Freelance writer and expat Kate Leaver asks a psychologist for her advice on tackling homesickness
In 2015, I moved 12,500 kilometres away from my friends and family. I casually packed a big, navy suitcase with the warmest things an Aussie girl might own and got on the plane from Sydney to Heathrow, watching from the window as one life vanished behind me and another materialised in front. My sister was living in Aldgate East at the time, at the top of eight flights of winding stairs in a converted primary school. I gratefully snuggled under her orange mohair blanket on the sofa, watched the entire series of Miranda and scoffed the chocolate-chip hot cross buns that she baked.
I had a few adventures with my childhood best friend, Luke – we went to Berlin, Bruges and Vienna. The very idea that we could get on a train or a plane and be in a foreign country so quickly, having grown up with a great expanse of sunburnt country sitting between ourselves and most travel destinations, was an insanely lovely novelty. It still is.
Not long after, I landed a shockingly good Harry Potter related job and started building a career here. A few terrible Tinder dates and a failed long distance romance later, I fell in love with an offensively handsome Englishman. We’ve just moved in together and adopted a dog. I’m gearing up to launch my first book in a matter of weeks. I know where to get the best Sunday roasts and the best routes for dog-spotting on Hampstead Heath.
All of which is to say: I am settled here, in my new London life. I am contentedly nuzzled into life and love and work here. And yet – and yet! – I find myself, recently, feeling homesick. Some days, I can feel those 12,500 kilometres in my heart. Especially when something happens to someone I love back home – my dad got pneumonia recently, my darling friend had a brain tumour removed and my grandma died. I feel so far away that I may as well be on another planet. It takes roughly 30 hours to get from London to Sydney and it’s not the kind of thing you can just do when you’re feeling a bit sooky. As it happens, I get to go home soon to launch my book in Australia, and I am so looking forward to it.
But I have to admit, homesickness feels kind of silly as an adult. It seems like the kind of thing you grow out of, the kind of thing you leave behind in childhood, the kind of thing that meant your friend’s mum had to call your mum in the middle of the night at a sleepover because you couldn’t make it through until morning without your own bed.
To make myself feel better – and hopefully, help anyone else who secretly misses their home right now – I spoke to psychologist Doctor Perpetua Neo for some normalising and coping tips. For a start, she says it’s perfectly natural to miss the familiarity and safety of home. In fact, she says it can be a kind of grief to move away from our home. We can experience it as a loss, and we’re not terribly good at coping with that feeling.
Dr Neo says being aware of your parents’ mortality and knowing that they’re ageing without you being there can also exacerbate this feeling, and that’s definitely true for me. It could also be that the novelty of your new life is wearing off, and you’re looking at your old life with rose-tinted glasses. And of course, you’d certainly be homesick if it wasn’t your choice to leave in the first place.
So, what to do about it? “Work on it and pinpoint the source of your homesickness,” says Dr Neo. “Our brains love closure, so having a story that explains why we feel the way we do is key, way beyond all the tips to manage our nostalgia, depression and anxiety.”
Secondly, if you’re only communicating with people back home, stop. “Build a new life. Establish new rituals. Experience what life has to offer you, because chances are, your hometown isn’t perfect. Know you’re not alone. Homesickness is more common than you think, and there’s no shame.”
And so, here is my plan. I have quietly acknowledged to myself that not being there while my family, including my parents, my sister, my little nephews and baby niece, grow up and grow older without me is making me feel nervous and melancholy. The weather here is making me yearn for warm Sydney nights and sunny Sydney days. Knowing people haven’t been well has exacerbated my feeling of distance. And so, I’ll hang tight, know that this is a natural feeling, indulge in a little nostalgia, keep my WhatsApp groups going, but also make sure I’m engaging with my life here, and continuing to make it feel whole and fulfilling and lovely. Getting a dog has helped. It always does.
Dr Neo’s top 4 tips for getting over homesickness:
1. Acknowledge your feelings to yourself kindly. Don’t expect to adapt to change with a snap of your fingers, or be immune to nostalgia. It’s often our judgment of our own feelings that makes everything worse.
2. Ask yourself “How can I make the best of my new life now?” Don’t simply wait until you wake up on the weekend to think about what you want to do, because you’ll most likely believe “there’s nothing” and go back to bed, then feel like crap later. Have a list of things you’d love to experience way ahead of the weekend. Commit to them.
3. Meet new people. Go to a professional networking group, pursue some activity, or go to a Meetup group. And don’t expect yourself to meet the right people immediately. It’s a numbers game.
4. Speak to someone about it if you’re experience depression, anxiety or panic attacks. When you are rid of these baseline problems that haunt you, you are freer and lighter to pursue life. Or to take life by the balls when it presents itself to you.