As I write this article, I am sat on the plane home from my year abroad and feeling very reflective whilst witnessing the southern French countryside disappear from beneath me. I think back to my flight out here at the beginning of September, and the mixture of emotions I felt then; anxious, petrified, ecstatic, unstable, hopeful and a bit fraudulent. Although there was one thing that I was 100% sure of – I was not going down without a fight. After having convinced my doctor that I was, in fact, fit enough to go on my year abroad, even deep down I knew that I wasn’t, I felt as though the standard apprehension and nervousness that one feels as they depart for their year abroad was amplified.
Somewhere inside of me, behind the many layers of mental illness, there was a fighting spirit who was desperate to reclaim the life that depression had stolen from me.
Stepping out of the comfort zone.
If you happen to be reading this from your office, and you look outside your window and see the grim British weather, you may scorn me for being depressed whilst living in the sunny south of France for 10 months, and that’s fine – you do that. I thought that myself at first. But then I made a pact with Montpellier, and I decided that this year was the year I was to clamber out of my depression.
In the beginning
The months from my arrival leading up to Christmas were slightly odd. I started my year feeling like a fire had been lit underneath my backside. I threw myself in at the deep end, and I was a socially active and mildly confident being, ignoring my social phobia and attending university classes. Gradually, it felt as though said fire was dwindling, until it was nothing more than a flickering ember. Social interaction decreased, my attendance at university ceased, and I once again found myself being consumed my by depression and becoming immobile and numb, with the only two emotions I ever flirted with were complete and utter sadness and despair.
I was not ready to go on my year abroad, and I felt defeated. I had broken my right hand prior to Christmas exams, but I wouldn’t have been able to sit them anyway. I had tunnel vision and all I could think about was surviving each day, I had become unaware of my surroundings and felt that with every interaction I was incurring more and more destruction to the relationships I had with the people around me.
Until one day in February. I don’t know why and I don’t know how but I suddenly felt as though a fog inside of my brain had disappeared. I felt like my eyes had opened properly for the first time in almost two years and I could see again. My focus had turned to living opposed to just existing, and I feel so blessed to have woken up from my depression to find myself in one of the most beautiful cities I have ever see
Five small details which helped me to overcome my depression whilst living in France:
I don’t know why and I don’t know how, but when the sun is shining there is automatically a spring in your step. This took a while for me to realise due to having suffered from agoraphobia in the past, but when everything around you is brighter due to the sun, it does make the world look much more beautiful, which I found to have an impact on my mood.
- The laid-back way of life
Although French bureaucracy is renowned for being slow and disorganised it really doesn’t feel that bad when put in the context of the slow and relaxed way of Mediterranean life. Here in the UK, I feel that life can be so high pressured and it can sometimes feel as though you’re being made to move at 100mph, which just does not help you when you’re enduring a depressive episode.
- Surprising myself with my abilities
Anyone who embarks on a year abroad as part of their degree should be so proud of their achievements. The language skills that one can pick up by living in a country that speaks their target language can be really amazing, and I was particularly surprised at how well I could speak French by the end of my year abroad – considering that I had taken an unofficial sabbatical the year earlier and also encountered a period of agoraphobia in the first few months of being abroad.
- French healthcare
The French healthcare system is very different to ours, especially the mental health sector. I found myself paying a lot of money to see psychotherapists and psychiatrists, yet the difference in quality was apparent. The French healthcare system generally makes more specialists available, so being able to see a psychiatrist was a lot easier than in the UK and their approach to medication was different in the sense that they weren’t afraid to trial and error multiple medications.
- Attention to detail
France is a very beautiful country, and Montpellier was a particularly beautiful city. Being able to acknowledge the beauty of the city I was in was extremely helpful when I was trying to exit my depressive episode, and small details such as the friendliness of the staff in the patisserie and the flowers on someone’s balcony made me able to appreciate the small but valuable things in life.
This is all what I have found based on my own experience, and of course I’m not saying it will work for everyone. However, what I will suggest is that you should not be put off from these opportunities due to worries about your mental health. There will be help and support available if you look for it and it may just be the most rewarding experience of your life.