all of my expat stuff here.

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Primrose December 10, 2013 at 12:27 am

hey, you made a list 🙂

this was really interesting to read as someone who also studied in a foreign country for a bit (a very very long time ago). One little thing that always got my goat was when a shopkeeper turned to me and asked me what I wanted in English. “I’m trying to assimilate here! How could you tell I was English? Oh yeah, right, not a big leap..”

More recently this blog post could also have been written about me navigating the days of early motherhood. Particularly everything taking longer. Now my three get into the car and do up their own seatbelts (if yelled at enough) but it used to take a good ten minutes to get the car off the drive.

I suppose that shows these factors are common to all new stages in life? “Here’s to all of us trying new things.” Hell yes! And by the way, new countries are always an excellent excuse to wear new hats. 😉 xx

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Ms. Becca December 12, 2013 at 7:51 am

Yep, I did make a list 🙂 And I love it that you can cross these things over to motherhood or really any new stages in life. It’s true…new things are amazing, but also scary and also just plain frustrating at times.

I love your comment about the hats. YES! I love hats and I’m thinking about knitting myself a new one after I get my hubby’s off my needles 🙂

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Nainy Sahani January 13, 2014 at 10:00 am

Hey Rebecca,

I should tell you how much your blog helped me today 🙂 My husband and I just moved to Germany. Dusseldorf to be specific. And it is a struggle. I pretty much identified with everything you said and it made me feel so much better just to know that others go through the same. I’m going to try and follow your advice too 🙂 Its just difficult to meet young people when you’re not working though. Oh well, tomorrow’s another day.

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Rebecca A. Watson January 13, 2014 at 11:28 am

Hey Nainy! Thanks for your comment today. I’m so glad this list helped you! Makes my day, really 🙂 I know what you mean about not being able to meet people when you’re not working. Maybe look for a meetup? Have you spent much time on Toytown? (http://www.toytowngermany.com/) I found an english speaking group in my town through that. Best wishes and shones Tag!

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KK March 3, 2014 at 3:36 pm

Hey,

Thanks for having the courage to write about this. I find myself feeling the exact same way, but really ashamed at actually feeling it – as it has been my life-long dream to move to Europe. But, now that I’m here; I’m sad, confused and just not very ‘happy’ being here. It’s good to know I’m not the only one. Maybe there is hope that some day (soon) I will enjoy being an expat!!

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Rebecca A. Watson March 3, 2014 at 3:58 pm

Oh man, I completely get that shame. If it’s your dream, why on earth are you not jumping up and down for joy?!? At least, that’s what I would tell myself. Hang in there and know that it’s true, you might love being an expat so much you never go back to the States. I know plenty of those folks! Thanks for stopping by and commenting 🙂

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Cindy March 12, 2014 at 8:35 am

Bleh. Yep. Expat down days. I’m having one (which is why I stumbled upon your blog). But just wanted to give out shout out to a fellow knitter from the Bay Area. I’m stuck in China and having a down day. Now, I think I’ll pull out my knitting though (or go for a rainy day walk with my ipod.) Thanks.

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Rebecca A. Watson March 12, 2014 at 11:45 am

Hey Cindy…sucks on those icky down days. I hear you completely. And China has got to be much more intense, the culture and the language being so much different than what you’re used to. Enjoy your walk and thanks for stopping by. Feel free to friend me on Ravelry! I’d love to see what you’re knitting with the new yarn you bought 🙂

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Erin June 9, 2014 at 7:19 am

Love this. I always fantasize about living in another country. It sometimes makes me anxious that I just don’t go. Leave the good ole USA. Ok I have lived in Sunny California my who life. Hmmmm. Maybe I will feel more grateful after reading this post.

Irishgirl

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Rebecca A. Watson June 10, 2014 at 1:43 pm

I kind of want to write a letter to my old self, the U.S. self, just because yeah, there’s a lot to be happy about living where you do. Especially when you live in CA 😉 But living in another country is pretty rad, I’m not gonna lie.

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Erin June 10, 2014 at 1:58 pm

I would enjoy that letter very much!

Elsa September 30, 2014 at 11:32 am

Hi Rebecca,

Glad I found your post here. I googled expat spouse depression and your post came up on top.

Oof, I have been on and off in Cologne for almost 6 months. And I simply cannot take it anymore. I am not married to my partner (was planning to) but because of this difficult move, I decided to go home on my own in a few weeks. I am from Berkeley. Not till now I realized my life in California was so great and nearly perfect. I traveled the world and lived in different places (Asia, other parts of Europe, South America, and the Middle East) before, but none gave me such depression as Germany does. Perhaps this time is not about me and my work/study. I am not interested in the German culture and language like I did with Spanish or Hebrew. I want my career back, my friends, good weather, and the brilliant people in the Silicon Valley.

I also thought I would be able to make friends here like I did anywhere else, but somehow that hasn’t happened. I haven’t had a single person in Cologne I can call friend. I, too, think joining the expat club is cliche, but now I see the value in it. My partner has 4 more years to go in this place, but I think life is too short to be miserable and not able to pursue things I love doing for that long. I am going home.

Anyways, I am glad to have stumbled upon your post. Hope you are doing well!

Elsa

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KK September 30, 2014 at 2:35 pm

Rebecca,

Thank you for this post (it may be the 2nd time reading and perhaps commenting :))

I’m sure most of us think do not think that you’ll be Googling ‘expat depression’ but when you find yourself in that position – it really does help to read about other people’s experiences, because it’s hard NOT to think something is just wrong with ‘you’!!

I have had the dream to live in Paris for over 20 years and am here now and some days, I barely want to get out of bed!! I’m not sure ‘what’ exactly is the matter, I just feel ‘off’, but then some days I’m fine… but most of the time, I’m just not myself.

My husband’s job is now focused in Europe, but he has realized that this may not be the move for me and if I want/have to go back, he will go with me in a heartbeat. Life is too short to be completely miserable, but we do want to give it our best shot, so I will try your suggestions!

To ELSA: perhaps your partner would accompany you too, if you asked?? And, I’m from CA also and miss the weather big time – it’s soooo gray here in Paris that that in itself is a big mood changer!!

People keep reminding me that ‘living your dream’ is a challenge that most people are too scared to even TRY, so it does take a lot of courage. Just knowing that other expats who have come through it – say that it gets better, easier and more like home, if you can just hang in there, gives me hope that it will turn into the dream I had hoped for.

Lastly, I skipped the expat clubs as well for the same reasons, but now I am going to reach out because I realize that I do need a reminder of home and friendship and to be able to talk to someone who understands and doesn’t think I’m crazy (you don’t like Paris – are you from Mars??)!

Good luck everyone,
KK

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Rebecca A. Watson October 3, 2014 at 11:26 am

Hey Elsa, I’m so sorry to hear you’re not adjusting to Cologne 🙁 What a bummer. I am glad you commented on my post. I guess I am in the same camp KK is in…hang in there. It can get better.

I also had a friend who was “off and on” in the U.S. and it took a lot longer for her to adjust because she kept going back to where she considered “home.” Germany can definitely be a struggle at first, and I don’t know how Cologne is, but for me at least, after a year, I love it here. It’s not Silicon Valley (technology isn’t even on the radar for most people here) and there isn’t an ocean, but it’s got it’s own charm.

All that being said, four years is a long time to spend somewhere you hate. I just think it might be a good idea to spend a little more solid time in the place before you write it off. Big hugs to you!

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E October 1, 2014 at 3:38 pm

Hi KK –

I totally get what you said about not liking Paris. People somehow always think having an opportunity to live in Europe it’s a rare and wonderful opportunity. In the past when I came here for work I enjoyed it, but living here is a total different story.

My partner cannot move. Not for at least another 3 years. It is difficult for him to find an opportunity like this for his career.

If I could choose, I would rather live in Paris, at least is a much bigger city.

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Laila November 25, 2014 at 10:42 pm

I love your list. I need that. Thank you <3

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Rebecca A. Watson November 26, 2014 at 8:42 am

Of course, my dear! Happy I could help 🙂

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Rachel d May 13, 2015 at 9:30 pm

Oh I have lived in france almost 6 years and have a child but I still feel repressed and sad.I lost my skills I can speak French but not at the level of my englisb . I can’t grt used to the people they way. I feel so alone I miss friends and the way girlfriends are at home in UK.

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Rebecca A. Watson May 14, 2015 at 3:09 pm

Hey Rachel, That sucks and I’m sorry you’re still struggling after six years. I think it’s one of those things that goes in waves…for awhile it’s good and then it gets tough again. Have you been chatting with other expats in your area? Are there other people who can relate and/or speak English so you don’t feel like you have to improve your French all the time? Hang in there. Sometimes it’s hard and other times it’s great.

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Becca February 3, 2016 at 4:27 pm

I love this post!
It’s funny that my name is also Rebecca, I’m also from the midwest (Michigan), and I am currently living abroad in Germany 🙂
I’ve been going through something similar. I had never lived outside of the US until 5 months ago, and the experience has definitely brought on some new feelings, both good and bad. I’m living in Munich and I love the city and the people I’ve met here, but sometimes I feel so lost and alone. My boyfriend has been very supportive (he’s German), but I think it’s hard for him to understand what I’m going through and how to help me get through it. I’m learning the language slowly, but as a freelance English teacher with an irregular schedule, I don’t have much time to take a full intensive German course, so I’m not as fluent as I’d like. With this job, it also means I don’t really have a network of coworkers or automatic friends. I’ve found I really have to go out of my way to meet new people and other expats, but it always cheers me up to meet people who are in similar situations and are eager to socialize.
Thank you, this is exactly what I needed right now. It really helps to know I’m not alone in feeling like this 🙂

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rem April 25, 2016 at 7:13 am

Hi Rebecca
i have been in germany for 6 months now .i m so depressed here . i dont hate germans but i m not interested in this culture and dont like the german languag . apparently Germans are not my type , they are very hard to deal with and not into friendships especially with non germans , i feel like socially retarded being with them . They dont like foreigners , well maybe i m wrong but i went through many situations that made me think like this . i was funny loving and nice person , now i m sad depressed and dont like to talk , i lost too much hair after i arrived , and was insulted too much by some germans . I hope people who think of germany think twice before they do . Please investigate and gather information before you go anywhere especially germany . It might be disasterous to you . Love for everyone

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Rebecca A. Watson April 25, 2016 at 8:36 am

Hi Rem, Sorry to hear you’re having a hard time finding good people. Have you found a therapist or a group of people who speak your language and are also foreigners? That could help you deal with some of the negative experiences you’re having. My experience with Germans is that you need to give them time to warm up to you and then they are fantastic 🙂 kind and loving. That being said there are people in all countries that don’t like foreigners. It’s not you. It’s not the Germans. It’s human nature. Avoid these folks as they’re not the kind of peeps you want in your life anyway. ALSO go to the doc and get your thyroid checked re: your hair. There are low levels of iodine in certain parts of Germany that cause that problem. My therapist told me about that because i lost ab bunch of hair too.

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Jane September 29, 2016 at 10:16 am

Hi Rebecca–
Thank you for writing this post 🙂 I grew up in Santa Cruz and just moved from Oakland to Milan to be an au pair for a year and learn Italian. I was looking up how to survive in a foreign country when I saw your blog, and was pleasantly surprised to find a picture of that guy’s trailer with the stuffed animals that I grew up seeing around town!! Although the trailer itself and the man who owns it kind of freak me out…
Anyways, what you and the other commenters have said really resonates with me. I KNEW that the idea of moving abroad was much more rosy and romantic than actually doing it, and that challenges would be awaiting me. The biggest challenge for me has been to adjust to this feeling of loneliness and feeling out of place; I often feel that I’m being faced with a choice between conforming to the culture or being myself– both of which seem like compromises. It’s a bit difficult to know my place in this new culture– there are new judgments made about me and my anxiety about being well-liked by everyone often comes up. But at the same time, it’s helping me to realize that I can’t always make everyone like and accept me, that sometimes that is not the most important thing.

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Rebecca A. Watson October 1, 2016 at 4:06 pm

Jane! It is so weird how small the world is … I will agree with you that moving to a different country can seriously help you deal with issues like needing to be well-liked, or for me, avoiding confrontations. Yeah, it’s a trip sometimes and it can be hard but I think that moving somewhere so different has us confronting our demons in ways that staying in our own country never would have. Keep your head up. It is a good experience.

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Catherine October 1, 2016 at 2:06 pm

Bless you for writing this post. I know it’s been ages since you wrote it but your words are still helpful! I just moved to Moldova for a year and am finding myself in the throes of expat depression. I studied German for years but here they speak Romanian and Russian, of which I speak neither! My husband is fluent in Russian and gets around just fine that way, but I find it completely exhausting and isolating to not be able to communicate at all. I’ve been pretty blindsided by feeling this way (and by how homesick I have been) because living abroad has been my dream and my husband’s dream for years, and we’ve both done it before (albeit for shorter periods). Your suggestions are amazing and I will be implementing your suggestions to enroll in language classes and to take meaningful walks. Thank you, thank you for this post.

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Rebecca A. Watson October 1, 2016 at 4:10 pm

Hey Catherine, I am glad the post is helping you out. It is interesting how hard it can be to wrap your head around being sad/depressed/lonely while at the same time living your dream. Definitely give my suggestions a try. I am in my third year abroad and most days am so happy I made the choice to power through the hard times. Language learning has made a huge huge difference. If I had known that earlier I would have taken even more right away. But it does have to allow for time to recharge too. Take care of you! Hugs!

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