Content warning: implication of depression and anxiety
No matter how prepared I may have been, how many web pages I read or maps I studied, how much I knew I wanted to do this, study abroad is not all worry-free days and adventure. It’s not just weekend getaways and clever Instagram captions. It’s a lot harder than that.
Study abroad is choking out only a quiet and awkward goodbye as I leave my brother behind, or barely holding back tears as I hug my parents at the airport after having felt rather nauseous the whole drive there.
Study abroad is arriving in this new place and thinking to myself: I shouldn’t have come here. I chose the wrong program. I wasn’t ready.
Study abroad is sitting in my room listening closely to the sounds outside because I am afraid of going to the kitchen and finding someone else inside—someone who is a stranger, someone who has been here longer than me, someone who will be watching as I get my bearings in this unfamiliar place.
Study abroad is considering waking up at five in the morning one day just to be sure I can have the kitchen to myself, or having groceries sitting in my room for hours instead of just putting them away.
Study abroad is rushing to catch the train to class at the last minute almost every single day for the first six weeks because I can’t get myself into the panic mode that will force me out of bed.
Study abroad is thinking to myself, I must be a really good actor if I fooled the Stone Center into thinking I was “fit” for this. If I fooled myself and everyone around me into thinking I was fit for this.
Study abroad is smiling each time I call my parents, and telling them how great everything is going, because if I told them the truth they would worry. And they have enough on their plates to be worried about.
Study abroad is still not speaking in class even though it’s week five of ten because I am afraid—afraid my accent will give me away, the insights I offer will not be good enough, they will know I am not one of them.
It’s the worst kind of imposter syndrome. It’s a rather solitary experience at first.
Study abroad is procrastinating on the smallest of things, like taking out the trash or sending an important email or organizing the now cluttered collection of apps on my phone.
Study abroad is realizing that I have let two days pass without doing any homework.
Study abroad is being asked what I’ve done today, and fumbling to come up with an answer better than the truth, which is practically nothing.
Study abroad is trying each day to do better and failing time and time again. I tell myself: fake it till you make it.
Study abroad is hard.
Yet study abroad is also bigger and better things. Study abroad is reminding myself that it’s okay not to be doing everything that everyone else is doing, that it’s important to give myself credit for the little accomplishments each day—remembering to cut myself some slack. Tomorrow is a new day. It’s getting to see a new part of the world, traveling farther than I could normally afford, and seeing in person that which I have only seen in pictures.
Study abroad is doing a little better each day, learning my way around campus, discovering good places to study, and making a few new friends. It’s going along on group outings and working to be more social. It’s the smile I plaster on for video chat that becomes more genuine.
Study abroad is sitting down to write this piece because I might not be the only one who is struggled to get through their time abroad, and because writing everything down makes it a little more real. It’s a concrete reminder to myself that I can and will do better; I still have time to turn this thing around. But that more importantly, I need to take things one step at a time. It’s okay not to be okay.
It’s me realizing that this is not just a study abroad problem. This is a last semester problem, a six-months-ago problem, a living-away-from-home or a doing-my-first-internship problem. Study abroad is acknowledging that I need help. That I should seriously consider getting back into therapy when I get home. That until then, I am going to do my best to get out of bed on time and stick to a good routine and make time to enjoy myself. This is my once-in-a-lifetime experience, one semester of the-best-four-years-of-my-life, and I should make the most of it. Study abroad is doing the best I can do and setting realistic goals for each day because that’s all I can fairly demand of myself. It’s not over yet.
Perhaps to be alone is to be empowered, is to be brave, is to breathe, is to learn something new about myself.
Now I’m seeing this experience a bit differently: not a failure, but an opportunity. This is where I cut myself some slack and begin to really work on myself. Things can only go up from here.
From March 2017 issue