This was originally written as a guest post for my good friend James at ALT Insider, and is re-posted here with his permission.
While my insomnia and subsequent depression were triggered by a combination of factors – moving house, my daughter throwing up in the middle of the night, the kanji test, our upcoming trip to the UK, dissatisfaction with my job as an ALT, the conflict of interest that arose from trying to work my way into translating while still holding down a full-time job – the underlying causes were perhaps different.
No matter how much I studied, my Japanese stubbornly refused (and still does refuse) to become fluent, which left me isolated, and even when I was communicating with the people around me, stuck in a rut of superficial small talk. Furthermore, my desire to raise bilingual children by only speaking to them in English, pretending not to understand should they speak Japanese to me, and not speaking Japanese to other people when they are present, has isolated me to an even greater extent than the average foreign parent in Japan. (The mere fact of becoming a father was, I believe, another contributing factor to my psychological instability: having children carries with it a great deal of responsibility, and has reminded me of incidents and emotions from my own childhood that I might prefer to forget.)
On a more mundane level, I found myself irritated by certain aspects of life here. For example, I had a long list of gripes about Japanese drivers, who jump red lights, overtake parked cars when there is traffic approaching on the opposite side of the road, fail to indicate before making a turn, crawl along in the middle or outside lane, leave their engines running in car parks, or leave their air conditioning on with the windows wound down. This kind of thing may seem trivial, but I spent a disproportionate amount of time complaining to Mrs M, or honking my horn and hurling abuse at other motorists if they did something that I viewed as being particularly idiotic.
I’m sure readers of this blog have similar pet hates – the endless form-filling and waiting in line required to get a visa or a gaijin card, for example, or the poorly heated apartments with paper-thin walls and single-glazed windows – and while I don’t claim to have a secret formula for dealing with them, something that changed my attitude was the realisation that culture shock isn’t a hatred of the country in which you live, but rather, a love of the country where you grew up.
Also, I am far from being the first expat to have difficulty coping with life in Japan. An acquaintance of mine couldn’t handle the pressures of fatherhood, and disappeared back to America never to be seen again, leaving his partner to bring up their young son by herself. Having broken up with his girlfriend, an ALT in my wife’s hometown let his personal life unravel to the point where he hardly left his apartment, which was in a state of complete squalor. And a friend of mine who works in recruitment has dealt with ALTs who have become alcoholics, suffered from paranoid delusions, thrown furniture from their balconies and bricks through shop windows, or simply stopped going to work – gaijin hikikomori, if you will. But if for whatever reason you find that life in Japan is overwhelming you, what should you do about it?
It may sound obvious, but your first option is of course to quit and go home. When I first lived in Japan I worked for an English conversation school in Tokyo, and due to a combination of factors – culture shock, a relationship break-up, noisy neighbours, overwork and disreputable employers – I became so unhappy that I seriously considered hopping on a cheap flight and heading back to the UK. Partly out of pride, and partly because something told me that I shouldn’t give up just yet, I stuck it out, began trawling the small ads, and within a few months had a better job, better employers, quieter neighbours and, most important of all, had met Mrs M. I’m not necessarily saying that you should force yourself to stay on no matter what, but it is quite likely that even if you are having a tough time, you feel the same way that I did, namely that deep down, you don’t want to give up on your dream of living and working in Japan. Also, it may be the case that even if you wanted to, returning home is not an option – for example, if you have work commitments, a wife and kids, or a husband and kids.
Men in particular – and I would freely admit to being guilty of this myself – have a tendency to keep things bottled up, but the first thing you should always do if you’re feeling depressed is to talk to someone. Your new mates in the nearest gaijin pub aren’t a bad place to start, but as well as the fact that you may not want to confess all to them, they probably haven’t known you for very long. The next best thing to going home, therefore, is to talk to the people you left behind.
Like a lot of expats, particularly during the first couple of years I lived here, I almost made a point of ignoring my friends and relatives. This was partly because I thought it would help me integrate into Japanese society, and partly because I felt obliged to make new friends. When I was in the UK, I would typically see or talk to at least one friend or relative a week, but in Japan this plummeted to more like once every couple of months. Emails and Facebook are all very well, but much like the difference between reading a Japanese textbook and talking to a real-life Japanese person, there really is no substitute for a proper conversation. So particularly following our visit to the UK in the summer of 2016, I vowed to have more direct contact with my friends and relatives there, and have since talked to people I had been out of touch with for years at a time, in places as far flung as Sweden, Spain, Canada and New Zealand. Way back in the mists of time, this would have necessitated an expensive and / or logistically inconvenient phone call (as anyone who remembers Smart Pit and the Brastel card will tell you). But as well as being able to talk to pretty much anyone in the world for free (or rather, for the price of a broadband / mobile connection) via Skype, FaceTime or Messenger, nowadays even calling real-life telephones via the internet is cheap. At the time of writing, for example, I can call a UK mobile phone for just 6p a minute from Skype, something which has enabled me to reach even my more technophobic friends.
As such, if you need someone to talk to, you could call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the US or the Samaritans in the UK, organisations which are, I assume, unlikely to discriminate against someone merely because they live abroad. Even if your Japanese isn’t up to the task of describing the finer points of your mental state, there are some English-speaking counsellors and therapists in Japan – for example, at Tokyo Mental Health and Tokyo Counseling Services. A word of warning, however: their services don’t come cheap, and nor will counsellors and therapists in your home country – for instance, my Skype sessions with a therapist in the UK cost 50 GBP a time. Fortunately, if you either cannot or do not want to spend large sums of money, there is the TELL Lifeline, a free telephone service from an organisation that also offers face-to-face counselling.
As Liam Carrigan points out in his Gaijin Pot article, the question of whether or not you should talk to your employer is a tricky one. The cowboy conversation school I worked for in Tokyo was unlikely to have helped if I told them I was depressed, but the school managers I saw on a daily basis were some of my closest friends at the time, and would, I suspect, have proven both sympathetic and trustworthy. I felt much the same way about my colleagues at the dispatch company through which I first worked as an ALT, and now that I’ve moved on to being direct hire, it so happens that my supervisor at the board of education is an English teacher with whom I already had a good working relationship. On condition that she keep it to herself, I told her about my problems, and as well as a sympathetic ear, received some useful advice (a friend of hers had recently recovered from a similar brush with insomnia, medication and psychiatric treatment).
Whatever you do, though, the most important thing is to not bottle up your feelings. Communicating the fact that you are depressed to another human being is the first step along the way to overcoming it, and it is important to emphasise the fact that no matter how hopeless you may feel, if you seek help and work hard at trying to find a solution, things will get better. Not only that, but in my experience, you may emerge on the other side as a better person. Having found myself in a place that felt like rock bottom, I have learned to appreciate the good things in life, to be more considerate to the people around me, and to be more positive about my job, Japan, my family and the future.