Susan and I had coffee with a fellow American who had recently arrived in Valencia. As our conversation unfurled he quietly admitted that he’d been having second thoughts. After two months he wasn’t “living the dream” that his friends and family back in the States imagined. In fact, he felt lost, isolated, despondent.
The thing is, he isn’t alone. Struggling for months on end isn’t uncommon. An acquaintance shared her despair on Facebook, admitting that she has hated living in Spain since her second week here. Others have packed up and returned home after two or three months. And there’s my own experience. After nearly three years, I need to confess something. My first few months felt closer to living a nightmare than a dream. It was probably my fault.
Oh, by the way, now at the end of year three, we’re happy we made the move. We’ve no intention of returning to the United States because we enjoy living in Europe so much. But those first four or five months were hard to get through.
But who really wants to write about the dark times? I couldn’t. This is my fifth try. It’s still uncomfortably revealing, but here goes…
An invisible bargain with the future
As we approached retirement, we knew exactly what we wanted. We wanted an active lifestyle and to travel. We imagined the excitement and romance of moving abroad. I was all in. And I was on top of everything. I had the logistics of our move worked out months in advance.
Susan and I chose to become uprooted. It wasn’t an accident.
I had a plan for selling the house, a plan for shipping those few things we decided to keep, a detailed budget in both euros and dollars, and checklists by the dozens. Hell, I even had a checklist of the checklists.
All that planning, all those checklists, they were my invisible bargain with the future. I figured if I was diligent, careful, and thorough, then we could uproot our lives, move to Spain and it would be a cakewalk.
Even before we crossed the Atlantic, feeling uprooted was damned uncomfortable. Bluesy at first, my emotions spiraled downward into a months-long struggle to keep depression at bay. Here’s what I think was going on.
To belong someplace you have to be long in that place
In the span of one month we were dispossessed of my only homey home ever. That would be the home that we created over a span of 15 years. After thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars an empty house grew into a tranquil refuge. I loved that place. It was the first place and remains today the only place I every really felt I belonged.
At first, we welcomed the chance to discard our accumulated detritus of unthinking consumption. Then came giving up almost all the things that had come to represent home, family, our roots.
Thirty-two days between retirement and the morning we drove away for the last time…I'd had no time to reflect. We were uprooted. And I didn’t have a checklist for that.
Visiting with my family back in Wisconsin, the joy of reunion, the excited and heartfelt farewells, the familial love were all deeply touching. And the lurking sadness sat like a stone in my belly, cold and hard. So deep down, I did not know it was in control. That it already colored my world – was even then changing my perception.
Things weren’t working out the way I’d anticipated. My secret agreement with the future was already breaking down. All those checklists should have bought me something. What I had was an ache I couldn’t identify. I couldn’t identify it so it couldn’t be real. Right?
Somewhere between the ages of 50 and 65 I’d become a homebody. My heart was broken and I didn’t have a checklist for it.
It turns out there’s an entire field of study called environmental psychology that’s focused on the importance of human bonding with beloved places. The basic conclusion is that belonging to a place is important. And perhaps obviously, that displacement can cause grief. It can create feelings of alienation, disorientation and bereavement.
See: Grieving for a lost home: psychological costs of relocation. Marc A. Fried. 1966. Urban renewal: the record and the controversy. - Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.] : M.I.T. Press. p. 359-379.
Not quite living the dream
Retirement and downsizing was going to uncomplicated our lives and moving to Europe was supposed to be an adventure of a lifetime. Sure, we were going to face a period of cultural adjustment once the tourist phase wore off. I mean we knew it wasn’t going to be all vacation. But it was supposed to be exciting. We were “living the dream” man.
Susan was happy and relaxed, ready to grab on and never let go. Why didn’t I feel it? Why did I slip into a five month long bout with despondency, fear, and anger that was as bad as anything I’ve ever experienced? I sure didn’t have a checklist for that.
So what the hell was going on?
The Scary, Winding Road Through Change, is a 2016 article by Jeremy Hunter that I found after I’d crawled out of that black hole. It helped me understand what I was going through.
Turns out that I had a great plan for managing the changes that retirement and moving overseas would bring to our family. I just didn’t anticipate, not for one minute, that I’d need to deal with the transitions I’d be facing. Hunter puts it this way, “Changes are events…transitions are the inner shifts of identity, possibility, and belief that occur to help us assimilate and adjust to changes. Some are easy, others are difficult.”
So many things ended for me between June and September 2017. Some endings like the loss of my brother in June to kidney disease came with expected grief. The other changes: retirement, the end of home ownership, the end of the relentless pace of workaday lives were going to be positive changes. In reality they marked the passing of my old and familiar way of life into history. And the grief caught me flat footed. Grief is what happens after you lose someone or something important to you.
What did I do to deal with my uncomfortable transitions?
My problem was that I didn’t realize what was happening to me. So I didn’t do anything about it until an emotionally fraught trigger event woke me up. I really needed to retake control of my emotional self.
I’m fortunate. Many decades ago I spent a lot of time dealing with the poor emotional habits that were the main part of my life back then. So, I had tools at hand. The one I chose was a guided contemplation. I used our copy of Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott.
Although the book’s target audience is business teams, it includes resources that have been useful for our gentle team of two. After four days of contemplation and a “fierce conversation” with Susan, I was able to face up to the grief that had captured me.
What I learned about grief
After I got my feet back under me, I needed to dig in to understand how I slipped into melancholy years after I thought I’d defeated that monster. Here are some things I’ve learned about grief:
- Grief is normal. It’s different for everyone, and it’s unpredictable.
- It hurts. A lot.
- It can be so intense it makes you feel out of control.
I have to agree on the unpredictability, hurts a lot, and out of control points. Fortunately, there are things I could do to help manage it. The most important thing I did after coming back to myself was to share my thoughts and feelings with a loving, forgiving and supportive woman of extraordinary dimension. Thank you Susan.
“Fear and uncertainty are often the first steps along the path toward personal growth.”
It would have been a good idea to open up a little sooner. I think we were both so far adrift with the cascading changes we faced that neither of us really recognized what was going on. I mean we knew something was wrong, but didn’t know what.
If you’re reading because you too are lost and alone after your big overseas move, please find someone who cares and let them know what you’re going through. If they love you they’ll want to help. Let them. If you need to, reach out to a professional counselor.
Start by doing simple things for your physical health. It can really help.
- Remember to eat real food: fruits and veggies and drink enough water
- Exercise regularly
- Get enough sleep
Once you’re feeling up to it, your next task is to find a gentle means of letting go of the loss so that you can focus on the meaningful new things you moved overseas to find:
- New friendships,
- New places,
- New ways of thinking, seeing, and living.
If you are looking for profound and meaningful change, there are going to be many false starts. It won’t come easy. Eventually something will stick. Susan and I marvel at how long it took for us to hone in on our version of gentle living.
Good emerged from the discomfort of change
Good can emerge while you’re working through discomfort of adjusting to the reality of international living. Living in an unfamiliar culture can prompt introspection and widen our worldview.
Along the way, you’ll undoubtedly meet new people on the same journey of personal growth. When you do, hold them dear. We’ve been fortunate enough to find a couple of friendships that are helping us to be our best reinvented selves.
So take care of yourself
You can bet good money that you will experience changes when you retire and move abroad.
If you’re a stay-at-home gentle soul planning to retire and move to a foreign country, do yourself a big favor, plan on negotiating some emotional turmoil. I didn’t. I was so focused on the logistics of downsizing and moving, that I completely ignored how my rather introverted soul would react to being torn away from home and thrust into the horribly uncomfortable role of front man and chief interpreter. After all, I didn’t have a checklist for that.
When you’re gentle with yourself, you’ll be gentle with others.