Cold be travelers far from home

A view of Chicago in the second year I lived here. Warning, this is mostly a mushy personal post, but there's plenty of science to be had if you keep reading.
A view of Chicago in the second year I lived here. Warning, this is mostly a mushy personal post, but there’s plenty of science to be had if you keep reading.

In about a month, I’m going to be driving across the country to my new home in Alaska.

I’ve been living in Chicago since fall 2011, loving it and its people. However, some upheaval in my professional and personal life in the last five months or so has led me to want to get out for awhile, explore other ways of living and other people. That desire led me to apply for a job in remote Kenai, Alaska. I’ll soon be taking a position as a reporter up there, covering the business and government of the little towns on the Kenai peninsula.

When I moved from Arizona to a lonely highrise apartment in Chicago, I rode waves of cold, profound homesickness. I remember days of lying on the dense carpet, closing my eyes and seeing only the rolling, warm hills of my home, the achingly silent pines imposed over the staring lampposts I now saw every day on my way to class. Consumed by loneliness, I failed for a year to see the beauty of what was around me and what i had come for.

Of course, I came to love it. And now that I am going again to the quiet forests and icy-strewn oceans of the north, I feel the homesickness starting again, this time for Chicago. This city has grown me up, changed me, made me love people and yet a wiser individual all at once. I can never thank Chicago enough for all I’m taking with me and one day hope to return the favor by coming back and helping it right its wrongs.

We all know what homesickness feels like in some space. Be it a twinge in the back of your heart as you watch a loved one recede into the distance when you pull away from the train station or a long-forgotten photograph of your childhood home that suddenly reappears in the bottom of a scrapbook, that aching for the past, the cousin of deja vu, is familiar to most of us.

Homesickness is nothing new in and of itself, but this is the first time in human history it has occurred on such a frequent and widespread scale. For millennia, we traveled in tight-knit family groups and rarely went more than a few miles from each other, living out the entirety of our lives in close proximity to those we loved. All strangers were enemies, and therefore, the familiar was good. We rarely missed the ones we loved while they lived.

However, as we became less nomadic and settled into agricultural societies, the need to travel persisted. Thus, by being  tied to a physical location, we began to feel the twinges of loss when people we loved left us and when we left those we loved. The first time the term “homesickness” appeared in English was in the 1750s, but the feeling has been around longer than that, referenced in the Bible and other ancient texts. It is akin to the loss of familiarity and similar to withdrawal and subsequent depression.

Separation anxiety disorder, a comparable disorder defined by the American Psychological Association’s DSM, begins with symptoms of depression and anxiety. The brain, which patterns itself to routine, begins to search its surroundings and memory banks for signs of the familiar. Common symptoms include excessive thoughts and memories of home and loved ones. Sufferers complain of gastric and intestinal pains, lack of sleep, headache, feeling of tiredness and some eating disorders, according to a 2012 paper in the International Journal of Psychological Studies.

Some studies exist to explain the physical symptoms of missing a person or a place, most correlating to stress on the brain’s emotional centers, the anterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala, affecting physical control. There are few physical models to explain the phenomenon of homesickness itself– most are psychological studies. Two predominant models exist:

The first model posits homesickness as a loss. That feeling of loss of attachments sometimes turns into anxiety, grief and anger. It the feeling continues, apathy and a feeling of helplessness follow.

The second is based on the fact that a break in the way people used to lead their lives and fulfill daily routines can be a stressor, leading to feelings of helplessness. To survive in the new environment, the individual must cleave to the old saying: “Adapt or die.” Persistent refusal to change leads to debilitating psychological stress, social separation and pervasive homesickness symptoms.

The problem becomes larger as more people, particularly students, move far from home for professional reasons. China, a traditionally culturally isolated country, now sends more students overseas than any other country in the world, where few of the locals speak the language and the cultures are extremely different. As a result, may suffer homesickness and depression and many return home after graduation, taking their educations with them.

It’s a hard thing to be away from the ones we love, to know that somewhere they are still singing in the kitchen, making coffee in the morning and swearing at traffic as they drive to work. It hurts to envision the sun rising on your hometown when you haven’t seen it for years. But if it is any comfort, you are not alone in this feeling. It is one of the most human, to miss those we love.

A view of the Upper Kenai River, near where I will be living on the peninsula.
A view of the Upper Kenai River, near where I will be living on the peninsula.

I know that in my upcoming adventures in Alaska, I will sorely miss the parks and sudden beauty spots of Chicago– a bodega tucked beneath a bridge, wildflowers spilling over the Metra track, bright graffiti on an abandoned factory– but I will remember that as long as it is is here and I am here, we can remember one another. I hope that those I leave here for now will know that I am only stepping away, not turning away. If you close your eyes for a moment, I’ll be back before you know it. You’ll hear me coming.

That is enough to comfort me in the dark nights, when my heart hurts for home.

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