Living abroad does not make us immune to depression or the impact that our unresolved childhood wounds can have on how we operate as adults.
As the old saying goes, wherever you go, there you are.
It’s a lesson that Camille, a French two-time expat, learned during her first expat experience in New Zealand. And it’s a lesson that I have personally also learned, and faced head on – strangely enough also while living in New Zealand.
Although it is rarely talked about how expat life can exacerbate the need to work on ourselves, it’s a topic that deserves a whole lot more attention than it is given today.
With that in mind, I am deeply grateful to Camille for sharing her very personal and highly important story on taking care of her mental health and finding herself while living abroad. As her experience shows, addressing her wounds put her on a radically different path, a path that was ultimately much better aligned with her true self.
Please introduce yourself to the readers – who are you, where have you lived before and where do you find yourself living now?
My name is Camille and I am French. I currently live in central Scotland and I work as a jeweller in a workshop in Glasgow. I came to Scotland to follow my British boyfriend, whom I met in France and had a postdoc position here.
But before meeting him I lived a little bit under 3 years in New Zealand. I arrived at first with a working holiday visa, planning to stay for 6 months to a year. I just wanted to improve my English and get some work experience abroad. I ended up staying for a lot longer but ultimately chose to repatriate to France. It’s while being back in France that I met my boyfriend.
We were together for only 8 months when he moved back to the UK. I had just finished a jewellry course and had nowhere specific to go, so I thought I could give this lovely relationship a chance by moving to Scotland too.
I moved to Scotland but to a different town than my boyfriend, got my own flat and settled there on my own. My only difficulty was finding a job in jewellery as I had no real experience (only a few weeks of internship) and a diploma which doesn’t mean anything in this country.
After a few months I finally found a job down in England, which was probably the worst work experience of my life. But I learned a lot through that and, most importantly, I got a very important first work experience in the country.
Then I lost the job after 6 months, moved back to Scotland, moved in with my boyfriend and immediately found another jewellery job here. I am now very happy here.
When was it that the question “should I stay or go?” became relevant for you?
The first time I asked myself that question I was living in New Zealand and I knew deep down that it was time to leave. But I wasn’t quite ready yet and it took a little longer for me to admit that I had to go back to France.
How I came to that realization is a longer story.
New Zealand is very safe, very small in terms of population and it feels like a big village. I loved living in such a place where you do not need to lock your door when you leave the house; where if you lose your bank card someone is going to bring it back to you somehow; where you’re sheltered from the rest of the world’s problems.
But, a few months after living in New Zealand, I realized that I was suffering from severe depression.
The country itself had very little impact on the reasons for my depression, but living there acted as an eye opener about myself. I realized I was carrying around unresolved issues from my childhood which were affecting my self-confidence and my relation to others.
Previously, rather than dealing with my problems, I always chose to move elsewhere, start again, and try burying all those feelings as deep as possible within me.
“But once I saw that I was dealing with the exact same issues in NZ, a country I chose and loved, it became clear that my issues were not coming from my environment but from myself.”
I chose to heal and work on myself from there on out. Thanks to the amazing people who helped me and supported me through my recovery process, I got to a point where I was feeling much better and was very much enjoying my life there.
However, by learning more about myself I started to realize a little bit more about what I wanted in life (professionally and personally).
For instance, I realized that I was too scared to do the thing I liked. I had studied applied arts and graphic design but gave up on that because of a lack of confidence. So I always worked in hospitality because I found that much easier.
When my self-confidence began to grow little by little, I thought I could go back to something more creative. I found a great evening jewellery course and decided I wanted to do that for a living (which what I do now also).
I slowly realized that those aspirations would be difficult to achieve in New Zealand, although not impossible.
I was also missing my family a lot.
After 2 years in New Zealand I went back home to visit my family for the first time since I had arrived – I was in France for 6 weeks.
“Maybe because I went from summer in Europe back to winter in New Zealand, or maybe it was just jetlag, but it was difficult to get back into my life. I thought this feeling was going to pass and I just had to get back to my routine. But this feeling never passed.”
Instead, it grew even stronger with time. That’s how that song “Should I stay or should I go” got stuck in my head.
You mentioned that the first time you thought about moving back to France you were not ready to do it yet. Why do you think you were not ready?
I was especially worried to go back to France as the terrorist attacks happened while I was down under. Europe didn’t seem to be a nice place compared to where I was.
“I was also scared about having to start from scratch again and I didn’t completely believe that I could do it. For a long time it just seemed safer and more comfortable to stay where I was.”
I thought I was happy with my life in New Zealand so I didn’t expect to start questioning all of it. But when I realized I was missing my family more than I thought, I started to have a bunch of questions I needed answers to:
- Could I afford to visit France at least once a year?
- If I want to have a family of my own one day, could I see myself being a mum living 18000km from my own family?
- How could I transmit my French/European culture to my future children?
- Could I find a job that fulfills me in New Zealand?
- Could I save enough money to buy a house in New Zealand one day?
- What keeps me in New Zealand?
- Could I find all that I aspire to in France/ Europe instead?
- Would I be able to find support to help me with my mental health issue back home?
Answering most of these questions came with great difficulties.
The salaries are quite low in NZ and the town I was living in was very expensive, so it was difficult to picture having the financial capacity to one day settle down there while still regularly visiting my family.
I also couldn’t really picture myself having a family so far away from my own. I was already missing them a lot so I think it would have been worse if I had chosen to have children there.
Finally, regarding work, I discovered that I could get a grant for a jewellery course back in France, so I knew it would be easier to retrain in France rather than in NZ.
However, I also knew I would not be able to find a lovely support group like the one I had in NZ also back home.
Basically, there were pros and cons to staying and leaving. But family was really my deciding point.
I’m still very impressed when I see people choosing to settle down on the other side of the world. I know now that is not for me.
What scared you the most about the thought of starting over in France?
French administration and the mentality of French people. French people are quite famous for moaning, complaining and not being the most open-minded.
I was also scared about not getting accepted into the jewellery course – I honestly couldn’t think of a good plan B.
What was the repatriation experience actually like in the end?
I still found hearing a lot of moaning and complaining quite draining and playing on my mood. However, I mostly met extremely open-minded people once I was back in France.
Even though I did also meet some people who couldn’t accept thinking a bit outside of the box, there were only a handful of those and I chose to ignore them.
With administration I only had a few difficulties with some paperwork. It turned out that the country had improved a lot – a lot more things can be done online now – so it was easier than I expected, and everything went pretty smooth for me.
What’s more, when I moved back to France, 2 years had passed since my depression so I had learned a lot about myself and I had some tools in case I didn’t feel well. I got into a meditation routine when I first got back. That helped me a lot because repatriating was a big change to process.
I think I was sad at first because I had voluntarily left a country and a lot of people that I truly loved. But I had the jewellery course to look forward to so I knew I was moving in the right direction.
“The most difficult was maybe trying to stay true to myself, this new version of me, when my friends and relatives were expecting to find the old Camille.”
I had to set boundaries with them and with myself for my own sake, to never again find myself in familiar damaging life patterns.
I think going back to France was the necessary Step 2 in my recovery process.
After learning to deal with myself in New Zealand, I had to go back to France to face my home environment and the problems I had fled.
“I don’t think I would have had a good second expatriation to Scotland without this important step of coming home for a while.”
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.