Dear Dr. Saltzman,
I'm writing to you because I am struggling with a problem that has been plaguing me for the past two years. Five years ago, I left a stable, well-paying job and a community in which I had fairly shallow roots to move abroad by myself. I thought I was thriving, mastering the language of my new country and adapting to the life of an expat: long lines at the immigration office, chasing job leads from one fly-by-night company to the next, and discovering the quirks and landscapes of my adopted country.
After several years here, I decided I wanted the move to be permanent. I duly completed a master's program, from which I graduated this past May, and have recently been hired as a division director of a small company. I am 30 years old, unmarried, and in a 2 1/2 year committed relationship with a man who does not hail from either my country of origin or our country of residence. Most days, I am grateful with the material conditions of my life, thankful for my mate's presence and love, and proud of completing the obstacle course that I had to pursue in order to achieve the security of my new situation. At times it was a financially harrowing proposition, and there were moments where, in hindsight, I realize that I endured physical hardship (inadequate housing and medical care for stress-related conditions) to achieve my goals. I'm not proud of skimping on self-care, but I wonder if this fact might yield clues as to what has been happening to me.
After half a decade abroad, I no longer speak my native language every day, nor do I have the opportunity to engage in conversations with anything approaching the fluency and dexterity that used to be natural for me. My native conversational agility has deserted me. The ability to pick up on things like jokes, wordplay, and cultural references has diminished to a point that I am no longer distinguished by the sharp wit in which I took pleasure and for which I was known among my circle of friends in my native country. Likewise, my command of my adopted language, while very good, is not skilled enough to allow me to fully participate in conversations that move at light speed, full of context, subtext, and slang. I feel thick and slow in both languages. Somehow, I feel diminished as a person, unable to be my full self in either language, and suffering for it. I am in agreement with what you have told another reader on another occasion - that the richness of our experience of the world is proportionally related to the richness of our vocabulary.
Related or perhaps not to this phenomenon, I have noticed a slow draining of emotional color in my day-to-day life, punctuated by angry and/or tearful emotional outbursts in private, or in the company of my mate (who at times is on the receiving end). When I moved here, I realized that in order to stay, I had to compromise on certain things: how much condescension I was willing to endure by bureaucrats for the sake of legal residency papers; how to react to people who, once they heard my accent, dismissed me as a 'foreigner' without getting to know me; and being taken advantage of by the occasional unscrupulous roommate.
I feel more stable than I have in a long time. However, I also feel like a pale imitation of my former self: timid, hesitant, and untrusting where I was once brave, witty, and had trust to spare. I do not feel fully vital or robust and do not know what to do to get my vitality back. At this time last year, I chalked it up to stress and being preoccupied with a demanding academic program. However, I have been out of school for three months now and still feel shaky and shellshocked. I've considered therapy, but for reasons of language and culture, am uncertain about the wisdom of proceeding in this direction. I'm not sure I could begin to explain, in my second language, what is going on, or that my attempts would be understood by the therapist on the other end.
My day-to-day life is comfortable and fulfilling in most respects, and home is now my adopted country and a relationship conducted in three different languages (my partner's basic English, the language of our country of residence, and my attempts at his native language). It is a challenge that I enjoy, and I am neither homesick for nor can imagine returning to my native country on a permanent basis.
Nevertheless, I often find myself stretched out on the couch at the end of the day and feel something within myself slipping below the water, and it makes my heart beat faster and my blood run cooler.
My heartfelt thanks for any insight you may have into this situation, and for the work that you do for your patients and readers every day. Writing this letter has made me more aware of the skill, knowledge, and dedication it certainly requires.
You seem a perfect candidate for depth psychotherapy, and I suggest you get it. Is there no English speaking psychologist in your adopted country?
Also, please remind me of where I made the comment about the richness of our experience of the world being related to the richness of our vocabulary, as I would like to read that again. I do not recall writing it, but I am glad I did. It is a good point.