Expat Depression

Hello everyone! It's been a long time since I posted--I know. I kept meaning to post and telling myself "oh maybe tomorrow I'll write," which obviously never happened. 

The number one reason I haven't written is because I've been depressed, and feeling depressed makes me not want to talk to the people I love (weird, huh, seeing as that's something that might help me feel better!).  In general I suffer from some anxiety and a modicum of depression, but I've found myself able to overcome these with an active lifestyle and, at times, some counseling. 

But since we moved to Moldova and the excitement and newness of living in a new place wore off, a specific variety of depression that many on the interwebs have labeled "expat depression" has set in, and set in hard. 

One day a few weeks ago I was sitting at home, feeling sad (a hallmark of depression, I know) but not really knowing why. I knew that I've been having a hard time with not being able to communicate with anyone, and feeling frustrated because my online schooling (which incredibly convenient) means I spend a great deal of my time in our apartment (and not much time out of the house). It's emotionally draining to always have to respond, "I'm sorry, I don't understand" in a language I don't speak. It's frustrating to always have to rely on Jesse to order for us at a restaurant for us, or to have to wait for him to be able to come with me if I need to buy something that requires talking to someone (basically anything that isn't sold at the grocery store). 

In the midst of feeling all of this, I suddenly thought to google "expat depression" and a blog post written a few years ago by a woman in a similar situation to me (albeit in Germany) popped up.

I've linked to it, but I want to quote a few parts that really spoke to what I've been feeling. 

"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."

It's terrible to feel like I'm in the middle of this incredible experience and feeling awful. It's really, really bad. 

But the post went on to list 10 things that the author has done to combat this kind of depression. Her list was completely eye-opening to me, helping me realize things that I could do to feel better. 

Her list is really great, so I'm going to include it here with how I've done most (though not all) of the things on the list. 

1. Look at how people deal with managing run-of-the-mill depression.
She suggests doing things like eating healthy, exercising and being creative. I've found that eating unhealthy makes me pretty happy so I haven't implemented the first part, but I have realized that 15 minutes of pilates a day (or every other day) does wonders for my brain chemistry (seriously, I started exercising and felt MILES better in 3 days, and then I got a cold and couldn't exercise for a week and started backsliding again). I think, regardless of what post-expat life looks like, this is a thing I should continue. I've also started making time on Sundays to sit on a sunny windowsill and paint, which leaves me feeling calmer and with a better sense of well-being. 

2. Learn the language. This is probably the biggest change that that blog post inspired me to make. I realized that so much of my anxiety and depression about living here revolved around speaking neither Romanian nor Russian, and that if I really wanted to feel better I needed to do something about it. I had tossed around the idea of just doing an audio course of Russian, but after some deliberation I decided to find a Russian tutor (I felt guilty at first about learning Russian instead of Romanian, but then I realized that I can practice Russian with Jesse and I'd likely have more success that way). After shelling out a ton of money, I started meeting almost immediately with my awesome tutor, Olga. I go twice a week and not only have I been learning Russian at a breakneck speed (I can now have elementary conversations about introducing myself, the weather, talking about what I did yesterday, and my family, and I'm getting pretty good at reading Cyrillic), but it provides me with an excuse to get out of the house for an hour and a half twice a week without children. I still can't understand 96% of what people say to me in Russian, but I do pick up a lot more words than I did before. In general, I'm also much more confident when engaging in a conversation with someone I need to buy something from (the only interactions I really have) and can understand more of things I hear around me (side note: it was surprisingly isolating to walk down the street and realize I could understand NOTHING that was being said around me. But that is changing!) 

3. Find something you really love about the place. If you've read this blog at all since we moved here, you already know the answer to this: FOOD. I love the food here! There's that pastry store we love around the corner, an awesome restaurant delivery service we enjoy (that brought us some incredible crepes the other day), and really delicious, inexpensive cookies and chocolate at any grocery store. There are times when I'm at the store and trying to not be super consumerist and buy something that looks delicious, but then I realize that I'm excited about the prospect of trying something new and yummy, so I let myself buy it instead of restraining myself. I try not to do this every time, of course, but giving in sometimes brings me joy. 

4. Find something your really hate about the place, and learn to laugh at it. This one is tough, but it's probably the propensity of strangers to comment on your child's appearance/well-being. We've had strangers tell us that Miriam's bangs are too long and are bad for her vision, strangers notice that her pant legs have gotten hitched up, exposing 1 inch of bare leg in the mildly-cold weather, and well-meaning teachers tell us that Nikolai should be wearing more layers. It kind of drives me crazy to feel like I have to dress my children not so much for the weather as for other people who will feel the need to tell me how to take care of my child. Yes, I know, they're doing this not to be judgmental but to be helpful, but it still DRIVES ME NUTS. But Jesse and I are learning to make jokes about it--for instance, when Miriam screams when we're combing her hair and we give up rather than make the neighbors think we're torturing her, we joke "Well, someone at the park is going to comment on her messy hair!"...We're working on it. 

5. Seek out something that reminds you of your country. Baking. Baking reminds me of America. I brought all of my old recipes and we've found ways to make most (if not all) of our baking recipes here. Baking has always been a comforting experience for me, and I'm glad it continues to be so here.

6. Keep in touch with your friends, wherever they are. As I mentioned above, feeling depressed has made this harder. I called my mom for the first time in weeks yesterday (and ended up spending the whole time talking about the election. Sorry mom!) and haven't called my sister in even longer. I need to reach out my Ann Arborites but haven't had the energy to. But I want to and know that it'll make me feel better! 

7. Know that things will take longer. In the blog post, the author says, "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." This is completely true. Getting groceries not only has to happen more often but I often spend a lot of time in an aisle, trying to figure out if I'm buying the right kind of yeast, or if I can find dental floss at this store (the answer is often no). But making sure to go to the store at a time when I don't have to take the kids and don't have to rush home has helped alleviate some of the stress of grocery outings taking longer, and I'm learning to enjoy strolling the aisles, checking out what's similar and different from products at home (for instance, spices all come in packets instead of plastic jars, and every container of everything is about half the size of a similar product in America). It's the little things that make this part easier.  

8. Plan something to look forward to. This part is hard, because our finances are limited and we might only get one trip out of the country while we're here (despite the fact that it's incredibly cheap to travel to other countries here). But every weekend we make sure to plan a family outing into the city, where we go out under the guise of running errands but mostly are trying to explore. I'm already planning another post on these so I won't go into much detail, but knowing that I get to explore the city after a long week at home with the kids always makes me excited. 

9. Find other expats. We're working on this one too, but it's hard. We did find an expat parents group here, but they mostly meet on weekday mornings when Niko is at school, Miri is napping and I'm doing schoolwork. We've gotten to go once though (when they had it in the afternoon) and it was really great (I met an awesome Frenchwoman named Amandine who has been here for 5 years). I don't know if we'll get to go much in the future but it's something I'm looking into. 

10. This too shall pass. This one, combined with all of the above, helps me a lot. On days where things still feel hard, I remind myself: in 9 months, this will be all over. I only have a little while to live here, and I want to enjoy what time I have. 

All of that being said, I still have a hard time often, though on the whole I'm feeling MUCH better now than I did 4 weeks ago. The things I've been working on have helped a lot, and I hope to look back at this post when things are hard to remind myself of the ways I can try to feel better. 

To end this post on an unrelated note, here's some pictures of the embroidery I bought at the city day festival, and some embroidery Nikolai has been doing: 

Nikolai is in a major "if you're doing it I want to do it too" phase (though not when it comes to things like eating dinner or not throwing fits). He saw me doing my embroidery and wanted to do one too, so I sketched him out a car and showed him how to stitch.  

He did probably 75% of this one (though there's an airplane that he did when he was finished with the car that he did 96% of).

He really wanted to do a cross-stitch like me, so we hunted down the store that sells them and bought him one. Alas, I think it's too complicated for a 4 year old, but I think we'll do it together!

In an unrelated closing note: if you have any beloved activities that you've done with a 4/5 year old, will you let me know about them? I'm looking for more things to do with Nikolai and would love ideas!


Oh Catherine. You're a beautiful mom and an amazing mother. We at the library were just looking at your blog a few days ago. The girls said you look like you're doing well and we love seeing pictures of Miriam and Nikolai (sp). Know that we miss you and love your blog. Also know, I'm here if you ever want to chat.
ivrcti said…
Are you aware of how much you touched Mom with this entry? I think you should speak with her...
Thanks for posting so honestly but without romanticizing your depression (and for unabashedly mentioning counseling!). I admire you so much - as a mom, wife, and general person! "The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and those who are crushed in spirit . "
melissa said…
1. i love niko's car. it is super cool.
2. it's awesome that you're taking russian lessons, and i think getting a tutor was so smart! human interaction = win.
3. singing hymns also helps with all manner of depressions, in my experience. at home or abroad, on the land or the sea! as thy days may demand!
4. it is great that you recognize your depression and are taking steps to move out of it. because it sucks to be depressed when things are great! i hope you keep improving and can feel the coolness of what you're doing.
Maren said…
Oh man, I know this well. I think it's correlated to the weather too. We moved away from our friends to a new city in northern China in January for our internship and I really went downhill. It got so bad because I was isolated and freezing (no heat in our converted studio) that I was hardly eating and my nights and days got totally mixed up. It was absolutely miserable. I say this not to sound dismal but to say that you will come back to yourself. This is temporary. I completely agree that planning things to look forward to is key. Mine were similar to yours, finding good food and exploring the city. That's when I felt most like my old self. You are amazing for having put so much research into this; I never even knew it was a thing. Everything you listed sounds great and I wish I had had those ideas back then, though I know how hard it can be to find the motivation to actually do it. We also found baking to be nice (and really difficult!) in China. Must be a comfort thing. If you want to Skype/email or anything we are here. I would love to be penpals or something. And that cross stitch is awesome. You can do this. You are strong and I have always admired you.

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