A Therapist in Paris: The Study Abroad Story I Didn’t Tell

France

As soon as I dropped my bags back in my childhood bedroom in the quiet suburbs of Connecticut, all I wanted to do was tell stories from my last few months abroad. 

The stories of expressos “au comptoir” in tiny Parisian cafes, a blurry night spent dancing (spazzing) through the cobblestoned streets of Venice, or that post-hike/pre-club sunset view in Barcelona came spilling out of me like an overdue secret. 

And who could blame me?

Aesthetic cafe awnings are the Paris status quo. Sitting under one of these babies on a chilly day with a glass of vin chaud ... whew.
These were the kinds of stories that were so outrageously cliché, that I felt like the only way I could cling onto their reality was to share them. 

I didn’t realize that in spending all my time telling these outrageous stories, I was stealing time from the more mundanely painful, but equally as important ones gasping for some reality of their own. Yes, I did the cliché picnic in the shade of the Eiffel Tower, breaking baguettes and sipping wine with newfound pals; I also sat in a sunlit waiting room, not more than a five minutes walk from our picnic spot in the grass, nervously flipping through French magazines and waiting for the receptionist to call my name.

Yup, I had a therapist abroad.

I’d gone to therapy for a few sessions once before, so the meetings themselves weren’t really all that hard to adjust to – you come in, take your seat and try your best to open up as much as you can for the next hour or so. It can feel mentally draining for sure, but I knew what I signed up for. 

What I wasn’t prepared for was the struggle of having to fit therapy into my study abroad lifestyle.

A semester abroad in Paris is for too much wine, bread, cheese, and butter; for gawking at French architecture and French men; for last-minute plane tickets and late-nights out in foreign cities. 

A semester abroad in Paris isn’t the time to worry about your mental health or making time for a weekly appointment. 

Right?

My new friends and me, rallying from the night before to explore the city.
I remember one session, in particular, more clearly than any other.

It was a Thursday afternoon, my introductory French class had just wrapped up and my butt had to be in a chair in that waiting room in T-20 minutes. 

As the teacher turned to write out the night’s homework, ideas already started to fly on how we should all spend the rest of the day. It was a beautiful, sunny spring day out, something you don’t often get in Paris, and my friends were buzzing about opening some wine on Pont Neuf. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to give in and do the same.

What was I doing saying no to spontaneous plans to go to a scheduled appointment anyways? Would I really “catch up later,” or would I end up too drained and in my feelings to do much of anything? Like damn – what fun, irreplaceable study abroad memories was I missing out on??

I let these thoughts run their course, recognizing them as knee jerk resistance to having to do something hard over something fun. 

“I might be able to catch up with you guys later,” I heard myself say, “I have that therapy appointment I have to run to right now.”

Saying it out loud helped me validate my reasoning; it made me feel like I was making the right choice. More than anything, saying that word out loud – “therapy” – was a reminder to myself as to why I was doing this in the first place. It was about time to sweep my mental health struggles back out from under the rug. 

My friends knew what was up, and they respected it. Shouldn’t I be able to do the same for myself?

A few love locks still hanging on to Pont des Arts.
Seeing a therapist abroad wasn’t easy, but it was necessary.

What happened every time I heard the receptionist call my name in that sunlit waiting room, every time I got up to answer the call and greeted my therapist in her office, and every time I sat through each easy, difficult, confusing, straightforward, cathartic, and sometimes completely draining session, was necessary. 

I reminded myself of that every time I found myself alone on a Thursday afternoon, waiting to be buzzed into the waiting room. But I don’t think I truly understood how necessary it all really was until after the semester was over.

I know now those therapy sessions were just what I needed at just the right time – even if they happened to land in the middle of a semester abroad. 

Your mental health is, unfortunately, not on a coordinated schedule with your travel plans.

You may need to take up meditation to ease anxiety on a backpacking trip, jump through hoops to refill a prescription as a foreigner living abroad, or maybe even reach out to your program director to schedule an appointment with a therapist during a semester abroad in Paris. 

Never think you have to wait until you get back to “real life” to let things get real.

These things happen, just like they would on any regular day not traveling. As much as we sometimes like to think about travel as a non-stop montage of outrageous stories, the truth is that a travel day has just as much “you” in it as any other day of your life – and that includes your baggage.  

As the old quote goes, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

And there I was (PC: Miles Herman)

So just like you should in everyday life, make sure to take a moment on every travel day to tune in to how you’re feeling and what your intuition is telling you (especially if travel is your everyday life). 

Never think you have to wait until you get back to “real life” to let things get real.

The thoughts in your head aren’t going to wait until you scan your return tickets to make themselves heard, and neither should you. Take it from me, a little dose of hard truth isn’t going to ruin any of those outrageous travel moments.

If anything, when those moments do come around, it’ll make them all the more sensational. 

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