I'd like to think I have always been fairly honest when talking about my expat life. I haven't ever tried to sugar coat it, nor have I deliberately been negative about it. I've tried to share - some would say overshare - the ups and downs of life once the dust settles. Some have embraced the conversation, others have set out to completely invalidate my feelings. I've been on the receiving end of an onslaught of comments, messages, and tweets from people who have actively taken time out of their day to let me know that I don't have a right to feel unhappy.
You're an immigrant love, get over it
No-one forced you to go
You chose to go didn't you?
And of course all of the above statements are true, but do they mean that I've waived any rights to discuss the reality of them? Besides, would you say these things to someone face to face? Someone who is - quite clearly - suffering emotionally, mentally and possibly even physically? Unless you're a complete arsehole, no, you wouldn't.
Whilst I have some sympathy for Dave (probably not his real name) from dead-end town, doing his dead-end job hiding behind a computer screen and bashing anyone who dares complain about a life he could only dream of, at the same time, the old saying "don't knock it 'til you've tried it" springs to mind. Becoming an expat isn't as simple as packing a container with material belongings to be unpacked in another country. That container also holds within it all your hopes and dreams for a better life. Is there enough bubble wrap in the world to protect your mental health? Of course not. Even if nothing looks cracked during the grand unpacking session, things may have rearranged themselves slightly. And without proper attention little bugs or damp may have crept in and everything has sat festering for several weeks.
Some of these potential problems are obvious immediately. Others take a little while longer to make themselves known. If at all, that is. Just because one person goes through a similar experience in life with seemingly no problems, does that mean everyone will be the same? Of course not, again.
A change of lifestyle that some might find freeing, I found to be the complete opposite. Does that make one or other of us right or wrong? Clearly not. Where I am now finding independence, is someone else now battling boredom? Maybe, who knows. You see what is most important is acknowledging that life takes us all on different journeys. Physically and emotionally. And at different times. Something that is especially unique to the expat experience though is going through this thousands of miles away from your normal safe place. There is already the weight of expectation on your shoulders that your new life will be fabulous, an expectation from yourself and from others. When it doesn't go quite so smoothly then who do you turn to? Whose shoulder do you sob on when you're new in town?
Establishing a safety net as an expat is incredibly important but also incredibly misunderstood. Making friends is hard though, and making friends you can lean on within a very short space of time is even harder. Not because no one wants to be there for you, quite the opposite in fact, but because to need to do so feels like weakness on your part. That your inability to cope is a sign of failure. It's confusing wanting to be somewhere, but at the same time wanting to run away. And of course those you've left behind may have limited sympathy as they envisage you sobbing into your champagne by the sun-drenched pool.
Come home they say, trying to be helpful. But of course it's not helpful. You can't just go home, you have responsibilities in your new home. Employers, landlords, contracts, ties to your new home that once severed may cost you handsomely- financially and emotionally. Abandoning ship and running home is rarely an option, so you're left to stick out this expat existence wondering if you've made a terrible mistake.
This is just the tip of the expat iceberg. Above the water line expat life can look beautiful, but it's what cannot be seen below the water line that needs to be talked about. With Mental Health Awareness Week upon us (8th-14th May) now is a good a time as any to start talking about what lurks beneath. Just because some people keep their mental health and emotional wellbeing on lock down doesn't mean that those of us who choose to speak out openly should be chastised. The number one tip on how to look after your mental health is to talk about your feelings, so let's talk.