I remember touring colleges as a senior in high school. Every tour guide and admissions counselor touted their colleges’ excellent study abroad programs. The statistics were off the charts–50% of juniors go abroad or nearly 80% of this year’s junior class studied off-campus. Great, I thought, Obviously I’ll do the same. Three years later, when it was finally time to make a decision as a sophomore at Kenyon, my thoughts were more or less the same. Everybody goes abroad. The people that don’t? Lame. Afraid. After all, I am a French literature, Anthropology double major. We are globally minded. We are supposed to do these types of things.
With these notions blindly leading the way, I set about choosing my program. Going to France as a French major? Psh. Typical. Europe was decidedly not for me. Having previously studied various parts and aspects of Africa with great interest (and keeping my language requirement in mind), I looked to the vast continent with a population of over a billion people for answers. I narrowed my options down to a program in Senegal and a program in Madagascar–two nations with French as an official language. I eventually dismissed the Senegal program after a friend referred to it as a “white kids in Africa kind of deal” due to its vague focus. Madagascar it was.
I attended the OCS meeting in the spring of sophomore year. I sat smugly in the back row of Philomathesian, exchanging irritated glances with my friends, wondering why I was required to waste the precious hours of a Sunday afternoon discussing a trip I wouldn’t embark on for another four months. I remember when Marne Ausec from Global Engagement talked about the culture shock curve. I remember when she recounted the various emails she had received from students pleading to come home. She warned, “Some of you will come home.” Not me, I thought. That will never be me.
But it was me.
Two and a half weeks into my program, I was holed up in my home-stay bedroom, sobbing. I’m a failure. Why can’t I do this? I berated myself constantly. But this self-lashing was all too familiar–and that recognition scared me even more. Major depression has shadowed me for much of my life. A stereotypically trippy come-to-Jesus moment last fall made me realize that I had simply forgotten how to be happy, and I sought help and medication soon after. As I laid on my bed at my home-stay, knocked into lethargy by an emergency Xanax, I realized that my depression was suddenly back at its zenith, and that it had brought it’s nasty friend called “anxiety” to play. I felt myself sliding down the spiral of despair with a one way ticket to rock bottom. My invisible assailant was back.
I could rationalize what was happening. I told myself, It‘s just culture shock. It’s just the language barrier. It will go away. But it didn’t. No matter how interested I was in the Malagasy people and culture, I was powerless to overthrow my depression. I became defensive. For the first time, I lost my faithful sense of humor. I realized that what I was feeling wasn’t merely culture shock. No amount of tough love could help me swallow it. I needed help.
Something that no program discusses in its happy handout is that going abroad at this point in your life might not be the right choice. They don’t mention that many mental health disorders peak or emerge at this time in our lives. Likewise, given the powerful stigmas that surround both study abroad and mental health, you will be hard pressed to find an honest discussion of others’ emotional experiences while off campus.
Fortunately for me, Kenyon–my safe space–accepted me with open arms and has allowed me to complete the remainder of the semester on the hill. When I decided to return, I imagined that my depression would disappear with my arrival at Kenyon. Just as I had underestimated everything about my abroad experience, I overestimated my ability to bounce back. Depression and anxiety do not simply “take a hike” when you want them to–or when you expect them to.
I don’t wish to undermine the enrichment that comes from a successful off-campus study experience. I’m glad I took a chance–I learned loads about myself and Madagascar in those two and a half weeks. However, I do wish for those who are considering going abroad to honestly examine themselves, and the stigmas that weigh on all of us. Pay heed to the things you simply cannot prepare for, such as coping with different gender roles or living in a rigidly hierarchical society. These things are easy to brush off before you leave, but inescapable once you arrive.
Depression and anxiety are invisible aggressors that are just as painful and true as a broken limb.To not address issues of mental health in the discourse of study abroad is to do a disservice to ourselves and to our peers. Going abroad had real, lasting consequences for my health.
So I came back–and that’s ok.