Addressing the proverbial elephant in the metaphorical room

It’s that time. Time to talk about the Big H. No, not Harvey Weinstein, the other thing. Homesickness.

A few months ago I dumped a bunch of potential titles for posts into my Drafts folder to remind me what I had ideas about. One title was simply Homesickness, and AJ said “Well, you can’t write about that yet, because you haven’t gotten over it.”

I think I’ve been truly homesick just once before, back in September 2003 (or was it October?) when my family drove me the three hours from Wales to Manchester, and dumped me there. I remember feeling a profound sense of loss that day when they drove away, leaving me living on my own for the first time ever. This experience has been wholly different, for obvious reasons.

I’ve been living away from home since September 2009 and, since then, have lived with fifteen different people, in seven different houses, in seven different areas (okay, East London vs South East London and Brooklyn vs Queens might not count …).
On top of that, I’ve had sixteen different job roles (albeit some of them similar, and some of them within the same company) for ten different employers.
The point of this is not to brag, but to point out that by now I should be good with change. ‘Rolling with the punches’ should be a persistent mindset and, for the most part, it is.

As such, I’ve been wrestling with homesickness from the perspective of simply dealing with it but also figuring out why it’s there in the first place.

I’ve been saying for a long time that in a hypothetical Doomsday Scenario where the government picked up a megaphone and said ‘Everybody must return to their home’, I would go to Wales, because everywhere else that I had lived had never felt like “home” to me – it was always just a place. At the same time, I never particularly missed people at home (sorry if you get offended reading that ;-)). The modern world being what it is, I could easily contact whoever I wanted and the power of Facebook made it all too easy to feel like you were more connected than you actually were.

Whilst that remains the case today – moreso in some cases – I’ve come to a startling conclusion. That is: I only feel properly connected if I know that I can go and see the person if I should choose and, most importantly, the level of connection is prescribed by the physical proximity.

For example, I would love to watch the lives and goings on of friends in Munich, Massachusetts, Finland, or elsewhere around the globe because these were people I had bonded with in some way, but that had always been distant. I liked to know that they were still okay, and that the digital world had allowed me to not loose sight of them.
For everybody back home, things were a little different; Facebook et al. became a lazy hand-wavey replacement for actually going and seeing people.

It would not have been difficult to pay more visits to friends and relatives. For most of my last 13 years I’ve owned a car and / or lived near major transportation hubs. The United Kingdom is not a particularly large island. Yet, as a lazy ambivert whose desires for human contact wax and wane like the cycles of the moon, social media provided the perfect internal excuse: I don’t need to make the effort, because I can see what everyone is doing. There was the unsaid, unwritten truth that if I needed to see anybody, they were a probably maximum of three / four hours away, on the same time zone and on the same landmass.

Moving away flips all that on its head, and bares most of the responsibility for the strange feelings that homesickness evokes. You’re not watching people whose lives you can easily drop into that very afternoon, anymore. You’re watching friends and family carry on their lives distinctly without you. Forget that this was always the case except for occasional visits or holiday events – this is a distinct shift in the reality of your relationships with everyone that you’ve ever cared to keep in your social circle; you are now on the outside looking in.

For me personally, the worst feeling has been that of creeping isolation, something which only really finally dawned on me on Christmas Day. When AJ came to visit in July, we were driving back to London on her last day and she became quite upset. The whole ride back she was quiet and pensive and, as we reached the outskirts of London, she explained her feelings; “You have so many friends here, why do you want to leave them?”

The truth is that I didn’t. I did want to move to America and be with the woman that I loved, but I didn’t want to leave everybody behind. However I knew that there was a choice between this network of amazing people – who would exist regardless of how far away I really was – and a relationship that would only work if I made the move.

I am still not regretful of that decision and, in many ways, life here is measurably better than life back home. I’m with the person I love. I get paid more. I live in a much larger place. Transport is cheaper. I eat more healthily. I can start planning a future, rather than bouncing between house shares forever and ever. The weather is less rain-centric (I was going to say better; it’s drier here but it’s much much colder in the winters). It actually snows.

I can’t speak for whether New York is better than London; for now, I miss London a lot and feel like in all measurable ways that are important for me, it is the better city. I had dinner with someone who had done the reverse move 13 years ago, and he told me it was five or six years before he grew to prefer London over New York, so I still have some time to go.

Ultimately, it is a lonelier existence. My work is now an office of almost 400 people, with a small team of direct colleagues who I’m still getting to know, with vastly different personalities and sense of humor than my old London colleagues, who I’d also known for several years. When I come home, it’s not to a house of three totally different, vibrant people who often came back with amazing stories of events or life-advice requirements, it’s to one person who is very similar to me; so it’s quiet and comfortable rather than loud and sparky. I’ve discovered in myself that, whilst I am mostly introverted, I still have a hunger for that personal connection with people who are living different lives and doing interesting things outside of my sphere.

Chat with home after around 5/6pm dies off – as it’s 10/11pm back home, people are retiring to bed, so my evenings are much more low-key and low-engagement than I’ve been used to across the bulk of 2017.

These are not bad things, they are simply different things; scenarios that I perhaps misunderstood, underestimated, or simply didn’t properly consider. Honestly, it’s very easy to talk yourself out of moving halfway around the world; if you think it’s the right move then it’s very much a priority to focus on all of the positives rather than the less-than-positives.

Leading up to Christmas, I felt all of this as a sort of dull ache in my core. I was apathetic, disinterested, quiet, depressed, but I couldn’t for the life of me get it out. I was very aware that I needed to engage more with everyone and everything around me, but couldn’t just do it. In my darkest moments, I had fleeting thoughts of giving up and going home – thoughts quashed immediately with the knowledge that it would probably do irrevocable harm, and not just to me.
AJ was tremendously supportive, but had her own problems to deal with, which I also wanted to support her with. From my perspective, it’s also not helpful to bang on all the time about how much you miss being back home when the whole idea was that I was making a new home in America.

It finally all came out on Christmas Day. I had a Skype call with my family and, afterwards, the floodgates figuratively sprang open. I spent most of the day dealing with a flood of emotion as everything that had been steadily growing, pressing on my eyeballs more and more with each passing day, burst out into the open.

By the next day, I felt fantastic. What a release! The whole thing had made me aware of some truths that I now had – have – to address. I am on the outside looking in now, so I need to start making new social networks on this side of the pond. I need to be more cognizant of my needs and address them, as opposed to burying them or trying to change myself to ‘stop missing things’. I need to call home more; those people are important for a reason and, if I can’t just hop in the car and see them anymore, I should make up for that in other ways.

Importantly, with stuff like this you shouldn’t try and “Hero” it. Don’t “tough it out” because doing so just forces you to ignore your reality. A friend said something very poignant to me a few weeks back; when I was living in the UK, I flew to America every two months to see AJ because the relationship was important. Now I’m here, I’ve been trying to avoid going home ‘too much’ (and won’t be going home until I’ve been living here for eight months as it is). Her challenge to me was – you travelled because your relationship was important, but aren’t your family and friends just as important?

Yes, as it turns out. Of course, flying home every two months is unrealistic from a logistical and monetary standpoint, but I’ve definitely allowed the idea that I should ‘stay here to tough it out for as long as I can’ subside and consider that maybe, if I take it all at a pace that actually works for me, then I’ll get better results.

How to sum this all up?

Moving continents is really very hard to do. If you’re considering it, firmly weigh up the relationships you have with people and places, and try to work out if you can survive those relationships changing – because they will. Most people said to me that they could never do this because they’d miss X, Y, Z too much. I countered with a casual hand-wave that ‘Oh well I only see so-and-so every few months anyway, and I keep in touch with everyone via WhatsApp’.
The reality is very different – you need to be aware of that.

Homesickness is a fact. It will hit you, and it will be discomfiting and upsetting and make you want to quit, even if just for a second.

As AJ said before I even sat down to write this – I haven’t gotten over it yet. I don’t know at what point it will just fade into the background and be almost unnoticeable. I don’t know when, or even if, the balance of Pros and Cons will forever fall more heavily Pro for the America side. What I do know is that acceptance and awareness of the whole interesting mess lights up a path forwards, and that I will look back on 2017 fondly, but look forward to the great adventure of 2018 with positivity and happiness.

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