I’d heard of reverse culture shock before I left for Norway. Of course I had. They tell everybody who studies abroad to beware of this strange phenomenon–the fact that when you return to your home country, you have to readjust to life, much like you did when you moved to a foreign country. They say that reverse culture shock is usually worse than the initial culture shock, even to the extent that “you can’t go home again.”
It started when I was at home with my mom in South Dakota. The fact that when I went to the grocery store, I converted all the prices from US dollars into Norwegian kroner, as I could no longer comprehend the value of a dollar. The fact that I found it weird that everything was in English, that all I ever heard spoken was English. That people, strangers, talked to me for no reason. The fact that I couldn’t get Norway out of my head, no matter how hard I tried.
This inability to adjust, this sadness I felt, was even more pronounced whenever I left the house. My mom tried her best, but ultimately was dismayed at the fact that I never wanted to leave. We even went to a pow-wow one day (my mom now lives on an Indian reservation), which I had never been to before, but I couldn’t take it. We left shortly after arriving because it was too much for me.
But it was still early in my return. Of course, this was to be expected. I figured it would pass when I returned to my university and was reunited with my friends.
I was set to help with a week-long freshman event at my university. I returned there, to the city I had lived in for a year and a half, and saw friends I had known for years. I thought it would go away, the feeling of not fitting in, of not belonging, but it didn’t. It continued to persist. I felt like a stranger in the country where I was born and raised. I told some of my friends and they encouraged me that it was natural and to just give it more time.
So I gave it more time. Classes started and I went back to my normal routine before I had studied abroad. I returned to research, albeit in a new lab, and I resumed volunteering at the hospital.
It didn’t go away.
In fact, it got worse. Norway was always in my head, all the time. Every little thing became a struggle. I had problems focusing. I had problems sleeping. I completely lost my appetite and sometimes even just eating was a struggle. Nothing was fun to me any more. I would spend minutes just staring at the wall, not even realizing that this behavior was strange. I grew completely despondent. I went through the motions of living my life–I went to class, I did my homework, I volunteered, I did my research. But nothing made me happy. Every single thing I did was without emotion. I did it because it had to be done, not because I wanted to do it. Everything felt fake and shallow to me. Even with my friends, I felt as if I couldn’t connect with them anymore. I felt more isolated and alone than I had ever felt in my entire life.
Of course I put on a happy face for my friends and family. I acted as if nothing was wrong even though inside I could feel myself falling apart. I didn’t tell anybody. I just kept telling myself that it would get better, it would go away. I told myself it was natural and that all the others were going through the same process.
But then there would be brief moments when I would have a flashback to my past, before I went to Norway. And in that short second of time I could feel the happiness I had felt. It was like when you hear a song that meant a lot to you years ago, and it allows you to relive that part of your life for just a little bit. I could feel how happy I used to be, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t hold that feeling. When I would relapse back into sadness, as I inevitably did, I felt all the worse for it. At some point in this time, I stopped using the word “home” to describe the US. It simply didn’t feel like home anymore. I felt like I had left my heart four thousand miles away, back in the mountains and fjords of Norway.
This went on for months, until one week I just cracked. I had been crabby and irritable all week. The smallest things would set me off–the fact that none of my roommates had unloaded the dishwasher, when one of my peers was complaining about unimportant things, when I struggled with my organic chemistry worksheet. It was at this moment that I realized: this wasn’t me. I’m one of those people who seems to be made of sunshine and unicorns. I’m cheerful and always smiling. Things don’t bring me down for long, and I never grow angry. So why was I getting so irrationally angry over everything?
I knew what was wrong with me. I had my suspicions for a while. I did those quizzes online, and they all said the same thing.
I was severely depressed.
I got help later that week. I saw a therapist, and lo and behold, it was confirmed that I was suffering from severe depression. I continued to see my therapist regularly and I was put on antidepressants. They took a few weeks to take hold, but once they did, I slowly started to feel better.
But the worst part of it was that I still didn’t feel like myself. I felt like I had lost some part of me that would never be found again. I just didn’t feel the same. I wouldn’t figure it out until months later, but I felt so lost because I had changed so drastically in my time abroad and returning to the US. I will never find that part of me again because it’s long gone. I’ve changed, and no matter how much I want to, I can never go back to how I was before.
In a way, it was good that I studied abroad and then suffered so much upon returning, because it forced me to take a good hard look at myself and realize who I am and what I love to do. It forced me to face the truth and stop running away from all my insecurities and the monsters that scare me. Even though I may not be happy that my future has been uprooted and now holds a lot of uncertainty in it, I feel better in knowing that I will live a full life that I will not regret when I’m older. I now know what I have to do and what will make me happy.
I can’t stay in one place for too long. My feet itch too much from it. I can’t spend the rest of my life staring at textbooks or being confined to buildings. It’s too boring, and god, I don’t handle boredom well. I have to write or the depression will begin to return. I need spontaneity in my life (spontaneity that isn’t just in deciding whether or not I’ll go to physics lecture that day); my life can’t be mundane, the same actions day and day again. I have to meet people whose views and culture differ from my own. I have to expand my mind and force myself to adapt. I have to challenge myself on a daily basis. I need to feel the thrill of walking on new earth. I need to have the music of foreign languages feeling my ears. And you know what? This isn’t going to happen by staying in the US for the rest of my life. I can’t wait to leave, to see what the rest of the world has in store for me.
Now, months after my bout with depression, I am off my antidepressants. I can now be happy by myself and am no longer plagued by the feeling that I don’t fit in. There is hope for my future. But I don’t think I’ll ever escape the feeling of needing to leave, of feeling that the rest of the world is calling for me to come visit.
And you know what? Only 10 more months and I can finally scratch that itch again.
Only 10 more months and I can set off on a new adventure. I can learn from living and doing, not simply by reading about it in a textbook. I can learn from other people and see new things
I can’t wait.