Not everyone grows up with a strong sense of belonging.
When home isn’t safe place for a child because your primary caregiver is also your abuser, you can’t grow roots. Instead, you dream of being anywhere but there.
My one regret in life is never finding the courage to run away from home as a teenager and waiting until I was 17 to leave under the cover of academia.
I’ve been a runaway ever since, moving countries like other people move apartments. Such is the magic of the European Union: Being a citizen of any of the 28 member states means you’re free to live, study, and work in another of the other 27.
Sometimes, we also pick up languages along the way and our cultural identity expands to accommodate a new linguistic homeland. For example, I fell into Portuguese and it became part of me. Just like German had done many years before.
The closest thing I have to roots is languages, cultures, and places that feel familiar because they were home at one point in my life.
In 2013, I immigrated to the US, intent on dropping anchor at last. I took America to be a place where the whole world was at home, or at least that’s what it looked like on paper.
However, depression felled me almost as soon as I landed. The ongoing cultural exchange that had characterized my life until immigration ground to a halt as the various parts of my identity atrophied and dropped off.
Unilateral curiosity is a ravenous and lonely beast. With gusto, I embraced the lifelong learning process that is figuring America out but there was no interest in what I had brought with me.
Thus began five interminable airtight, mostly monolingual years as the plaything of a parasite in my head.
You can’t put down roots in a place that resents your presence.
My being a foreigner caused my mother-in-law to shun my husband and I during the first two years of our marriage. Put plainly, I was Euro trash and deemed an inferior and thus reprehensible choice of bride on account of my national origin. That she too was an immigrant who later became a naturalized citizen — as I also would — is something she chose to forget.
Alas, the above probably mattered more than it should have. My illness was so incapacitating I transformed into a housebound hermit. In addition, my husband’s entire social circle was a dot: me. My family was back in Europe and his didn’t want to know us; isolation made up my daily reality.
Soon, major depressive disorder became a source of resentment: I was lazy, not sick.
I ended up adrift in a disintegrating marriage and then shipwrecked on the desert island of mental illness. So I retreated back into my head, battened down the hatches, and stayed there, waiting to die.
When we eventually moved into a house, I was never able to develop any affective connection to that building. Located on top of a very steep hill, home isn’t a safe haven but a prison as I don’t have a driver’s license yet.
My mobility never factored into the decision to move into that neighborhood, nor did the fact I may eventually be well enough to reclaim of life of my own, hold down a staff job, enjoy some independence.
Against all odds, I crossed the Atlantic again at the end of 2018.
After getting my airfare through writing and fundraising, I went back to Europe to help my parents navigate the ever-changing reality of Stage IV cancer.
During the first three months I spent by their side, the dormant roots I thought I had shed awakened to the sudden onslaught of family love and grew even stronger.
Against all odds, those roots even started sprouting new tendrils as I rediscovered long-neglected pieces of my identity.
The process of remembering who you are is confusing because you’ve inevitably changed. Then again, some of the things you used to love but took for granted are now infused with near-magical powers because you didn’t lose them after all.
I shouldn’t be here, I should have lost everything including my life.
And yet, vocation is how I’m able to be present for my parents and keep myself afloat even though depression stole my writing voice for five years.
My family is how I remember daily that I do indeed belong among other humans even though I spent years in a dehumanizing environment. Portuguese provides a constant source of joy and comfort even though I didn’t use it for seven years…
After contracting for years, my heart is now expanding again to accommodate the outlines of a different life which I am building, word by word.
Meanwhile, it is the daily ministrations of other human hearts that hold me together, giving me a sense of home in their midst even though I’m still living out of a suitcase for now.
What if home isn’t place but simply another heart that welcomes all of you exactly as you are?
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.