After six years in Belgium, I’m still surprised when people refer to me as an ‘expert’ on expat life. It may seem like I have this trailing-spouse thing all figured out. But, I promise you, that wasn’t always the case. I found my first years here very difficult, especially the first six months. When I chat with new expats in Belgium, I can’t help but remember all the stress and depression I went through. Though I tried my best to hide it, it was certainly I challenge I had to overcome.
This Flashback post isn’t a bunch of tips on how to get through it, nor will it solve any of your problems. What I do hope it will do, is show you that even if a trailing partner looks like she has it all together now, chances are she struggled in the beginning too. I hope it will show you there is a light at the end of the tunnel if you just hang in there.
Being a trailing partner is hard. The first six months or so can make or break the success of an expat posting, or even a relationship. Although I’m enjoying my Belgian life now, watching the difficulties of my expat friends, brings back my own moments of despair.
For me, the first six months were the worst. I felt alone. I knew no one, Andrew was at work all day and I knew my friends back home didn’t really understand what I was going through. To them, Europe was a vacation – not something to be sad about. After all, wasn’t this what I always wanted to do? Well, yes but …
We spent the first three months in Amsterdam so we could get our paperwork together. Although, it is my favourite city on earth, I couldn’t enjoy my time there to the fullest.
The paperwork to get into Belgium was relentless. Every phone call made my stress level rise as I knew with every ring there would be yet another document from home that I didn’t have.
Moreover, I had lost some of who I was, (or perhaps misplaced is a better word, because I did eventually find me again). Instead of using my new found free time to do the things I loved, I spent a lot of time doing nothing. I slept late and I watched a lot of TV. In fact my daily routine revolved around what was on BBC.
Looking back now, I know that I was stressed out and depressed. But at the time, I couldn’t see it.
My support network was far away. I knew my friends and family loved and supported me, but I also knew they didn’t really understand what was wrong. How could they when I didn’t know myself?
The only person I had to talk to was Andrew. He would come stumbling in at the end of a long difficult day at work (saddled with his own stresses revolving around a new job) and just want to crash on the couch – the couch that still had the impression of my butt from sitting there all day long. I would be raring to go somewhere or do something – anything.
And I wanted to talk – and talk and talk, because I hadn’t talked to another soul all day (unless you count the cats who were frankly bored of my nattering and aren’t the greatest conversationalists.) Andrew just wanted to unwind from work, watch a little TV; read his book. It was a recipe for arguments – lots of them.
When we finally made it to Belgium it was worse. Instead of a sparsely furnished apartment in a city I loved, we were in an empty house in a country I barely knew.
My TV life was gone (a good thing) and so was my internet connection (a very very bad thing). I got so bored that I was going to Andrew’s office with him just so I could get on-line.
The paperwork stress got worse, before it got better. The commune visits were demoralising. I was sure I’d get kicked out of the country for not having some critical document. My first summer in Belgium is a blur of stress that I can hardly remember now.
But finally, after six months in Europe things began to change. It didn’t happen overnight but there was a gradual shift when the percentage of good days started surpassing the bad ones by higher and higher margins.
My paperwork finally came through so I could finally stop stressing about getting kicked out of Belgium.
I re-discovered my love for writing and I started treating my photography as the job I always wanted it to be. My days suddenly had more purpose than watching British decorating shows.
Other expats started contacting me through my blog and sharing their stories. I learned that I wasn’t alone. I had people to talk to that understood the difficulties I was facing and didn’t think my life was one big vacation.
Andrew was also able to put himself in my shoes and did his best to understand that saying helpful things like “You need to get out more,” really wasn’t helpful at all.
So I dedicate this to my expat friends who I see struggling with this transition and to all of the other trailing partners out there. It’s hard. But if you can hang in there it does get better. Oh, and you aren’t alone.
Looking for more resources for trailing spouses? Check out our Expat Resources page.