like a kid at sleepaway camp
August 20, 2018 2:17 AM   Subscribe

I am overcome by homesickness and it is interfering with my work.

I am from the US, but living and working in a very resource-poor environment. The work is great, the people I live with are tolerable to excellent. But I am homesick in the worst way. I am so cognizant that I am missing so much from my friends and loved ones. It's not fear of missing out -- I am missing out. On weddings, weekends, parties, stupid jokes. I'm missing everything.

I will go back to the US for two weeks in October, but it feels like that just highlights what I'm missing -- I have to choose this wedding or that, this city over that.

I am crying at work, without even a chance to not cry. The crying just starts, without warning. Like eye diarrhea.

How do I cope with this? [Both the uncontrollable crying and the homesickness.]
What will make it better? What made it better for you?

Paradoxically, I haven't told many at home I'm feeling like this, because they will be nice and loving, as soon as anyone is nice to me, I start sobbing!!!

This work is so important to me and to my self and I believe it is worth doing, but I am having a hard time coping with this loss.
posted by quadrilaterals to Human Relations (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Addendum: I am in a very limited setting - there is no one or no way to socialize outside my colleagues (whom I live with); I am restricted in movement and honestly, there's nowhere to go.
posted by quadrilaterals at 2:22 AM on August 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

It sounds like this is a situation where you just can't fix what's wrong, so the way to move forward is to work on acceptance. Accept your sadness, and give yourself space and time to be with it. Do you have a place you can be alone, like a quiet room? Maybe there's a place outside that's a little secluded. Deliberately cry, be homesick, think about your loved ones and the things you miss in that time you're giving to yourself. Allow yourself to feel that way. Do this a little bit each day. Follow it up with whatever self care you can do with what you have there, maybe a cup of tea or a stretching routine or listening to some music.

Don't try to keep all the feelings blocked off when you're not focusing on them, but I think over a few days of deliberate acceptance you'll find yourself better able to function while feeling the way that you do, and able to appreciate the good things about where you are currently. Over time it will get better. It's okay to feel the way that you do, and it's okay to make working on those feelings a temporary priority.
posted by Mizu at 2:44 AM on August 20, 2018 [7 favorites]

In similar situations, I have been comforted by reading familiar books, topics, or authors — not books about home, but books that themselves were a kind of home. Can you get books in English?
posted by Countess Elena at 2:47 AM on August 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Is this temporary, or permanent? I dealt a long stretch of homesickness (while in the US, but in a place I hated and longing for the place I'd left) with a countdown calendar. I actually made it myself out of a stack of Post-Its -- I wanted something tangible so I could rip off every day and tear it to tiny little bits.

If it's a permanent (or semi-permanent/no fixed end date) situation, establishing a morning or bedtime ritual has been really helpful for me. Comforting books/music is part of that -- even if you can't get physical books in English, there's lots of free e-books available e.g. Project Gutenberg, or Overdrive via your old US library.
posted by basalganglia at 4:15 AM on August 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

How long have you been where you are? This is a pretty normal stage to go through when you are living and working overseas, but it shouldn't feel like this indefinitely.

This does get better, although it sounds like you have some particular challenges that make this even harder than usual. It might help to read up on culture shock and realize that this is normal and people get through it.

Also, there's nothing wrong with going home if you give it a few months and it doesn't get better--although be aware that you are idealizing home; going home won't solve your problems, and because our brains sometimes hate us, you might even get home and wish you were back there.
posted by tiger tiger at 4:18 AM on August 20, 2018 [7 favorites]

Oh, I've been there. People are right that sometimes, this is a temporary thing that everyone goes through. But I also know that when I'm thrown somewhere far away from friends and family all alone, sometimes I really can't cope (and my history on the green verifies that).

I totally get that people from home being nice will just make it worse. I guess eating comfort food from home could also mean lots of tears. Can you try to distract yourself with funny books or videos, or a mystery show maybe?
You say some of the people you live with are excellent; can you bond with them? The second time I got super homesick, I overcame it by making new friends there. The first time (which was, oddly, my second time abroad in the same place - the first had gone really well!), I just couldn't deal anymore and got so depressed I gave up. And as you can see, I'm still alive today to write about it. And dealing with a situation where I have to decide whether I prefer a good job abroad (I actually moved back there after some years) or to spend some time with my family before it is too late.

Only you know what you want, deep down. If you're like me and you can't bear the thought of missing grandma's last few years, is there any way you can go back home and work there? I know that's not always the case, unfortunately, and I apologize if the reason you're in this situation is because it was your only choice. That really sucks. In that case, I might try therapy and maybe some light mood stabilizer if things get too hard.

Could you actually ask people from home for more regular contact? Maybe if you could talk to someone different from home every day, you'd feel more involved? Can people Skype with you? It's still not ideal, but it's better than nothing.

I wish you all the best and that you find the right solution for you. Please feel free to message me any time!
posted by LoonyLovegood at 4:46 AM on August 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've been there, too. It's honestly unbearable sometimes, when it feels like the loneliness and distance are just crushing. Sorry you're having such a tough time. A couple things that helped me were: remember I why I was there and finding strength/meaning/sustenance/purpose in that; letting myself be sad and cry; embracing new community (even if limited to colleagues) to help fill the space that was left by home; and reaching out to the ones I missed and getting support and love from them, even if it made me miss them even more fiercely. I also hung up photos and other things from friends and home that made me feel less alone. Other things that helped were time (homesickness eased as it passed, and I got more adjusted into my new rhythm) and--not sure if this is applicable in your case, but-- remembering that it want permanent if I didn't want it to be. If you would like more general suggestions for coping and what's normal, you might want to have a google around for tips for Peace Corps volunteers--sounds like you might be in a similar situation.

Sending you a big internet stranger hug. It is really so very, very hard to be so far and feel so alone.
posted by stillmoving at 5:02 AM on August 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've been there, too, and it hurts - hugs. You don't mention in your post how long you've been there or how long you're going to stay. I've lived abroad several times for periods from 5 months up to 3.5 years, and the first third in particular can be incredibly hard. So if you're in that period (and even if you're not, hopefully this will all be useful) here's a massive brain dump of things that have helped me, because oh I know this so well:

* FOMO - well, yes, I guess you're missing out, but honestly, unless (as Loony Lovegood suggests) someone is actually dying, you're really not. You're going to have year after year of living in your home country. Ask me now in my 40s and I have to stop and think hard about which of my friends' weddings I went to in my 20s. Once when I was deciding whether or not to leave home and go live abroad for a year, one of my friends said: "On your deathbed, are you really going to lie back and think 'Ahh, I'm really glad I spent that fourth year doing that same job in London I'd been doing for three years already'. No. You're not. But you might lie back and think about the blue skies of the Falklands. Just go." She was totally right.

* This is probably easier said than done (social media has only become a thing after my emigrations and I'm so glad). But. Step away from social media as much as you possibly can. I lived in the South Atlantic for a while and knew a lot of people who overwintered in Antarctica, and it was well acknowledged that as soon as they got a decent internet connection, and especially after facebook launched, everybody got much more homesick. It was like they never really left home, always had one toe there, seeing all the things they were missing. Whereas previously, their previous lives faded fairly quickly and their attention was turned fully to the world around them.

* The limited ability to move about - I moved from London to Stanley in the Falklands, pop. 2000. For the first two weeks I felt very claustrophobic, just like "There's nowhere for me to... GO! Where do I GO?!" But I did get used to it. A quick look at your history suggests you've maybe been there several months already so maybe advice to wait and you'll adjust isn't useful - but I know someone who's worked for the UN in places like Afghanistan and trained for ultramarathons by running laps of the compound. So I guess making the most of whatever small opportunities you can for moving, and finding a target to focus on within that, can help.

* During the early portion of your time away, when the initial settling in has passed but you're still relatively early in the overall period, it's very hard, because everything is so different, you don't have such a rich life in your new home, and you feel the weight of all that future time pressing down on you. Once when I was in the early stages of living abroad, and wondering whether to go home because I felt so homesick, somebody said something to me that was really helpful (He's passed away since, so, in memorium, thank you David, I'm still passing on your kind advice): "When you embark on something new, it's like going through a doorway. And there's always a point at which you're already right on the threshold and you could go back, and you have to make a decision whether or not to step through. That's where you are right now." He didn't spell out the rest - that once you make that decision, you'll find new things on the far side that you didn't know were there. He just acknowledged that, even once you've arrived at a place and done the initial settling in, you sometimes have to make a further decision about staying, and it's hard, but the alternative is turning back completely. For me, I knew I didn't want to turn back, so I had to commit to going forward through that doorway. Making that conscious commitment felt better than just drifting on, unhappy and unsure. Even if you've actually been there a while, I think the principle holds true: Asking yourself seriously whether you want to go home, entertaining it as a serious option, and making a conscious, deliberate decision that you want to commit to this rather than going back makes a difference.

* What helped me (on another of my many emigrations when I was unsure!) was to set a point a couple of months in the future, and say "I'm going to make a decision then as to whether or not to stay." Thinking I might be going home in two months made it so much easier. When the two month point arrived, I was so much nearer the end of my stay that it seemed easy to do, so I stayed.

* If it helps, the second half of any period away goes SO quickly. You honestly won't believe it. So actually all you have to do is to get to the halfway point and then you're home and dry.

And finally... I sometimes get comfort from knowing that, even if an experience itself is fraught with anxiety and discontent, the memory of it is not. I can look back on times that I know were hard, and I know I was struggling emotionally some of the time, but when I sit back now and enjoy thinking through those memories, all I remember is the terrific adventure, and feel so happy I did it. You're doing a good thing that future you will be really grateful for - the sadness and regret is only felt by today's version of you.

Hope that helps - good luck!
posted by penguin pie at 5:52 AM on August 20, 2018 [10 favorites]

Oh! And on crying at work - hide in the loo and do a three minute breathing space.
posted by penguin pie at 8:27 AM on August 20, 2018

I'm from Cameroon and have spent many years overseas, in countries rich and poor. My main take from those experiences is that our brain is hard wired for human connections: regardless of the facilities and amenities that are available around us, the quality of our life is directly correlated to how engaged we are in our community (i.e. having friends, family and kindred spirits). I don't know if her books were translated into English, but the story of this Frenchwoman who married a tribal chief and settled in rural Cameroon is worth a read.

To overcome the homesickness you feel, you need to temporarily disengage yourself emotionally from your home country and make your current place of work your primary home. Become invested in the lives of the people around you, for they also have weddings and weekends and parties and stupid jokes. You didn't grow up there and it is dificult, I know, especially if you are not there for long and do not speak the local language. But if - for whatever reason - you cannot get commit yourself to establishing those links of friendship and kinship with the local people (ie. making where you are your home), then I think you should cut your stay short and go home.
posted by Kwadeng at 10:04 AM on August 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

In response to a previous Ask Mefi question on this topic, I dug up this document and wrote this post about it. From the document:
Traditionally, the stages of cross—cultural adjustment have been viewed as a U curve. What this means is, that the first months in a new culture are generally exciting – this is sometimes referred to as the “honeymoon” or “tourist” phase. Inevitably, however, the excitement wears off and coping with the new environment becomes depressing, burdensome, anxiety provoking (everything seems to become a problem; housing, neighbors, schooling, health care, shopping, transportation, communication, etc.) – this is the down part of the U curve and is precisely the period of so-called “culture shock“. Gradually (usually anywhere from 6 months to a year) an individual learns to cope by becoming involved with, and accepted by, the local people. Culture shock is over and we are back, feeling good about ourselves and the local culture.
I encourage you to read it, and possibly take some hope from it.
posted by mhoye at 2:14 PM on August 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oddball idea but if you really are in a rural area overseas, consider contacting the U.S. Embassy’s Consular Section to see if they need an additional volunteer warden. You don’t need to be a U.S. citizen and you essentially are their “person on the ground” in case anything happens. You’ll get some training, probably invites to a few meetings/parties, and opportunities to meet other foreigners. Not a huge commitment and a good way to create a link between your current life and the “outside world.”
posted by whitewall at 9:45 PM on August 20, 2018

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