Traveling is not always easy. Scrolling through photos of smiling faces in front of dramatic landscapes or ancient cities, it’s easy to build up an idea of what travel should look like. But it isn’t that simple.
Ever since I was a kid, I have struggled with homesickness. I couldn’t even sleep over a friend’s house until I was in eighth grade. Despite that, I wanted to travel and see the world. These two opposing parts of my personality gave me quite the headache. Or, more accurately, heartache.
During my years living abroad and traveling, I often found myself searching the internet for ways to make myself feel better when I was at my lowest. More often than not, I was disappointed. Aside from several comforting accounts of other travelers sharing their stories, the only articles I could find gave advice like ‘make friends’ and ‘stay positive’. Those words meant very little to me as I sat crying and alone in a dorm room in another country at two in the morning.
I can complain all I want, but that does nothing to solve the problem. So, I’ve decided to write a blog series about homesickness. This first post is going to be about my personal experience. Hopefully this will provide some context for my next post about the strategies I now use to help me prepare for and cope with being homesick.
Without any further ado, what the frick-frack is homesickness?
home· sick /’hōmˌsik/ adjective
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “homesick” as “experiencing a longing for one’s home during a period of absence from it”. Like most things, homesickness comes in many forms and intensities for different people. For me personally, this longing ranges from feeling a little sad or nostalgic to full-blown panic.
Homesickness and its close friend separation anxiety are things I have been well acquainted with since my entrance to this world – so much so that my earliest memory is of my first day at preschool without my older sister.
We are only a year apart, so I had only ever gone to school with her. One day she was sick and couldn’t come to school. I distinctly remember standing at the window bawling my eyes out as my mom drove out of the parking lot. My dramatic scene was only missing the soft patter of rain against the window and a swell of dramatic orchestral music in the background.
I didn’t have my first successful sleepover until the end of middle school. I say successful because I did try before then. I didn’t always want to be the kid that left the party once everyone else was getting ready for bed. Try as I might, the universe was not on my side.
When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I decided enough was enough. I was going to my best friend’s house, and we were going to have an amazing sleepover. I was so convinced that this would be the time I could actually stay the night that I packed at least a dozen of my favorite stuffed animals to make sure I felt at home.
Well, as bedtime rolled around, I felt the familiar pit of anxiety form in my stomach. That feeling of slight tension and discomfort where you are acutely aware of every single organ in your body. I couldn’t sleep. I worked myself into such a state that I convinced my friend to have her mom drive me home.
Of course the front door of my house was locked, and no one woke up when I knocked. This was before everyone had cell phones, so I couldn’t call them from outside. After ten minutes of this, we drove back to my friend’s house and got back in bed. My house was less than a five-minute drive from hers. That is the level we are dealing with here. It’s not exactly the origin story you would expect for a kid that graduated from college in the UK.
My subconscious had other plans.
There might be some people out there who read that little trip down memory lane and think that I was simply being melodramatic and overreacting. But it isn’t that simple. Feeling homesick is not simply a longing for home in my experience.
It begins with a general feeling of sadness. At this level it is still manageable. When things get worse, I feel nauseous, my stomach has butterflies, and I find it harder to focus. My chest feels tight, I start to freak out, and it feels like if I can’t find a way to get back to my family right then and there, I will burst into pieces. It sounds more like a panic attack, and it is not fun.
It was easy enough for me to ignore the problem well into high school. I just offered to host all the big sleepovers at my house. I didn’t go to sleep away summer camps. I wasn’t the kid that pushed myself. But, eventually, I started to have other ideas. During my junior year I applied to be a part of the exchange program. My school had just set up a program with a school in England, and I wanted to go. Blame Harry Potter, blame House of Anubis, blame what you will, but I wanted to go.
So I filled out my application, got my references, and just let it go. My excellent coping mechanism this time around? Not thinking about it. I wasn’t even sure they’d give it to me. What was the point of worrying? Well, fast forward a few weeks later and I received a letter congratulating me on getting a place on the England exchange. Two girls in the year below me and I were on our way to spending one month at an all-girls boarding school in England.
It was rough. I’m not going to lie to you. One of the younger girls was so nervous that she got sick in the airport before we even went through security. I was the upperclassman, so I had to be strong for them, but once I was on my own in the school, I was completely overwhelmed. The first day I was on the phone with my mom sobbing and asking her to book me a home flight for the next day. I didn’t think I could make it through the night let alone a whole month.
As you can probably guess, I survived. The program was not well-organized, but the woman in charge of my dorm was incredibly kind and patient. All of the staff from the cleaning ladies to the nurse were always smiling and asking me how I was doing whenever we crossed paths in the halls. I think they were all afraid I was going to have another nervous breakdown, but they were incredibly sweet. My nightly calls home turned into weekly catch-ups. I met new people and had my first birthday without my family. Day by day I got through.
Despite the lows, I got the travel bug. After that exchange, it was another month-long summer program at Oxford University. Then it was applying to UK colleges. Suddenly, I was packed up and shipped off to live abroad for three years.
Meet my new friend: contentment.
The first night of my Oxford program I called home. I was sat outside of my dorm room at the top of a little spiral staircase in a tiny crooked courtyard surrounded by stone buildings. The sun was just setting and I remember feeling so absolutely calm. There was not the slightest twinge fear or uncertainty. It was the craziest thing for me. I was in my jammies, reading a book, watching as small groups of people walked in and out of various buildings chatting among themselves. I felt content.
That program challenged me in other ways, but for the first time it felt like I had got through the worst of it. There is no better feeling than overcoming something you think will always hold you back. Don’t get me wrong, I was not magically ‘cured’. I still have nights where I am overwhelmed with homesickness, but I know that I can and will come out the other side. I know now that I am capable of being on my own.
It’s all about baby steps. Baby steps in the truest sense. They are small and unsteady, but every time a baby falls down, eventually they get back up to try again. Nobody bounces back like a little kid. I have strategies that help me get through and an awesome network of people who support me. Most importantly, I know that I am putting myself through this because I love traveling and doing my own thing. The result is worth the struggle for me.
I know that homesickness can be a serious obstacle to overcome for people who want to travel. I mean, it was an obstacle for me when I wanted to be away from home for one night. In my next post I am going to talk about the specific steps I take to prepare for my worst days and the strategies I use to help me through them.
If you have any tips or stories of your own, please leave them below! You never know what might help someone else.