Guilt and mental illness on my year abroad

Maria Minchenko urges students to speak more openly about the reality of a year abroad

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A month or so into my time in Japan, I felt lost. I was depressed and exhausted, wondering if there was something wrong with me for not enjoying life in the country of my dreams. Everyone around me seemed to be doing just fine.

Turns out, this is a common feeling that few people talk about.

Let’s start by clarifying some things. I suffer from major depression and generalised anxiety. This is a scary thing to admit online, where anyone can see it, but it’s better than letting my illness remain invisible. I’ve struggled with these disorders since I was 15, and four years later, I’m doing better, but there are frequent downward spirals. I have some coping methods, a support network and medication to help me. But it’s never enough, and I suspect that depression will always remain the monster under my bed. That’s ok. But it does mean that dealing with everyday life is often harder for me than for others.

On top of being mentally ill, there is this thing people only recently started talking about: the Year Abroad Blues. Society insists that going abroad is the best year of your life, despite the fact that there are as many different experiences as there are people moving abroad. Friends back home expect me to have endless stories about my adventures—it feels like a shame to talk about the sad stuff instead. There are so many ways in which year abroad can go wrong, and it’s disorienting to be struggling when society tells you you’re supposed to be happy, you ungrateful fool.

In the first couple of months after arriving in Japan I struggled with some serious guilt, because back then I was especially unhappy. The truth is that moving abroad is difficult and exhausting, and it takes one to three months on average to adjust and start feeling stable again.

An interesting thing everyone notices when they move abroad is that they feel constantly tired and sleepy. I’m curious about this so I’ve asked dozens of international students at Kobe University, and pretty much all of them have experienced this. My foreign friend, who is doing her doctorate in psychology here, explained that one of the reasons this happens is that our brains have to put extra effort into processing information in a foreign language.

This means that I have less energy to do everyday tasks than I did back home. Depression lurking in the background also steals some of my energy. So, for the first few months of being in Japan, I could barely stay awake through my classes. I was still dragged to amazing trips on the weekends, but I was barely able to enjoy them. I started avoiding time around people, and my grades slipped because I had no energy to study.

Another source of guilt this year is my introverted nature. I’m good at making close friends, and I’ve made some lovely international and Japanese ones here in Kobe. That’s all I need socially—people I already know, and with whom I can be sure I’ll have fun. Some people around me recently made me feel guilty for not going to bars every other night like they do. There’s nothing wrong with spending your year like that, but to me it sounds very unappealing—I get anxious when I’m surrounded by people I don’t know, and I have to psyche myself up even to go into town on my own. There is an assumption that going abroad is a constant hunt for new friends, and I wish people realised that this is not everybody’s idea of a good time.

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Also, people don’t like admitting this either, but the thing is—Japan, or whatever other country you’ve always put atop a pedestal, is just not that great. For example, I was told that Tokyo is a crazy urban jungle wonderland. The reality is that it has some funny shops and cafes, but otherwise it’s hardly different from another megalopolis such as London.

Don’t get me wrong—I still like Japan. It’s a unique society with a mindset that’s very different from that of the West. I love Japanese art and history, and I’m thrilled about being able to speak the language. Japanese people are sweet, and I enjoy the clean streets and great customer service. There are many voices out there sharing how fun and useful a year abroad can be. I just wanted to point out the other side of the coin: it’s not paradise.

My everyday life here is actually more boring than back in Oxford. I have daily language classes which take up the whole morning, as well as a lecture most afternoons. Language classes are hardly exciting, and the lectures are not as interesting as those in Oxford. Waking up early means that I’m exhausted by the afternoon, and all I want is to get back, finish homework, eat, and sleep. The weekends are my only chance to catch up on sleep, so if I choose to travel instead, I might not enjoy it because I’m so tired. The only holidays I have this year have already passed—one for New Year, and a long one for spring. I’ve done my share of awesome travel, and now I have three months of hard work ahead of me. About 70 per cent of my year abroad has been work and everyday routine. It’s not a year in paradise, and we should stop assuming that it’s going to be non-stop fun, because that’s harmful. Once we get abroad and realise it’s not perfect, we feel guilty for not being constantly happy.

Some of my friends here are healthier and more outgoing than me. They tend to look down on my inability to do more than just attend classes, go out with friends, and occasionally travel. They have part-time jobs, they climb mountains for fun, they often go out at night. But I physically can’t do that! I know my body extremely well as I have pushed myself out of my comfort zone countless times. The fact is that I struggle with doing a lot of things at once. I need a full night’s sleep or I will not comprehend what’s going on. I know this, but I still feel guilty for not being as active as other people. We should all remember that different bodies have different limits, and respect that.

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Finally, I’m just ready to go home. As I said before, I have three months of hard work ahead of me. Yes, all that matters is that I pass this year, but even passing will take a lot of effort. After my partner visited me I was hit by a new wave of homesickness, and I crave being home with my mum and my cat, where everything is just a bit simpler. I miss being able to read what’s written on the products in supermarkets. I miss being able to communicate with people without having to think hard about how to express myself. I miss not standing out in a crowd and not being stared at. England has its problems, and, as an immigrant child, it took around four years for me to consider it home, but it’s my safe space now. Being in Japan feels too liminal and uncertain—a constant race to do and see new things, when sometimes all I want is to rest.

Of course, I’m not just going to wallow in my misery for the last three months in Japan. I realise what a unique privilege I’m living, and that I will probably never get the chance to live in Japan again. I’m still certain that my year abroad in Japan was a great decision. I’ve had so much fun and I know there’s more to come. It has given me a lot of self-confidence and self-awareness. But I also went through hard times, and believe that I would have struggled less if others around me were more open about their experiences.

I’ve read numerous articles about the infamous Year Abroad Blues, and I now know that plenty of others go through the same stuff that I’m experiencing. It’s a shame that people are often scared to admit that they’re not having the time of their lives, because this reinforces society’s assumption that the year abroad is one big merry-go-round. I think that should change, and that we should be more honest about feeling vulnerable and down. That way we can support each other in times of need, and help each other make the most of our time abroad.