I’ve been very excited to be able to share Melissa’s expat journey and repatriation experience, specifically because her reasoning and mindset around returning to her home country, the U.S., have reflected those of my own.
Through this interview, I had the great pleasure to also learn about Melissa’s serial expat past, the many “stay or go?” experiences she had along that road, and how repatriation ended up being the right choice for her and her husband after 10 years in Europe.
Melissa and her husband now live in Seattle and are currently enjoying their latest adventure of chasing around their spirited son and their equally energetic dog.
Melissa works as a mindset coach for entrepreneurs who want to make a big impact with their business, but need help getting out of their own way.
Prior to that she got a PhD in Clinical and Health Psychology, lived and worked in several countries, and has supported clients from all over the globe. As a former therapist, Melissa harnesses her 15 years of experience working in the field of mental and behavioral health when working with her clients.
She’s also the co-founder of the Location Independent Therapists (LIT) Community.
You can follow Melissa on Instagram.
Please tell us a little bit about your expat journey so far
I grew up in the United States, in the suburbs of Seattle, Washington. With the exception of a few short trips up to Vancouver, Canada I didn’t leave the country until I was 20.
But I had a high school history teacher who really drilled into us the importance of studying abroad so when I went to college/university I knew that I wanted to make sure I studied abroad during my undergraduate degree.
I think my parents were shocked when I told them I wanted to spend 3 months studying in Europe. I did live in the dorms at my college, but it was only 30 minutes away and I came home almost every weekend. Thankfully they didn’t protest at all.
My university had a really unique study abroad program. Thirty students were selected to travel with two of the university professors over a ten week period. During that time we visited several cities in Spain and Germany, and spent a week in Paris and a week in Vienna. We had our classes in cafes, parks, or the hostels we were staying in.
I thought this would be my one adventure abroad before returning to my senior year of college and getting back to working towards my professional career. I had it all planned out. I was studying psychology and I was going to take a couple of years off to strengthen my CV before applying to grad school for my PhD in Clinical Psychology.
But it was already during our first stop in Madrid, Spain and one week into our stay (we stayed 2 weeks there), that my life plans suddenly shifted. I remember the moment really clearly still.
I was sitting in Madrid’s Retiro Park when I suddenly thought to myself, “I want to live here one day.” I barely recognized myself at that moment, but the idea continued to develop throughout the month in Spain and when we left Spain for Paris I wrote in my journal –
“Spain has exceeded my expectations and there is so much more I want to see and learn. Will it motivate me to come back? I hope so. I hope I can read my fond memories in this journal and be motivated to come back—it feels like home.”
So that’s when you first got acquainted with the infamous “should I stay or go?” dilemma?
Yes, this was the first time when the “stay or go” dilemma started for me and I continued to wrestle with it in different ways, and to different intensities, over the next 14 years.
When I got back to Seattle I started studying Spanish for the first time. I tried to continue with my “5 year plan” but I now had a new voice in the back of my head telling me it might not be the right path.
I got the job I wanted at the Children’s hospital after graduating, but even once I started working there I was on the lookout for ways I could get back to Spain. After a year working there I asked for a leave of absence and went to Spain for three months to study at a Spanish language academy.
There’s a whole story there about how I almost didn’t get on the plane.
It was my first time traveling internationally by myself and my anxiety almost got the best of me.
However, it ended up being a good lesson in the importance of doing things when it’s what you deeply desire even though they scare you.
I spent one month in Alicante and two in Madrid. Being back in Madrid only confirmed what I’d already known – I wanted to live there!
About a year and a half later I accepted a job with a program with the Spanish government that helped to place American teachers in bilingual schools.
My plan was to spend one year in Madrid to improve my Spanish and get the need to live abroad out of my system. Well, that one year turned into 10!
I spent seven years in Madrid and three in the Netherlands thereafter.
During my first year in Madrid I started volunteering for the professor who was researching eating disorders and this opened up a number of professional doors for me, including the chance to pursue my master’s and PhD in Clinical and Health Psychology at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, which is where she was a faculty member.
What was it like living abroad for the first time?
I didn’t have an easy time adjusting to life abroad – in fact I recall googling “is homesickness normal” just a couple of months into my stay there.
In some ways I’m surprised I made it through my first year because it was so difficult. The “stay or go” dilemma was almost always somewhere in the back of my mind.
“Was I making the right decision? Would I regret this? What if something happened to my family? What was I doing with my life?”
Something always seemed to convince me to stay. I wanted to see what else Spain had in store for me.
I’d started dating a Spanish guy. I’d made friends. I had lots of exciting professional opportunities. I could improve my Spanish. Grad school was cheaper.
And there was also always the fact that despite all of the challenges of life in Spain, and the doubts about if it was the best choice, when I considered moving back home I had absolutely no idea what I’d do with myself there.
This was an interesting time in my life because on the outside it looked like I was building a life for myself in Spain and setting myself up to stay there forever – my boyfriend and I moved in together and got a domestic partnership, I applied to start my PhD project after my master’s, and I decided to start the 2 year process of having my undergraduate degree recognized in Spain so I could work as a therapist.
However, I always had a nagging feeling in the back of my head that I didn’t want to stay there forever.
I had a really tough time the second year of my master’s program. Looking back I think I was depressed. I’d sleep in really late, stopped socializing, and would often burst into tears.
It put a lot of pressure on the relationship I was in. I think we both started to think I was staying in Spain just because of him. A lot of the time I thought that must be the case because it didn’t really make sense to build a career in psychology if I ever wanted to move back to the U.S. Psychology is not a very portable career.
Most of the time I avoided thinking about it by throwing myself into work and my master’s, but it would pop up in random moments.
Was there a breaking point that forced you to deal with this question head on?
The summer after my master’s program I went home to Seattle to help my sister with her wedding.
My partner was planning to come the week of the wedding and afterwards we’d planned a trip together all through Alaska. A week before the wedding he called me on Skype and said, “Melissa, I can’t do this.”
I was in shock. He was breaking up with me. And in the style of a teenager! I would never have expected this from a 30+ year old man who I had shared a home with for the past two years.
There I was with the “stay or go” dilemma right in front of my face. I’d always assumed if we broke up it would be an obvious answer – I’d move back to the U.S., but now that I had it in front of me I wasn’t so sure.
My life was in Spain. I’d lived in Madrid for 4 years by that point. I’d just started my PhD project.
But life in Spain was now full of so many unknowns – where would I live? How would I make enough money to live on my own? Who would my friends be? (my friends at this point were mostly his as my expat friends had all moved away by that point).
Before this, my family had always wanted me to move back home and hadn’t been shy about saying it, but at this time they were incredibly supportive of me making whatever choice I needed.
One day my sister shared some advice with me that she’d heard on a talk show that morning – “when life takes a left turn, don’t make any sudden choices.”
She told me she thought I should go back to Spain and take some time there before I made a choice whether or not I wanted to move home. So that’s what I did.
How did your things pan out once you were back in Spain?
I got on a plane at the end of the summer and stepped into what felt like a gaping hole of uncertainty. It was one of the toughest periods of my life.
Thankfully, at this point I decided to reach out to a therapist and because of that, and a number of other things, it also ended up being one of the richest and most rewarding periods of my life.
I created a life in Madrid that was better aligned with what I wanted. I realized that I’d always considered myself an “accidental expat” since I’d never meant to spend so many years abroad.
I used this time to shift my mindset into being more intentional about the life I lived and intentional with my choice to live abroad.
A year later I even started a blog called “Intentional Expat” based on this mindset shift.
One of the most popular blog posts on it was about the ‘stay or go’ dilemma (read it here) where I recommended that instead of thinking about where the grass was greener, you could instead focus on where you wanted to water the grass.
I had decided to water the grass in Madrid for the time being.
I realized that up until that point I had been afraid to tell my friends and family that I was abroad because I wanted to be. I’d hidden behind my relationship, or grad school, and had used them as the excuses for why I was in Madrid.
I had to have some hard conversations with family, especially my mom, when I told her I didn’t know if I was ever going to move home.
Things really just fell into place in this period. I’d done all of my clinical training to specialize in treating eating disorders and I assumed I’d focus on that as a therapist and would work in Spanish, but I found a job opportunity to work in English at a clinic that specialized in offering therapy to the expat community.
I suddenly had even more of a reason to stay in Spain because I could do really meaningful work there (as opposed to English teaching which is how I’d earned an income up to that moment).
And then another “stay or go” dilemma came up for you. What were the circumstances around that?
We have to fast-forward to five years later. I was now living in the Netherlands.
I’d faced another stay-or-go dilemma with that move, but I’d decided to relocate to the Netherlands with my boyfriend at the time, Jose. He’s originally from Venezuela, but had lived in Madrid for a decade himself and he’d received a great job offer in the Netherlands.
After dating for two years we moved to Amsterdam together and shortly after got engaged.
During this time I’d also become an aunt and that pull to move back to Seattle and be close to my family, especially my new nephew, was really weighing on me.
Right before our wedding I attended a 5-day training called the “Mindful Self-Compassion” program. I’d wanted to take this course for the past five years – ever since one of my classmates from my Master’s program informed me that the same course had been instrumental in helping her connect with her own answer to the “stay or go” dilemma. Afterwards she’d decided to change her original plan to stay in Spain and complete her PhD and to instead return home to Mexico.
The course was incredibly transformative and helped me to connect with a sense of home inside of me that I could tap into, wherever in the world I went.
It also helped me to really separate myself from what others wanted me to do, as well as how I might be judged if I said goodbye to living abroad.
Instead, I could really tap into what I deeply wanted my life to be about, and where I wanted it to unfold. For the first time I had a real sense of clarity that it was time to go back to Seattle.
There were still a lot of hurdles to overcome. First, I had to get Jose on the same page as me which was difficult because he really wanted to continue living in Europe. I felt a lot of guilt for trying to encourage him to move to my country, and also a lot of fear about what might happen if it didn’t end up working out for us in Seattle.
I also had to figure out what I’d do with my career because I wouldn’t be able to easily work as a psychologist back in the U.S. But once I’d made the decision that I wanted to go, the pieces just sort of fell into place (albeit slower than I would have liked!).
Jose got a great job offer that helped convince him that this was a great choice and his friends and family gave him the advice to move closer to family since we were considering having kids in the next few years.
Seattle would mean being closer to my parents and in a closer time zone to his (they’re in Costa Rica). As for my job, I decided to pivot into providing coaching. I could write an entire blog just on that decision, but it’s been a really great fit.
What was your repatriation experience like?
Repatriation was actually much smoother than I could have imagined. I’d worked with a lot of clients going through the process so I knew how difficult it could be.
What I realized is that repatriation is tough when you think it shouldn’t be tough.
If you prepare for it like any other big transition and expect that it will take you time to adjust and make it your home, then it will be a much smoother process.
I really tried to think of moving back to the U.S. as moving to another new country (with the added benefit of my family and many friends now only a drive away).
I also made sure I said goodbye well to Europe so that I could really close that chapter before starting a new one. There were definitely a lot of tears, and wondering if we’d made the right choice, but I think that’s an inevitable part of it too.
One other thing that’s helped is that I’ve really tried to hold on to my “global citizen” identity. Living abroad changes you, others might not get that, and that’s ok.
Finally, I didn’t view this move as a “forever” move. It might be, but I don’t know. If, in the future, going abroad is the right choice for our family then that’s what we’ll do.
As a final question, What advice would you give your past self?
Looking back on all the years I battled with the “stay or go dilemma,” I realize that everytime I asked myself “is it time to move home now?” there was always something inside of me that ultimately said “not yet.”
In those tough moments I did what I’ve done in other challenging times of my life, I promised myself I’d one day write the story of these struggles.
Last year I started working on a book about my time abroad and how it helped me ultimately find a home inside of myself.
I think when we move abroad it’s an invitation not only to go on an outward journey, but to also go on an inner journey.
I think deep down I knew my inner journey wasn’t over yet, which is why I stayed abroad. And then, one day, it was.
I don’t mean there isn’t more inner work to do. I think that’s a lifelong journey!
But I think life abroad taught me what it had intended and then it was time for new lessons, this time closer to the home I grew up in.
Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat of 15 years. Based on her professional and personal experience as well as PhD research, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, whether to move back home or where to settle down.