An Expat Partner: the First Three Months

Thank you to Sarah who blogs over at Scribbles from Overseas for the refreshingly honest story of her first three months living as an Expat Partner. Those early days are often the hardest for any expat – and even more so for the non-working partner who has to find a new routine to their day, as well as find their way around, find out where the shops are and how to use the local bus service….But as Sarah’s post proves, things do usually start to look up once you have the first few months under your belt.

**********

My partner was always very honest with me. There was a chance his job might be moving overseas, and it was more a question of when rather than if.

I have always found myself torn between two separate paths in life. The first is the kind of ‘normal’ one I suppose – go to school, get a good job, a house, get married and live happily ever after. I am a self-confessed homemaker.

The second, however, is the travelling path. I would love to see more of the world and experience new cultures. When I was growing up I always said one day I would like to spend a year or two living and working overseas.

So when my partner told me we were moving to Toronto, Canada I was excited. There were the initial stresses to deal with – like packing up our house, sorting out shipping and leaving my job. But I loved the idea of Canada. I looked forward to spending my weekend’s hiking in mountains or hiring out cute log cabins by a snowy lake. And I could not wait to go exploring all the cities in North America that I’d always wanted to visit. These would now be on the right side of the ocean for us.

Yet lurking underneath all that anticipation, buried somewhere deep in my subconscious was a growing anxiety.

bubblewrap! Starting the long task of packing our stuff in Bristol

Bubblewrap! Starting the long task of packing our stuff in Bristol.

Leaving England was stressful. Only a couple of days before our flight I was still trying to shift our stuff on gumtree whilst my partner did multiple trips to the dump. Well after dark on the day we were supposed to move out of our house in Bristol, we were still cleaning and sorting out what would be coming with us, and what was going in the bin. It didn’t help that I had come down with the world’s worst (and most badly timed) cold and was feeling entirely wiped out.

Waving goodbye to our house somewhere close to midnight, we drove to my partner’s parents to stay the night before our flight. I felt so nauseous I had to stop the car to throw up. The illness (and general exhaustion) was probably partly to blame, but also the brewing nervousness.

In Toronto

Me, My partner and the CN Tower

Me, my partner and the CN Tower

The first few weeks after you get off that flight will be the hardest. We had two days in Toronto before my partner returned to work in his new office. You feel like you have to squeeze everything into that short period of time. It is a whirlwind of trying to get the important stuff done – such as opening bank accounts and setting up phone numbers. But mixed in is the desire to learn your way around the city and make the most of the time you have off together before work takes over. I was glad we managed to find the time to have some fun and fit a little of the touristy stuff in, such as visiting the CN Tower.

It was after he went to work that supressed bubble of anxiety really shimmied its way to the surface. I had this sugar-coated idea in my head before arriving in Toronto that I would spend this time getting to know the city. However, in reality there is only so much exploring you want to do by yourself. Plus there’s the ever growing guilt that you are not working and therefore should really hold back on spending too much money.

I quickly realised I do not like being dependent. I have always worked since the age of thirteen when I had my first paper round. I do have a work permit here, but I found the process of job hunting agonising. Trailing though endless pages of job advertisements, half of which specify applicants with Canadian permanent resident status will be prioritised was an incredibly de-motivating experience.

Far too excited to find a shop selling British baked beans and squash!

Far too excited to find a shop selling British baked beans and squash! (not at all: I think we all know where you are coming from – look, Yorkshire Tea! Ed).

I got into the habit of researching trailing spouse syndrome online and convinced myself I was doomed to two years of depression and there was nothing I could do about it. Finding some temping work pulled me out of that routine. It stopped me sitting in our apartment thinking, or getting frustrated at job hunting all day. And even though I am not working again now and those niggles do still exist, after three months of being here I am able to enjoy having the opportunity to spend my time writing, cooking and doing the things I love. Things I wouldn’t normally have the time to do when working a full-time job.

I don’t want to make this all sound too negative. Things do get better once you get over that initial first month hurdle. Yes you will undoubtedly sob into a cup of tea wondering whether you made the right decision and consider getting on the next plane home at various points. Yes you may go slightly loopy some days, and I certainly crave that path one lifestyle from time to time.  However, if I could go back in time six months I wouldn’t change my decision to move overseas and become an expat partner. Most days I really love being here, and for every day I want to go home there’s another where I am thinking about where might be next on the list after Toronto.

On top of all the obvious positives of seeing a new place, meeting new people and learning about new cultures, I have found this an opportunity to learn what makes me happy. I have realised what is most important to me – and who is most important to me. You learn who your true friends are. It gives you the chance to step back, re-evaluate and maybe write a whole new path for yourself.

Three months in and Toronto is bright and blooming. It is summer here now and the weather at least certainly beats the grey drizzle England promises most of the year around. Toronto is a really great place – and I have still only seen the tip of the iceberg!

There is still a lot to learn and a long way to go until I will feel completely settled, but I am starting to realise it is OK to not have everything neatly in place.

 

A series on expat depression: round-up

Over the past few months I have been publishing posts about expat depression: a serious and seriously overlooked (in my opinion) issue that affects a lot more people than most realise. I myself learnt a lot while reading and then writing about the responses to a survey I did on the subject – it gave me a wonderful opportunity to reflect not only on my own situation but also on that of many, many expat friends I have known and still know all around the world.

I have now come to the end of my series but I didn’t want to finish without a summing up: links to all the posts and a conclusion. But this doesn’t mean for a moment I have finished with the topic – it’s something I feel I will come back to, will be a backdrop to many of my posts, will always be there when I think and write about expat life. I hope that by posting on this topic I have been able to help others, even if it has just given them an opening to discussion or a pause to reflect. As always, comments and feedback are welcome.

Introduction

I started the series with an introduction to the topic, explaining the reason I had decided I needed  this series was because an older post about depression I had written last year was one of my most read blogs – getting hits on it almost every day. This proved to me that a lot of people were putting the words “expat” and “depression” together into search engines – and looking for help.

8219989409_bff035f4ef_o

 

What is expat depression?

In my second post, I tried to unpick what was actually meant by the term “expat depression” but realised in the end that although there definitely is such a thing as “situational depression” caused by the situations we find ourselves in, depression is depression however or whatever it is caused by and needs to be treated accordingly. I did conclude however thar there are definite commonalities amongst expats who fall into the “depressed” camp one way or another and it was these commonalities I wanted to focus on.

When and why does it happen?

My third post started using some of the real-life experiences told to me in the survey I used as a basis for this series. This is where commonalities really started to become apparent. From the shock of the move to isolation and lonliness, loss of identity and control to repatriation – the same causes or at least catalyst of depression came up over and over again. As I said in this post:

Hopefully by recognising possible danger points in the expat cycle, I can help you be more prepared

What does expat depression look like?

Next I asked (and hopefully answered) the question: what does expat depression actually look like, how to recognise it for what it is and thus start to seek the help you need? Again, there were a lot of commonalities in my responses – from very emotional reactions (anger, tearfulness, frustration) to listlessness and feelings of wanting to shut yourself away. Food and alcohol issues were also two themes that came through in the survey.

6343096097_631fd32730_o

Overeating or eating unhealthily – one of the possible symptoms of depression.

Could it just be culture shock?

“I definitely knew and understood the concept of culture shock. By this point we had been there almost two years so I think I had gotten over the culture shock part and was resigning myself to the fact that no matter what I did I would never be able to thrive in this environment.”

My fifth post posed the question how to distinguish between culture shock – the emotional roller coaster that many of us go through at the start of a new expat life – and depression. This is a subject I had already tackled in my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide as I thought it was important for people to realise that very intense emotions are likely to be a normal part of their expat experience – but then also to understand when what they are feeling is something more.

Through researching for this post, I reached the conclusion that actually the two are so tightly intertwined that it’s often hard to say when culture shock ends and depression starts. But at the same time I truely believe that a really good starting point for any expat (or expat-to-be) is to read up on and gain a proper understanding of culture shock. We all know ourselves better – hopefully – than anyone else does. So you are in the best place to understand whether what you are feeling is simply down to the stresses of living in a new and alien environment….or whether it’s moved past this and heading into depression.

Help

Having now thoroughly tackled what expat depression looks like and how to recognise that is what it is, I turned to the question of how to help yourself. I did this over the course of two separate posts – the first discussed self-help methods, and the next how to look for professional assistance.

The self-help post had lots of good ideas, from finding a routine to getting a dog. Many people though agreed that these methods should be done alongside seeking the help of a professional such as a counsellor or therapist and the second post discussed the sort of help people looked for and where they found it. I included a list of therapists who specialise in helping people who love overseas in this post.

4790463166_cf2ea3a14f_o

 

Helping  others

I wanted to look at what to do if it wasn’t yourself you were worried about but rather a friend, a partner or anyone else you knew in your expat life. We often get close to people very quickly when we first relocate – but still it can be very hard to know when someone needs help because depression isn’s something that gets talked openly about very often. This post talked about how important it can be simply to be there, to invite people out, to talk and to listen to them. Even if you never actually touch on the subject of depression, just being there for someone might be helping them more than you would ever realise.

What about the employers?

My penultimate post in this series (if you ignore this one) looked at the role of employers. The verdict was split as to whether they should have a role at all in this area – especially when it comes to the partners of their employees rather than the employee itself. But after reflecting on this subject, my feelings are that so much of what we experience is tied to the situation we find ourselves in so perhaps the employers should be more aware of this issue? Maybe by being more proactive in this area they could stymie some of the problems before they escalate to the point where problems are going to lead to things like relationship breakdown or even their employee leaving the post. There was certainly a lot of food for thought in this one.

Repatriation

Finally, I felt I couldn’t leave this topic altogether without talking about repatriation. Frequently overlooked as a catalyst for depression, returning to your home country is often said to be the hardest part of relocation. Maybe because people don’t expect to feel this way and are therefore underprepared, maybe because the changes that happen to someone when they become an expat can make returning to your old life very hard indeed or maybe just because it is another flash point in the expat cycle I don’t know. But what I do know from all the informal research I have undertaken in this subject area is that repatriation is something that should be ignored at your peril.

And the conclusion is?

So that in a nutshell was expat depression. Or at least, it was my take on the subject. What can I take away from my experience of writing these posts? That although there certainly is no one-size-fits all approach to an illness like depression, there are commonalities. That we can all help each other just by being aware what others may be going through. Becoming an expat – especially if it is for your first time, and even more especially if you are the non-working partner – can be a difficult and frightening thing. Knowing that you are not alone, that others have gone through and continue to go through the same feelings that you are can e a huge help. On top of that though often what you need is more – and don’t be afraid to seek help from a professional if you think you may be depressed, even if you are not 100 per cent sure. The lines between normal feelings and clinical depression are very blurred so don’t leave it to chance or hope it will go away. Get that help earlier rather than later and then, hopefully, you can start to enjoy your expat life. Most of all though, never be ashamed of what you feel.

 

Soak it in while you can for soon it will all be mundane

So nine months into our time here in South Africa and something occurred to me today. As I was taking our now pretty lively puppy Cooper for a walk, a flock of startled mousebirds flew out of a tree. I love mousebirds, they have cute tails and make a funny noise and I was reminiscing about our observations of these birds when we first arrived in Pretoria. It was nostalgic. Ahh, the early days, I thought. I miss them.

And then I realised that so much time has now passed since our arrival that things aren’t new or exciting any more. Life has basically returned to being mundane.

It isn’t really of course – see my recent post about a holiday in Mauritius. Plus how could life POSSIBLY be mundane with a four month old Miniature Schnauzer in the house whose main mission in life is to steal our laundry.

13139367_10153550944760808_3591066191121948415_n

But what has happened is that I have been through the expat cycle to the point where life here has become normal. It is hectic, a constant round of swimming and horseriding and sleepovers and play-dates. When I am not working or writing blogs I am booking flights, hotels and car hire (there is a LOT of that here), running to the shops, trying to top up my phone AGAIN, chasing some workman or another, attempting to register to vote in the UK elections, taking the dog to the vet, filling out a school form….you get the idea, it’s a normal, busy family life. That happens to be in South Africa now and not a town in the west of England.

So how does this make me feel? In a way a little sad as I loved the early days when every bird was interesting, seeing the zebras on the way to horseriding was something to put on Facebook. Eating out was always a treat, discovering new coffee shops and trying new wines was something that made me happy. It still does, but these things happen less often and aren’t quite so unique. As I am sure happens with everyone, eventually your new expat life returns to some form of normality and in my case seems even busier than it used to be (possibly thanks to the addition of lively puppy).

My message thus to new expats is to enjoy it, soak it up, because before long it won’t seem special or new or exciting any more. But with a word of caution – just like those annoying people who tell you to enjoy every second of your new baby because before you know it they will be all grown up, this advice probably isn’t terribly welcome if you are struggling in your new home. So to these people I would say just wait, get through this bit, perhaps try and find something interesting or new or even just different as often as you can and make a note of it. It may not mean much now, it might not bring any light into your life. But when you are ready it or they will be there waiting.

Just like my mousebirds in the tree.

My Expat Family

Feeling like a nobody.

One of the hardest thing about moving overseas as an expat partner is losing your identity. Okay at the start it’s difficult finding a house, navigating the roads, comforting the homesick children…but once the initial few months have passed and you begin to find yourself back into some sort of a new-normal, you realise something else has changed. Something pretty bloody massive. You are not who you used to be.

Well, you are who you used to be but you would be forgiven for feeling this way because this is how you will be treated from now on. As the sidekick. The uninteresting one. The one to avoid at parties (that is if you are ever actually invited to any). Never mind that you used to be a doctor or a lawyer or a nurse or a teacher or whatever it is that you did back in your home country. And never mind that actually you have a life here too, possibly even a job. As far as many people you meet are concerned you are a nothing. Your status is somewhere lower than the dogs and actually the only use you have is smoothing the way for your partner’s brilliant career.

But don’t judge us because we are not those nobodies. We were and dammit we still are very big somebodies. There is nothing worse than being ignored because you don’t work in the office  of the people you are meeting. Even worse for those of us who USED to work in that office and therefore actually could join in the conversation. As far as those people are concerned your brain is made of cotton wool and you couldn’t possibly have an opinion on anything useful!

This has happened to me here in Pretoria – with a few very honorable exceptions in some of my former colleagues who actually deem me fit to discuss what they do (and no I don’t expect to know everything and yes I realise that even though I have signed the official secrets act that was a long time ago and by now out of date so I don’t expect to be filled in on everything that is going on). As far as most people here are concerned I am fluff. I am my children’s mother, my husband’s wife. I am not a person who needs to be acknowledged.

Added to this sense of frustration is that everything I need to get done has to go through my husband. Want to open a bank account? He needs to get the ball rolling because I don’t work here. Something wrong with the house? Needs to go through his office. Flights home? School bills? Even medical treatment? Yup you guessed it – through his office!

We went to a party the other day thrown by someone fairly high up in diplomatic circles here. We were guests because I am friends with the fairly high up person’s wife. It was so refreshing to be there because of me not because of my husband – refreshing for him as well as me because he didn’t have to feel like he was working. It was a great night, I met some fun people and never once felt like I shouldn’t have been there. I was invited as me, not as the other half of the main man.

It’s frustrating and I know it is felt by many. What to do about it? Well if you are reading this and you know people who are the partners then ask them what they do or did, be interested in them, ask their opinions (some of us even do things like follow the local news and – shock horror – spend quite a lot of time getting to know our host country by interacting in various ways with the locals). Realise that they have a brain and treat them accordingly.

If like me you are the fluffy sidekicks then lets reclaim ourselves, our identities. Perhaps when we meet people and they ask why we are here the first thing we say SHOULDN’T be what our partners do or where they workbut rather why we decided to come with them. I wanted to travel. The opportunity to see more of the world was too much of a temptation to turn down. I decided it would be a good way to get my novel finished and do some more scuba diving.

And then, before they can start looking at you down their noses trying to sum up whether you are worth another three minutes of their time or not, be the first to move. Tell them you need to be somewhere or you’re on your way to the bar for another drink. Smile sweetly and walk away. Leave them wondering.

And always remember, whatever your situation, you are important. You are not a nobody you are a somebody and you always will be. And anyone who judges you because of what you do or don’t “do” isn’t worth another minute of your time anyway.

Here’s to all us expat partners – may we ever realise just how bloody important we are!

The Male Trailing Spouse series – Brian in Iran

Welcome to the latest post in my series on Male Trailing Spouses. I love that I have had such a great variety of men taking part in this series, from so many different places. This week I feature Brian, an Australian who lives in Iran with his Swedish wife and their daughter. Brian’s answers to my questions are extremely insightful and I hope they will help other men in his situation or considering taking the plunge into trailer-dom.

brian head shot

Hi Brian and welcome to the series! First of all, please could you tell me a little about yourself and your partner/family.

My name is Brian, a native Australian and naturalised Swede. I am trailing spouse of a Swedish diplomat, and we have a 4-year old daughter (dual Australian/Swedish). We are presently posted in Iran. Prior to this we have been posted to China (where we met), Syria, Sweden, Belgium, and Austria. I have also been posted to Thailand, while my wife worked in China.

As a male trailing spouse, how did you feel when you first arrived in your new country?

Every posting is the same, and yet at the same time different, at the start; that is to say there are things you find normal for every arrival, and things you notice are different. It is all about compare and contrast! I don’t think that being newly arrived is much different for male spouses as female. Certainly, however, the spouse’s arrival is very different from the arrival of the posted officer who often immediately has work to preoccupy them

Arrival is always hectic, filled with new people, new places, and new sights and sounds. You need to make a lot of notes, get very familiar with maps of the area, names of places, and where to go for this and that. In hardship postings, that initial difficulty is often greater, and start-up fatigue is more common.

The cycle of postings is clear that, even in difficult places, there is a honeymoon period where things are all new and mostly interesting, and you are striving to make the posting fit you, or the other way around. It is the fast-learning-curve end of the posting.

In difficult places, this is more about acting quickly to create your ‘nest’, and finding any networks for support. It is also about a crash course in taxi-level language, map-reading, shopping guide, eating guide, and finding out what groups, if any, exist for networking and support. And, of course, about settling the child into schooling, with the logistical issues that often brings.

In easy places (admittedly I find it dangerous to call any major international relocation ‘easy’), setting up home and network is less urgent because there are lots of familiarities and less hostility in the context. Exploring and ‘conquering’ the new context is considerably faster in easy posts, but common to both sexes of spouse.

Have you had to give up a job/career and if so how did you feel about this?

Yes. I gave it up at the start so that we could be together. I had a job that was to take me back to Australia after we had really only just met. So I quit that job of more than 12 years and joined the UN to be nearer, and after a year of that, starting a consultancy to focus on freelance contracts around the world. For a lot of reasons, furthering the relationship included, it was an easy decision.

In hindsight, I was young and self-confident enough to take it rather lightly, or at least with more gusto than I perhaps should have. I would not have so easily jumped in (or is it out?) if I had known the trials and tribulations of working when permanently on the move.

There are severely constrained choices confronting the trailing spouse to develop into a location-independent professional. Freelancing is the most obvious fit for spouses. However, this often means being away from home and post for long periods, as well as the vagaries of securing contracts, major financial ups and downs, and little in the way of financial consistency, for example, pension, allowances, and taxation.

A lot also depends on how easily you can service contracts from the posting; some difficult posts, for example, have such lousy communications (both internet and air traffic), that clients drop off quickly when they cannot even get you on the phone. That certainly cools the enthusiasm for consulting work.

Frankly, jobs that are all about working from home are by far the best for all trailing spouses, as long as communications by phone and computer work well.

Have you found it easy to fit in and make friends? Have you met other men accompanying their partners or are you a rare species? If you have met others where and how have you met them?

In Tehran, I am a rare species. The Diplomatic Ladies Group even had to change their name and constitution to allow male members. And still, in the end, being almost the lone male was unsatisfying for several reasons; the group activities were strongly focused on women (perfectly fairly, since women are 99.9% the membership). And it felt like any suggestions I might have to change the group would subvert the real needs and interests of the group.

Being a male trailing spouse makes more difference in difficult posts, or strict Islamic posts, In both of which there are fewer male spouses and fewer contacts with other expatriates and the local population as well. In other difficult postings I have been less of a rare species, and sometimes been able to eke out strong friendships with one or two other male spouses. But being a working spouse, which often demanded travel and long periods away from the post, militated somewhat against forming friendships. In easy postings, it is less necessary to establish a network with other male spouses; friends can be found in many other places.

In both difficult and easy posts, I find it is really important to be a ‘joiner’, at least in the first 6-12 months. Join groups, clubs, meetups etc and also accompany the spouse to events to make acquaintances. Although male diplomats mostly fully ignore male spouses, sometimes you can make a breakthrough through asking questions like “do you play squash?” etc. And sometimes, just sometimes, male diplomats won’t drop your hand before the handshake is done; they might actually want to get to know you even if meeting spouses is not the reason they came to the event.

Do you think it is harder for men than women to accompany their partners abroad – and if so, why?

Yes. There are a number of factors, social, economic, and personal. Male spouses often have indelibly imprinted on them the need to have a job, and provide for the family. That is hard to break and even the staunchest male feminist can have trouble rising above identity issues such as that.

Male spouses are also a fairly rare commodity, even with the egalitarian Swedish foreign service. And this is especially so in hardship places. So making friends for them is overall harder than female spouses who can often engage with a much larger grouping of spouses in every post also looking for doing things together.

Whether we agree with it or not, the simple fact is that many female spouses don’t want to hang out overly much with male spouses and vice versa.

Male spouses are also treated differently by male diplomats: I think the male diplomats don’t quite know what to make of a man who stays home with the children, whether the spouse is working or not. Let’s put it this way, as the male spouse you are not of primary interest to male diplomats for their information needs, which means many do not bother trying to understand out at all. Those who do, however, can often become friends because both sides started with engagement in mind.

brian and daughter

Brian with his daughter, in Australia

If you have children, are you the main carer? And if so how have you found this – are you welcomed by other expat parents or do you feel like a bit of an outsider?

Yes. This has been by far the most beneficial aspect of being a male trailing spouse; being able to build a close relationship with my daughter. I have had the time to be there for her more readily, and have witnessed my wife suffering the “I never get to see her” syndrome of the working parent. I am mostly welcomed by parent’s groups, but it often feels a bit odd as the only Dad in the room. Like it or not, Mums like to hang out with other Mums, not dads. I am also an oddity at school; almost the only father to pick up the children and be in the playground with them; the mothers even (not with bad intentions) exclude me from their social media groups because I am a man. Trailing spouse dads just don’t fit into the vast majority of circles created by spouses who, traditionally, are mostly women.

What would you say to another man considering accompanying their partner overseas?

Consider very carefully your career options. If you are young and successful, don’t be over-confident about finding work wherever you go. You might find something but it may not be meaningful or rewarding and, in many cases, doesn’t even contribute well to paying the bills. Consider your pension; it is never too late for a pension saving but the peaks and troughs of freelancing as a spouse make those savings far, far harder.

What more do you think could be done to help male expat partners?

In my opinion, the posting Ministry should take more responsibility for helping spouses find work. Embassies are a vast web of contacts and networks, and can offer great support to spouses looking for work in a new context, whether that be with other Embassies or international bodies such as the UN. And the posted officer suffers very badly if the spouse is unhappy, and unemployed; there are truly deleterious effects for all involved.

Thanks so much to Brian for this insight into the life of a male trailing spouse – although many of his answers will resonate with women expat partners as well as men. If you haven’t already done so then please check out my other posts in this series HERE and do let me know if you would like to be featured on the blog.

The Male Trailing Spouse series – Ryan in Pretoria

The fifth volunteer to take part in my series on Male Trailing Spouses arrives slightly late for our interview on the porch of a local independent coffee shop, and looks a little harried. His phone buzzes on-and-off, and he checks it every time. He has a lot of work on, he tells me. But what is really stressing him isn’t that – it’s the fact that his wife is on the campus of the local university surrounded by rioting students. Twenty-first century man he might be, but Ryan Kilpatrick is still worried about his other half.

RK JH skydive

Ryan and wife Jenny prepare for a leap of faith into the blue….

Luckily, we receive no distress calls and can carry on with our discussion. This is the first time I have actually been able to interview one of my male expat partner’s face-to-face: up until now, I have made contact with all of them through the magic that is the internet. But a meeting with Ryan’s wife Jenny through a mutual Facebook group we both belong to led to her suggesting I interview her husband. So, here we are – my first real life male trailing spouse (note: there are many other men accompanying their partners here; I just haven’t yet persuaded any of them to take part in this series!).

What this means is that this post will be very different from the others. Previously I have asked the men to simply answer a list of questions to give us a flavour of their lives. But although I used the same questions as the basis for this interview, the conversation was very free-ranging. At the same time it brought up some really interesting issues and topics to consider.

Don’t pat me on the back

One of the things that Ryan was adamant about when I asked him how he and his wife had reached the decision for her job to take precedence over his was that he shouldn’t be congratulated for this. It was a simple matter of economics (as is often the case in a couple moving for work), and it just so happened that she was earning more than him.

“Until you started asking these questions I have never even thought about it being the male or female trailing spouse,” he said.

“I am not patting myself on the back about making this decision”.

Jenny and Ryan first came to South Africa in 2011 when she was offered a place at the University of Pretoria as a Fulbright scholar. As the scholarship – sponsored by the US Government – includes financial support for a partner, Ryan readily agreed to pack his bags and join his wife on this first expat adventure.

They had already moved once for her job but that time it had been within the States where they lived. While Ryan had studied in Denmark and worked briefly in Costa Rica during graduate school, this would be their first venture into the world of expat life – and, luckily, it was a happy one.

RK skydive

All good!

Finding his feet

During his first stay in South Africa, Ryan quickly got involved in local life – volunteered to help stock a library at a local township school, played basketball, undertook pro-bono work in the Centre for Human Rights at the university where his wife worked, looked after their dog and generally played house husband. He said he relished the opportunities this experience gave him – and so when a full-time opportunity came up for Jenny at the same university a few years later, he jumped at the chance to come with her again.

Crucially, the move here this time (which is almost certain to last quite a few years – they have even bought a house, showing how serious they are about making a go of it) was a joint decision. He acknowledges that one of the reasons he has felt it easy to settle is because he knew he really wanted to come here in the first place – he took joint ownership of the decision. He also realises this isn’t always the case, and that things can be very different for someone who feels pushed into the move.

Work life

Although the first time round Ryan didn’t have to work as he was paid by the Fulbright scholarship to accompany Jenny, this time he wasn’t in such an enviable position. And, just as it is for most of us who give up a job or career to follow a partner abroad, this put him in a place he didn’t like very much.

Our conversation ranged around the issue of whether it is easier for women to give up their jobs or careers than men – something that I have been exploring throughout this series as well as in conversations in real life. As women are often forced into this position when they have children, society is somehow more forgiving of a woman who stops working than a man. Traditionally, a man is a “bread-winner” so is it harder for him not to be bringing home the bacon (or in our case, the )? Are women better at living with the status of not having a job than men?

RK & Mbumbu

Ryan with his housekeeper’s daughter Mbumbu

These are all interesting questions and probably impossible to answer but my experience shows me that most men who find themselves in this situation do look for some sort of “project” – whether it be paid or unpaid – to mimic the life of a traditionally working man. Having said that, Ryan says he in no way has felt emasculated by the decision to put Jenny’s job first – it really is just the way it has turned out.

“There was a bit of joking about me being the house-husband, with people asking whether this meant I had to wear an apron,” he said. “Partly this is because in many corners of South Africa ptriarchy still rules.

“But we should celebrate the fact that more and more women are earning opportunities to live and work abroad in this increasingly globalised society, and that men like me are prepared to accompany their partner.”

However, he does acknowledge that while the mild teasing about being a house-husband didn’t get to him, he did want to do something more than shop, clean and look after the house when the couple moved to Pretoria. He took on some consultancy work online (working mostly in coffee shops – a great way to at least find some social interaction when you work from home) and then he landed a job working with Power Africa, an initiave of President Obama run through USAid.  Now the pair are the perfect DINKIES (Double Income, No Kids) – although even though he is now working, he says their next move is still more likely to be linked to her job than to his.

Making friends

One of the things I explored in the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide was how men and women socialised differently. The way I mostly make friends (apart from through the children) has been arranging coffee or lunch dates. We women basically like to sit around and talk (I realise I am generalising here but on the whole females are better at small talk than men). The guys, on the other hand, tend to like to be “doing stuff” when they meet their buddies. Hence why sporting activities or shared projects seem to work better for men.

When Ryan arrived in Pretoria for their first visit in 2011 he said he was contacted by another trailing spouse whose wife worked with the UN. Ryan connected this man, an IT expert, with the township school and library, where he helped them set up their computer lab and taught computer literacy courses to students and parents. “He actually became a much better volunteer than I ever was,” Ryan admitted.

This time round he said he hadn’t met other men in the same position as himself – but said that hadn’t stood in his way. Instead of relying on the expat community for friendship he used his early opportunity of not having to work 9-5 to get out and about as much as possible and has made friends as he goes around his daily routine: with his estate agent, the owners of the couple’s local coffee shop.

RK Grounded

Dog? Check. Coffee? Check.

Just do it!

So finally what does he say to others in a similar position to him thinking of taking the plunge?

“Just do it! I would say to any person that there is no job where you live now that gives you the sort of experience like this, where you put yourself out of your comfort zone and move somewhere new and have to figure out things for yourself.

“All of the clichés are true – and it really does give you a new perspective on your own country when you move away from it.”

And on this note we finish the interview so that Ryan can get back to work. And, I feel sure, check on his wife. After all, he may be safely having coffee with me while she is surrounded by rioting students, but they are definitely in this together.

If you have enjoyed this post please remember to check out the others in this series and do contact me if you are a male accompanying partner and would like to share your story.

A Series on Expat Depression #8: Helping others

In previous posts on this subject I have talked about how you can help yourself – from simple self-help methods like talking to someone, exercise or finding a new focus, to seeking professional assistance. In this post I want to talk more about what to do if it is not you who is suffering, if you know others who may need your help and what you can do. This includes people close to you such as a partner or family member as well as friends and those in the wider expat community. In order to help with this post I asked people whether they had helped others, what they had done, how common they felt depression was amongst their own expat community and whether they felt it was more likely to affect the workers or the accompanying partners.

6800044269_833e0591f4_o

How common is depression within the typical expat community?

I am a trained coach and decided to use the skills to help others. I did have clients who paid but I used the skills with people in the expat community…who just needed a boost, a point in the right direction. I think it is a common thing and it can hit anytime in the expat cycle and for any reason. Nicola M

Statistically there has to have been many people in my community who has depression! I think people just don’t talk about it. Catherine.

Although this is a difficult question to answer as one of the problems with depression or depressive feelings is that people don’t talk openly about it, most of those who responded to this question said they believed depression to be anything from “quite common” to “very common” amongst expats – with quite a few leaning more towards the “very” than the “quite”. Of course it is hard to know exactly what this means as most people don’t walk around with a badge on saying “I am depressed” or even necessarily ever get a proper diagnosis; but without a doubt according to many experienced expats this is an issue that an awful lot of people have had to deal with – probably a lot more than most of us realise.

To be fair though not everyone thought it was common – or at least, any more common amongst expats than non-expats. However even if this is so, what is an issue isn’t just how many people become depressed but how easy (or hard) it is to deal with your feelings when you are a long way from home, your usual support networks and an accessible professional service.

Who is most likely to be affected?

I think it can occur when people stay too isolated, don’t really connect to their community and locals. I would say working people are pretty safe from depression due to their involvement in tasks and social connections. Non-working mothers with small infants would be at risk…if they have no chance to connect to others. Sarah.

Non-workers for sure. Workers have at least 8 hours when they are distracted from their feelings. My only friends in my location are girls in the same situation as me. We often band together. Susanna.

Of those who answered this question almost everyone said they believed non-working partners were more likely to be affected than their working spouses (with the possible exception of people working in very stressful industries or environments like NGO’s/charity workers/health professionals in very challenging circumstances). This was put down to isolation and loneliness, lack of things to occupy themselves with, loss of careers, loss of identity. One described it as a “helpless feeling not to be financially contributing”; another said “I think the trailing spouse gets it more because we suddenly have nothing to do”.

I think it is more common among non-working spouses. Many of us are professionals in our own right and have lost a big part of our identities. Maybe we had “leaned out” of the workforce for what we thought was a short time to care for our family and the expat lifestyle has extended that beyond the timeframe we had envisioned. Rose.

But a note of caution from one respondent, who thought it was probably more common than is realised amongst the working partners too. Probably the majority of people who answered my survey were non-working partners and thus were speaking from personal experience. Most were also women and I believe we are more likely to speak up about this issues. I suspect it is harder for the partner who has moved overseas for a job, possibly uprooting their spouse and family in the process, to admit that things haven’t worked out the way they had expected. This isn’t something I can back up here with facts and figures but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there wasn’t as much hidden or masked depression amongst the working partners as those who are not.

How can we help others?

I listen, go to newcomers coffees, share advice on where to find Western goods, how to cope with local Chinese, how to work within the censorship issue…. Mary

In Mongolia I tried to help a young wife who found herself in a situation…that threw her into a deep depression. We spent many hours talking and crying and I think my experience of depression, knowing the signs as well as knowing the experience of it, was helpful to her. Robyn.

So plenty of people seem to be aware that expat depression is a common thing, how many people have done something about it? This is such an interesting topic as I truly believe the more people there are that are aware, the more who talk about it openly and without shame, then the more people will already be getting help than otherwise. Even in the course of writing these posts I feel I have been able to talk to so many more people than I usually would about this subject – both through the blog and Facebook page and in real life – because I have been able to open up the discussion.

204839010_0c7d7aec28_o

Sometimes something as simple as a coffee with a friend can make the world of difference

So talking – and just listening – is definitely a thing we can all do and a lot of people have done. This doesn’t have to necessarily be an “open discussion about expat depression” – it could just as well be a conversation which starts with “how are you finding things here?” However, when I think about reaching out to some of my friends (not necessarily the ones here with me in Pretoria but other expats I know in other places) I can’t even imagine how to get them to admit there is a problem. If there is one of course. And that is one of the issues – how do you know if someone needs your help? Are you going to insult them by even a gentle probe?

Nevertheless people did tell me that “listening” was one of the most common ways they have helped others – listening, emphasising, even, as one person described, “giving them space to vent” seems to go a long way. Otherwise, sharing information to help make transition easier, making lunch and coffee dates to ease loneliness and isolation, comparing experiences good and bad are all ways people have found to help other expats. My favourite of all though was the respondent who said she had recommended my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide J

Who else should be listening?

We have talked about helping ourselves, we have discussed helping others within our community but there is another party in this who some believe should be involved and that is your employer (or the employer of your partner). I was interested to hear whether people thought their bosses should be involved in this issue – and if so, what they should be doing. Watch out for my next post on expat depression to find out more.

Photo credits: Lonely – Pascal Maramis; Coffee shop – J Brew

If you have found this post helpful then please read the other posts in my series on expat depression. And let me know in the comments below whether you have helped others in your expat community and if so how. 

 

 

 

What’s it like being a same-sex expat partner?

When I originally started writing the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide I immediately recognised how important it was going to be to include something about same-sex partners. Whilst accompanying someone to their job in another country can be hard for everyone, at least most of us don’t have to consider whether the move could actually put our lives in danger. Not only that, but how about living somewhere where the host country doesn’t even recognise our official marital status? Or where the only way you can get a visa is to pretend you work for your partner?

Finding people to talk about their experiences for the book wasn’t easy though. This can understandably be a very personal subject and not necessarily something people want to share with the world. I was very grateful to the two women who did speak to me and gave me some very interesting insight into the way they had to live their lives thanks to their LGBT status.

Up until recently though I hadn’t heard from any of the guys. Until Stefan responded to my call for men to take part in my Male Trailing Spouse series. Stefan provided some great answers (as well as my favourite ever picture on this blogsite) to my questions about his life accompanying his husband to China – but with the emphasis on his being a man rather than being gay. However he also put me in touch with a friend in China, Michael, who was also living there with his husband. And Michael very kindly agreed to answer some questions from a LGBT perspective. I think you will agree his replies were fascinating and very eye-opening for the rest of us.

IMG_9282

Michael and his husband Juan Manuel

 

Welcome Michael and thank you for being part of this blog. First can you tell me a bit about yourself and your partner

I am from Los Angeles and Juan, my spouse is an Argentine diplomat born in Buenos Aires. We have lived together since 2009 and married in 2011. Prior to Beijing we were based in Tel Aviv for 3 years.

I am a TV producer having worked as an Executive Producer for networks such as ABC/DISNEY, NBC, MSNBC, MTV/Vh1, Spike, Bravo among others. I came to Beijing on a diplomatic visa (unofficially as the Chinese government would not issue me an ID card but “in their system” I am listed as the spouse with full rights and privileges) which meant I could not work and after a year (we weren’t sure we would stay given the ID issue) I took a position with CCTV which meant me changing from a diplomatic passport to an unofficial one.

I always loved traveling and exploring — I went to Israel as a teenager, lived in Italy and traveled much of Europe in my third year of university and enjoyed living abroad in Tel Aviv on account of having a boyfriend in Israel while I was beginning grad school in NYC. I consider meeting my husband a double blessing as his work takes us literally all over the globe and he’s a great guy!

IMG_9335

As a same-sex couple, what sort of things did you have to consider before you moved to your current location?

We have to consider the political and social landscape of the country. After our government petitioned on account of the Vienna Convention for China to legally recognize us (which did not officially happen), our Foreign Ministry asked every Embassy to report back on the “status of same sex couples”. Places like Morocco dutifully reported “not only is it illegal, but it is punishable by death!” Cross that off our list. And less obvious places like the UAE state they will accept same-sex couples if the partner is listed as “member of the household” meaning ‘staff”.

Given the situation in China, we decided going forward that we would not choose countries where we could not live as a “out couple” or in a place with severe homophobia. We are 42 and 41; the way I see it, our lives are half over and we don’t need to burden ourselves with uncessesarry human rights issues in our house! We are healthy but some couples have to consider health concerns — places like India can be difficult for couples that are HIV positive because of the risk of infection due to hygenie or water issues.

michael in china
Please tell me a bit about your current location and how you have felt moving here as a same-sex couple. Have you been welcomed? Experienced prejudice? Felt no different from other, non-same-sex couples?

Tel Aviv was the best. Despite the political situation for 30% of the population there (Arab-Israelis/Palestinians) which is sad to say the least, being a gay couple is widely accepted and appreciated there so our life in Israel was amazing. Beijing is a bit more complicated.

Our feeling was that China is not homophobic per say, it’s more of an ignorance issue…however, upon receiving my job offer at CCTV (I was the 2nd foreign producer they ever hired in the English language news channel FEATURES department), my immediate boss, who is a thoughtful worldly person, told me not to “tell anyone you are gay…they won’t understand and therefore may lose “face” for you…they won’t respect you…”

As it turns out they hired me as a “single person” which was a big lie and surprising since CCTV is the mouthpiece of the government and my husband works for our Embassy and apparently there is a Chinese law that forbids foreign diplomatic spouses taking work at CCTV. Oops.

IMG_9453

Has there been any differences between how you have been treated by the locals in your host country, and by other expats?

We are active with the LBGBT Center here and notice that many of the young, educated Chinese are not officially out (numbers put it at less than 10% of the population) and many still plan to have fake marriages for the sake of their parents — since it is the burden of the wife to take care of her husband’s parents. Ugh.

For expats, even in the Diplomatic circles, it definitely depends on the country We lived in a building with a few Arab diplomats and our relationship was not spoken of or ignored by them. Same with African countries and even our Thai diplomatic gay friend has to put up a cover when around us.

Have there been any special considerations you have had to make eg can you get a working visa? Is same-sex marriage recognised by your host country?

We heard same-sex couples can get VISAs in China, just not diplomats which is normally the reverse! Both the US and Argentina recognize same-sex marriage. We are legally married in Argentina and I have the same rights and privileges of straight spouses.

We spent nearly a year and a half with the Foreign Ministry here and our government trying to find a solution which was exhausting. Our legal reps at the Embassy demanded full recognition referencing the Vienna Convention and China balked saying “we never offer that” but apparently just this past September, their Ambassador in Buenos Aires asked our government to allow parents of Chinese diplomats to receive diplomatic immunity in Argentina so our Team asked for my recognition here which went unanswered.

We think eventually they will grant this status as it’s only a matter of time, and given the global social politics, being on team GAY is not only a smart political decision but also an economic one!

Do you think it has been harder for you as the “trailing spouse” than for your partner especially if they applied for and were appointed to their role before leaving your home country?

Absolutely. I gave up a very interesting, high-paying and successful career that only exists for me in the US. My spouse always said he would give up his career and try something else if we decided to go back to the US for my career which definitely softens the blow of working at a reduced capacity abroad!

What advice do you have for others in the same situation as yourselves?

Preproduction or pre-plan even the most minute detail. I thought it would “all fall into place” and when shit started not working in Beijing it really took a toll on our relationship and I suffered for nearly a year and a half stuck in limbo and not working. And literally going a bit mad! Our saving grace was that we made a lot of friends and created networks and we fell into place.

Thank you to Michael for answering my questions and providing such useful information. I would love to hear from other same-sex partners or about others in a similar position of you know of any. Please message below or email me clara@expatpartnersurvival.com.

The Male Trailing Spouse Series: Billy in Atlanta

Welcome to another post in my series on male trailing spouses. This post is a little different from my others as Billy (who blogs at St Pats to Spartans) isn’t really accompanying his partner so much as joining her. But nevertheless as an Irish expat in the US, he finds himself in a position very familiar to many of us: starting again from scratch with finding work, friends, a routine….all the while his partner’s life carries on more or less as before. Added to this, Billy and his wife Leanne had the extra stress of needing to sort out a visa for Billy before he was able to join her. All in all, I think Billy’s story adds another very interesting dimension to this series.

We got engaged in Ireland and visited Ardagh for some photos together

“We got engaged in Ireland and visited Ardagh for some photos”

Thank you for being part of this series Billy. First of all please tell me a little about yourself and your partner.

I am a male trailing spouse from Ireland who came over to the USA on a k1 fiancée visa in December 2015 to marry my wife.

I am from Ireland and I met my partner, Leanne, in 2001 while here visiting Savannah for St Patricks Day. We remained friends for a long time before, in 2014, we had a chat about the possibility of our lives being together rather than an ocean apart. Thing then started to move quite quickly as we arranged visits to both the USA for me and Ireland for Leanne.

It was during my visit to Atlanta in February 2015 that we decided that we wanted to be together and get married. Of course the visa process isn’t for the faint hearted but we got started on the paperwork right away. We filed everything with USCIS (United States Citizen and Immigration Services) in April, got approval at the end of June and visa was in hand mid September for me to be able to travel over to live with Leanne and finalise our wedding plans for December 2015.

My trailing is not for work, it’s not following my spouse to her new role, but it is for love. My wife has a job with Peachtree Orthopaedic Clinic and is well respected in her role there.

As a male trailing spouse, how did you feel when you first arrived in your new country?

I was nervous stepping onto the plane in November 2015, I was leaving my life of 48 years behind, I was leaving my 17-year-old son, my elderly parents and all my friends. I knew Leanne had a broad circle of friends and I had met most of them at least once but now I would be starting all over again.

Leanne met my son pictured left while she was visiting Ireland and he was present when we got engaged

“Leanne met my son (pictured left) when she visited Ireland and he was present when we got engaged.”

I was a bit apprehensive about finding my own friends rather than my wife’s friends just adopting me. But they have all been so kind and nice and welcomed me with open arms. I am making friends with them all and have started to make contacts outside of my wife’s circle of friends in other things.

I have joined a photography club and in April I will start back playing football, soccer. These activities will allow me to broaden my horizon and meet new people. Friends to me is an important thing, it’s nice to be able to chat to people and not just my pet dogs.

Have you had to give up a job/career and if so how did you feel about this?

Not really a career, I had already retired from a career in the military after 23 years’ service and had a job in Dublin Airport but that is all it was, a job, not a career. But leaving the military put me in a much better place in my life so when we had the chat about being together I was able to make the choice I did.

I am not able to work here in the USA yet as I am awaiting permission from USCIS and that is quite difficult as I have been employed since I was 17. Add in the fact that I am in a new country and that can make it more difficult, but I find things to do during the day and being a house husband for now is a good thing as it is allowing me get used to the cultural differences in the way things are done here in the US rather than Ireland

Wedding photo of the 2 of us outside the courthouse in Decatur after our wedding in Dec 2015

“Wedding picture of the two of us outside the courthouse in Decatur after our wedding in December 2015”.

Have you found it easy to fit in and make friends? Have you met other men accompanying their partners or are you a rare species? If you have met others where and how have you met them?

As I said my wife has a broad circle of friends and every one of them has been so nice. A few have offered to join me for lunch just so I can have some company during the day. Again something important when I am only settling into life here is help from others and I am never afraid to take whatever help is offered, even if it is only company walking the dogs.

I do have an Irish neighbour who is also married to an American girl and we have got together to watch a rugby match and it’s good to chat to him. He has lived beside my wife for over 2 years but it was only when I arrived and he seen the Irish flag outside the house did he knock in and say hi. I don’t really know any other trailing spouses locally but I do have 2 military friends who live in Massachusetts with their American partners and they were a great help as I was preparing to move over.

Our wedding rehearsal was done with Leanne wearing her mothers wedding dress and I was wearing a kilt the as i was wearing when I met Leanne

“Our wedding rehearsal was done with Leanne wearing her mother’s weding dress and I was wearing the kilt I was wearing when I met Leanne”.

Do you think it is harder for men than women to accompany their partners abroad – and if so, why?

I don’t think in this day and age it is any harder, the problems will be more or less the same, especially if not working. It helps that I didn’t follow my wife to a new job for her. She was already living in Atlanta for nearly 20 years and had a firm base and life here. She plays tennis so there is a circle of friends there, she has a good core group of friends and they socialise a lot together and now we are part of the ‘couples’ group which also helps. The loneliness of being at home all day would the same for either of us and it helps to have a plan of something to do every day.

Have you got any particular stories or incidents to do with being a male TS? Either positive or negative.

I moved for love, we knew each other for 14 years before we finally were able to become a couple in the same country. I am here and starting a whole new chapter in my life, I have to learn to drive on the opposite side of the road, figure out US supermarkets, try not say awesome and figure out sports here too. I wouldn’t change a single thing but if I could it would be that I wish we could have done this a lot sooner on our lives. But it wasn’t to be.

What would you say to another man considering accompanying their partner overseas?

Do it, embrace it, have a vague plan of something to do but overall embrace the whole idea. Don’t be a loner, try find something you like to do and go do it. Support your spouse as much as you can as they too will be having certain difficulties and its only together that those difficulties will be kept minor and not ruin the experience. If you are used to or have a make need to be the main bread winner, just park that notion and embrace the new opportunity that being a trailing spouse has offered up to you.

Billy and Leanne with my family in Ireland

“Leanne with my family in Ireland”

What more do you think could be done to help male expat partners?

Don’t really have anything here, but as an Irishman in Atlanta I have reached out to organisations from Ireland based here in Georgia and they are a great help.

Some other stuff: I came over on a K1 visa and we are still in a visa application process. The application process for the K1 can be stressful and we were separated by the ocean so our support for each other was done via phone calls, emails and cards. Patience was key but in the end we got our visa and now we are just started the next step. The next step is ok as we are now together and we can support each other while being together. Why am I adding this in? Well it emphasizes the point of supporting each other, as a trailing spouse its important you support our spouse as they adjust as well as you do. We still have a few more steps in the whole visa, green card and citizenship journey, but we will do them together.

Thank you for sharing your story Billy. Don’t forget to check out the other posts in this series on male trailing spouses – and comment below if you would be willing to share yours!

A Series on Expat Depression #3: When and Why does it happen?

In my post last week I looked at the concept of “expat” depression and whether it could be classified in a division of its own (in the same way as, for example, postnatal depression). Whilst the jury is still out on this, I did find it a useful exercise to help me reflect on why we expats are more susceptible to these feelings than many others. Certainly what I have found through my research for these posts is that sometimes the depression experienced by expats is a one-off, caused basically by the change in circumstances and the associated issues that go with the relocation; other times these changes reignite underlying problems so that those who have suffered in the past find their symptoms return when they first move abroad.

Whichever one though, my discussions on the issue with counsellor Anita Colombara has led me to conclude that depression is depression and it is always worthwhile trying to do something about it (whether by self-help methods or seeking professional help) sooner rather than later.

Today I want to move on and start to look at some real life examples of how depression has affected expats. I am going to start by looking at the when and the why. The where is in there too but it less relevant – after all, depression is something that can happen to expats wherever they are in the world.

I realised pretty quickly when I started breaking down the answers that there were a lot of common themes in responses to the survey I put together for this series. So taking each theme in turn, below is a list of some of the most common reasons given for triggering expat depression. Hopefully by recognising possible danger points in the expat cycle, I can help you be more prepared. In later posts I will look at some of the ways people have dealt with their depression in some of these situations.

Moving somewhere new

“People tend to underestimate how upsetting a move, and moreso an international move, can be. Some ex-pats chalk it up as normal culture shock. Yes, that could be so. But even seemingly small life changes can trigger  more profound depression or anxiety issues.” Anita Colombara

Of course, moving to a new place doesn’t only happen to expats. Many people have moved across town to a new house, to a neighbouring city with a new job, even to the other side of the country. But becoming an expat is something different altogether – you are not just letting go of the familiarity of your old home and neighbours, you are moving away from the cosiness of a complete culture. And very often you are stepping completely into the unknown.

Whilst the relocation is often just the start of things, many find that the early days in a new country is enough in itself to trigger their first bout of depression. Here are a couple of people talking about these changes:

“When I first moved over to the UK with my husband, it seemed like nothing was familiar. And why would it be? We were in a different country from my home country. I loved aspects of it…but then there were those certain times when I was feeling a bit vulnerable and needed something – anything – that felt familiar” Erin.

“I know….that depression can be triggered by lots of changes and their associated stressors or stresses. Moving to a foreign country, away from family and friends and any support system you might have is really exposing yourself….” Robyn.

But as difficult as it may be, the move alone isn’t usually what triggers the depression. Instead, it is usually a combination of those factors that so many of us recognise as being part and parcel of expat life – starting with that old chestnut:

Loneliness/isolation

8219989409_bff035f4ef_o

The expat “bubble”?

I suspect many of us underestimate how isolated you can feel when you first move somewhere new. We probably think we can make it through the first few days/weeks/months (possibly even years) without close companions, but in fact as much as anything it is the daily interactions with familiar faces as much as the close friends and family that help us cope.

You often lose this interaction when you move – maybe you stop working, or you don’t go to the school gates every day, or you don’t shop in the same shops on a regular basis. It may take time to build these sort of regular meetings up, you may never be able to do it. And although social media is a godsend to many of us, it is never truly a substitute for proper, human, face-to-face contact.

People mentioned loneliness because they weren’t working, they didn’t have children, they did have children, they couldn’t find ways to meet people….loneliness affects people in so many different ways and for so many different reasons, which is why it is hard to say exactly when and why it happens. Here are a couple of examples, starting with more from Erin:

“With my husband working long and crazy shifts, I felt isolated and alone. And because we had moved two months before the twins were born, I didn’t really have a good local friend to lean on. I was able to Skype home but if anything, it just made me feel more depressed. I wanted to physically hang out with those people. I wanted those people to go out with me or look after the twins while I took a break. Skype can do many things – but it can’t do that”.

And, from Amanda:

“…my partner was working and I wasn’t so I was spending a lot of time alone. Living in a small town made it hard to meet people, as most people were working during the day. The lack of daylight in the winter didn’t help as it made it difficult to get out of the house much”.

Living in a difficult place/cultural issues
Not all expat assignments are equal – some, without a doubt, are going to be more challenging than others. Although I should add that what one person finds hard is another’s easy ride. A lot of people think a Caribbean island would be a dream posting. I would tell them otherwise!

But even so, there are some places and some situations which undoubtedly do put extra pressure on. Alyson told me about the “cultural differences” that made running a business in Kenya quite a “challenge”; Sarah described living somewhere that she couldn’t drive (by law) or walk alone (which attracted negative attention). Talking about her time in India, Robyn told me:

“I was in an overcrowded, noisy, hot, dusty, culturally shocking place, trying to find my feet without any safety net and it wasn’t long before I felt some of the symptoms of depression start to take hold”.

9511161290_97b84dd3d1_o

India streelife – can be quite a culture shock to many.

Lack of job/role/purpose and boredom

“It started because I was a trailing spouse – I had a successful career of my own, but I gave it up to come abroad….” – Susanna

“After both my move to Africa and my move to Asia, I experienced feelings close to depression. My entire four years in Africa were an emotional roller coaster. The first three I was a stay-at-home mom with full-time staff, which left virtually “nothing” for me to do”- Mary.

“On my last island there was little to do. Seriously little to do. It’s beautiful for a holiday but to live there it’s difficult. Most of the wives ended up leaving to return back to the UK. We did two years but I felt like I was going mad from boredom” – “Princess Banana Hammock”.

Closely related to isolation, many people stated that one of their main problems was having no purpose in their new life. This is particularly common for the non-working “trailing” partner, who gets left at home when their spouse walks out the door to work. I think it is also a lot harder for those who don’t have children or whose children have left home. No job, no social life, often not even a real role in the house – domestic staff being such a common part of expat life for many.

I have often likened life abroad to that of being a 1950’s housewife – certainly, this is how it feels on the days when my main mission is to sit at home and wait for the electrician to turn up. And whilst there is nothing wrong with this type of life, you can see how demoralising it can become for those of us used to, well, a bit “more”.

While finding a job (paid or unpaid) is high on the list of many new expat partners, this can often be impossible due to lack of opportunity, visa restrictions, language difficulties…any of a number of things can impede your path to greater fulfilment and lead to a new sense of failure when you find you not only can’t find a role for yourself in yournew country, but you also can’t earn an independent income.

Loss of control
Another common reason for finding life abroad hard is a feeling that you have lost control. Again, this is probably more common to the partners of those who are working – the ones who have to call their spouse’s office if they need something done in the house or whose visa relies on their partner’s job or who can’t open a bank account in their own name. You may not get to choose your house, your furniture, even the school your children go to. Another major reason for this feeling of losing control is that their very being in that country relies on their partner’s job – and often on the plans of their partner’s employer. It’s hard to plan a life when you don’t know if you will still be living in your current location a year, even six months from now.

Life event
Of course not all depression that that develops among expats is based solely on their actual expat experience. Often it is triggered by the sort of thing that could happen to anyone, anywhere. But it is the fact that you are not in your home surroundings with familiar faces around you that can turn a distressing situation into one that plunges you very low. Anything from a major traumatic occurrence (a car crash, being robbed, an illness or death of a close relative) to something basically joyful but stressful like the birth of a new baby can set you off. This is especially true if you are already susceptible to low moods or have suffered from depression in the past. And of course, what is potentially a difficult situation is made harder by being a long way from your usual support networks.

4275286900_a491d0ff13_o

Even something like a minor car crash can have a traumatic effect when you are living far from your usual support networks

Mary gave an example of how a series of events can really spiral out of control. After describing how her daughter basically shut down following a move to China, she:

“developed health issues….then the vet here literally killed our beloved cat that we’d brought with us and then the company stopped paying us for three months so we were living on savings. That’s when I hit bottom….”

Whilst most of these things (bar her daughter’s reaction to their move) could have happened anywhere, it was the fact that these events were combined with their move to a new environment, and the accompanying culture shock of the move, that caused the downward spiral. Shockingly, Mary admitted in her response to the survey that she had seriously considered suicide at this point; luckily, just giving herself this control over her own destiny helped her to “refocus” and she now says she is feeling a lot “better”.

I urge anyone who feels like this to seek professional help as soon as possible.

Repatriation
Finally, I wanted to mention something that comes up over and over again in any discussion on expat depression, and that is going home again.

Many people underestimate quite how hard this can be – and I suspect that it is often this underestimation that partially at least leads to these feelings. Why would it be hard – you’re just going back to that place where you were happy and had friends and family around you, right? Well, sadly, not – what often happens is that whilst your home and those who live there hasn’t changed, you have. And this disconnect between what you think will be waiting for you when you return and the reality can often be what causes the problem.

Reasons for moving home varied, with some people having more control over it than others. But even those that chose to return often found their lives a lot harder than they realised it would be –

This from someone identifying themselves simply as “a trailing spouse”:

“When I moved back to my home country employment was difficult and, although highly skilled, I was unable to find work. My resume, which showed frequent moves, “outed” me immediately as “someone not worth investing time in”….my oldest child had a very bad mismatch with his teacher at school, my spouse’s job was long hours….I hated it. HATED it.”

So from first moving overseas to moving back home again, there are many flashpoints in the expat cycle that we need to be aware of in tackling the issue of depression. I am sure there are many, many more reasons for why someone might be affected but these are the most common ones given to me.

Next week I want to look at how depression manifests itself, the reaction people had – hopefully all things that can help you recognise these symptoms in yourself.

Can you relate to any of these? Or do you have other circumstances to share? Please add your comments below – I want this series to be a starting point for further discussion as much as anything. I am not the expert – but I am giving you the space and the place to bring your experience to share with others who might be going through the same thing.

Photo credits: The Expat Bubble – David Ingram;  India street life: David Sanchini;  Car crash – Pat Joyce