When I look back at 2021, it feels empty. Weirdly enough, I didn’t have that feeling at all about 2020 while event-wise it was much emptier.
Is it bad empty or good empty? It is both.
The biggest change of this year was our move from the Netherlands to France. I always struggle to talk about it because I don’t want to look ungrateful or entitled… but France is an extremely challenging country to move to from all angles. It is ridden with inefficient bureaucracy across all unsynchronized systems, it is famously English non-friendly, and it has no intention of being inclusive towards foreigners.
It’s such a drastic contrast to the Netherlands – the most welcoming to expats country in Europe, efficient, quick, digitalized, trade-oriented. Dutch people don’t want to mingle and socialize with expats that much, though they allow foreigners to enjoy their life in the comfortable bubble.
Do I believe people in France have to speak English and go out of their way to accommodate me or any other foreigner? Absolutely not. They don’t owe me anything, if something – it is on me to learn the language and adapt to their cultural norms. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do.
But as my job assumes no preparation for relocation timewise and no dependency on language for international moves (otherwise I wouldn’t end up in France), when we just moved EVERYTHING was hard ALL THE TIME. Starting from communicating with delivery guys about our furniture arrival and ending with procuring our residency cards in the Prefecture department that works exclusively with immigrants.
Don’t get me wrong – unlike people who move to France without any assistance, I had so much support provided by my company! We were assisted with housing search, lease agreement, all the set-up processes, bank account opening, visa processes, etc. Without that, I don’t think we’d get through it at all. But even with all that support, it took us about 6 months to resolve all the initial challenges and some of them are still lingering.
One other piece of this experience is completely subjective… I’m not in love with France. Never been – not as a tourist, not as a resident. I don’t hate it – it is beautiful, rich in culture, heritage, and places to go. But there is nothing in my heart that sings when I think about France.
I don’t like French cuisines (I know, I know, I’m a weirdo, that’s a well-established fact), I’m not a big wine-drinker, I don’t even eat baguettes. French architecture is objectively spectacularly beautiful but for me, it looks cold, grandiose, and monotonous.
This year, I spent two little vacations in the Netherlands. This country almost makes me cry tears of joy every time I arrive there. I LOVE “gingerbread” houses and canals with little bridges, I love bikes and windmills, cats and storks walking in the streets, I love how the air smells there – rainy with a touch of sea-side, I love Schiphol airport and Intercity trains, I love how small and efficient it is, how friendly and… easy.
We’ve spent three years in the Netherlands and going there feels like coming home. It also helps that we have so many friends living there! When we were leaving for France, we didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to them cause of lockdown and that felt horrible.
Did I fully appreciate Holland while we were living there? Yes and no. I always had this feeling of living in a fairytale land, I was fully aware of how happy & accepted I felt and how easy it was to have a lifestyle full of activities and support I needed (for example, going to doctors or doing private training). But at the same time, I thought that we would be able to rebuild our routine in a different country, that we will overcome challenges and fully enjoy our life with different exciting context and opportunities to learn about a new country.
Are we miserable in France? Not at all. We live in Versailles, our apartment is exactly what we wanted and more, I have great colleagues at work, my French friends are supportive and accommodating, we finally got a car last week so now we will be able to explore the country much more and, most importantly, we have each other – so I have not much to complain about.
Though my main learning of the year is that nailing the challenges and overcoming obstacles is not something I want to do in my personal life. One of my closest friends told me in August: “Sonya, you’re always thriving in the face of a challenge, you love and enjoy the sense of achievement so obviously you will learn French and manage to find a way to adjust” and, surprisingly, he was wrong. His assessment of the way how I operate would be spot on a couple of years ago, but many hours of therapy later I’ve changed my ways.
It may sound like not something to be proud of, but it is. Two years ago, in my end-year review, I was writing about how I dream to have the “freedom to fail”.
“Failure is not an option” has been my mantra my whole life. And how I was getting to achievement through challenges and obstacles? Through the classic formula of “no pain – no gain” with a foundation of guilt & shame, auto aggression, tons of anxiety, and validation-seeking behavior on top.
Grit, willpower, effort, dedication, commitment, responsibility, work ethic – all that sounds great but, in my case, it stemmed mostly from an unhealthy place. Constant proving to the world and people around you that you’re worthy is exhausting. It takes so much, and nobody will ever give it back to you. I still use all the things above for my work (because I get back the money, recognition, exciting challenges, and things to do – that makes an equation of effort vs reward balanced, fair, and almost healthy) but in my personal life, I’m trying as hard as I can to utilize those things as little as possible.
Can I communicate with French people in French? No, I can’t, despite all the efforts I have made to learn the language. Did I beat myself up for it? Yes, for a while. And then I stopped. My brain can deal with only so much. New country, new job, new people to deal with, tons of admin stuff to take care of, routine life – I just couldn’t push myself any further.
I saw my limits and I accepted them. I was depressed for a good chunk of this year and still managed to deliver everything I had to at work and more. Expat life is usually portrayed as glamorous and almost effortless so I’m slightly ashamed to admit that it was an extremely hard move for me.
The first 3 months of being in France were borderline traumatizing. One night we were discussing with Stepan our plans for the future, he said the phrase: “When we will move next time…” and I immediately started crying. I couldn’t even imagine putting myself through that again. It was already a couple of months after the move and we were still surrounded by mounts of unpacked boxes, didn’t have wardrobes for clothes or couch in our living room and overall felt very unsettled (apartments in France are mostly rented out completely empty, in our case, we even had to buy a washing machine, fridge, dishwasher, and oven – all with closed stores in a lockdown).
It was rough. It still kind of is, just with lesser intensity.
Going back to my own limits, anxiety, and depressive states of mind.
I always knew that I’m overly agile to the level of the impossibility of keeping routine in place.
I’ve been an anxious person my whole life, I can’t stand boredom, have little to no patience, my energy and motivation come in crazy spikes with very low lows, I have a wide range of emotional reactions to life and different triggers.
My brain has multiple “tabs” open at all times and running as fast as a high-speed train in a multitude of directions, my attention span is either very short or almost endless, my curiosity never stops but also never stays in one lane.
My presence is either strong, loud, and intense when I’m around people or almost non-existent if I’m left alone and can deep dive into my thoughts and inner world.
I’m constantly exhausted and feel overstimulated even though people around me seem to perceive me like a fireball of energy, passion, and enthusiasm.
My apartment is always an overcluttered mess.
My work has been my life for the past 10 years and that never left space for any real hobbies…
Many of these things made me feel like a poorly functioning alien who, for whatever reason, the outside world sees as a successful human being.
Somewhere in the middle of this year, all the dots connected, and I had to face the reality of the fact that on top of my anxiety and other issues (or rather as the foundation for all of them) I have ADHD.
It’s a very multidimensional disorder that has a multitude of symptoms and presentations (which, by the way, is SO different in boys and girls due to differences in biology and societal expectations that till a couple of years back girls were massively underdiagnosed).
I’m not going to go in-depth about it but in short: my brain without additional stimulation is constantly lacking dopamine – a super important neurotransmitter that is responsible for many high-level functions of the brain, including motivation, sense of reward, emotional regulation, and overall life management.
Even when dopamine in my brain is being produced in needed quantities, its level is quickly going down instead of staying more or less consistent (as it should be) as if my brain was a “leaky bucket”. Therefore, I’m on a constant, never-ending hunt for stimulation to function. And long-term boredom is paralyzing for me: no stimulation -> dopamine level is not restored -> my ability to manage my motivation levels become non-existent -> I can’t do anything.
Contrary to popular belief, people with ADHD don’t have attention deficits. They have a deficit of ability to voluntarily regulate their attention.
Sometimes it looks like “browsing behavior” when a person switches between activities and things to do at the speed of light and can’t stay on one task longer than 5 minutes.
Some other times it looks like a state of “hyperfocus” when a person spends doing one thing only for 14 hours without the ability to switch off even to eat or go to the bathroom.
It’s obviously 2 polar opposite sides of attention regulation challenges and neurotypical people struggle with those challenges as well. But people with ADHD are much more prone to falling into these extreme sides rather than operating in-between.
As you could guess, in my work I mostly operate in the hyperfocus state. The “one thing” I’m capable of doing for 14 hours straight if I’m motivated enough is my job, in all its complexity. It’s worth noting that this state is highly productive. But it also causes overstimulation and exhaustion.
Even If I don’t work for 14 hours (and lately I categorically don’t do that) – my hyperfocus makes me stay “on” for many hours after work is done unless I’m switched to something even more stimulating (like meeting with friends, any other fun engagements or, on the contrary, serious problems).
Thanks to hyperfocus, I remember even the tiniest details about projects I’ve done three years ago and can be extremely productive even in strenuous conditions. Also thanks to it, I find myself almost burnt out way more often than any regular person.
What drives hyperfocus? Studies have shown 4 main motivating factors:
1) Personal interest; 2) Challenge; 3) Novelty; 4) Time pressure/Deadlines.
The first 3 we can consider positive factors, the last one – negative, but I’d say it is the crucial one, without it motivation has a huge chance to slip.
As I said before, I’m curious about pretty much everything – but my curiosity about any given topic stops at the point when I suck it dry – mainly when it is not intellectually challenging for me anymore or not novel enough.
For example, market research & consumer insights were all those 4 things for me for 9 years – during this time I changed sides of the business I worked on (agency/client), categories, brands, and even geographies (Russia/World) and kept reinventing my curiosity to the field by finding exciting new angles. All my jobs in the field were driven by time pressure and they all were challenging… till they weren’t. Did I think that I saw everything, done everything and there is nothing more to learn? Absolutely not. But every new coming challenge became less & less of a challenge taking less & less time for me to figure out and I became extremely bored.
The more bored I become, the more impossible it is for me to do even the simplest tasks. So even though I was dealing with things that were becoming increasingly easier due to experience and knowledge I’ve built, doing them was becoming increasingly harder cause I no longer was able to easily switch into hyperfocus and had to operate just based on motivation factor #4 – time pressure & deadlines. Don’t get me wrong, it still works but it feels awful.
Anyway, 2021 was a year of coming to terms with the fact that I do have ADHD and that defines a lot of my needs and specificities when it comes to working. And to life.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
I’m hyper. Hyper talkative, hyper intense, hyper loud. Hyper loyal, hyper responsible, hyper involved. Hyper passionate, hyper driven, hyper controlling. All me.
I live my social life (that includes work and friends) on overdrive. Otherwise, chances are I’d be constantly floating in my inner world not paying much attention to what’s happening around me.
Sometimes I wish that people could see what is happening behind this hyperactivity. What I’m left with when I manage to switch off. Who I am behind the mask of pretending to be “normal”.
The truth is that for the longest time even I couldn’t see past this mask and preconceived notion of who I should be and what the world expects of me.
“Stop pretending, just be who you are” is not so easy to do. I’m not sure I know who I am still and what I need to do to feel the most “authentic & resourceful self”.
I spent 30 years fighting my brain and the way it works, being afraid that one day people around will figure out what an incapable mess of a person I am.
In 2021, I came to the realization that I’m indeed a mess. But that’s okay. Not everything needs to be in good order. And I’m surely not incapable, I just work differently.
This year was empty and difficult. But I’m grateful for it.
My grandma was very sick in the summer and for two months I could barely sleep. She has since recovered and thriving (and I hope & pray she’ll continue to do so!)
Despite the COVID restrictions, we got to go to the Netherlands twice after moving to France and even visited the UK for a fun cultural weekend. We also managed to fly to Russia twice and will spend this New Year’s Eve with the family (we didn’t have this luxury in 2020).
We spent a month living in the center of Paris during the harshest lockdown & curfew at 7PM and ended up choosing beautiful Versailles as our place to live in.
We managed to catch up with so many friends across different countries and make new ones in France!
We got vaccinated 3 times and currently, I’m glowing with antibodies (lab confirmed!). Never thought that’s something to be grateful for but it is!
2022, bring it on. I know it won’t be easy but I think I’m ready.