Expat Loneliness

Expat Loneliness

Hi there! It’s been a while. I feel like I owe you an apology for the silence sans explanation.

I’m sitting here at my laptop trying to figure out what I want to say. Almost three months have passed since I wrote anything for the blog. The first two months I was visiting my family in the United States and wanted to focus on being there, being present in the moment. I didn’t want to get consumed with blogging and regret not having savored every single moment with my family. This was also a convenient cover up for a terrible episode of writers’ block that, even a full month after returning to Brazil, doesn’t show any signs of budging.

 

So here I am to make it budge.

It’s tempting to borrow a charming movie line from my mental library of catchy stuff. But I resist because I want to create something new. Of course there’s nothing I will write that hasn’t been written before. But I am going to do my best to say it in my voice instead of quoting someone who I think made it sound more socially acceptable, polished, or artful.

I’ve resolved to share openly and honestly. This is more difficult than I thought it would be. And yet, I suspect the reason I got writers’ block in the first place was because it takes tremendous effort to fabricate something that sounds authentic without actually sharing anything about yourself. What a fine line to walk. It’s exhausting and unrewarding.

So from here on out, I aim to blog differently. I’m checking out of the peppy, faux-candid writing mode and I’m going all in on reality. I am going to say what I want to say, and if you like that, if there’s something in you that resonates with it, that feels witnessed, follow along.

Five or six years ago, when I was in college pursuing that degree I never actually finished because I moved to Brazil, I took a class called History of Photography. Toward the end of the semester, the professor gave us a list of the all photographers discussed during the course. Our final assignment was to choose one photographer from the list and write an essay analyzing their work.  My pick was Elinor Carucci, an Israeli-American photographer based in New York.

Originally, I chose her because I procrastinated in making my choice and there were only two names left on the list. Also, the professor made a point of ranting about how he personally thought her work didn’t merit the awards she’d received. Yet weeks later, I still remembered Elinor Carucci’s photographs from the rapid-fire slideshow presentation of modern photographers. It isn’t good art if it doesn’t leave an impression! So I decided to challenge my professor’s stance.

The more I looked at her photographs, the more interested I was. Even though they portrayed the antithesis of beauty as idealized by society, they appealed to me. And should that be so surprising? Don’t you feel the need for a break from plastic perfection flaunted in magazines, on billboards, and invading our homes through our tv’s, phones, and computors? Mini rant aside…

Some photographs bore their message like an neon sign, others seemed random. The gritty and obscene stared back at me, shameless, yet others met the eyes like a feather on your arm. Some were boldly emotional and others unsettling for their lack of blatant emotion. No single photo seemed to have a profound or clear message to me, but the more I looked at her work, the more I realized the message lay in the body of work as a whole.

The more I saw, the more I felt seen. The more I studied her photos, the more I felt understood. It was like she was volunteering snippits of her life – everything from the most intimate to most mundane as if to reach into my lonely bubble and say, “I’m here and I see you too.” We are all both obscene and innocent. Our lives contain both the weird and mundane.

Her work keeps coming back to my mind years later. That message always follows me – You see me, I see you. Her work highlights experiences that all of us share. She captures the activities, relationships, and emotions we all experience.  It draws us back to our humanity. In existence, we have something in common.  Looking at her photos always gives me hope when I’m lonely because they remind me of the fundamental similarities people share. Elinor Carucci’s work deserves every praise because she answered the call of a fundamental human need: to be acknowledged, heard, and understood.

I started to realize that the best way to conquer loneliness is to allow others to see your life. Inevitably, when we open up and show our true selves, people see something of themselves and feel affirmed. We are lonely because we get stuck in a rut of thinking, “I’m too different. No one will understand me. I don’t have enough in common with other people.”

So how does this all relate to writing again on the blog?

I am coming back to the original reason why I wanted to write a blog: I wanted to find people who share something in common. I wanted not to feel so alone.

Somewhere along the line of figuring out how to use WordPress and build my own website from scratch, reading about SEO, social media strategies, monetization, and affiliate marketing, I lost sight of what I wanted from this blog. Money would be great – I won’t lie, it’s hard to make money in Brazil. But as they say, “money can’t buy you love.”

I desire community.

Because I wasn’t ready to be completely authentic, I posted mostly recipes the first three months. I hoped to get the company without investing authenticity.

I tried valiantly to ignore the fact that this blog is my SOS to world wide web, saying, “Hey… Is there anyone out there? I’m lonely and I can’t stand it anymore.”

Even though loneliness is a growing epidemic and some people say my generation, in the prime of our lives, is now more lonely than our grandparents, it’s still overwhelmingly difficult to admit that we’re lonely. There’s stigma around being lonely.

It feels like I’m admitting weakness and failure. My imagination flashes visions of me with a target on my head that says, “Come devour me,” to all of the narcissists out there who prey on those empathetic, reflective, open… VULNERABLE types. (Yes, vulnerable, because the culture shock and isolation that often comes with expat life make us juicy prey.) Well… if you’re reading this and you’re salivating at the thought of your next sacrifice, just bug off. Some empaths evolve and learn to smell the bullshit. To all the rest of you totally decent people… hear hear?!! Can I get an AMEN?!! Because I know I’m not the only one who’s afraid to be honest because of who might try to take advantage of our openness.

There’s a quote one of my friends shared with me that I’ll never forget:

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anais Nin.

This is where I find myself. After weeks of drowning my loneliness binge watching the angriest, edgiest gangster and crime shows on Netflix, I admit that I’m lonely. As much as I fantasize about putting a cap in someone’s a** and strutting off totally chill like it’s nobody’s business, that’s as far from my truth as it gets. I’d probably be the one in the corner, shaking like a leaf and crying hysterically. My point is, there is this wish many of us probably have – to not need people. To live like a brave dove, solitary, soaring free, oblivious and stoic, content to survive in the wild.

Ultimately, I discovered a flaw in this scenario. Inasmuch as I choose to stay in loneliness, some of my most valuable qualities begin to wilt. Things like empathy, the ability to be a good listener, the ability to look beyond a person’s exterior and see what’s really going on. As much as we try not to need people, we force ourselves to objectify what/who we need in order to stay untouched by the sting of isolation and rejection. We minimize our needs and people who could fulfill those needs so they can’t break through our wall and touch us. We live in fear that, if someone cracks us, they’ll stab us where it counts.

These are all legitimate fears. And for many of us, we can’t ignore these fears because someone close to us DID betray our trust and shatter our sense of security. Just like we shouldn’t minimize and repress our need for people, we also can’t ignore the fact that not everyone is safe and that stepping out of the loneliness bubble is risky.

But at the end of the day, anyone who’s heart beats for a better tomorrow will admit it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. And I’m not just talking about romance. Love is the courage it takes to emerge and care for someone in whatever capacity, knowing they may not be able to reciprocate. Often, we behave like wounded animals – desperately needing care for their wounds but clawing at anyone who tries to get close enough to help.

There is no perfect, pain-proof answer. The fact remains…

I will always be lonely unless I make a conscious effort to share and connect, because my life is spread over two continents. Half of my family is in Brazil, the other half in the United States. Everything in my life is split half and half. Loneliness and grief follow me wherever I go. I have become the embodiment of “saudade”. (Portuguese concept-word that forms a key stone in Brazilian culture, roughly described as remembering the good times/people/places/things with ardent affection and longing.)

So here I am. I’m trying to do what Elinor Carucci did for me… I’m trying to put something out there that’s transparent… maybe a little too honest, more “skin” than you wanted to see… because I’m starting to believe the best thing that can be done to cure loneliness is to show someone else they’re not the only one.

(Cue dramatic soundtrack…)

Here’s to all the people who are sick for home. Here’s to all those who aren’t sure where home is anymore. Here’s to everyone who misses taco bell and cheddar cheese, or beans and rice. Or those who pushed their toddler in a stroller, loaded down with 150 pounds of luggage, through three terminals of Sao Paulo airport, searching for the last taste of the United States only to find the Olive Garden was still “Coming Soon!” Here’s to all the expats who feel like everything they understood about life has been shattered and replaced by confusion, disorientation and constant fear of cultural faux pas. Here’s to all the folks learning a new language who’ve horrifically embarrassed themselves trying to fit in and find common ground. Here’s to all the free spirits who left their birth country thinking the grass was greener on the other side of the fence… and now eat humble pie Every. Single. Day. Because this shit is ROUGH, and you wouldn’t have been convinced to stay even if God himself came in thunder and lightening and told you what was about to go down. Here’s to the carb addicts out there because, trust me I understand, nothing numbs inner anguish like pizza and pasta. Here’s to all the ones who get through life by swallowing their grief with equal parts Godiva.

You are not alone. The last thing my Dad said to me before we parted at the airport was, “Keep up the courage.” I hugged him, turned away and ugly cried right there in front of the security official who took my passport and tickets.

But I want to pass the same encouragement to you. Keep up the courage. I know it takes courage to step forward and keep going, even/especially when you are stepping away from what/who you love toward what/who you love. You are not alone.

Here’s my challenge, for myself and for you: Don’t use courage to brave out the aches and pains of loneliness. My wish is that your courage takes you out of that cave you’re hiding in and empowers you. I hope you reach back when someone reaches out. I hope you reach out to someone who’s still hiding in loneliness.

It takes conscious, strategic effort to emerge. Loneliness can get pretty cozy. It’s the safer option for sure. If you’re not ready, or don’t know how to venture out, start by seeking out vulnerability heroes – people who have opened and shared courageously in their relationships and inspire you to do the same.

Below, I’ve included videos and websites from three of my heroes. I hope you find some inspiration too! Leave a comment and let me know who inspires you to step out and connect. Let’s walk together.

 

  • Patricia Kopatchinskaja
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8 thoughts on “Expat Loneliness”

  • OK… You got me!
    I’m always proud reading what you write because I think you’re a fantastic writer. I’m always interested to know what you think, if nothing else, because you’re my daughter and I love you so much. But when you get to the end and you share dad‘s comment… And how it affected you, you’ve got me crying! Dad cried to on the drive home from there airport. Empty nest is yet another brand of loneliness. We are so glad for you to be out on your own and with your family and yet we miss you so much.

    Of course I am from that older generation but not so old but what I feel loneliness. I keep so busy during the week and that is partly why we get so lonely, because we stay too busy to take time and be a friend. The weekend comes and sometimes I just want to be with your dad, my husband, but often I want to find somebody to get together for lunch with. I love my small group that meets weekly for 10 weeks at a time in the fall and winter. We have become good friends and share a lot with each other… We are vulnerable with each other. And then there are my “Quilty ladies” that also meet once a week for several weeks at a time. By the time we take a break I’m ready not to have to go out on that evening and yet I miss them when we are not meeting and I hear from them that they miss getting together and seeing each other. I have found in life and in these groups as well that vulnerability begets vulnerability and true friendships are formed as we show who we really are to each other. We learn to care for each other and then we’re not quite so alone.
    I have prayed for you to find friends and a sincere feeling of home while you live in Brazil. I’m learning to trust God more and sit back and watch the amazing things He is doing to answer my prayers. I definitely see this blog as one of those ways that he is answering.

    • Hey mom!!
      Thanks for the share. I’m so happy to have written something that makes an impression and speaks to you. It seems like the more I talk with people about loneliness, the more I discover it’s everybody’s secret. None of us is immune or exempt. Perhaps because we were never meant to be alone! It’s in our nature to gather together in communities like what you describe, and my hope is that this blog will be a platform to form community with people here in Brazil and wherever else in the world. I love you so much!

  • So much in this blog speaks to me. Of course, I am wowed once again by your writing ability, your ability verbalize in creative ways the inner you and your observations and experiences. There is much in your thoughts on seeing and being seen that I resonate with.

    I have recently come to the realization that I have been much less likely to keep up with family on a regular basis than many do, and a niece asked me why I have not kept in closer contact with her mother/my sister. That got me thinking and I now have a goal to risk more into territory that I have shied away from as a result of shyness that has been such a big part of my life. And, I have a list of fears that I might call at a time that is not convenient, or I won’t have that much to say, etc. I also recognize that my level of comfort with activities which are less social has grown over the years to the point that I have to make a real intentional effort to work on my goal of greater connection. And, I am praying for help to reach out to others beyond the ways that I am simply in the habit of doing, in ways that will be part of the cycle of LOVE.

    Your Grandma

    • Hi Grandma,
      Thanks so much for your comment. I can relate to what you are saying about feeling like you won’t know what to say or it will be a bad time, etc. I, too, find it so much easier to occupy myself with some solitary endeavor. But I’m also finding it’s rewarding to connect. Thanks for keeping in touch with us here in Brazil! It’s always good to hear from you. Sending you love and lots of hugs!!!

  • Good writing is good thinking, insightful and honest thinking—You have spoken from your own experience, but it is the human experience and we can all feel heard by your words. We come by our defenses out of honest need, and they do their job well But, hopefully, the time comes when we outgrow them, when they are integrated into who we are and we can be our authentic selves, comfortable in our own skins. Perhaps, for some of us, anyway, the growing awareness of our loneliness is the guide to finding who it is we are. It is a messy process to takeoff the armor, and I believe we can only safely do that when we know ourselves enough to be able to create community with the Other in a way that does not empty us… or leave us offering something we cannot really give.
    Elinor’s presentation breathed authentic utility and freedom of being. Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Alicia! Thanks for stopping by and reading. I’m glad you liked the video of Elinor’s lecture too… I thought it was so full of little “truth filled nuggets.” I keep going back and looking at her work when I go through phases of stepping out from my turtle shell. It’s always been inspiring. And I agree that loneliness has a lot to teach us… It’s an opportunity to discover more about what we expect and need… from other people and ourselves.

  • I’m so glad there is someone talking about this. I moved to Florence, Italy a couple years ago. It was supposed to be a dream, I mean, who wouldn’t want to move to Italy. It ended up being terrible. I’m trying to write a realistic expat blog as well, hoping I can representing reality while not sounding so negative that I can’t help people. Good luck with everything!

    • Hi Michaela!
      I’m so happy to hear from a fellow expat and that you found this post helpful. And I have to admit, Florence would seem like a dream to me too! As did Brazil. And there is plenty to enjoy about life here, but I agree with you… there are some shocking surprises that we never “signed up” for when moving to a different country. I’m heading over to your blog… Thanks for stopping by and commenting… it’s so great to meet more expats through this blog. Keep in touch and all the best to you too!

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