It’s been 10 years since I moved away from home. I was 18, leaving for university, and it broke my heart. My whole identity was wrapped up in being my parent’s daughter, my brother’s sister, my cousins’ cousin, a Switzer, a Reid – an islander. I didn’t know how my life would change by leaving, but I knew it would.
Growing up, I always felt lucky. I had an all-together idyllic childhood, complete with a huge extended family that spent Sundays together. I had 27 first cousins who were my very best friends in the world, and a cottage filled with bunk beds. My world was the distance between my house and my grandmother’s house.
Saying I ‘looked up to’ my older cousins is an understatement. They lived on the pedestal I built for them, and I defined my standards for ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ ‘cool’ and ‘lame,’ by theirs. I felt most safe and most myself when I was with them. Up to that point, our lives had overlapped and our experiences were shared. I didn’t trust my decision to move away, because it wasn’t the decision they had made.
It was my first week at school, and everything about my life felt different. For some, moving away from a place where everyone knows your business is a dream come true, a chance for anonymity; for me, it was scary and uncomfortable. I felt unhinged. I didn’t know what to do when my reputation didn’t precede me, when the question, “Who’s your father?” didn’t ground me in a web of connections. It was culture shock.
I felt like everything was changing, and I was terrified of growing apart. As a result, I held on too tightly and put pressure and expectations on the people I loved the most. This caused confusion, strained our relationship, and created the exact outcome I wanted to avoid. It somehow felt like their decision to stay threatened my decision to leave, and it was complicated maneovering between the path I took, and my need for their approval.
My heart was in conflict with itself. It was impossible to not enjoy the freedom of coming into my own, but I also desperately wanted to belong when I came home. I couldn’t figure out how to do both – how to love my new identity without feeling like I was betraying my old one. My entire safety network was on an island, and for the first time, I was separated from it.
I don’t know why it all felt so dire and dramatic, why I couldn’t just take it in stride and think, “We are all growing up and changing, but we love each other and that’s all that matters.” I’m sure there were many factors involved, including my age, maturity, and highly-sensitive people-pleasing nature, but I think being alone for the first time in my life, when my identity had been about belonging, is what dramatically intensified my neediness.
Over the past 10 years, it has gotten easier to be away. I eventually went through the painful and dissonant experience of individuation, and came to a few realizations that helped me find peace:
1) I thought that loving “city-life” or “life away from home” was mutually exclusive to loving “island-life” or “life at home.” I felt like they were antonyms, and if I enjoyed life away from home, it would result in loving the island less. I had an ‘ah-ha’ moment when I learned about the concept of dichotomous thinking and realized I was looking at it in an “all-or-nothing” way; I came to understand that I could hold two different views in my mind at the same time. I gave myself permission to love both experiences, and saw that doing so provided a more rich experience overall. My mom compared it to being asked which child you love more – there’s simply room for both.
2) I also realized I was feeling guilt, worrying “how it would look” if I didn’t move home. How it might seem like I didn’t appreciate what I had, or like I wasn’t close with my family. When I verbalized my fear to my parents, they helped me see how silly it was. As my dad says, “Closeness doesn’t have anything to do with postal codes.”
3) When I go home, people sometimes comment on my choice to live away and say things like, “Good for you, but it’s not for me” or “I personally just need to be close to my family.” These sorts of statements used to feel like passive aggressive blows with the hidden message being, “My life choices are superior to your life choices,” “I love my family more than you love yours,” or “Just in case you were thinking it, I am absolutely NOT envious of you.” I realized, over time, my loaded interpretations were born out of my own insecurity. Finding self-confidence, knowing what is right for me, and not needing the approval of others, has made a big difference.
4) The final step was forgiving myself for being 18, having an identity crisis, and for the way I handled my emotions at the time.
At some point, I may move home again. It’s also possible that I won’t. Either way, I know that my family loves and accepts me, even when I’m an island away.