November last year, at a time when I was really, really struggling here in Ottawa and confiding in very few people as to just how much that was the case, I wrote a post that I never ended up publishing. Fear of being too personal, and honestly a sense of shame as well, meant that it sat in my drafts, gathering dust. The only explicit mention of me feeling ‘down’ on this blog while I’ve been abroad was in another post, The One That’s a Bit of Downer, and even in that I injected as much optimism and enthusiasm as I could muster. That was at the end of September, around week 5, when the honeymoon glow of Moving to Canada had started to dim and I was beginning to feel a bit homesick. From mid-October into early December however, as the nights grew colder and the days shorter, I began to feel honestly pretty shit.
Okay, ‘shit’ is an understatement. I felt terrible.
This was not a consistent emotion throughout this period of course; I had an amazing trip to Algonquin, a fabulous long weekend in Québec City, and plenty to write home about and share on social media. But nonetheless, for a good stretch of time, my mental health was not doing so great. I would have successive days where I’d wake up, stare at my ceiling and think to myself, “what the hell do I think I am I doing here?”. Days when I missed my family and dog and friends back home so acutely I would literally cry; days when I wanted nothing more than to quit basketball, call it a day with what felt like the constant upward struggle to try and make friends and just curl up in bed alone; days when Emily would invite me for a walk or a stroll into town and I’d drag myself out, acutely aware of the poor company I was providing. Days when I’d cry not simply because I was sad, but because I was sad on my year abroad. This was supposed to be fun.
But mental health doesn’t pay mind to things like ‘once in a lifetime opportunities’ and ‘moving 5,000 km away from all your established support networks’. When it wants to shit all over your carefully constructed plans and dreams, it will do just that.
Now, in the present moment, that time isn’t much fun to think about it. It happened, it sucked, it’s over. I’ve absolutely loved my second semester here, and with the benefit of several months distance, I can now appreciate how that trying time in late fall made my successes and enjoyable experiences more recently all the more powerful. With a summer chock-a-full of travelling and the prospect of reunions with family and friends, right now, even if it’s currently snowing outside (it’s MAY CANADA, M A Y I TELL YOU), I feel on top of the world. I’ve made it through this year, and it’s been one of the most challenging and formative experiences of my life.
Knowing this now makes reading back on the post that’s been sitting in my drafts since November last year all the more fascinating. I can remember my sadness, my disappointment, the crushing feeling that my expectations could not, and would not, be met. I remember it vividly re-reading this, so much so it makes hard reading, and can’t believe I was ever so certain, so convinced that my year would stay on the path that it felt like I had taken. Such is the pervasive and insidious power of a Poor Headspace.
I’m sharing this post now because not only is it interesting, but I think it’s important. It’s important to be honest for myself, but also to you, reading this, and to any other student considering a year abroad who ends up on this blog. There is a staggering amount of expectation surrounding what a year abroad will be like, and I think it’s important to make sure the bad as well as the good is recognised. It’s important to know that even though I won’t hesitate for a second now to say I don’t have a single regret about choosing to do this year, there were times when I felt decidedly different. A year is a long time, with plenty of chance for opinions and experiences to change. And if you’re feeling like this now on your year, have hope. It can get better; it did for me.
The One With Confronting Expectation
Okay, real talk: this year abroad has not gone how I expected it to.
The present is a tricky little bugger, isn’t it? It’s hard to talk about things as they’re happening I find. I think that’s why I was never great at keeping a diary, or at least, keeping a half-decent one. Hindsight is a wonderful helper; in talking about day to day goings-on it sometimes feels like it’s difficult to gain a sense of perspective.
Three months into this year however, I feel I can now start to look back on things with a bit more perspective.
And this is the reality; my year abroad has so far definitely not been the best experience of my life, and I doubt that fact will change over the coming months.
The other day, all year abroaders received an email from Exeter’s International Office. It was a call for year abroad blogs, like this one. In the space of a short email, our year abroads were referred to as a ‘fantastic time’, full of ‘amazing things’ we would be busy doing. The blogs would be advertised, we were told, to ‘inspire future students’ about our ‘adventures’ that the international team back in ‘rainy old Exeter’ were jealous of.
I’ve received messages from friends via Facebook and comments on Instagram throughout my year of a very similar ilk.
“looks like you’re having a fab time on your year abroad! “
“dude I’m so jel of all your adventures”
“wooooow that sounds absolutely incred im so so so jel”
“Canada looks awesome ”
These are all literal quotes from my lovely, supportive friends. And I had expected as much, because I had once been in their shoes, envious of the third year living it up in Brisbane, of the girl who’d met her lovely, American boyfriend on a semester abroad.
I was once one of those ‘future students’ that the Exeter Abroad team wanted our help advertising to. I was once at Open Days loitering near the study abroad stands and filling free tote bags with leaflets emblazoned with sunsets over Sydney and face-painted Freshers at American football games. For me, the year abroad has been a light at the end of my education experience since I was about 16. I didn’t take a gap year, and although I knew I’d be studying, this year would basically act as one; and I was desperately, overwhelmingly excited. Look back on my earlier posts from this year, and you’ll quickly get an idea for how keen I was about the whole thing. I started this blog in April for starters.
I wanted that ‘fantastic time’, that ‘adventure’ in a new place, the chance to travel, to expand my social group, to ingratiate myself in another culture, to blog about it all in a cheery, action-packed way that might make its way onto future promotions for year abroaders. When I started my degree, the ‘study’ part started to factor in a little more; I wanted to broaden my academic experience, learn the same history from a very different perspective, and have a chance to lengthen my learning process without the debt and hassle of doing a Masters. When my application for Ottawa was approved, my excitement was compounded; I had high hopes of making lifelong friends, maybe even finding myself in a relationship, of becoming an amazing basketball player and wowing the Canadians with my (previously untapped) skills, I dreamed of creating a year’s worth of happy memories that would culminate in the deserved title of my year abroad as ‘the best year of my life.’
But as much as I appreciate now that I have had some very cool adventures and had the chance to explore a new city very different from ‘rainy old Exeter’, I do feel the upfront presentation of the year abroad as a glorified holiday/gap year is a wholly inaccurate one. Going into this I felt very well-informed. Knowing I wanted this as such a big goal meant that I’d had plenty of time to do my research. I followed blogs of students in my countries of interest, I went to all the International Office meetings, I read countless articles on ThirdYearAbroad.com. Now, I’m not saying the difficulties of year abroads never came up; I did find posts about homesickness, articles disputing the ‘best year of my life’ slogan that seems to follow this experience around. What I am saying is that they were, and are still, certainly not the focus. And understandably; me writing about rain in Ottawa, a day of boring classes and acutely missing my dog isn’t interesting reading or good advertisment. But it is reality.
And this reality is exactly what wasn’t talked about on the beautifully presented stalls at university Open Days, on the testimonies appearing on university websites presented on backdrops of Australian sunsets. I feel it’s briefly touched on as a ‘challenge’ in most of the rhetoric, but that challenge is presented more in a “overcome your fear of heights to bungee jump off this incredible bridge in New Zealand” way, as opposed to the challenge of “learning how to get round foreign supermarkets and find decent deals when the value of the pound has plummeted post-Brexit and nothing makes sense anymore.”
I think I was aware of the difficult aspects, the inevitable ‘challenge’, but I was also far, far too caught up in the enviable instagrams, the mental images of sorority-style social groups and the idea of being hailed as the ‘cute British one’ everywhere I went. And maybe, a part of me knew that for some it was hard – but I had decided that just wouldn’t happen to me. I’d wanted this for too long, worked too hard, for it to be a letdown.
But a bit of a letdown it has been. Although, I think that with the enormous expectation generated – from both myself and the whole advertised ideal of the ‘year abroad’ that was perpetuated by social media, the university and family and friends – a letdown was inevitable.
Because the truth is that while I have been having a wonderful time exploring new places, and really do love Ottawa, and training with a varsity team is an intense but wholly North American experience, and that most of my classes are really fascinating and I’m grateful for the opportunity to study the content – I was, and this is so, so hard to admit – in actual fact much happier in my dodgy, student house back in Exeter, munching on bargain M&Ms and taking £2 train tickets to the beach.
It feels silly to say that, and it sounds spoilt too. I am fully aware of how very, very lucky I am. This opportunity is not available to all – it’s a combination of hard work academically and financial support. My family are able to come out and visit me for Christmas, and I’m able to travel like I can because of savings. But coming to terms with how I am very much not in a stable, happy place with plenty of new friends has been a hard one.
It has left me feeling deflated, disappointed, and honestly, a little like a failure. The experience itself on paper is incredible; what am I doing so badly wrong?
I’m aware that some people may indeed happen along the best year of their life. These are probably the experiences that feature on the front page of year abroad websites. Perhaps they completely luck out, falling into friendship groups or ideal accommodation or realising they don’t miss home at all. Some may even find that they want to move to their year abroad location permanently after graduation, having found a country that feels more like home than the UK does. Not to generalize, but I feel this is the minority.
Being in the position I am has given me a new insight – the most interesting being that I can now read through the lines of other year abroad testimonies. A girl whose most enjoyable experience was her best friend coming to visit perhaps struggled to make friends there; a guy who only talks about the travelling and how great it was probably didn’t love his classes.
This is not to be totally down. Ups and downs happen just like at university at home, but they’re exacerbated. It’s a bit like doing first year all over again but an ocean away from family and friends and without any familiarity of the supermarket you are now feeding yourself from. I don’t want to present a tale of woe and misery – I still feel the year abroad can present some once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, especially if you haven’t had much travel experience before. I am beyond grateful I’ve been able to explore Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, Niagara Falls – all since August. I still feel I’ll benefit in the long-term from having to take on this whole new level of independence, away from the support network I rely on at home. I still love this city, wandering to Parliament and watching the weather for snow and my classes on the American election from a very Canadian perspective. But it has been hard, bloody hard. 3 months in I know already this is without doubt going to be the hardest year of my life so far. And I honestly think advertising it as anything less is doing a disservice to the very valuable life-lesson experience of a year abroad, and is unfair to the potential students considering undertaking this momentous decision.
With this in mind, I think it’s important for me to get out of this shame/failure funk, and not let disappointment drag me down. Year abroads are unique experiences, you’re going to learn, going to try new things, and going to discover things about yourself; but they are ultimately just continuations of your life.
To any future potential year abroaders reading this – you may well have read down to this sentence, eyebrow raised, and click away from the page, thinking firmly, “well, sucks to be her that she’s miserable, but that’s not going to happen to me.” The thing is, this is exactly what I did, on stumbling across the few posts I did that talked about the reality of how hard a year abroad can be. I urge you to keep this in mind. I don’t want to be a downer on the whole experience, but I do desperately want to emphasize the reality of it. In this way, you hopefully won’t be as plagued by the difficulty of confronting failed expectations as I have been.
A year abroad teaching in France will not make you fluent in the language. Take social media with a pinch (actually, no, more like a tablespoon) of salt; people. rarely. post. about. their. shit. days, especially on years abroad. Remember this and remind yourself of it constantly. Don’t let your way of keeping in touch with loved ones become toxic.
Take the year abroad for what it is, and make the best of it you can. It doesn’t need to, and won’t necessarily, be the ‘best year of your life’. Ultimately, it’s just another year. Hopefully, you’ll be around for 60 or so more of them in your lifetime. This is not the be all and end all. It certainly isn’t going to be for me, as much as I’d had dreams of the contrary. And as I’m realising, that’s okay.
See what I mean?
It’s so strange to think how very, very sad I felt at this time. It’s like Tess Going Through A Bad Mental Health episode is a completely different person. But (and I know Past-Me will hate me for saying this) I’m glad in some ways I did feel like this, just for a bit. Because my goodness me has it made me grateful for how much things looked up.
I now can also fully appreciate that my year may not have improved. It may have actually been pretty awful the whole way through, I might have felt awful the whole way through, but I also finally know now that there is no shame or weakness or failure if that had been the case. Fortunately however, as it is, it has been overall an amazing year. I like to think that part of that was because of the realisation I had in November, in that post I never published. The realisation that there was no external pressure for me to love my year; it was all coming from me, and what I’d picked up from social media and the international office.
Now, if you’d ask me to describe my year abroad, I could offer up a whole host of adjectives; challenging, eye-opening, humbling, once-in-a-lifetime, difficult, incredible, awesome.
But the ‘best year of the my life’? I don’t think it’s a relevant, or useful turn of phrase. Because if this year has taught me anything, it’s that I’ve got a whole lot of living still to do.