Sarah Lawrence has a particular culture surrounding the study abroad experience. Studying abroad feels like the expected choice for junior year. The school certainly endorses the decision with less and less room for its students on campus and a growing interest in expansion. The normative aspects of study abroad helped me in ways – it encouraged me to apply early for programs, actively seek out financial aid and approach seemingly large changes as a normal step in my college path. These normalizing structures, however, left me slightly underprepared for what can be the more challenging side of study abroad. The London School of Economic’s international emphasis and highly competitive entry rates made me feel like it was somehow a magical place of personal fulfillment, academic success and a year of clarity in which I would finally meet the glowing, successful, self-actualized twenty year old me. This, of course, was not everyone’s expectation, but the combination of promise and encouragement as well as the mystery of another geographic location made me ignore any other kind of preparation, particularly in the well being sector. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I got hella depressed.
I don’t know why I got depressed. I don’t know if it will happen to you. But I do know, coming out on the other end of my time abroad, that there are some things to think about before going away.
I wish someone had told me everything was going to be so goddamn expensive. At first, I was confident in my ability to budget myself on the money I had made over the summer. However, I underestimated my already prevalent anxiety over spending money, exacerbated by guilt associated with being social rather than prioritizing my work. Focusing on making the bigger aspects of studying abroad financially viable, I didn’t really consider that “taking advantage” of being abroad and traveling would not be easy options for me when the exchange rate doubled almost every purchase.
I make no claims that SLC is a perfect place. We have a lot of work to do. Still, my time at LSE has been spent learning how to avoid a whole new political class I have never had to deal with before. Subjecting yourself to debates with posh British finance majors about their economic liberalism isn’t a cultural experience, it’s just grueling.
Being abroad can be really, really lonely. Not making friends didn’t feel like an option to me. If I didn’t make friends, my entire year was a waste. I wasted my money, my time and my effort only to prove my degenerative personhood in a new country, and of course, being so hard on myself pushed people away. Isolation is a normal part of being abroad that most people, especially on SLC curated programs, don’t really talk about. Isolation is okay, but unexpected and can be debilitating.
Going forward, the most important thing I learned is that it’s okay to be depressed.
It doesn’t happen for one reason or another, and struggling to hide the way you feel will only make it worse. Hiding my depression made me feel like I didn’t belong, never would, and had somehow arrived abroad by some huge clerical mistake. My parents and friends questions about my experience felt like expectations – “Have you made any friends yet? Do you love the city? How is your dorm?” felt crippling when all I wanted to say was “Everything is terrible and I am a garbage human”. But the reality is that it’s hard to dig yourself out of the hole of depression yourself, and once I started talking about my experience I stopped feeling like I was carrying around a ten-pound sack of poop. This experience is yours, and if you are depressed that is a part of the experience as much as Big Ben. Embrace your little depression monster, and allow yourself to care and cope, whatever that means in a new place.
I wish I was kinder to myself before I left. It can be important to set goals, but even more so is harboring flexibility. Abroad was unknown. For me, not knowing means setting my expectations of achievement at an impossibly high goal under the guise of “shoot for the moon and you will land among the stars.” However, when the moon is “being better” it’s hard to not see the stars as “being worse”. Landing off target isn’t wrong, it’s just somewhere else.
Flying into London a few weeks ago, I felt for the first time relief in the city that had previously embodied my depression. Maybe it’s the change in weather, spring time is creeping up and it doesn’t get dark at 3pm anymore. I feel grateful for the time I’ve spent here, regardless of the pain. I’m happy I could work through it and get to a point where London isn’t just the place where I got depressed, it’s the place where I got over my depression, at least for now.
Learning to be kind to myself even on the worst days of depression has given me more power than anything the London School of Economics could have. From abroad to home, sadness and empowerment go hand in hand. I think I’m okay with it for now.
Featured image by Stephanie Permut