Today I’ve been in North Carolina for one month. In that time I’ve felt a full spectrum of emotions, from despair to elation, but my main emotional state has been homesick. I still feel homesick, I’m not sure how long it will last (I’m told three months) or if it will ever properly end — perhaps it’s a matter of personal circumstance— but it’s a state that I’m learning to live with because I have to.
Homesickness is something that all international scholars and faculty are informed about. We are told ‘you will feel homesick’ and we’re even provided with a little chart to demonstrate how our emotions are likely to change over time. I didn’t even look at the chart — I saw the word ‘honeymoon’ on there, which was how I was supposed to be feeling at that very stage of my time in America, and I put it aside. I’ve been on a honeymoon, I knew that it didn’t resemble anything like the way I felt at that moment. The chart didn’t come with any practical tips. I’m not sure I’d have paid any attention if it had, such was my state of mind at the time. But practical things can be done, it’s just a matter of finding what works, and what works probably changes over time.
On my second day in Durham I was suffocating with jet-lag, heat and homesickness. I had an afternoon nap on the bed, and waking from that sleep was probably in the top five worst moments of my entire life. Definitely top 10. I simply had no idea what to do, either practically or emotionally. I went to the supermarket, and felt better when I got home. The next day I went to campus for the first time to meet my advisor. Leaving the meeting, I couldn’t have felt more excited about my new job; overall that day I was on a high, and so positive about what lay ahead. These two moments happened within 24 hours of each other, but they are my extremes — probably the lowest and the highest point, squished very close together, days 2 and 3 post-arrival.
Little-by-little my experience of homesickness has changed, revealing its own glorious spectrum from ‘unable to function’ to ‘minor grumble’. The trajectory has been largely upwards, with decreasingly-frequent drops right back down to zero. Picking back up where I left off is usually easy enough after some sleep and a dose of fresh air. So I’m getting there. At first my eyes would tear up if I spotted a cat in the street, or if I thought for more than a passing moment about something to do with home. I was constantly pushing thoughts out of my head and emotions down into my feet. I had no photos in my apartment, I steered clear of anything ‘British’ (I’ve still only had 3 cups of tea and no Radio 4), and I didn’t even think about all the wonderful adventures I’d shared with my husband in the holiday we’d taken together before I left. I kept my blinkers on and counted the days, pacing myself as if in a marathon: 52 weeks is, by some wonderful happenstance, two lots of 26 weeks. So every week was half a mile, and I took it half a mile at a time. I am still taking it half a mile at a time.
Now, I can drink tea. I listened to BBC6 Music last night and I even cooked one of my favourite ‘home meals’ on Friday. I can think about nice memories without crying, and I have lots of photos around my apartment. But still it lingers. Before I open my eyes each morning I have to realize that I’m not in York, my husband is not here, and it’s going to be this way for some months to come. For a moment it stings, but then I get my shoes on and get a bit of cool(ish) morning air. It’s not perfect, I cry a lot more than I ever have before, my inner-child is closer than she has ever been. And my outer-adult knows that this is a very valuable state to be in.
The conclusion: it gets easier, the worst bit doesn’t last long. And there are things that can help, though I suspect these are situation-dependent. Here are some things that help/helped me:
- Fresh air.
- Being around people, small-talk. In the supermarket or a bookshop (an excellent place to find someone to talk to).
- A nice shower.
- A good cry.
- Listening to something inspirational.
- Watching Friends on Netflix.
- Working on a journal article. Specifically, drawing graphs.