TRIGGER WARNING: Thoughts of Self-Harm.
If you or someone you know is experiencing harmful thoughts, please contact Kids Helpline or Reachout.
Towards the end of 2017 I was fortunate enough to participate in an exchange program overseas. As I packed my bag (procrastinating, and of course leaving it to the very last day before my departure) I was excited about the prospect of living overseas and immersing myself in an entirely different culture. A lot of my friends were surprised by how calm I was about travelling solo to the other side of the world, and living with a host family that I hadn't ever met before. I didn't really consider that I mightn't enjoy myself - I was going overseas to learn a language and experience another culture, of course it would be amazing. Unfortunately though, the first month was incredibly challenging to my mental health. Although both of my host parents were very kind to me, I was quite homesick. My host mother had limited English skills, and my host father (who spoke English fluently) was often away on business trips. This made communication difficult; I had previously studied the language, but it was hard to express my emotions and the difficultly of the transition. My host parents were upset that I was homesick, and often asked me if I wanted to go home. This made me guilty, as it wasn't their fault that I felt this way. The sense of guilt for not enjoying myself and making my host parents worry left me in a very negative mindset, as I couldn't think of how to fix it. I tried different methods of reducing the homesickness, and followed every tip given to me by the exchange organisation, but nothing worked.
Part of the exchange program was attending school overseas. In my first few days, everyone was incredibly kind and welcoming to me. My school didn't have a lunch break, so I didn't have to worry about where to sit or who with. The teachers rotated instead of the students, so in the small breaks while we waited for the new teacher to arrive I was bombarded with questions about my life back home. It was enjoyable to answer them, and ask my own questions in return. I felt connected to everyone there, and at ease. However, as the novelty wore off and my language skills didn't allow me to answer more in-depth questions easily, I was ignored and spoken to only when the teacher wanted to check my understanding of the subject. The sense of connection I'd felt was gone, and instead I felt lonely and isolated, both at home and at school.
Since I was in the Northern Hemisphere, time zones made it extremely difficult to communicate with people back home. Their evening was my school day, and most of my friends woke up when it was almost midnight for me. Although it was easier to communicate on the weekend since I didn't have school, we could only talk for short amounts of time. It felt like I was completely alone, as I wasn't connecting with anyone there or here. My self esteem dropped considerably. I should have been having an amazing time, but I wasn't enjoying myself. This led to negative self talk as I called myself ungrateful and selfish for worrying my host family. I also still had difficulty eating much in front of other people, and I worried about what others would think of me to an even larger extent.
At the end of the second week there, I was feeling completely hopeless. I could rarely communicate with my friends and family, and I wasn't fitting in anywhere. All I wanted was to come back home. I had a lot of dark thoughts, and I considered cutting myself in my room when my host parents went out. I mentioned this to a friend, staying up until 1am to talk about it so I could be in the same time zone. They were incredibly concerned, and spoke to my parents about it. My parents supported me and reassured me that everything would work out, and I wouldn't disappoint anyone by coming home early, which I had feared. The most important thing would always be to take care of my health, mental and physical. They brought up examples of my good qualities, and gave me strategies on positive self talk. My friends also sent similar articles and shared when I had helped them, enabling me to feel better about myself.
After this point, things got better. Instead of feeling guilty for letting down my host family, I practised positive self talk. Whenever I felt ungrateful, I thought about how I was trying to make the most of the opportunity, and that it was natural to feel homesick at the beginning. If I ever felt selfish, I read the messages my friends had sent about when I'd helped them, and I focused on how I could be positive around my host family and classmates. I started opening up more at school and initiating conversations, even with my poor language skills, and bought a dictionary with me to school to help. My willingness to participate gave my classmates motivation to talk to me, and I began to make friends and improve my communication. By fitting in more at school, I felt happier at home, and tried to express this as much as possible to my host family. I developed a strong sense of belonging as my loneliness faded, and my self esteem improved as I practised more positive self talk.
Throughout the experience, I often visited the Reachout and Kids Helpline websites for their articles on how to deal with loneliness and poor self esteem. They were really helpful in reconnecting to others, and increasing my self esteem. If you're suffering from a low self esteem, loneliness, or know someone who is, I really recommend visiting these websites for help. The next article will be wrapping up this series, focusing on how I've been supported throughout and how to build up a strong support network without taking advantage of others.