When I applied to go on Erasmus, I thought it had been one of my best ideas yet. And one of the things I would regret the most. I’ve been diagnosed with depression and anxiety since I was 14 and, in the year that I applied to go, I started taking really strong medication. I was scared that I was making a bad decision because of my mental condition. But going on Erasmus had been one of my dreams ever since I found out that I could go on an exchange programme during my university years. So I did it anyway. I sent my application and hoped for the best, not really realising that one year after clicking “submit” on a form I would be boarding a plane to go to Spain to spend 6 months abroad.
In that year before going, I joined ESN out of pure luck and started to feel what Erasmus would feel like. I got more and more excited as the date of my departure drew closer, unaware of everything it would bring me. Those 6 months flew by and I couldn’t have been luckier with the people I had met, the things I did, the amount of knowledge acquired and how much I grew as a person. When people tell me that going abroad is hard and only a very small niche of us can go, I am the living proof that it is not true. But, how was it really, you may ask.
I got to Cádiz, Spain in January 2018. My father went with me, more scared than I was to leave his only child in an unknown city to live by herself. He stayed for a week and we both fell in love with that little piece of heaven. For the first time in a long time I felt like I belonged somewhere. I felt normal again. My brain, somehow, had reconnected my brain cells and was releasing the proper number of neurotransmitters again. I was happy again. When my father left me, he told me that a bird has wings to fly and this was my opportunity to open mine and soar through the open sky. I was frightened and excited, anxious and optimistic that this was going to go, at least, just fine.
I spent the first month more anxious about leaving my brand-new room than anything else. I feared talking to my roommates, I was even scared of going to the bathroom in case anyone would see me, and I would have to be sociable, even if it was just to say hello. Anxiety was consuming me because I knew no one in the city. I felt that was filled with potential. Since I already knew ESN, I started to check when they were going to have their first events, so I could finally leave my house and try to live a little. I didn’t move countries to spend time alone. And that’s when it happened. I went to a language tandem. Super nervous, pink haired Jess got out of her apartment and walked alone to a place she’d never been before, with no expectations. Two hours later, I got out with a group of new-found friends, just as lost as me, and we went out to grab a pizza. This was truly my first Erasmus experience: overcoming my own fear and finding friends. All from different nationalities (as it always is when you go on Erasmus), we bonded over our love of cheese, music, and politics. I was okay again.
When classes started and I discovered the amount of work I had to do, my anxiety returned, and I felt worthless again. “I can’t do this. I’m not good enough. I’m taking the place of someone that deserves this experience more than I do. I hate it here, I want to go back.” I was homesick and overwhelmed, all normal feelings that I thought were related to my mental health. Yet, I started to hang out with my new friends and discovered that I did deserve to be there, that I was worth it. If there was someone that could do this, go on Erasmus while fighting depression, that was me. So, I stayed. We all did. With all our problems, but we stayed. And I travelled. We travelled. We did a whole road-trip to go to Lisbon for a concert and me, packing my medication and my worries, had the time of my life.
And I met so many different people from all around the world that made me feel comfortable about myself. From all parts of Spain, France, Germany, Belgium, England, USA. All different, all the same. All in Cádiz, studying and having fun, discovering ourselves. All with our problems, me with my depression, some with broken families, others with troubled relationships, but all there, as happy as we could ever be. I found a new home in those three friends, a new safe space. When I was feeling down, when the sadness started to creep up on me, I would call them, and they would show up at my place with food and a movie and a willingness to live.
It’s a cliché to say that Erasmus changes you. But it’s true. It couldn’t be truer. The people, the experiences, everything changes you. I wouldn’t have become the woman I am today if I hadn’t decided to go abroad, despite my mental health. It’s not an obstacle, it’s a challenge. And everyone knows I like a good challenge. Let’s see what the next one is.