A couple of weeks ago, I published a post called “The Six-Month Slump,” in which I wrote about the apathy and melancholy I was feeling five-and-a-half months into my time here in Timor. I wrote it the day after I’d lost my bank card to an ATM, stumped home in a sulk with a bottle of wine, and ended the night dramatically sobbing “I want to go home,” to a friend in the dark.
It was the final straw. At the time, I couldn’t imagine feeling lower. I’m pleased and relieved to say I haven’t since. Now, I want to share an update.
I’m stopping short of saying I’m totally out of my rut — and in any case I’m wary of idealising my current mood spike, because as much as I wanted to feel good again, I really just want to feel calm and comfortable with whatever comes; with however I’m feeling. Happiness isn’t always the goal.
But here are some things that helped me feel better.
1. Acknowledging the problem
I messaged a good friend of mine who has depression in the hours after a fatigue-related panic attack a few weeks ago. “I have felt consistently miserable every day for about a month straight and I cry all the time over tiny stupid things and I just feel so lethargic and rotten,” I typed, desperately, in a rush of characters I knew I wouldn’t send once I calmed down. “How do I fix this?”
The friend replied immediately with a gracious agreement that I seemed out of sorts, and a string of messages outlining things I could try. Exercise, fresh air, routine, journalling, but most of all, acknowledging the problem. “Accepting that you’re not feeling good at the moment and letting it pass,” the friend said.
And, of course, it did. Even watching those messages appear felt like a hearty exhale — I think I was waiting for the friend to snap at me not to exaggerate or be dramatic, which is what I was telling myself. Refusing to acknowledge it was a problem, and something I could fix.
2. Not judging the feelings
Self-criticism is something I struggle with aaaaalllll the time, and it’s heightened ten times over here in Timor. Every time I get annoyed and hot in a microlet; every time I beat myself up for skipping boot camp (again); every time I feel awkward and unsure trying to converse in Tetun — I swiftly remind myself how lucky I am to be facing what I am. “People would kill to have your problems, Sophie,” I chastise myself. “What on earth are you upset about?”
(In that six-month slump post I reminded myself I was literally crying because I had so much money I had to safely store it in an account).
While the perspective is good, the execution is decidedly unhelpful and utterly demotivating. So, after speaking with my friend, I tried to lighten up on the take-down my brain had decided to give itself — oh yeah, you’re so sad, it’s so hard being so rich, right?! — and to instead just acknowledge the feeling and sit with it. I took myself a little less seriously by announcing to friends that I was feeling depresso, named the crisis by devoting a lunch break with a friend to a joint “breakdown chat”, gave myself time and permission to work out of the office or eat chips at the beach or call in a friend to urge me to exercise instead of relying on my own waning motivation — and it worked. I’m suddenly much more forgiving now that I’m not judging myself about feeling down on top of, you know, actually feeling down, and it’s reframed the way I think about myself and life here.
3. Taking photos of the pastel walls
One of the first things I noticed about Dili when I first arrived was how colourful it is. It’s dusty and dry, but the paint choices are inspired, and bright bougainvillea splashes over nearly every wall. It’s a gorgeous city — but, of course, when you’re in a funk, all the colours dull and fade.
The friend from the breakdown chat was the one who first alerted me to the beauty of Dili’s bougainvillea, and after she returned home to New York I took a photo of myself in front of a pastel wall covered in the flowers for her. That, of course, made me notice another one nearby — then another, and another, and soon I couldn’t walk down a Dili street without spotting one. Now, I take photos of flowers, walls, buildings, streetscapes — perhaps my tourist peak, but also a neat way of noticing this city, seeing it deliberately, and remembering the things I love about it. I may be slumping, but there’s brightness here, too.
4. Looking at my screenshots
Or whatever your equivalent is. I screenshot, save and bookmark a lot of content — images I find inspiring, poignant quotes or phrases, interesting perspectives in op-eds, headlines sharing courses and competitions I want to participate in, informative articles I want to read when I have more time. Which, of course, I never find.
The false comfort of knowing it’s all saved somewhere in my phone keeps me from ever going back to it — until the night I ran out of credit and my Instagram-scrolling hand itched for a task.
What I’d previously screenshotted was revealing, heartening and sweetly hopeful. The thinks that had caught my attention over the previous months were a collection of illustrations, memes and phrases about motivation, depression, identity and society, and as well as piquing my curiosity and filling my chest, sifting through these saved images forced me to slow down, to pay closer attention, and to stop madly churning through content and instead savour what I’d seen before.
A microcosmic reminder to do the same with the rest of my life, too — I’m surrounded by a lot of good things, and narrowing my focus will help me see them more clearly.
5. Getting out of Dili
Two-thirds of the way through my slump we planned a group trip to Jaco Island — an adventure I’d usually be thrilled for, but in my slumped state just couldn’t be bothered thinking about. Fortunately, my apathy extended to forgetting to bail, and I found myself on one of the most fun, most relaxing, most unusual trips I’ve ever been on — which, of course, left me feeling re-energised, renewed, and newly fond of Dili when we (finally) returned. The trip was a circuit-breaker, and while the surge required a lot of effort, it was the kind of thing you make energy for when you have to — rendering my lethargy of the previous weeks in a different, more realistic light.
6. Doing boring self-care
I’ve spoken previously with another friend who struggles with anxiety about the difficulty of doing the self-care that isn’t indulgent. It’s not just about bubble baths and coffee dates — often, the best things for yourself take effort and energy. Which, when you’re slumping, you don’t always have.
So, I delegated. I mustered the energy to text a friend who regularly attends boot camp, asking her to get me there next week no matter how hard I resisted. I forced a friend who rarely makes plans to organise an early-morning hike with me (and pick me up), so it’d be inexcusable to bail. I skipped the usual Thursday pub night three weeks in a row to give me an excuse to avoid drinking. I organised a working lunch date so I’d still get work done, but not have to sit solo and unmotivated in my dark office.
Like my friend told me, that stuff works. It’s difficult, and I’ll admit I’m writing this off six hours’ sleep, four alarm-button snoozes, two coffees and a too-long lunch break, but when I manage it, the early-bedtime-exercise-no-booze-less-caffeine plan makes me feel noticeably better, and I’m glad for the advice.
7. Making big changes
If the Titanic’s sinking, the placement of the deck chairs won’t do a lot of good — and after talking to enough friends (see point #1) I began to see that my work situation was untenable, and that I was wearing a lot of despair I didn’t necessarily need to take on. I scheduled a couple of meetings, had a few tricky conversations, readjusted my expectations, and post-Jaco trip, saw a sudden, deliberate change in my work.
Now, things are busier, better, bigger — and my mood is noticeably lifting.
I’d like to think it’s a combination of all of these things — not a single silver bullet that helped. I’d also like to think this list may offer someone else a dalan out of an expat slump, too.
And, of course, a reminder to myself: it doesn’t need to always be easy. It doesn’t need to always feel good. It is good. Every bit of it.