Despite my mind having always been a bit of an unsupervised construction site of problems, I never thought for a second that I wouldn’t be able to ‘cope’ in France. After all, I had never heard of anyone dropping out of their Year Abroad, it was completely unheard of to me, so if everyone else could do it-why couldn’t I?
The start was difficult. I was cooped up in a lonely little university room with no clue how to meet anyone in my accommodation, as everyone kept themselves very much to themselves in the kitchen, or if they didn’t I felt too shy to engage in proper conversation.
Things picked up as I made some amazing friends, and as the speaking French started to come more naturally to me. The little victories of the year abroad were one of the only things that kept me going- tiny things such as managing an entire conversation with someone without stumbling over my words felt like major achievements. But in the end, it fast became clear that this wasn’t going to be enough. The loneliness became intolerable, and while I made a few friends I intend to keep in my life for the long haul, a support network of two couldn’t match the resources I’m used to at home and at university in England.
I had never understood the idea of the ‘language barrier’ before living in Limoges. I had always taken it to mean nothing more than the struggles of communicating between languages, with certain untranslatable words or forgotten conjugations. I realised quickly that the term had much more depth to its meaning. I was frustrated every day by the fact I couldn’t communicate my personality to people with just-about-functional French. I couldn’t joke or, perhaps most importantly, really feel like I was understanding other peoples’ personalities. While these are all to be expected, and I did improve in these areas in the three months I was there, these were major factors contributing to the crippling feelings of isolation that were engulfing me.
As things started to get increasingly difficult, I turned to the internet to try and find some stories of people who had dropped out of their year abroad. This was a fruitless effort. I was massively disappointed to see that everything I read online shared the familiar tale of the year abroad being the most difficult but the most rewarding thing the writers had ever done. Everyone shared the view that they were glad they stuck it out despite the times all they wanted to do was hop on a flight home. While this is an entirely valid argument for most people, for someone with a history of anxiety and depression this only served to reinforce the nagging voice inside my head that was telling me a year abroad was supposed to entail a certain amount of suffering, that this was normal, and that I was a failure for being so ill-equipped to cope.
The cliché of the year abroad is that it is a time to ‘find yourself’, and I fully agree that this is a cliché for a reason, but when I hear this I can’t help but snort slightly. For me, my term abroad was like finding every (good and bad) thing about myself I’d never fully understood before, being violently shoved into my face when I had a million other practical things to worry about. Frankly, it was too much too quickly.
One extremely supportive doctor’s appointment and an extremely awkward counselling session later (I vow that you have not tested your language ability until you’ve tried to explain the innermost workings of your mind that even you haven’t quite grasped yet to a strange but well-meaning man, in a foreign language), and not forgetting the many teary phone calls home to my eternally supportive parents, it was decided- I was getting a flight back to Manchester and I wasn’t going to return for my second term.
To draw on my earlier point, yes, a certain amount of suffering is probably inevitable on a year abroad. The hardest thing for me was to decide where to draw the line, how much is a reasonable amount of suffering to tolerate? I had my answer in the fact that if you’re feeling borderline suicidal most days, spend 23 hours a day in bed most days, and can’t muster up the energy to do even the things you enjoy, you’re probably going to want to remove yourself from whatever situation is making you feel that way. That may sound obvious, but with weight of expectation, and uncertainty about what that would mean for the rest of my degree, it really wasn’t that clear to me.
Deciding to call it a day was truly the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make, and inevitably the day after I booked the one-way ticket home I had one of my favourite nights out in Limoges resulting in a full-blown crisis wondering if I’d made the right decision (shout out to Leonie for talking me down from that one). Now I’m home it’s clearer than ever that I did the right thing. Yes, I could’ve coped, I could’ve done things to improve my situation, to make things easier for myself, but my starting point was far too low for any hope of finding a way to feasibly pick myself up again. I just didn’t have the emotional energy, so the only thing to do was to take the ‘easy’ way out.
I’m glad I went to Limoges, I’m proud I coped for that long, and feel incredibly lucky to have made some true friends for life. But, I’m even prouder I had the courage to say enough was enough. To come home to a situation that poses its own challenges, with few friends at home and the classic problem of having a bit too much time on my hands (my ultimate fear, I might add). I’m thankful that now I have the time to focus on myself properly, and face up to things I’ve been putting off for years, so I can go into my final year at Durham refreshed, prepared, and most importantly- happy.