Cockroaches and comfort zones.

Before I arrived in America, discomfort was something I did for fun at the weekend. It was my way of dealing with stress and sadness, it was my way of channeling excitement or joy. The thing about that discomfort was that it was finite: I’d head out for a long run with the promise of a bubble bath or a lazy afternoon ahead, or I’d push myself during a Parkrun while looking forward to a slap-up breakfast and a relaxing Saturday with my husband.

I thought I was sufficiently equipped to deal with all of the discomforts in life. I thought that being so familiar with the areas outside of my comfort zone would mean that all of the new challenges would have a faint hint of the familiar to them; that I might be more like the intrepid explorer into my own discomfort than the shipwrecked survivor on a desert island, frantically signalling SOS.

The fact is that nothing could have prepared me for the host of challenges awaiting on the other side of the Atlantic. There has been very little finiteness to the discomfort writ large. But, while homesickness, heat, lack of mobility, loneliness, bedlessness, illness, anxiety, financial worry, Ikea-induced rage, and a whole host of other things have been really hard to deal with, I’m finding it increasingly possible to push these things aside. It’s getting easier to move forwards without getting tripped over by things that initially would have floored me. I’ve learned that most problems can be overcome, many of them easily, and so I dwell less on things that are — at least momentarily — out of my control. This has now been proven countless times by the delightful North Carolina treat that is the cockroach.

I encountered my first cockroach on a Sunday night at 10pm, just as I was looking forward to rolling into bed ready for a busy week of research. As I approached the bathroom (which is adjoined to my bedroom) I noticed something large and shiny scuttling over my dresser. There are two types of poisonous spider (including the black widow) in North Carolina, as well as poisonous snakes: cockroaches, by comparison, are absolutely harmless. But if you’ve never seen a cockroach, they come with their own class of terrifying. And this one — my very first cockroach — was a special Southern cockroach called a Palmetto bug; its body was as big as my thumb, it was shiny and black, and I could actually hear it scuttling over the wood.

To cut a long story short, I cried. I did not sleep that night. I kept the bathroom light on, and lay awake imagining hundreds of these beasts scuttling over me. I kept having to check that there were none in my bed. In the bright light of morning I accepted that I may have overreacted slightly, but for the next few weeks I was on look-out at all times.

This was not my last instance of spotting a cockroach in my apartment, and pest control has since been over to keep them at bay (hurray for my awesome landlord, once again). But as it happens, the first cockroach was by far the worst. The rest have been small and brown, and easily squishable. I hate that I have become a bug-squisher since I arrived here, I never ever ever killed insects when I was at home (not even wasps or flies), but cockroaches are an easy exception to the rule.

So what does this have to do with comfort zones and settling in America? Well, as much as I still hate and dread cockroaches, they have demonstrated quite clearly that I’m getting better at treading this never-before-experienced outer plain of my comfort zone. No matter how hard things feel, the fact that a cockroach-sighting is no longer enough to push me over the edge is a small, shiny reminder that I’m getting a little tougher. And as a result, things are getting a little easier.

I knew this was going to be hard. I didn’t know how hard it would be, and I didn’t know that it would be the small things, like cockroaches, that would knock me over the edge. I hadn’t even considered cockroaches before I arrived; I was more concerned about missing my husband and doing a good job at Duke, and gun crime — all justified worries. I knew it was going to be hard and I believed from the start that it would get easier, but I never considered that it might get easier as a function of my increasing resilience. Just as running marathons gets easier once you’ve done it once or twice, so too do homesickness, cockroaches, loneliness and all of the other things that have to be encountered at the start of a big and scary life change.

As for the finiteness of discomfort that I refer to at the start of this post, it’s becoming easier to find new value in things that were previously unnoticed as being anything but ordinary. And it turns out that these small things are what help the bigger things feel less big. A good night’s sleep, a hot shower, a cool morning, laughing with someone. Even friendly small talk with a colleague in the corridors of the department. I’ve started adding as many of these ‘comforts’ to my days as I can, re-framing something that otherwise would have been ‘just normal’ to become something warming or relaxing in my day. The discomforts of being new, and being in an unfamiliar place, continue nine weeks in. But I’m increasingly finding old ways to return (temporarily) to my comfort zone, shaping my day around them as best I can so I feel less overwhelmed by this new and unfamiliar life that is starting, somehow, to become my own.