Phases of Homesickness

How the cycle of finding new communities helped me grow

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Each time I’ve left home, I’ve become more independent and also more rooted in my communities — as it turns out, the two are not mutually exclusive. I’ve learned that the stages between feeling homesick and finding community again can be remarkably similar. I’ve also found that the end result isn’t always the same, some places become second (or third or fourth) homes and others just don’t.

When I first left, at 16, I wanted to challenge myself in a place without my strong family ties, the comforts of familiarity  and a community of people who had known me since kindergarten. The spring of my sophomore year of high school I was accepted to a yearlong scholarship exchange program in Germany. I waited to leave in eager anticipation, confident and ready.

Before I left, I received a program email detailing the stages of culture shock and homesickness. Each phase — the honeymoon phase, the hostile phase, the grin and bear it phase, the unresolved phase and the effective phase — was explained in detail. At the bottom was the sentence, “If you do not experience these you are […] especially flexible and open-minded!” I disregarded the email. After all, I was flexible and open-minded.

Illustration by Anna McGrew

I arrived in Germany in August. Everything was simultaneously overwhelming and exciting and I danced my way through the first weeks. I felt sure these honeymoon phase feelings would last me the year. Phase one and done.

I started school a month into my time there and despite my best efforts to hold on to my upbeat approach, I couldn’t do so forever.

Comparisons became a frequent and touchy conversation topic (the hostile phase). I buried emotions and claimed everything was okay, but was mentally exhausted and struggling to adjust (the grin and bear it phase). My limited German kept me on the outskirts of conversation and I felt isolated (the unresolved phase). In short, September and October were difficult and I realized I was not, in fact, immune to homesickness.

In this time, I learned how to be alone and how crucial community truly is. I developed a deeper appreciation for the hometown I once dismissed. I also dug myself out of my small hole of homesickness and this extra effort was rewarding. As my language and familiarity grew, so did new relationships.

I began to feel consistently happy again and reached what the email described as the effective phase, as finally feeling at home, and doing so made me feel successful. Going through the painful experiences and coming out on the other side with a stronger sense of self and community made the concept of home even more valuable to me. It was no longer something I would take for granted.

When my exchange year ended, I thought because I had left home and returned every subsequent, similar action would be easy.

It wasn’t until four years later that I realized this wasn’t the case.

This past summer, I left a newfound home in Santa Cruz to spend three months living in Ketchikan, Alaska. I was enamored with the beautiful, forested islands and excited to spend my summer hiking and learning about plants. But this time, within a week, I felt isolated and upset. I could recognize the next phases of homesickness from my year abroad even though I wanted to enjoy being in such a beautiful, albeit rainy, place.

I never reached the effective phase like I had in Germany. I made the decision to take care of my mental and emotional well-being and came home early, in desperate need of the familiarity of my childhood home.

For a while, I felt guilty. Guilty for being less adventurous than my high school self, guilty for being less committed to the experience, guilty for spending $127 to reschedule my flight home. But now, I realize that my time in Alaska was just as valuable as my time in Germany.

Returning to a familiar home place is not a sign of weakness but a recognition of the importance of community. Sometimes a place will speak to you and sometimes it simply doesn’t. Sometimes you have the emotional capacity to invest time, energy and intense feelings into finding a new place that feels like home. And sometimes you don’t — scenario A and B are both okay.