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  • Henriette Johnsen

A personal account of loneliness & homesickness; from despair to hope, action and meaningfulness

Updated: Aug 28, 2019

Following my recent thoughts on post-holiday blues, I’ve been thinking a lot about homesickness and loneliness in relation to living abroad; particularly in relation to my own experiences following my divorce in London.


An American existential psychiatrist Irwin Yalom, whom I find immensely inspiring, distinguishes between everyday loneliness and existential loneliness. The latter is an unavoidable condition of human existence which according to Yalom refers to the fact that only one self fully appreciates one’s way of experiencing life; and that with death, our phenomenology dies with us. Everyday loneliness, Yalom argues, relates to a longing, yet fear, of intimacy; the fear being associated with feelings of shame, rejection and being unlovable.


Homesickness relates to a longing for one’s home when away from it and not yet having established meaningful connections in and a familiarity to one’s new environment. Homesickness can instigate for the sufferer to be preoccupied with and idealise attachments at home. For most, it’s a transitional phenomenon that many expats and immigrants experience once the honeymoon phase has passed; a yearning and longing for the familiar.


When homesick and without important connections in one’s new environment, it’s easy to feel lonely; and as such, life abroad is an ideal place for longing and yearning to set in. In my experience, it’s possible to feel homesick even after having created meaningful relationships and a sense of belonging in one’s new environment. It’s difficult and somewhat meaningless to compare the force of life crises; however, when without a substantial support network like family and long-term friends nearby, it’s easy to start yearning for these when struck by crises abroad.


When we first lived abroad, my homesickness was so painful I would be yearning for little things I had longed to moved away from, but their familiarity was a source of comfort even if I had found these aspects of my life dysfunctional. I’d often find myself looking at the clock recalling what I would have been doing at home, had I been there. Transitional as my homesickness was, it was much like going through grief; a loss of something that had been and no longer was there – at least not on my door step. After some time, I realised that by yearning, I prevented myself from adjusting to my new circumstances; and only then did I start to implement routines that would help me connect to my new environment and its people. Gradually and proportionally with creating meaningful friendships, a sense of belonging and connection emerged.


Both loneliness and homesickness have profound impacts on our mental and physical health. Loneliness activates the pain-processing areas of our brains and heightens our fight-or flight response. Not only can loneliness compromise our immunity and through an increase in our stress hormones mess with our sleeping patterns adding to the risk of developing a series of lifestyle diseases affecting longevity; it can also leave us hostile towards others creating a vicious cycle of isolation and disconnection. With homesickness, insomnia, anxiety and a profound sadness for one’s loss often follow.


As is the case with many other difficult emotions, it’s important to remember that emotions in themselves aren’t dangerous – they are just that: emotions; and with lots of self-compassion and willingness and ability to make changes to our lives, most often we are able to change things around. At least, that’s what I used to think until I found myself stuck in London with three children living a financially challenging and unstable life facing lots of obstacles that seemed surreal and unsolvable to me.


Leading up to my divorce, I had confronted a suppressed childhood trauma. I had always felt there was something not right in my life’s narrative; that something just didn’t add up. In the years prior to confrontation and healing, I had led a rather isolated life. Feeling increasingly depressed and worse about myself in combination with not knowing the source of my grapples instigated social anxiety and isolation. I was right into the above-mentioned vicious cycle of disconnection; but in hindsight, there’s no doubt that moving abroad was an attempt to deal with matters that were too difficult to process at home. Though there are still aspects unresolved, therapy helped me not only realise what had happened and been suppressed for most of my life, but also to confront it in an appropriate way. It helped me heal, gave me a new lease on life and eventually made me forgive what and whom needed forgiving.


Having reclaimed myself so to speak, I went out into the world with confidence and a zest for life that I never experienced before. A pool of new opportunities opened for me; but most importantly, I made some nurturing friendships with people who, despite not having known me for long, accepted me for who I was and stood by me when waters were too high and rough for me to navigate on my own. For this, I shall be eternally grateful.


However, regardless of very supportive friends, I experienced a profound sense of loneliness. Not in the sense of having no one around me or no one to turn to, but in the sense that ultimately, the issues I faced were mine. And mine alone! Despite working two jobs, I couldn’t make ends meet; and I was the only one to worry about paying the rent and feeding my children, to worry about the next request for court meetings due to my landlord’s neglect of mortgage payments, the bailiff’s visits to confiscate white goods form the property, a single mother’s difficulties with finding another place to rent in case of eviction and so the list goes on. Problems seemed to be queuing up and felt overwhelming and unsolvable; adding to that, I couldn’t even bring myself to think about retirement or financing my children’s education.


These completely surreal issues would be the last thing on my mind in the evening before falling asleep, and first thing in the morning when I woke up. And I woke up early; in fact, for years, I never slept past 2.30 am! I would wake up shivering from anxiety. With the risk of sounding histrionic, I felt as if I had been possessed and could find no solace. I experienced a strong and overwhelming sense of life being all wrong, of not belonging anywhere and of not being able to solve and make matters better for myself. I didn’t recognise myself, made choices very unlike my character and felt I was wasting good years.


At the time, I was seeing a therapist who very comforting offered to see me bi-weekly to best support me through my struggles. In combination with the extensive therapeutic work I had done whilst training to become a therapist, her support and the work we did together helped me be me, to create a greater awareness of my relational patterns and my navigating the world. This awareness enabled me to gradually feel a greater sense of agency in the world and as such helped me to take ownership of myself to become the person I truly was. Probably for the first time ever, I was ready to be me and step back into my life in Denmark, warts and all. For me, this was life changing.


Given the Hague Convention prevented me from moving home with my children where I could support us, I felt stuck. Without consent from my children's father, I risked being charged with kidnapning. The thought of moving back without my children was unthinkable; but eventually, and after a long bout of adrenal fatigue, I realised that if I didn’t change my life dramatically (read: move back to Denmark), I risked my long-term health and as such would be of no good to my children – or myself. I imagine it must have been heart breaking for my children’s father to let the children move back to Denmark; but after months of negotiation, he thankfully agreed; and so, sparring the details, the first night we spent in our house in Denmark, I slept for 8 hours straight, a first in many, many years. Need I say more?


Recently, when visiting friends in London and rummaging around my old neighbourhood, it surprised as well as pleased me that I could no longer sense the profound emotional desolation, nor the overriding anxiety which I felt for a vast part of my post married life in the outskirts of London. And given the horrors of it all, why would I want to?


Every morning, I wake up feeling blessed: My current life is financially secure; my children are well provided for and thrive in their whereabouts; I enjoy good, stable and meaningful relationships; I have a fulfilling job and am excited about both the present and the future. I now have the best of both worlds, a safe and secure life at home in combination with trips to my beloved London catching up with some very special friends. Without them, and a fantastic therapist, I don’t know how I would have coped and eventually managed to find my agency in life to make sufficient and appropriate changes.


In my practice, I now enjoy helping others gain knowledge and awareness of their relational patterns to create a truthful narrative about their lives and from that, change to live in more fulfilling and for them satisfying ways with meaningful relationships, both here and in their home country.


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