I Thought Moving to Italy Would Fix My Depression, but Learned La Dolce Vita Won’t Solve Mental Health Struggles

Photo: Getty Images/Mathieu Young
Picture this: A free-spirited woman has just met an irresistibly charming Italian man. She reluctantly agrees to get into his small, vintage sports car, exclaiming, “You think I’m getting in that?!” He laughs at her American stubbornness, revealing a sexy smile that instantly softens her skeptical attitude. They drive up the winding country road to a remote villa, the car careening around every turn. They sip local Chianti, laugh over witty banter, and gaze out at the cyprus trees. Finally, as the warm sun sets behind the Tuscan hills, they kiss.

We’ve seen this movie, or some facsimile of it, over and over again. But we love it every time. I was lucky enough to take the leap that many of us dream of: to move to Italy and live as the main character in my own movie. But without any cameras rolling, I stepped off my Vespa into reality, and found it shockingly unglamorous and, well, real.

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I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety my whole life—I’ve tried therapy, antidepressants, self-help books, you name it. Then I decided that flying 3,000 miles for a dose of Mediterranean air and pistachio gelato might be the medicine I needed. Coming out of pandemic lockdowns, when we were all hoping for a fresh outlook on life, my cousin proposed the idea: We could take an extended trip to Italy, reconnect with our ancestors’ homeland and eventually complete the process of becoming Italian citizens.

I believed this might be the antidote to years of life malaise, a San Marzano-infused serotonin injection. I now understand this was a foolish thought, clouded by years of romantic movies and novels.

Italy has been idealized for decades. Was Audrey Hepburn eating gelato in Roman Holiday the first time we saw how this magical Italian ice cream could free us from the troubles of everyday life? After Eat, Pray, Love, how many women dreamed of feeding their spirit with Italian language, culture, and, of course, pizza?

“That’s the defense mechanism of idealization… ‘It’s definitely going to happen to me!’ We’re sold this idea of manifesting your dreams, but that only takes you so far,” says therapist Jessica Pretak, LCSW, of Sound Psychotherapy. It turns out this belief that we can follow in the footsteps of our favorite movie characters is a strategy we use subconsciously as armor against stressful and painful situations. Instead of facing our problems head-on, we dream of escaping our lives into something that actually only exists in fiction, thinking that will solve our issues. But when reality doesn’t match our overvalued expectations, there is a disconnect, causing tension, discomfort, and possibly depression.

While this kind of defense mechanism can serve really great purposes when we’re younger, at some point it becomes maladaptive, Pretak explains. As children, it’s sometimes necessary for us to use denial or displacement to feel safe and protect ourselves from emotional or traumatic experiences. But if we don’t shift this defense mechanism as we grow older, it can distort our perspective of the outside world, preventing us from fully processing the facts of reality. This leaves us feeling in conflict with ourselves, triggering our internal alarm system in the form of anxiety or fear.

Well, my internal alarm system is on Code Red a majority of the time. In the movie of my life, the main character is a young woman nervously sweating at a Venetian pasticceria, the shopkeeper pleading with her for an order, or really any sort of response. With social anxiety clouding any trace of Italian she knows, she reaches out a shaky finger and points to a flaky, cream-filled sweet in the case. Walking out of the shop, dizzy and jittery with anxiety, she inhales the pastry in two big bites to soothe her nerves. Insistent that buying sweets from a local pasticceria is an item on the expat checklist, she feels accomplished but certainly not satisfied.

Even before boarding the plane, I was nervous about making the move to Italy. These exact types of situations, objectively normal and manageable, to me—a historically anxious individual—are triggering. Anxiety prepares you for worst-case scenarios. But I had never seen a movie where someone cries into their gelato, so I thought I would be safe. My defense mechanisms took over and armed me for this dramatic life change, distracting me from the toll it could have on my mental health, and instead promising it'd be the answer to my inner turmoil.

I had never seen a movie where someone cries into their gelato, so I thought I would be safe.

And upon arrival, I did experience a temporary reprieve. My brain was running on overdrive, processing all these new stimuli and absorbing my new surroundings. There was a rush to see as much as possible, like an Italian scavenger hunt. It felt like the excitement at the start of a new relationship, discovering everything about the person and finding that even their quirks are cute. But after six months, maybe a year, I settled back into my baseline self, where depression and anxiety were waiting at the table, saying, “Did you think you could forget about us?”

On top of the language barrier and culture shock, other common feelings for expats are isolation and loneliness, but what I found most difficult is the shame that those feelings brought on. Expats are assumed to be living a fun and adventurous lifestyle, creating envy for everyone they left behind. For me, I constantly heard, “You’re living the dream” or “I’m so jealous. I wish I had your life.” But, did I feel the same way? These sentiments, said with good intentions, hit differently for someone that has lived for years with imposter syndrome. I was no stranger to restless nights, my head spinning with anxious thoughts and irrational worries. But a new one was taking up most of the bandwidth: guilt. “I’m lucky to be living in Italy. How could I possibly feel sad?”

Pretak says this reaction isn’t unusual for expats whose family and friends back home don’t quite understand this dissonance they’re going through. “When you can’t talk about something, you’re stuck in isolation,” she explains. “All of that really amps up when you don’t feel held and when you don’t feel like you’re in a community and can speak with other people about it.” One of the biggest challenges I found was that even when I wanted to reach out to loved ones back home for comfort, a six- to eight-hour time difference put them in bed sleeping.

As I told my experience to Pretak, she shared three coping mechanisms:

1. Acknowledge your emotions: “Identify and feel what you're experiencing. That helps to increase the tolerance with uncomfortable feelings. The more you increase that tolerance, the more curiosity you’ll feel, so you’ll feel more open, maybe be able to engage with those emotions a little bit.”

2. Be social: “Connection is the most important thing we can do as people to decrease isolation. Connect within a community [whether] it’s finding fellow expats or if it’s going to the coffee shop three days a week and just making conversation with whoever’s making your coffee.”

3. Breathe: “That’s one thing that regulates your internal alarm system. And if you can regulate physically, then mentally and emotionally, that follows.”

It’s been almost two years now; my cousin and I have settled into a routine and are past the starstruck tourist stage. Living in a small town an hour from Venice, the location is perfect for either taking a day-trip to a winery in the Prosecco region or eating tagliatelle al ragù in Bologna. The application process to become Italian citizens, initially promised to take six months, is finally complete, giving us countless options for the next chapter of our lives.

I want to be clear—I’m not unhappy all the time. Yet I need to actively remind myself of all the beautiful moments we’ve experienced so far. Sometimes I forget, and get stuck in that hole of guilt and sadness. I’ve learned that tiramisu will not cure depression, no matter how much you eat. Depression is something you take with you when you travel.

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