How to Cope With Where You Are Not

How to Cope With Where You Are Not

“The grass is always greener on the other side” is a proverb I have always firmly disagreed with. It gives the misguided impression that fulfillment in life is inherently tied to your physical location. If you are not fulfilled, it’s because of where you are (or where you’re not). It suggests that you could be living somewhere else that’s better than where you’re currently living. It leaves you with a feeling of helplessness and scrambling to figure out coping mechanisms.

In the several stages of my life during which I was living somewhere that I didn’t want to be, when I knew the place I would have rather been in, this proverb haunted me and fueled my various episodes of depression. In this article, I will share some of the lessons I learned, mistakes I made, and adjustments I implemented which all aided in coping with the challenges of being where I was whilst knowing I’d rather be elsewhere.

Some Context

I am from Los Angeles, CA, and I first moved away from home at age 18 to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. At the end of my first year there, I studied for a semester abroad at the Berklee Valencia campus in Spain. By the end of my second week there, I had discovered that Spain was where I belonged. It is simply the perfect place for me to be. 

The knowledge of these truths was also the cause of several depressive episodes in my life, ​​despite all the clarity and gratitude which it gave me. Whether it was because of visa issues or other logistics, the simple fact of not being in Spain was a tough pill for me to swallow. It was like I was a small child who had been given the sweetest candy they had ever tried every day for four months and then told they could not have it anymore.

Expat at Heart

Besides my love for Spain, I have never felt a connection to LA or the US. I’m only the third generation in my family to have been born in the US. I have always carried a strong sense of criticism towards my environment from as young as I can remember. Whether it be towards the underfunded public school system in LA, the frustration of spending what felt like half my childhood sitting in traffic, or the laundry list of large-scale societal issues such as gun violence and income inequality plaguing the country as a whole.

My dad and older brother are both political science majors. There was always an emphasis on what was happening in the world in family conversations as I grew up. These conversations combined with my empathetic nature led me to feel very dissatisfied with “my” country. In the aftermath of my mom’s traumatic brain injury and severe depression when I was 16, you could say that dissatisfaction hit its maximum.

The First Arrival

I had already suffered from depression earlier in my life (before attending Berklee). The first “grass is always greener on the other side” depression hit me the moment I walked onto the street from Arrivals at the Los Angeles International Airport. This was my first return from Spain in 2017. 

The sound of constant cars honking, the smell of trash and smog, and the greyness of the concrete jungle which is LAX, all made me want to turn around and get on the first plane back to Spain. It wasn’t only the literal sensory overload/reverse culture shock that affected me. The weight of personal, emotional baggage which being in LA and the US brought to the surface hit me like a tidal wave. My parents brought me to their house and I sat on their couch crying hysterically for more than two hours until I fell asleep from exhaustion and jet lag.

The First Lessons of Coping

The intensity of the depression was unlike anything I had ever felt. It became my mission to return to Spain by any means possible. Studying abroad a second time at Berklee Valencia was a possibility. However, it meant I had to work twice as hard to complete all the courses for my major. Unfortunately, the school only offered them in Boston in a year less than it typically required. This was the first lesson. If you want something, especially something which is difficult to obtain, it requires some serious hard work and dedication. However, the learning of this lesson was only the first of several hurdles to be cleared. 

My unwavering focus on getting back to Spain, combined with my work ethic, was by no means a cure to my depression nor even a passing coping mechanism. If anything, it only fueled the fire. The “grass is always greener on the other side” has the often overlooked, terrible side effect of “the grass is always worse where you are.” This meant I had to learn how to cope with being where I was not.

While I was completing my major courses, waking up every day at 7 am and working nonstop until 1 am, I did my best to appreciate Boston for what it was. I thought I had understood then how to fully live in the moment, be grateful for what I had, and make the most of every situation. In reality, there was still a huge part of me whose voice kept telling me, “But this isn’t Spain. This isn’t good enough.” 

The Next Lessons of Coping

I nearly worked myself to the point of mental breakdown. Nonetheless, I made it back to Berklee Valencia in Spring 2019 for my final semester of university. I had (thought that I had) made it. I had another wonderful four months, just like I had experienced the first time I studied abroad. My Spanish had improved to a fluent level, so it was even more fulfilling than the first time.

I was also in a relationship with a woman who I deeply loved. We shared a mutual desire to spend the rest of our lives together. However, due to mutually undesirable circumstances, the relationship ended two weeks before my flight to Boston (the city we met) for my graduation from Berklee. 

After graduation, I immediately turned around and ended up in Madrid for a summer internship working with a Spanish composer. I was in an extremely emotionally fragile state. It felt like I was barely clinging to relative stability based upon the pure knowledge that I was in Spain. That fragility shattered when the internship ended, and with it, my visa.

In August 2019, I found myself hysterically crying on the same couch in my parents’ home which I had been hysterically crying on just two years before. Only this time, there was no option of studying abroad again. I had graduated. This depression lasted a solid two months, during which I was practically incapable of doing anything. I wasn’t coping with my reality at all.

The Power of a Present Mind

Sometimes, with depression, especially when it’s severe, there’s not really much to actively be done to reverse it. The healing process can, at times, be extremely slow and gradual, which was my case that summer. Once the initial shock of returning to the US wore off, I finally learned how to live in the moment and feel grateful. 

I started working at a nonprofit for music education. I moved into an apartment with former classmates from Berklee. Finally, I discovered a social life in LA that was enough for me to feel satisfied with my life. The voice in the back of my head saying, “But this isn’t Spain. This isn’t good enough” was drowned out by my actively present mind. The voice was still there and still motivated me to work towards my goal of moving to Spain. However, it no longer had the power to control my mood.

Eli living in Valencia in spring of 2019.

Key Takeaways

The lesson of taming my internal voice has been the most consequential of my life. I realized that ignoring the voice was not an option. I simultaneously loved Spain and disliked the US so strongly that it was simply impossible to ignore. Listening to it actively also was not an option as a true coping mechanism.

In the year which I spent completing my major courses in Boston, the word “Spain” went through my conscious mind at least once a day. It prevented me from enjoying Boston as much as I could have. It was only upon returning to LA in August 2019 and experiencing the worst depression I had ever had that I learned how to balance that voice. 

Finding Balance

Balancing that voice meant many things to me. Above all, it meant using only the required amount of effort needed to get me back to Spain. If there were programs to be researched, people to be contacted, or any other practical tasks that would benefit my potential return to Spain, I would use my energy for those.

As soon as my mind started to wander into “My life isn’t as good in LA as it used to be in Spain” land, I would actively do something to make myself more present. It didn’t matter whether that meant going for a drive, calling a friend, or playing a video game. This coping strategy was so much better than the unending dissatisfaction I felt before.

Anything that it took to change my mind from a state of “the grass is always greener on the other side” to “let’s enjoy the grass that I’m standing on” was sufficient. Even if, deep down, I knew that the grass I was standing on wasn’t the grass I most enjoyed standing on, the most important lesson of my journey (so far) has been that the grass is never greener on the other side. It is simply different. The color of the grass is all based on how I choose to look at it. That’s a coping technique I can live with.

by Eli Slavkin

32 thoughts on “How to Cope With Where You Are Not

    1. Yes, it was certainly a long journey to discover how to cope. I’m grateful that I finally found my balance.

  1. Oh this is a hard one. People often think the grass is greener. I always say water your grass where you are and enjoy :-)

  2. This is so true. When I moved to Japan, my first year was tough and I thought it has something to do with the place but fulfillment in life has nothing to do with the place we are in. I also had to learn a lot of coping mechanisms here. Moving abroad changed me a lot for good.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Alita! I do think that the place you’re in can have an impact on your fulfillment, but it by no means is the only factor (or even the most important one). I’m happy to hear that moving abroad has changed you for the better and that you learned some coping mechanisms too.

  3. So true, we can do so much for our life fulfillment. I love that you do things to make you more present and not cling to your old life in Spain

    1. I’m grateful for that experience too! Now that I am living back in Spain again, I’m able to be more present than I ever was before.

    1. Absolutely, the key is to take away whatever is meaningful to you from the quote and adds value to your life. For me, it made it harder to enjoy being where I was- but I can understand how it can help others too.

  4. Moving is always hard. I have always wanted to live in England but I am still in the USA. I have found that if I look on the bright side, it can help. I have found out, I love where I am now but I still have that dream of moving one day.

    1. Hi Thena, I think you are on a great track. Loving where you are now is the first step towards making your dreams come true, whatever they might be!

  5. The grass is greener if you water it! ;) I am an ex-pat for more than a decade, I know the struggles. There are a lot of ways to cope, and it is up to us to make the most of it and not the worst of it.

  6. The grass isn’t necessarily greener. It’s all about our perception. Depression has a funny way of making us see things differently.

    1. Absolutely. Depression, for me at least, completely distorted my ability to see what my reality actually was.

  7. It’s never hard to be away from “home”. I’ve never been to Spain, but have known people who are from and live there, I’ve always wanted to visit. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for reading, Lavanda! I hope you’re able to come visit Spain some day and see how beautiful it is for yourself.

  8. Happiness doesn’t equate to money all the time. Sometimes, we only need fresh air to breathe just to become happy. Glad you enjoy living in Spain!

  9. I have heard of this reverse cultural shock. It can be quite difficult to go through. Sometimes, we just have to accept the place and lifestyle we live in and learn to be happy. The grass is greener where you water it.

  10. I am such a lover of America that I cannot imagine living anywhere else. There truly is no better place for me as I love and adore this country. I am a military brat so love this country with all of my heart as generations of my family have fought to defend it. Spain is a beautiful country though and one that I would love to visit again.

  11. Tell me about it, man. My story is almost exactly the same except with Asia instead of Spain. Now, with the pandemic, it’s even harder than ever to get back. If you have a community and an income, anywhere is tolerable, without any of those things, life can be hard. Then you have to do some hard meditation to stay present and avoid going down that rabbit hole of depression. Cheers for the article!

  12. I really enjoyed reading your story. After living abroad for 16 years in multiple places, I can relate to your journey a lot. I’ve also experienced living in the place “I hate it here”. At the end of the day it’s all about the acceptance, appreciation and attitude. The grass in greener where you water it.

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