The Stages of Adjusting after Living Abroad

I know, I know. Two posts in one month; I’m throwing my schedule all out of whack. Bear with me.

Coming home after a period of time living abroad isn’t easy. Things aren’t the same as you remember them, and you aren’t the same person you were before you left. Stepping back into your old life when everyone and everything has moved on can feel like putting on a pinched shoe or like relearning to read. It’s frustrating, uncomfortable, and can hurt.

Added onto that is the emotional sense of loss caused by leaving behind your new, close friends, leaving a city you’ve grown to love, and deserting what had become “normal.”

And making it worse, “re-entry” into American society doesn’t always yield the best shares of support or understanding. The opportunity to live abroad is often seen as just that – an opportunity. It’s an experience that you’re blessed to have been able to have. Of course, certainly, that’s true. At the same time, you’ve worked hard to get there. You sacrificed, risked time and investments, and, very likely, had struggles to overcome while abroad. It’s not been something that fell into your lap or that was easy to accomplish. And when it’s time to move home, as with any other major-life transition (i.e. a new career, becoming a parent, etc.), it should be understandable that the adjustment is difficult at times.

However, to our friends and family at home, it can seem like you’ve been living in a vacation world for the last few months or years (And you can partly understand, thanks to that steady stream of stunning photos on your Facebook and Instagram feeds). In some ways, it might feel that way to you, too.  

Since the concept of coming back from vacation is treated like something you just get over or that isn’t a struggle to move past—that was just a short break from reality and now you’re back to business as usual—you might get left treating your re-entry blues into “real life” on your own.

So, hopefully, this will be helpful for anyone who’s lived abroad and is having a hard time adjusting to being back State-side. You’re not alone.

A picture of a fond memory from my first trip to the Cliffs of Moher, and first weekend in Ireland.

In 2016, I moved to Ireland for graduate school, and I spent the next 2+ years studying, traveling, and making lifelong memories and the dearest of friends. It’s been about six months since I moved back to New Mexico from Ireland, and some days, like today, I’m still struck by re-entry grief.

So, full disclosure, I don’t have this process figured out, but I felt compelled to share what I’ve experienced are the “stages” of repatriation in normal, everyday American life.

Reverse Culture Shock

It’s a thing, y’all.

The moment you step off of your transatlantic flight and into that first airport, everything about your home country is familiar, but in a déjà-vu kind of way.

You recognize everything—the shops, the fast food joints, the accents—it just all feels kind of off, though. Things that you would have previously treated as completely normal are now weird, amusing or shocking.

Your first weeks at home will feel just as weird. It may take some time, but things will begin to normalize.

And that’s another part of the process—recognizing that home is becoming your “normal” again. It’s going to feel like you’re losing hold of the customs and colloquialisms that changed you. That’s part of the “Inevitable Mourning” stage.

Inevitable Mourning

After the disorientation of reverse culture shock starts to fade and the excitement of being home lessens, a new feeling starts to settle on your mind. It may come out as just a bit of a funk, or it may grow into full-blown depression.

For me, at the start, it was super raw and tender. I hadn’t been ready to come home, but wisdom and circumstance made it clear that it was time. That didn’t mean that I didn’t have seriously conflicted emotions about it.

I’d be prone to sudden outbursts of tears, which was pretty horrifying to a person who’s not super comfortable with crying in general.

Even after my initial time back home, I couldn’t bear to look at pictures from my time abroad for a while. The images just brought all of my emotions back to the surface.

[I did find out that the feeling of grief that I experienced on returning the States was common among many returning expats. In an interview by the Wall Street Journal, a family of former-expats describe their own feelings of loss and recommend a book titled, “The Art of Coming Home.”]

Though I didn’t know that my feelings were that common, I did know that they’d have to pass eventually.

Comparison Mode

At some point, or maybe during your entire re-entry process, you’ll be tempted to compare your new home-life against the glories of your time abroad, and you will find it lacking.

Everything in your “other place” was more exciting. Everything was more cultured, more sophisticated. The weather was better, the food was better, the drinks were better. Or at least, that’s how you’re remembering it.

“I can’t believe there’s nothing to do in this town. Why isn’t there any culture? If I was in Ireland, I’d be going to a concert, or a football match, or a hurling match, or at the pub.”  

This, too, shall pass.

[And you might want to buy your family/friends a gift for not knocking you upside the head while you moved through this stage. You’ll likely look back realize all of the regrettable, “In ______, we did it this way” statements that you’ve made.]

Isolation & Withdrawal

It’s starting to feel like you can’t talk about anything that happened to you in that other place. You know you’ve talked about it too much already; your friends are done and so is your family. So, you cut yourself off. You don’t go anywhere. You don’t speak to anyone.

You just want to talk about what’s been your daily life for the past months or years, but you feel like all the people around you hear is you bragging, again, about how awesome your time abroad was, how much better it was.

Meanwhile, your friends here all talk about what’s been going on in their worlds for the time you’ve been away. The new jobs they got. The trips they went on. Jokes that they’ve shared with their new friends.

You feel like you keep walking in on the middle of a conversation where you have no idea what anyone’s talking about, but you still have to be a part of it.

So instead of going out, you’d rather stay at home and FaceTime or Whatsapp with friends from that other place, or watch movies about that other place, or listen to music from that other place, and wallow.

A little bit of isolation isn’t a bad thing.

It gives you time to acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, and to take a break from the sensory overload. It can give you time to catch your breath and put on a brave face again, but too much isolation and withdrawal can be the thing that steals your breath, too.

So, take your five minutes, it’s okay… but it’s also important to keep up with regular social activities, even if it’s only with one or two close friends.

And, the more you get out, the more those feelings start to let up. Promise.

Memorialization

You don’t want to forget or discard the memories you made, the lessons you learned, the beautiful places you traveled to, and the wonderful people that you met, but you also know that you can’t keep living in the past, that just keeps you in the “isolation” stage.

Your friends are tired of hearing about your double-life, so you begin to think of different ways to capture and honor your experiences.

Creative projects like writing, scrapbooks, and films are good ways to preserve your travel experiences. If you can find, and are comfortable with speaking engagements, more power to you. Sharing at local schools or clubs offer opportunities to share your travel stories to more receptive audiences. If needed, speaking to a therapist can be a much-needed outlet for your memories and emotions. The important thing is to find a suitable medium that lets you express your expat experiences in ways that can be appreciated and not forgotten.

For myself, that outlet has been blogging. It lets me put down the meaningful, and funny, memories I have from various trips, and it gives my family/friends an outlet to read about those experiences—if they want to. That way, I feel heard without bombarding those I love.

Final Integration

In this final stage, you recognize that you don’t have to completely abandon everything about your old life in order to adjust to your new life.

You’re able to begin adopting things you gained from your experiences or things that you miss about your time abroad into new contexts and your newest “normal.”

For me, music and cooking have been some of my biggest comforts. After my return from Ireland, my boyfriend sent me an instrument common in Traditional-Irish music at Christmas. The joy of learning to play a new instrument and the familiar, ringing tones of the concertina has been a great outlet for me. Similarly, I had the opportunity to meet a famous-local chef in Cork, and I brought her cookbook of traditional Irish dishes with me back to the States. Since returning, I’ve been steadily working my way through it (though my biggest challenge has the been the availability of fresh fish—or lack thereof).

After getting used to walking almost anywhere I wanted to go in Europe, or at least in Cork, I’ve begun trying to walk more places in the town where I now live (Admittedly, this one is a little less satisfying due to our rural local and the frequent winds).

I drink tea near constantly, now, and I look forward to the rains, even if I did get sick of rain while I lived in Ireland (it’s the nostalgia factor).

When I focus on these things, on the things that have enriched my life, all of a sudden, I start to feel less sad that I don’t have Ireland in my life anymore. I’m simply grateful to have had it.

For weeks and months, the lack of its presence, and how wrong that felt, was all I could focus on.

Now, even though I still have blue-zee days, like today, it’s memory feels more like a new piercing or like a streak of color in my hair. Something daring and fun that added just a little pop of interest to my story.

And in the end, that’s what each expat experience brings with it. That time of your life becomes a new patch of color on your life tapestry, a bright thread in your personal history. You have been irreversibly changed by it.

A picture of a fond memory from my last trip to the Cliffs of Moher.

You’re going carry it with you always. I promise you won’t forget—distance or time will not erase it for you.

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