The ‘Fish in the Tank’ Metaphor, Or: My Early Struggles of Living Abroad

A wise friend told me the last time we met: “Moving abroad, I’ve always compared to being a fish in a tank when the water gets renewed. In the beginning, there might be too much oxygen in the fresh water, so the fish feels like suffocating. It’s like that when you, as a human, have to deal with new surroundings – everything is too confusing and too much to handle and you feel like you can’t breathe.“

With these words, he was hitting the nail on the head. Except that, in my case, this didn’t happen just metaphorically speaking. (Yes, I’m going to talk about it again. No, I’m not over one of the most traumatic events in my life yet.)

Soon after I started living in Japan and working full-time in my chosen profession (teaching), I got ill, like I’d never been ill in my entire life so far. It went from allergies to pneumonia to chronic bronchitis to asthma attacks to walking into the ER of the nearest hospital at 5 am. Back then, I said that in that night, I somehow just knew that if I hadn’t gone to the hospital, I would have died. Yes, died. Sounds dramatic, I know, but that’s how I felt. Today I randomly stumbled upon a list called “The Top 10 Deadliest Diseases in the World“, and guess what ranked quite high on there?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, commonly known as COPD, which is either caused by smoking or chronic bronchitis. Untreated, people actually die from this. On the one hand, I’m glad to know that I didn’t make stuff up in my mind. The capacity of my lungs did go down by the hour and without treatment, they would have collapsed completely. On the other hand, these facts are downright terrifying. A close friend of mine who’s been through similar things earlier in her life said to me: “Anyone who hasn’t experienced this simply can’t understand what it means to actually be scared to death.“

What followed, were months and months of lots of medication (allergy meds, asthma meds, plus having to take antibiotics every time I caught the common cold), and as a result, a completely crashed immune system, lots of coughing and wheezing, many cases of laryngitis and losing my voice, many days of calling in sick at work and getting serious crap about that, and as a result of everything combined: many times of crying on the bathroom floor.

Any sane person would have quit on that kind of life and gotten on a plane back home.

I didn’t.

Looking back, I have a hard time understanding how and why I pulled through with all of this. One reason could have been that I was in such deep shit that I didn’t have the strength to do the actual quitting, because that would have entailed lots of paperwork, cancelling contracts, and moving continents again. If you don’t feel strong enough to walk to the bathroom, that’s not something you want to get into.

Another reason was faith. Faith that things had to get better again. Accompanied by the feeling deep down, that despite everything, I wasn’t done in Japan. My life here wasn’t going to end this way, because there was so much yet to come. I have absolutely no idea where that faith came from. So when the time came to decide whether I would end or extend my contract, everyone was surprised when I said I was going to stay another year.

And here I am, in this ‘other’ year. And you know what? At the moment I can say with all honesty that I now love my life here. I’ve gotten used to the challenges that come with living on the other side of the world and I’ve become much better at dealing with one of the most stressful jobs on the planet. Also, my lungs had a chance to heal over the summer in Europe. I had to go back on allergy meds soon after returning to Japan, but the asthma meds have stayed in the medicine cabinet so far.

Thinking they will remain there is probably wishful thinking. I’m currently in bed with a cold, praying that it’s not going to get worse. The fear of having to go through any of the horrors described above again is, and probably will always be with me.

As terrible as that is, there is something else that now is, and probably will always be with me: The immense gratefulness I feel every time I leave the house and take a deep breath. Just being able to breathe in and out without a problem has become the greatest gift to me, every day. If I hadn’t experienced what it’s like when this ability gets taken away from me, I would have gone through life never giving it a second thought and never being grateful like that.

But I am grateful. I’m grateful for breathing and I’m grateful that I stayed in Japan. My friend who came up with the ‘Fish in the Tank’ Metaphor had a positive outlook also: “(…) you feel like you can’t breathe. But after a while, it gets better. Things become more normal and you can breathe again.“

So far, he’s been right.




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