An Exercise in Honesty

When I started writing this blog, just over a year ago, I wrote in my founding document (Article 5) that I promised to be honest about the ups and downs of my time in Japan.

Well, easier said than done. The default life-elsewhere blogger setting is twinkle-eyed optimism, as you survey the sunlit uplands of a new country.  Everything is magical and exciting. But this week, I found myself sitting in an underground shopping mall, clutching a melon fanta, and wondering whether I have the mental strength to start my new job next month. Without being too mawkish, I want to look directly at where I am right now.

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Shell-Less and Sleep-Deprived

I thought living in another country would toughen me up, making me more independent and less emotionally volatile. But to my surprise I’ve become softer in exile, not harder. I suppose taking on lots of new challenges makes for some rough landings. Put simply, you fail a lot, in a lot of different ways, at a lot of different things. Picking yourself up is all part of the experience, but sometimes it feels like the learning curve is too steep.

I’ve become so unsure of myself lately. I’m hard pressed to have confidence in my teaching abilities; a lot of this year it feels like I’ve been underprepared and winging it, with mixed success, and I don’t feel ready to step in front of a big class of 14-year-olds. I’ve been pushing to try and get fitter, but each time I’ve been swimming or climbing recently I feel like I’m struggling more, rather than pushing further. My attempts at dating here, if I’m being really honest, haven’t been a roaring success either, although that wasn’t just me. A couple of times, I’ve been star-crossed, meeting someone at the wrong time in the wrong place. C’est la vie, mon ami.

I’m accustomed to blaming a lot of this on my troubles with sleeping. I’ve had periodic issues with insomnia for years, tossing and turning at 4am while other people are blissfully unconscious. It can genuinely be a curse; when I haven’t slept well, I get anxious and negative, and just want a quiet life. Chatting in Japanese gets less fun and more stressful, and I find myself fixated on all the red-alert warnings as the world steadily retreats from liberal democracy. But I wonder if this mightn’t be putting the cart before the horse. Maybe my problems with sleeping are a symptom, not a cause.

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The Far Side of the World

All of this is par for the course, I guess. Nothing exceptional to explain an agony of self-doubt, you might say.  It’s just that when you’re nine thousand kilometres from home, away from your regular support network, the frayed threads of mental wellbeing don’t get their usual care and attention. We’re all too busy, and the time difference doesn’t help.

But most of all, the distance is the killer. It’s hard to maintain relationships through ones and zeroes- relationships most obviously, but friendships too. So you’re thrown back on a new network of people. Fantastic people, but maybe not people who know you like old friends and family do. Moving cross-continent- it can be a lonely life, despite my best attempts. Most men in particular are very unwilling to bare their soul in these circumstances, and to my surprise, even I can exhibit traces of that head-down everything’s-fine masculinity. Only at times.

It’s at times like this I develop my own specific brand of decision paralysis. It’s not just that I overthink things: I do this all the time, playing out different scenarios in my head and guessing at the future down each fork in the road. In itself, this isn’t a problem. The problem arises when I’m overthinking and in a negative frame of mind. Once I’m in this unwelcome state, I still peer down each fork in the road, but I can just see the problems ahead of me on each path. All choices become the lesser of two evils, and inaction just feels… kinder.

Outro

None of this is to say that I haven’t had a stellar time in Japan so far. It remains a wonderful country, and I’m happy I came here. I expect to continue on this road for a while longer yet. I go back and forth in my feelings, and hopefully next week all will be right with the world. But we ought to talk about mental wellbeing, because it doesn’t do to push it all down inside.

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Depending on whether I can pull myself together and get my research done, the next article could either be about education in Japan, less-traveled places in Hiroshima, or Shinto, a uniquely Japanese religion.

Till next time,
From your correspondent in Hiroshima.

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