The homesick expat. It’s a cliché. But, like most clichés, it reveals a truth. One of the first things people ask me when they find out we live abroad is ‘aren’t you homesick?’
But what is homesickness?
It’s more than just missing your actual home. You are now away from familiar routines, familiar faces, familiar voices. And you are no longer familiar to others – you are a known quantity at home, people get you. They know the names of your kids and your dog, they say hello when they see you on the street. To go from this to suddenly becoming ‘unknown’ is unsettling.
Psychologist Josh Klapow has defined homesickness as the “instinctive need for love, protection, and security – feelings and qualities usually associated with home.” Moving somewhere new and being stripped of all the things that make up our normal lives can leave us feeling isolated and exposed. Like you have shed your skin…but not quite grown a new one, so you are more sensitive to everything.
Homesickness for me is that ‘fish out of water’ feeling. Or like you have just jumped into a swimming pool – and it’s so cold that you feel disorientated. Your body is reacting to a change in environment and your mind is urging you to get out and dry off, to go back to where you were comfortable.
Sometimes homesickness triggers anxiety – you have lost your feelings of security and you are experiencing ‘fight or flight’ reactions. Sometimes it brings feelings of sadness and grief for what has been lost. Sometimes it is both. And it can be incredibly painful to live through.
How do you deal with being a homesick expat?
One way is to realise that it’s not necessarily about missing ‘home’, but about not feeling comfortable about where you are right now. You want to get out of that freezing cold pool. But the longer you stay in, the quicker you get used to it. Which is a long winded way of saying that you need to give it time.
Make yourself familiar with your new home as quickly as possible. Explore your local area. Find the shops that you need. Get a doctor and a dentist. Essentially you are creating a whole new mental map for yourself and it’s tiring, so also cut yourself some slack!
Make connections with other people. Finding friends isn’t always fast or easy, but social isolation will only make homesickness feel worse.
And, like the child taking a beloved blankie on a sleepover, surrounding yourself with much-loved items and objects helps make a place feel like home.
Does it ever get better?
One thing that helps is to realise that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the world. Well, it may be literally greener, depending on where you are from and where you’ve moved to. But it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking everything ‘here’ is rubbish and everything ‘back there’ was amazing. Taking off those rose tinted glasses helps you appreciate the here and now more.
Do I feel homesick for my ‘home’ in England? Not really, not anymore. Sure, I miss Marks and Spencer’s and I get jittery if I’m close to running out of Marmite or Yorkshire Tea. But I don’t miss my house or my home town. I don’t feel like I need to be in that physical place.
But I still experience feelings of sadness when I reflect on what I am missing. Not seeing my family regularly is hard; my baby niece and nephew think that I live inside an iPad as they only really see me on Facetime. I miss my friends. I miss seeing the children of my friends grow up. I miss being part of the fabric of the everyday life of my parents, my sisters, my friends.
And, as time has gone on and we have moved multiple times, my version of ‘homesickness’ has evolved.
I am a homesick expat, but I am homesick for something that no longer exists – a time and a place filled with people who are no longer there; we’ve all moved on. Going back would be like going back to someone else’s reality.
And actually, what I long for is a place that doesn’t even exist, an amalgam of everywhere we’ve ever lived, and full of all the people who have been part our lives. It’s somewhere I will never reach but I suppose, in a way, I will always carry it with me.
* If you feel your homesickness is becoming more like anxiety or depression, please seek advice from your doctor. Sometimes we all need a little more help