Repatriation: 5 mistakes I wish I hadn’t made

Repatriation: 5 mistakes I wish I hadn't madeLast week’s post was fun; I got to pat myself on the back for doing 5 things right when I repatriated. I’d love to leave you with the impression that I handled it all like a pro, but I made myself a promise to examine all aspects of expat life in this blog — the good, the bad, and the ugly. So here are 5 things I did that didn’t turn out quite so well:

1. I thought re-entry shock only affected other people. Stupid. Naïve. Maybe a little arrogant? However you want to look at it, this was a mistake. (A surprisingly common one, as it turns out.) I had read everything I could get my hands on about re-entry shock, but I assumed it applied to expats who’d been out of their passport country for years and years or had gone completely native. I’d only been gone five measly years and I took a month-long home leave every summer. Re-entry shock? Not me! Now I know that while some people have an easier time of it than others, re-entry shock is like Alcatraz: no one escapes.

2. I thought repatriation would be like home leave, only longer. Oh, please. Where did I get such a crazy idea? Before I got married, I never thought marriage would be like a honeymoon, only longer. There’s just no excuse for this one; I really should have known better.

3. I catastrophized. “I’m the biggest idiot on the planet.” “I’ll never ever do anything interesting again, as long as I live.” Catastrophizing — thinking in worst-case scenarios (or as Psych Central puts it, “striking out in your mind before you even get to the plate”) — is a type of disordered thinking that can lead you right down the rabbit hole of self-pity, hopelessness, and depression. It can also keep you from making decisions or taking action, because if every option is catastrophic, why bother? Now that I’ve regained some perspective, I can see that setbacks are a normal part of life and aren’t necessarily fatal. I’m also 80% 95% 90% sure I’m not the biggest idiot on the planet.

4. I isolated myself. It’s so easy to make friends in a large expat community. In Singapore I couldn’t go five minutes without tripping over someone new and interesting. For an introvert, I had one helluva social life. Now that I’m back home, I find it harder to connect with my old friends (they’re busy), and even harder to make new ones (I’m shy). The early days of repatriation ended up being just like the early days of expatriation: husband at work every day, kids at school every day, and me catastrophizing (see #3), brooding (see #5), and becoming increasingly isolated from my fellow humans. Now I make a point of going out and having fun with people who aren’t related to me by blood or marriage. I figure I need all the feel-good hormones I can get.

5. I brooded. Like many women (and particularly many neurotic women), I have what’s called a ruminative cognitive style. (If you know that ruminants are animals that eat food, regurgitate it, and eat it again, you’ll see where I’m going with this: Cows chew their cud, and I chew  — endlessly — on negative thoughts.) People with a ruminative cognitive style obsess over these thoughts, from every possible angle. (“I’m lazy. Why am I so lazy? How do I feel about being lazy?”) The sad thing about ruminants (of the human variety) is that they’re stuck on a merry-go-round of misery, too paralyzed by the bad to take any steps toward the good.

What a downer this post has been, eh? Before you start worrying about my mental health (sweet of you, but there’s really no need!), I want to point out that in this case, the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve lived every one of these 10 points — sometimes all in the same day, which is why I’m comfortable writing both “I got social” and “I isolated myself.” (Hey, I’m a complex, multi-faceted, and ever-evolving human being. Deal with it.)

One last thing: depression is rampant within expat communities all over the globe, and repatriates aren’t immune. If you spend your days thinking in catastrophic terms, isolating yourself, and brooding over your shortcomings — without the steadying balance of a shiny, upbeat list like the one I posted last week — for god’s sake, tell someone. It’s normal to feel a little melancholy during a major life transition, but a prolonged period of hopelessness and despair is a sign that something isn’t right.

To learn about the signs, causes, and treatments for depression, visit the Canadian Mental Heath Association website.

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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18 Responses to Repatriation: 5 mistakes I wish I hadn’t made

  1. expateyes says:

    This is such a helpful comment. Although I have never been out of the country for more than six months at a time over our five years of the expat life, I can relate to your perspective on re-entry adjustment, both the positive and the negative. My own experience is one of being in a continual state of transition and fragmentation, which requires lots of mental work to navigate. I will refer to this post at some point on my own blog, which I just recently started- http://expateyes.com.

  2. Terrific, terrific post. Had me laughing, cheering, commiserating and most of all saying ‘hell yeah!’, and I haven’t even repatriated yet! Seriously, I could easily see myself of others I know and love doing similar things. I love that you are telling people the real ‘low down’ of the ups and downs of expat life. So many incredible experiences and opportunities, yet so many transitions and losses (of people, places and things that matter to us). I also think that many non-expats tend to feel similarly blue at various points (e.g., thinking they’re the only ones ‘living lives of quiet desperation’), but they living their lives and shoring themselves up with their friends and family and routines. Expat life can smack you in the face and say ‘bam, you are truly grieving’ even before you even realize that you are. Keep writing because I love reading your stuff, Truth Whisperer.

    • Maria says:

      Truth Whisperer — LOL! You’re my biggest cheerleader, Linda, and I thank you for that.

      I believe that painting a one-sided picture does a disservice to anyone who’s looking for information. How can you make informed decisions if you don’t have the full story? The truth is — and this is only my truth, not a universal one — expat life is full of joy and crap and lots of stuff in between. The same can be said of repatriate life. In fact, I think the same can be said of most things. We’re all grown-ups here, and despite what Jack Nicholson thinks, we CAN SO handle the truth.

  3. Judy says:

    Great post! I’d just like to add a resource for anyone who is suffering from serious depression … Josh Sandoz put together an International Therapist Directory which lists professional mental health therapists who are familiar with the TCK and international expatriate experiences.

  4. Maria says:

    Thanks for the information, Judy. Anything you’d like to add to my list?

  5. gkm2011 says:

    I’ve been in China over four years now and I can relate to this, though I haven’t repatriated yet. If you don’t continually put yourself out there to meet new people you can wind up in a spiral in your head that isn’t the healthiest behavior. Thanks for writing.

    • Maria says:

      I agree that connecting with others is key to good mental health. Not too long ago I read the results of a study claiming that even superficial contact — chatting with the cashier at the grocery store, for example — can improve mood.

  6. Sarah Koblow says:

    Great post, i laughed, cried and nodded my head in empathy for every truth you shared. thanks for giving me a lift just when i needed it most

  7. expatlogue says:

    Fantastic post! Expat life is a rollercoaster ride, emotionally and mentally. Although it is continually challenging, and that in itself causes difficulty, I wonder how I would feel if I no longer lived it. I would imagine there is a kind of grieving process you go through when you decide to re-settle in your home country and trade in the thrills for stability and thrills of a different kind!
    I will never forget my major moment of Catastrophization, when I realised I was too old to ever be like Bear Grylls (watch his TV show, he’s a crazy man – go Google him now!) I felt like life had passed me by while I was shopping for nappies/diapers!
    The best thing about expat life is that you get to keep the insight it gives you into yourself forever. Self knowledge is a valuable quality that no-one else can give you, and no-one can ever take away.

    • Maria says:

      Grief is a big part of the process, but I’m not sure many people realize that’s what is happening to them. We tend to think of grief in terms of losing a loved one, not leaving a lifestyle behind. Yet when you stop being an expat, you lose an aspect of your identity or sense of self — and that’s a hard thing to come to terms with.

  8. expatsinpng says:

    Thanks for the blog post – we are now 7 months in and things are getting MUCH better. It was hard going at first. Always nice to read that the feelings you had/have were normal !!

  9. Dave says:

    I repatriated a year ago after living overseas for 7 years. Although I still go back every month due to them retaining me for part of my old job, I have found repatriation MUCH more difficult and finding myself want to go back there. Any insight into how long this terrible grieving process will take? I feel like I built a life and then left it. 😦

    • Maria says:

      It took me two years. At the one year mark, I was still miserable, but it did get better. It helps to find something new to do, since part of the hell of repatriation is the novelty withdrawal. I have some more posts on repatriation that may also help. Good luck — I know it’s not easy.

      • Emily says:

        I’m so glad I found your blog. I lived overseas fir 7 years, basically my whole adult life thus far. I repatriated with two small kids and a husband. This has by far been the hardest year of my life. It was just recently that I realized I’ve been mourning the life we left behind. I have yet to find anyone who can understand this. All I want to do is go running back. Life here is nothing like I thought it would be. Honestly, it’s only slightly reassuring to know other people have survived it because as you know, this time right now is just so hard. Thanks for sharing your story.

      • Maria says:

        Repat grief is very real — not just for the life you left behind, but for the potential life you could have had as an expat. Non-Repats do find this difficult to understand, and I suppose we can’t really blame them. That’s why making connections with other repatriates is such a relief, and something I encourage you to do. There are a couple of Facebook groups you might want to check out: Re-entry stories, and I Am A Triangle (this one’s for expats and repats). They’re both great resources, full of advice and support from people who have been there. Good luck!

  10. Thanks for this post, very interesting reading.

    I don’t think repatriation is for me… definite culture shock returning to UK, exacerbated by the fact that my support network here is almost non-existent. Friendships are a two-way street, it was bad enough when I was living in Spain (the old case of “out of sight, out of mind”) but no amount of trying to rekindle friendships will actually make it happen. I found integration in Spain hard to begin with due to language and long working hours, but I was just starting to feel comfortable when I found a job back in UK so I returned. It is such a struggle here though that I’m considering returning to Spain & throwing myself into it 100% instead of trying to split myself across multiple jurisdictions (I met my partner abroad and he’s from yet another country!). I wonder if I am just running away constantly but if I go back to Spain soon I can ensure that the support network there doesn’t fail in the way my home country’s network has. Does anyone else feel like this? Being part of a community is important for well-being, isolation can be very destructive and I feel slightly depressed by the whole thing. I’m sure if I stuck it out here then in time I would make some lasting friendships (I have a large number of hobbies which always helps) but I don’t want to go through another year or two of feeling isolated, surrounded by ‘acquaintances’.

    Does anyone else feel like this? I feel that life is too short to be unhappy for extended periods of time… I would be interested to hear other people’s views on this, the importance of feeling ‘normal’ in your own given situation!

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