Expat support – is it even possible?  The #Dickason tragedy gets expats remembering what we normally don’t let ourselves think about

Quarantining and lockdown has created some understanding of loneliness but it has always been presented as temporary, even when temporary kept extending. Most of us cope, most of the time. But when loneliness comes with huge distances, when boats are burned and there seems to be no turning back –

Following the Dickason story (I didn’t want to piggyback on their tragedy, although it triggered this blog – there’s a comment with a brief outline for the puzzled) there’s been an accusation from another expat who had attempted suicide that there isn’t enough support for expats. I don’t personally see how there could be support. Strangers, however kind, are still strangers, and while yes yes a stranger is just a friend you haven’t got to know, that’s not an attitude that helps when one is surfing angst. In fact neighbours popping over to issue a friendly greeting can trigger the despair, if it’s obvious you’re never going to be bosom buddies because they are so “different”.

Perhaps the support is in recognising that stress is to be expected, loneliness is natural, and that all those brave letters and blogs and posts from expats talking about how interesting and excitingly challenging this new life is are genuine enough, but interest and excitement and overcoming challenges is a work in progress, and bad days happen. They aren’t brilliantly succeeding where you are faltering and failing – they’re having a better day. And you will too. Soon.

It isn’t actually about losing family or friends, because thanks to phones and emails and social networks they are still there, even if no longer close enough for an impromptu coffee. It is the whole fabric of life once taken for granted and now lost. We cut ourselves out of that familiar fabric and now have to stitch a patch for ourselves onto very different cloth. The minutiae of our lives – different shops, products have different names, favourite foods never appear on these shelves, where to buy wool, no librarian keeping back a book you’d like, no reliable mechanic who knows your car inside out, an awful haircut from even a recommended hairdresser, getting lost yet again on roads which never seem to have names matching the satnav. Stupid tiny things, but so many of them that at first the alienation is overwhelming. They are mastered eventually but the interim period is – daunting. Challenging, interesting, exciting, yes, and a little bit horrible, oh yes.

Douglas Adams, in the Hitchhikers Guide, says “in moments of great stress, every life form that exists gives out a tiny subliminal signal. This signal simply communicates an exact and almost pathetic sense of how far that being is from the place of his birth”.  (He goes on to say that as it is never possible to be more than sixteen thousand miles from your birthplace on Earth the signals are too minute to be noticed by others, but Ford Prefect was born over 600 light years away and the barman was hit by a shocking, incomprehensible sense of distance.) Great books, love them, but he nailed it there and that sense of terrible distance may not be tangible to others, but does rock the soul in times of stress.

Support lies in realising that feeling like you made the biggest mistake of your life is NOT personal failure but known to many, most of whom refuse to talk about it because the fear of it is still too close and too real. It passes. It comes back, and it passes again. We’re NOT on the wrong path – just temporarily lost and afraid. Where, after all, is home? The place you were born has gone forever and exists only in memory. The last place you were truly happy? For many, that’s lost in the past too because who would have left behind true happiness. The past is a different country. Knowing we can’t go back to the exact place and point in time we want to be makes the difficult present seems briefly even more to blame.

Perhaps the tragedy, and the other stories which will be following of suicide attempts and despair, will bring new awareness to the stresses faced not only by those who have chosen to emigrate, but refugees who have had it forced on them. The awareness isn’t to make others more understanding, but so that the displaced can be more understanding and forgiving of their own bad moments. It’s a time thing. Alien surroundings become less alien every day. Give yourself time. Support, for this, I think, can only really come from within, but it’s comforting to realise others go through it too.

7 thoughts on “Expat support – is it even possible?  The #Dickason tragedy gets expats remembering what we normally don’t let ourselves think about

  1. Thanks for posting. You are right, it has to come from within. Comparing items – you just can’t as it will play havoc with your mind. For a time, uou have to compartmentalise things. Not ideal but it helps. Also, it might sound corny but an appreciation daily journal helps. It helps bring those important values to the fore and remind one why you did take such a big step. For me it was safety over a privileged lifestyle. Accountability for everyone too. I really do feel for this family. I purposefully cut myself off from any expat community as, for me, it made the transition worse.

    • An appreciation daily journal is an excellent idea. One year I kept a jar for popping in notes of really good things which had happened, some of them very simple and perhaps trivial, but it was good to have a feel-good reminder if I drew one out at random. Never thought of applying it to appreciating the new life, such a good idea!

    • Hi Susan, yes South Africans but individuals are moving all round the world, voluntarily and involuntarily, as never before. Immigrants are often a bit resented, “strutting in here like they own the place, and taking jobs from locals” so the idea of support is alien in itself – “They” chose to come here, didn’t they? Diddums. Sometimes it isn’t a seamless transition. As you know I’m on my third country and usually try not ever to think of the downsides of being displaced, it’s very unsettling! It was odd to me to read others have felt a stranger in a strange land so I wrote about it 😀

  2. This is so beautifully written, and echoes many of my feelings, which come and go and morph from one into another, depending on so many things – mostly, as you mention, small things. Thanks for this. It was a good moment to be reminded that I’m not the only one who feels this way.

  3. (Explanatory note – The Dickason family recently emigrated to New Zealand. The father, days out of quarantine, returned home from his new job to find his wife has killed their three young children and perhaps tried to kill herself – details are sketchy at this point. There seem to have been no warning signals that she was going into meltdown. She’s 40, a doctor, and the children were very much wanted – to outsiders they seemed happy and excited about the move)

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