Depression and the Third Culture Kid

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Six years ago I entered the office of my primary care doctor and burst into tears. I sobbed until I could not sob anymore. I sobbed until all that was left was a broken soul and no more tears. When I left the office that day, I left with red eyes, a red nose, and the exhaustion that comes with absolute honesty. I also left with a prescription for an antidepressant.

It was my friend Carol who finally insisted that I go. Carol knows what it is to be sad. She also knows what it is when the sadness goes one step farther than it should; when no matter how good life is and how sunny the day is, you still cry. She saw all the signs in me that told her I was not okay.

I had moved two years before from a beautiful home in Phoenix, Arizona to a crowded apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The move was one of the hardest I have ever gone through. Not as difficult as moving from Cairo to a small town in Massachusetts, but almost. I moved less than a week before Christmas and that Christmas saw all seven of us huddled around a tree, with me trying to push aside my feelings of loss and  isolation. I had done moves before, of course this one would end up being fine – at least that’s what I kept telling myself.

But there was something about moving back to a place that held such pain in the past that burrowed into my psyche. I wasn’t okay, only it would take me a long time to figure it out.

It wasn’t that Phoenix was perfect, it was just that there was something about the visceral response I experienced to the hot weather and the desert landscape. Even on my difficult days, my body felt at home. While I missed extended family in the Northeast, I felt more at home in the Southwest than I had ever felt in other parts of the United States. I don’t know why, it just happened. In Arizona, I no longer felt the pressure to succeed, to “pull up my bootstraps, and make it.” Instead, I was able to relax and somehow “become.” For the first time, I felt that I might be able to adjust to life in the United States.

All that changed as we headed back to Massachusetts. Suddenly, I was a little third culture kid again, a kid who was insecure and didn’t know how to live and make her way in her passport country.

I have never spoken openly about my depression. In fact, this piece is the first piece I’ve ever written about the dark feelings that threatened to consume me. But I can’t help believing that there is an intersection between being an adult third culture kid and the sadness that led me to seek help. I think other things played into it as well — the accumulation of all the moves that I had navigated; the slow release of my children into the world as adults; the sense of inadequacy as a parent who could no longer kiss away tears, who instead spent sleepless nights of prayer that her children would be okay. But along with that was the ever-present “Where do I really fit? Who am I? How long will it take before I actually function well in this country?”

No matter what else was going on, those last three questions were floating around, never really answered.

I was not aware at the time of the complex grief, the convergence of multiple losses, that is a part of the TCK experience. I was not aware of the frozen sadness of ambiguous loss that was a part of me. I would dismiss my feelings, angrily casting them aside as unimportant. After all, I reasoned, I know hundreds of people in far worse circumstances than me and they are coping, they are living well despite those circumstances.

This was singularly unhelpful. All it did was add guilt to my feelings, making them even more complex.

When I walked out of the doctor’s office that day six years ago, I felt a sense of relief. I was finally willing to admit that I couldn’t do this alone, that there was a chemical imbalance that threatened to undo me.

Three weeks after beginning treatment I felt like a new person. It was still winter, it was still cold, and the reasons for my sadness were still present. But I had a new found ability to cope and work through some of my grief. A few months later, I began writing and found yet another way to express and face past grief. I began seeing some of the beauty that surrounded me, began experiencing life in the cities of Cambridge and Boston with joy and thankfulness.

Slowly, I began to heal. There is some pain in our bodies that takes a long time to heal. Burns take a long time. Surgery takes a long time. Bad wounds take a long time. Physical wound healing is a dynamic process. It’s a process that involves a series of  stages or phases – and it’s not necessarily straight forward. We don’t take great strides toward healing, we inch toward it.

This is what I have found in the emotional and spiritual healing that I have needed as a third culture kid. As much as I would like to have pain erased and memories not ache my soul, this does not happen quickly. I did not take leaps and bounds toward healing, I inched my way forward until one day I realized, I was in a better place.

Why did it take me so long? I don’t know the answer to that. What I do know is that I had a misguided theology and view of pain. If I admitted the pain, I reasoned, than I would no longer be the advertisement that I erroneously thought I needed to be as a well-adjusted adult third culture kid. I would no longer be able to sneer at the naysayers, telling them I didn’t know what they were talking about: My life was fine, thank you very much.

What I have realized is this: My honesty is a greater gift to the third culture kid community than my false illusion of wellness. My ability to write truth, grateful for the good, struggling with the hard, but being so glad for the experiences I’ve had and the places I have lived, is a much better connector then my false advertising ever will be.

I don’t know who you are, or what drew you to read this today, but what I do know is this: Help comes in many different ways. Sometimes it’s a person with whom you can share your soul; sometimes it’s a counselor with whom you can work through the hard; sometimes it’s a parent who can guide you and hold you; sometimes it’s a priest or pastor who can direct you to spiritual truth. And sometimes, it’s a small purple pill that a brilliant medical researcher discovered that helps you achieve chemical balance in your mind.

And for all these, I am grateful.

Resources: 

46 thoughts on “Depression and the Third Culture Kid

  1. I am a TCK and the grief… it’s complex. Sometimes I feel like I should have a grave to visit for all the emotional deaths I’ve experienced. I too drowned in depression for decades. It took years to get a treatment but I have one and I can manage the healing now.

    Thank you for sharing.

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  2. This was such a graceful, beautiful description: “Carol knows what it is to be sad. She also knows what it is when the sadness goes one step farther than it should; when no matter how good life is and how sunny the day is, you still cry.” Thanks for being so vulnerable and honest in this post. That honesty will heal, comfort, companion and confront others according to their need.

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  3. Thanks for posting this! I’ve had severe depression for years, never feeling like I fit anywhere. And I always end up feeling so guilty on top of that because I know I have it so much better than most of the world. My depression is closely tied to feeling like I have no identity b/c of being a TCK but it’s so hard to describe to people who don’t know the experience. Thank you for sharing yours.

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  4. Human Body is a Feeling Complex … When your depressed for something had happened to you … This is a time at which real friends appear and stand by you … Deciding to go to a doctor is the first step of healing; never recall what happened seems 2nd. to me … One more thing depression moves away when happiness comes … Try making some one happier … like a poor kid … a no shelter family … An old aged one in need for a help, or a medication … watching people smile because of you would make you smile back … A Smile is a KEY to the Heart … :)

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  5. What courage this took! Don’t worry much about how long it took – rejoice in the fact that you did! I’ve been down this road before, and I know great things lie ahead for you.

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  6. Thank you for this post, Marilyn. The pain came across, through your words, as did the hope and healing. Bless you for your honesty, openness, and deep caring. Many are hurting right now, and your words help. They really do. They help me. Bless you. ((((virtual hugs))))
    @chaplaineliza

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    1. It is so common, isn’t it? I’m convinced that some of this is about moving from relational societies and close communities to ones that are less so and more focused on the individual making it. Thoughts?

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  7. Thanks, Marilyn. I’ve been through that as well. The healing process took a long time, but the lessons I learned in the process uncovered treasures, as God promised through Isaiah “I will give you the treasures of darkness And hidden wealth of secret places, So that you may know that it is I, The LORD, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name. Isaiah 45:3. Some day I might write about it.

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  8. Wow, thank you for writing this. Being true to yourself and your feelings and writing about them is very heartfelt to read. And helpful for those of us that feel the same feelings you have.

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  9. Thank you, Marilyn, for sharing your hurting heart with your readers and being vulnerable. There can be healing in being vulnerable. And I am sure there are a number of other ATCKs who share(d) your experience of grief and loss on many levels. I encourage you as you continue this journey with your fellow tribe.

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  10. Thank you Marilyn. Thank you very much. This is a safe place–and made all the more safer by your honesty and vulnerability. Thank you.

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  11. Thank you for this, Marilyn! Your honesty is truly the greatest gift to your readers. It’s hard at times and vulnerable, but it’s so much better than any scholarly words. So please keep going and be brave to share!
    Sorry for being so absent here, but whenever I come by I always take something away. Hope all is well.

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  12. Yes, I have learned that bring imperfect allows others who are hurting to feel comfortable opening up to me. We don’t need more people who hold the facade of holding it all together and doing it all right. That just alienates those who are hurting, Vulnerability is hard but it can often result in the deep connection that we truly desire with others.

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  13. Often the most vulnerable posts are the ones that do the most good – to the writer and the readers. I know there are many who will connect deeply with this and who needed to read it. Thank you for writing it and sharing even your hardest experiences.

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  14. Marilyn, I’ve read your writing for several years now. I come in spurts ; several posts at once with long periods of wandering in between and even less commenting. Thanks for these words , another life giving – hope is slippery – but not lost posts. Thank you for your honesty. I struggle with anxiety , everyone’s path is different but somehow the comfort in knowing other TCKs have also struggled is enough to ease this sleepless 2am moment for today.

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    1. Christina – first off, I am so honored that you continue to come by and read my words. That is such a gift. And here’s to 2am mornings when words can comfort. Love and grace to you.

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    1. Thank you so much Heather. It means so much to me that you came by and commented.That’s the thing with vulnerable posts….you’re left in a space between in your mind, wondering if it was the right thing to post. Thank you for bridging that space so beautifully.

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