I recently read the book called Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solution, and I realized something alarming: if you have a perfect life, being an expat automatically leads to a few causes of depression laid out in this book. In this article, I try to demonstrate this through the story of how I moved to the Netherlands in September of 2016, my unhappiness, and the solution I started to pursue.
The points I’m trying to raise are two things. First, if you think your depression is purely biological, maybe it is, maybe it’s not. I’d advise you to make sure that your environment doesn’t have the causes that lead to depression. I list those in the conclusion.
But the other point I’m trying to raise, which is very important, is that we must take active control of our environment as expats. Otherwise, we risk depression, and that’s not a good place to be in when you’re on your own, far away from relatives or family.
When I opened my eyes, it was a dark Saturday, much darker than I was used to.
It was September 10th, 2016. We had landed in Amsterdam on September first. The first week was a blur as I and my wife tried to get used to where the supermarket was, how I could get to work, and thinking of things she could do while she was stuck at home, waiting for us to get a white stick for her to be able to navigate.
When I opened my eyes on that Saturday, the sexy part of moving was already gone. My throat was tight, and something seemed to be pushing its way out of me. I had had a dream, and in that dream, I was crying.
I quietly got out of bed, hoping that my wife wouldn’t wake up. I quietly padded to the toilet, and tried not to cry, not to think of what I had dreamed.
When I got back, my wife, Bita, was awake. I opened my mouth to say a good-natured good morning, to pretend that I was fine, to act the strong expat I was supposed to be. I had done the impossible. I was a blind developer that months ago was failing interview after interview, and now I had landed a job at Booking.com, and I had made it out of Iran. Everyone back home was happy for me. Everyone was telling us that they were proud of what we had done. We had spent the first few days telling each other: “oh my God, I just realized that we’re in Europe. We made it out. We did it.”
But what came out of my mouth was something else. Something beyond my conscious control. Something that was deep inside me, and wanted to get itself heard. It was done with being rationalized, pushed down, and ignored.
What came out of my mouth was a sob, then two, then three. I got back into bed and between gulps of air, told my wife what I had dreamed about.
I had dreamed of my parents’ house. It was a normal evening. My father was drinking and making jokes. My eldest brother was saying something I didn’t agree with. The TV was blaring out the news in the background, making it hard to hear everyone. My mother was sitting there, the picture of motherly love – she had sacrificed herself for her children, most of all me, the blind, youngest son.
And the vividness of it, the familiar imperfections of it, and the fact that I would not be able to feel that again for months made me miss them all. All the problems. All the uncertainty. All my friends. All the things i hated. Everything I had run away from. I wanted them all back.
It took my wife only seconds to start crying with me, and tell me that she had the same dream. We held each other for minutes, crying, telling each other about our dreams, stuck between the positive things we thought we’d never have, and the negative things we were glad we left behind.
In hindsight, that was the first time that my heart started to voice its displeasure at what I was doing. I had all the things logic said were good for me, but I had forgotten my emotional side. I had a credit card, I could visit whatever website I wanted, I could buy things online, I could do yoga and eat bacon and talk to people from all around the globe. But apart from Bita, I had no one to talk with, no one to laugh with, no one to reflect on life with.
I couldn’t go back to Iran and leave all the freedom and facilities I had as an expat behind, but I also couldn’t connect to anyone in the Netherlands. I couldn’t live at home where I was born, and I couldn’t live in this place where I had hoped I could build a new home in. I was a tree, a tree without roots that a gentle wind would topple.
The Struggle for Recognition and Connection
From that point on, our struggle began. At work, I was trying to connect to people. I was trying to find my feet and make meaningful connections. I was trying to get to a point where I would feel that the people around me cared about my presence, that if I didn’t show up tomorrow, someone would miss me. I felt like I was a cog in an enormous machine, with no lack of replacement parts.
For Bita, it was the same. At work and in society, people were willing to help us out, but that was where the closeness ended – people were not becoming our friends, they were just helping us.
We were lucky to find neighbors that were friendly and that we connected with, and we started asking questions. Was it always like this? Were we doing something wrong? Was it a cultural difference, the shock of leaving a collectivist culture and diving head-first into an individualist society? Was there something wrong with us, or was everyone feeling like this inside?
I started reaching out to colleagues as well, and asking them about how they felt. I thought that they would have it all figured out, right?
A lot of the responses I got went something like, “why are you so negative?” and “are you getting enough vitamin D?” Some people thought it’s the dark. Some people thought it’s the cold weather. Some people basically said they don’t care about this stuff.
And what really hit me, in my search for the reason for feeling sad, was that not many knew how to react to my questions. Not many people said, “yes, me too.” No one said “here is what I did to fix it.” I couldn’t believe that I was surrounded by expats coming from pretty much all over the world, and not a single person had faced or figured out how to feel better, how to connect to others, and how to ground themselves in the warmth of being needed and appreciated by those around them.
Meanwhile, I was trying to connect with work. Every day, getting out of bed and going to work was becoming more and more difficult. I realized that programming for me had never been fun on its own just for its own sake. What got me to go to work every day was the people I was working with, and here, I wasn’t working with anyone.
Why did I just say that? I was working with a team of people. There were a lot of people around me. I was in a team that was in a track that was in a department that was in a building that was in a company. I was a developer among more than a thousand. I was only a chat message away from any of my colleagues.
And yet, that feeling of connection, that feeling of people caring for me, that feeling of me caring for people, that sense of making an impact in the world, of moving something forward, of coming together with a group and achieving more than what a person could on their own – these things were never there.
So I had days where i was engaged. I had a lot of days that I was disengaged. I had days that I tried to connect to people and was pushed away. There were days that I reached out to people and got pulled into an interesting discussion as a result. But most importantly, I realized that I was losing my energy to fight for my mental health. All this reaching out to people, all the convincing, all the willpower I had to exert to come to work every day, they were using resources I didn’t know how to replenish.
So here I was, knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt that programming like some sort of robot couldn’t sustain me, I wasn’t feeling like the world was becoming a better place because of what I was doing at work, and realizing that in two years of living in the Netherlands, I had earned myself just about five friends.
A few days ago, one of the five people I call a friend suggested that I read a book called Lost Connections. “This book is about depression,” she said, “and I haven’t read it myself – I have only read about it.”
I instantly jumped on the chance. While I didn’t think I was depressed, I was sure that if things went on the way they were, I would definitely be depressed, and with no one but Bita to hold me up when that happens, I might just pull both of us down.
And that story would end in two ways: either we would go back, broken and dreaming of the things we lost, or we would stay here, cynical, infinitely sad, and yearning for some connection and meaning in our lives.
So, I started reading the book, and what do you know, “meaningful work” and “meaningful connections” are the first causes of depression that the author reveals.
When I read this, something in me jumped for joy. This feeling of disconnection I had, this feeling of not mattering to the world in the grander scheme of things, it was all because I wasn’t connected to people, and I didn’t feel like my work was meaningful. And this wasn’t stuff my brain had made up – this was actual data that actual researchers had found. I wasn’t an outlier. I was normal.
But what does “meaningful” mean, anyway?
Well, according to the author, a “meaningful connection” is one where you feel like your friend is contributing to the relationship, and you feel like you are also contributing to the relationship. In other words, if you’re like me and Bita and people just interact with you to help you pass the street or catch the train, this is not a meaningful connection – the moment you help them back is the moment there is a spark of meaning in this friendship.
And what about meaningful work? Meaningful work is work that you feel control over. There is a clear “why” for what you’re doing, and you feel in control of the things that happen at work. A good example that the author provides is Joe, who is working at a paint shop. His work every day only involves getting a canister from the customer, putting a powder in it, putting it in a machine that looks like a microwave so that it vigorously shakes it and makes it all even, then handing it back to the customer, and getting the cash. Rinse and repeat for the whole day, every single day.
Now that you have been through this journey with me, the solution sounds simple: make existing connections meaningful, get new, meaningful connections, and try to find meaning in your job, or change it.
It sounds simple when you read it, but it’s not. Many things contribute to your ability to form connections, for example. If you’re feeling upbeat, energetic, and confident, and when you have a similar cultural background, it is certainly possible. What makes it harder is the fact that when you have been in a state of confusion for two years, you’ve already lost a lot of your natural energy, and now you should first work on fixing that. But when you get energy from your connections, this becomes a chicken or egg problem.
Which is to say, this is not an easy problem to fix. The only thing I’ve found right now is direction, which is more than I had before. Now, all that’s left is to put in the work and show up to do the grind every single day, and put in my best effort.
After all, what else can we do?
There’s a reason this is not a self-help, feel-good post. Being an expat is hard, and there is an ongoing struggle you have to face.
However, we all should carefully keep an eye on our well-being, and ask ourselves these questions very often:
- Do I feel like I have enough meaningful connections?
- Do I find meaning in my work?
- Do I get enough exposure to nature?
- Am I buying and getting things just to make myself temporarily happier?
- Do I feel like I’m being respected?
- Do I feel like I have a bright future?
The key is that when the answer to any of these is not what you like, fixing it should be one of your top priorities. The world doesn’t wait for you to catch up, and you can’t take complete responsibility of your own life if your environmental conditions are not ideal.
Don’t wait for others to come and help you. Don’t be like me. Chances are, people around you don’t even realize the severity and extent of what you’re going through. I wish this wasn’t true, but the only person who can help you is you, until you can teach others to help you, too.