At my university, study abroad typically happens during a student’s junior year. Studying abroad was something I knew from the start that I wanted to experience; I come from a family with a history of military service and grew up with stories of my mother’s family living in different places around the globe. I wanted the chance to finally travel for myself. A part of that, I suppose, was also the belief that if I got far enough away from my old life, I could start over new, and things would magically be how I’d always wanted them to be. That didn’t happen, of course, but I did learn some important things along the way.
Most students here will go abroad for a semester, but I thought that if I go abroad, I should make the most of it. So I chose to go abroad for the entire year. The destination: Athens, Greece. The perfect location for an aspiring classical studies and philosophy major. I really wanted to dive into the culture, so I opted for a homestay, something that had always been presented as an amazing opportunity regardless of the program’s lack of history offering such accommodations. I thought it would be perfect, and hadn’t even thought to prepare myself for any other alternative.
When I got there, it was a culture shock for sure. The streets were hardly marked, and when they were, there was no english to be seen. I wanted to cry one day when I saw a french sign, because even my measly three semesters of language courses made that sign more familiar than most other things I encountered. Having a homestay meant that I was more isolated from the other students in the program, that I didn’t have as much freedom to change or drop off things I had to pick up in between orientation events because it took about an hour to get from the campus to my homestay. That isolation did nothing to help with my depression and anxiety, especially when the other women in the host family’s home left the day I arrived, leaving me with the father and son, both of whom hardly seemed to notice my presence most days.
Coming from a small town and spending most time on campus in New Orleans, I wasn’t used to navigating a large city, especially not one operating in a different language. I managed to get lost a few days in, without my host family having given me any way to contact them or any address for the place I was staying. About a week later, the Athenian heat seemed to have gotten to me. An international phone call to my mother had me ordered to make my way to the campus, where they called a doctor to check me out for severe dehydration. It turned out that wasn’t the case; my appendix was about to burst!
A horrible week and one appendectomy later, I can safely say that the greek healthcare system is amazingly accommodating, and that my health insurance is much better than I anticipated. One week after that, and I was on my way back to the United States, by year long stay in Athens significantly shortened, with a leave of absence for my University. I was warned not to go back to the States so early, that I would regret it if I quit. To be sure, it’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but neither do I view it as a failure.
From my catastrophic two weeks in Athens, I managed to learn a lot. During that time, the thing I missed most was my family. I wanted to know how my grandfather was doing with his illness, and I felt guilty for not being there to help support him and my grandmother. I wanted the comfort of knowing that my mother was close by. These supports that I’d spent so long convincing myself I didn’t need, that I would be fine without if I just found myself in the geographic location I “belonged in,” I realized were far more important to me than I thought. I learned that my mental health wasn’t where I thought it was, that I’d been putting a lot of bandaids over deeper issues that I didn’t want to address. Bandaids and makeup don’t fix depression and anxiety, they just make it all the more shocking when those issues resurface. I wasn’t dealing with them, so when I couldn’t ignore them, I didn’t know what to do.
But most of all, I learned that experiences billed as amazing opportunities might not always be for everyone. It’s not weak to realize when something won’t be healthy for you, and staying in Athens certainly wouldn’t have been mentally healthy for me. I wasn’t ready to be left without any support system, and that’s okay. At the time, I felt like I was failing, but now I’ve come to see it a bit differently. It wasn’t weakness that led to my final decision to return to the United States; I gave it my best shot, and it wasn’t working. So that decision was reached by realizing what state I was in, the support I needed, and how best to take care of myself.
At the time, Athens just wasn’t it. But life is full of twists and turns, and I’m far too young to give up on all other opportunities. I have faith I’ll return one day; studying abroad isn’t the only way to travel the world. And until then, I have my family, and I have myself, and I know what I have to do to care for myself so that when Athens is ready for me, I’m ready for Athens.