Two years ago I left a tiny suburb of Connecticut to go to school in New York City. And then about a month ago, in the midst of the summer heat, I packed up again to move into an apartment in the Bronx (a NYC borough). I really didn’t want to come to New York. I wanted to spend what felt like my last summer as an unwieldy kid living in my parents’ house. I wanted to work minimal hours and spend maximal hours at the beach. But an internship opportunity arose, and so off to the hot concrete of NYC I went.
I wasn’t anticipating the transition to be difficult. Sure, it was the first time I was living (semi) on my own in a place that wasn’t a college dorm. And yes, it was daunting to think about weekly grocery shopping and laundromat visits. But I felt I had already done most of the ‘growing up’ process. I had just finished my fourth semester of college, and I had only come home once during that stretch. I felt like I knew what I was doing, sort of. I had no idea how to get Wifi set up or fill gas or how to build my bed, but I had been living mostly out of my childhood home for two years already. I wasn’t worried about living on my own.
My mom and I drove from Connecticut to NYC on an excessively humid day in a large, windowless van. We spent the day driving and then unpacking and then sweating through our shirts. We ate sandwiches from my favorite bodega. And then when she tried to leave, I realized I really didn’t want her to go.
It had always felt weird when my parents left me in my dorm room on previous move-in days, though I’d always felt more excited than sad. But the idea of my mom leaving me in this empty apartment in the middle of summer didn’t seem very exciting to me. I wanted her to stay. Or I wanted to go with her. Even before she left I missed her. I missed the rest of my family. And my bed. My dog. The bats that scuttled around in the attic. Everything about home.
I don’t know what triggered this sudden bout of nostalgia. Maybe it was because it was summer, and I’d spent all my previous summers with my family. Or maybe it’s because I knew that living in that apartment meant I was going to be working a full-time job. In some ways, it felt like I had all of a sudden been tricked into adulthood. My summer was no longer going to be sleepy days in my childhood home—days when I didn’t change out of my PJs until noon and even then it was only to go lounge in the sun. I wasn’t going to be home for family dinners with garden tomatoes. I was going to be working full-time, plus two hours of commute, and living with people who I had known only for a year.
Over the next week, my homesickness got a little better. I was very busy. I had work and a long commute and a lot of furniture to build. But when I had adjusted and was finally sitting at my poorly assembled desk, all I could think was I wish I could hang out with my parents. Which sounds a little bit sad and a little bit uncool. I could hear my roomates laughing through our extra thin walls, and I thought why can’t I just be happy here?
I felt embarrassed. I felt like I was the only one who was sad and longing for home. I felt lonely and isolated. My roomates mostly came from just as far away, if not farther away, then me, so why did they seem to be having a great time and I felt sad and lonely and isolated? What were they doing that I wasn’t? It made me miss home even more knowing I was the only one who did. So instead of sulking at my poorly built desk—or sometimes while sulking at my poorly built desk—I asked them (and some other people) about missing home.
“Yeah.” The first person I asked about homesickness was one of my oldest friends, Noah. He was also living in NYC away from his family this summer. “I definitely do get homesick.” He said.
We were sitting in a tiny restaurant in the East Village waiting for our food. He seemed surprised that I was asking, and I pressed on, asking him when and why.
“I think it triggers it when I realize how fast I’ve been moving and how quickly I’ve forgotten about it. Like, I’ll pause and realize in a way I forgot about home, and that idea makes me miss it more. Now that I feel like I’m gonna move out in a few years, the feeling is like I’ve lost a part of my childhood. It makes me feel more isolated.”
I was surprised at how similarly we felt. Homesickness to me feels like an isolating disease, but the feeling he was describing felt so familiar to me. Especially the part about losing your childhood.
I messaged a similar question to one of my roomates, Alex.
“I do get homesick!!” was the prompt reply. I pressed her too, wanting to know when she noticed feeling the deepest longing for home. “It’s usually when I’m feeling exhausted or anxious and I want to be somewhere familiar so I can have something that’s consistent and predictable, if that makes sense. I don’t know how to describe it, I guess I just have a longing to be home and want to spend time with the people I grew up around.”
Her answer also resonated with me. As someone who thrives off routine, an upset to regularity makes me feel off-kilter. And the underlying routine of most of my life has been living at my family home.
Alex’s comment about consistency and predictability also struck a similar note with something else Noah had said to me. I had asked him what he missed the most about home.
“For me it’s the familiarity,” he said. “Home is the closest thing to your childhood, and for me my childhood was when I was closest to myself.”
The last person I talked to was Alley, one of my good friends from school. She was living at her family home this summer, but I wanted to talk to her because I knew this was an issue that had deeply affected her during her first year at school.
“There are definitely times when I feel homesick,” she wrote to me. “It can take me awhile to feel comfortable opening up and getting settled, so in the meantime I find myself thinking a lot about the places and people that feel familiar.”
When I mentioned to her that everyone else I had spoken to also mentioned being affected by the disarming lack of familiarity away from home, she didn’t seem surprised. And then—because I knew she was so well acquainted to the feeling of homesickness—I asked her if she could describe the feeling to me.
“Homesickness is interesting, because it doesn’t necessarily make you want to shout or cry the way some really strong emotions can. But at its worst you can feel overcome by it the way sadness or anger can come out of nowhere and drag you down. You feel hollow, anxious, lonely, disconnected. You feel completely lost and out of place, and worry that people will pick up on the fact that you feel like you don’t belong and start to believe it too.”
In writing this article, I did a lot of research about what homesickness really was. As it turns out, a lot of the psychological definitions are weak and vague. None of the ones I came across articulated the feeling as well as Alley did. I think her explanation is all-encompassing: the longing, the sadness, the isolation. Like you’re entirely off balance.
It made me feel so much better to know I wasn’t alone in my island of homesickness; everyone around me was feeling this way too. It was comforting to know that this feeling was normal. It was nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about. And it turns out when you talk to the people around you about it, it makes it much easier to cope.
“The way I’ve learned to cope is by talking about it,” Alley wrote me later. “I spent a lot of my life being quiet and keeping things to myself. I assumed that if no one asked how I was feeling, they didn’t really care to hear. So I wouldn’t share when I was feeling isolated, forgotten, or just generally down. Now I’m not saying to go around telling everyone, but find one person you feel comfortable talking to. For me, it was my mom. It felt good being able to voice my concerns and have someone tell me it was okay.”
Her concluding lines to me read:
“Being homesick is okay. It’s not something I look forward to feeling, but it’s also something I don’t try and ignore anymore. I confront it. And when I do, I feel better.”