“Hey! How was Australia?”

How was Australia?

They say you can’t really appreciate a place until you leave it. I spent the fall semester of 2019, from mid-July to the end of November, in Penrith, New South Wales, an unremarkable suburb halfway between Sydney and the Blue Mountains. Earlier that year, in Southwestern’s study abroad office, I gasped with delight upon opening my acceptance email from Western Sydney University (WSU), having been certain I would not get into a program in the competitive region of Oceania. When I arrived at the Sydney International Airport in July, everything was bright and new and fascinating, with unfamiliar plants and animals and people. The day I left, the east coast of the country was on fire, I was four and a half months older, and I wanted nothing more than to be home. What happened in between? 

According to my Instagram (@leahbefriendskangaroos if you’d like to check it out), 121 interesting things (assuming one interesting thing per post). There was International Student Orientation, complete with two kangaroo impersonators bouncing around on springs. There was the WSU library, five stories tall and full of brightly colored geometric furniture. There were the gardens in Sydney, Melbourne, and Hobart: valiant attempts to summarize the botanic history of a continent. And there were the Blue Mountains, 3,861 square miles of temperate eucalyptus forest only an hour’s train ride from Penrith, where each step down into a gully took me centuries back in time and I could feel Gurangatch, the eel and ancestral spirit of the Gundungurra people, sleeping in the valley below.

But for each Instagram-worthy moment, there were at least two moments of despair. I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder when I was 15 (I am now 21), but its seeds were planted earlier, much earlier, buried deep in my DNA, and my mother’s before me, and her mother’s, and back and back. It is an inheritance that I cannot separate myself from, just as a mountain cannot be separated from the rock strata it is built upon. And when its pull is strongest, I imagine depression is similar to being beneath a mountain: pressed between the weight of everything that came before you and will come after, unable to orient yourself, time seeming to pass on a geologic scale. I have had years to get to know my brain, to explore its subterranean tunnels and learn the paths back to the surface. Yet, despite this familiarity, it quickly became clear that I was unprepared to be depressed abroad. 

What does depression look like on another continent? No different from at home. Rivers may reverse course when you cross the equator, but neurons do not magically rewire. I don’t think I expected them to; I’m not sure what I expected, if anything. Before I left, I had spent most of the summer alone in a gray haze, unable to think about much beyond the walls of my room. I just knew that study abroad was supposed to be an amazing, fun, transformative experience, yet there I was, on another continent and feeling basically the same as I had at home, now with added layers of guilt and shame for wasting my time in this new place yet lacking the motivation to do anything else.

Stand of Eucalyptus trees in the Gully, a historic Aboriginal site in Katoomba. The Gully served ...

Being moderately depressed did not mean that I couldn’t experience happiness (though severe depression will eventually rob you of most of your emotions). To some extent, I still enjoyed finding new plants (I am a botany nerd), spending time with new friends, and learning new things in my classes. Writer Andrew Solomon has said that “[t]he opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality,” and it was vitality that I lacked. It was difficult to stay out of bed, to leave campus, to do schoolwork. Small actions like choosing what to have for breakfast consumed ridiculous amounts of energy.

What do you do? You pick your battles. If you live in drought, as most of Australia does, you must plan your water use carefully. Surviving an emotional energy drought is much the same. I tried to do things that I enjoyed but were not draining, like walking to the park with my Norwegian housemate. We would go at night to avoid the magpies (territorial birds that will chase you away if you get too close to their nests, as I learned from experience) and would swing under the stars, picking out constellations and trading stories from home. When she was around, I talked with my Australian housemate about our lives and our countries and how they compared. And I went to the mountains as often as I could, just to stand at a lookout and let the scale of it all make me and my transient human worries seem small. 

But like the Australian government in fire season, I often mismanaged my resources. Overly concerned with grades, I prioritized schoolwork at the expense of experience yet wasted mental energy agonizing over this decision, for I was in Australia and I was supposed to be having fun. Lonely, I socialized with my Australian housemate’s friends, people I generally liked but whose company I probably would not have chosen if not out of convenience, for time spent with them was more exhausting than enjoyable. Overwhelmed, I procrastinated planning outings (living on the outskirts of Sydney without a car, any travel was at least a daylong commitment), which only added to my isolation. 

Though I never tried surfing, I imagine it is similar to how my semester went. Finding your footing while navigating waves much larger than yourself, you will make mistakes, and you will wipeout. It is a balancing act for even the best surfer, and success is, in part, dependent on the character of the waves the ocean delivers. Every once in a while in Australia, a good wave came my way that I had the ability and presence of mind to seize. My classes were interesting, and some were taught by eccentric Australian professors (though three of my five professors were Americans, which I joked was a rip-off). I went rock climbing with my Norwegian housemate, a fun and metaphorically resonant experience for someone struggling to overcome immaterial obstacles. On walks around campus, I discovered new plants and animals, and in those brief moments, I didn’t feel quite so lonely. That’s the thing about good waves, though: they’re only good when compared to the bad ones. Some days I slept 12 hours because I didn’t feel like I could do anything else. With the bushfires, I missed my chance to see the Outback, the rainforest, and the Great Barrier Reef. I went to Tasmania instead, only to bounce from hostel to hostel, lonely and secretly disappointed with the pastoral island state. 

My last sunset in the Blue Mountains. If you look closely, you can see smoke from the bushfires i...My last sunset in the Blue Mountains. If you look closely, you can see smoke from the bushfires in the valley.

On my last day in Australia, I took the train to the Blue Mountains and walked a trail that Darwin followed 184 years ago. I stood on the rim of the valley and looked out to where the sun was setting on the horizon, breathing in the cool air and the smell of eucalyptus. As I walked back, worried I would miss my train, I saw a flash of black and yellow in the fading dusk: a yellow-tailed black cockatoo—a rare sight in these mountains—had perched in a tree above me, screeching its car alarm–like call. On the train ride back, I made a list of all the things I loved there and would miss: 

  • The way eucalyptus trees smell and how their colors shift as the burning Australian sun moves across the sky
  • The beat of fruit bats’ wings at night when I walked past the tree in the field behind my apartment
  • The white streak of sulfur-crested cockatoo wings as they twisted and plummeted in the air above the Jamison valley
  • The outline of eucalyptus trees against the sky and the feeling that they’re the edge of the world
  • The cool feel of the damp air in the gullies
  • The sound of water running nearby
  • The brightness of a bottle brush tree
  • The blue shade of eucalyptus at dusk and their many colors during the day—blue, green, red, yellow, orange, and white like bones reaching out of the land
  • The heath
  • The ferns, weeping over cliff faces or spread across the understory like green flames
  • The thump of air as the train to Lithgow passed from tunnel to tunnel and the flashes of eucalypt-covered cliffs in between

When places become memories, they become mysteries. Once I stepped off the plane back in Dallas, Australia again became the mystical land I’d imagined as a child watching Fern Gully, only now I was part of the story. Shrouded with bittersweet sentimentality, the very place I had endured long, dull days waiting to leave is now called to mind with longing whenever I see pictures of eucalyptus trees. I hope that wasn’t the last time I’ll see that land, that Country. Not a nation or a landmass, but the earth beneath your feet, the sky above your head, and everything in between that makes it a home, ‘Country’ is an Indigenous Australian term that describes one’s connection to a place. I will not pretend that I have the same claims to Country as Indigenous Australians or even settler Australians (as is often the case, the indigneous term has been eroded by inappropriate use in wider Australian society). Yet I know no better word to express the acquaintance to the land that I began developing during my four and a half months down under. A lot of what I saw there has now burned, a victim of bushfires and climate change. But wow, I was in Australia, halfway across the world from everything I’ve ever known. That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?

This is not a story about overcoming. This is a story about making the best of and appreciating what you have, of valuing nuance and gray areas. I would like to say that I shook off the haze of depression and spent most of my time in Australia traveling that amazing country, but in truth, I spent most of my time traveling the tunnels in my mind that I have known since I was 15. Though easy to get lost in, they were familiar terrain in an unfamiliar land, and they offered an escape from questions of money, privilege, and right and wrong—questions I still don’t have answers for. Yet despite my despair and by some hermetic quirk of brain chemistry, I still managed to fall in love with that place. In hindsight, I would have done things differently, but whether I could have or not, I didn’t. And if I were to cross oceans, climb mountains, and crawl caves only to return and say the path was straight and clear, what good would I be doing those who will come after me?

In Australia, “no worries” is used almost exclusively to say “no problem,” “that’s OK,” “all good,” or any other way of expressing that everything is fine and there are no hard feelings. You can’t make dinner? No worries, we’ll do something next week. No worries, I’m never on time either. Not feeling up to it today? No worries, mate. 

So how was Australia? It was a mixed bag. You’re sorry to hear that? No worries, mate; that’s life.

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