For most people, taking a vacation provides an opportunity to unplug, unwind, and clear your mind for awhile. Having just got back from 2 weeks abroad, I’m not feeling rejuvenated in the least, but rather I’m overwhelmed by an odd sense of unease and disequilibrium. I should start by saying that over the past few years, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to travel a lot, and during that time, I’ve noticed something unusual occurring—with each trip, I’m becoming less and less homesick. In fact, instead of looking forward to “coming home”, I’m depressed about picking up where I left off.
Have you ever had something in the back of your mind that starts as a little whisper and gradually grows to a feeling that you simply can no longer ignore? That’s exactly what’s been unfolding in my life. What seems to be missing is identifying with what I would refer to as a “sense of place”. To some people, this is a characteristic associated with a geographical location. For others, it’s an etherial attachment to a community rooted in family, friends, and support. This begs the question: “If it’s possible to fall out of love with a person, is it possible to fall out of love with a place as well?”
For the past 23 years, I’ve been working for one of the school boards here in Toronto teaching English to newcomers to Canada. Every day I witness first-hand people struggling with assimilation manifest in alienation due to a disassociation with their “sense of place” in their newly adopted home. I’m intimately familiar with the emotional roller-coaster that my students succumb to as they desperately try to fit into their new surroundings. So it is through this lens of accumulated professional experience, that I too, ironically, see myself as alienated from the place that I have called “home” for most of my life.
When we think about how we establish a “sense of place” in our life, one factor is of particular note—the importance of childhood experiences in shaping our attachment to a particular environment. Direct interactions with family, friends, and school shape our view on life and help establish our “grounding” to a specific place. This primal landscape tends to define where we feel safe and most comfortable. Our path in life may draw us away from this sacred place, but we invariably return to it either physically or metaphorically at various points throughout our life. It’s in our blood and etched into our psyche.
But what happens when our childhood does not unfold as it naturally should, or is in some way truncated by trauma or some other catastrophic event? I wrote in a previous post about my troubled relationship with my mother, who walked out on us when I was 9, and the impact of being raised in a single-parent household led by my father. This has resulted in a fractured relationship with my siblings with whom I now have either no, or superficial contact. It’s also no secret to those of you who have been following my blog, that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I harboured that secret for 35 years, and I allowed the shame of that trauma to denominate and regulate most of my adult life.
When I take all of this into consideration, it becomes clear that the essence of my current feelings of alienation are twofold—a physical lack of connection to this place I’ve always called “home” due to dysfunctional social circumstances, and a more profound absence of an internal “sense of place” as a direct result of acute childhood trauma. I’m struck by the frightening fact that the sense of belonging I thought might come from a geographical relocation may in fact only appear once I have learned to live with myself. It’s so much easier to dream about living in a warmer, more laid-back environment than it is to embark on a trip for which there is no map—a journey to find out who I am and what it feels like to live in this skin. Emigrating from this land may indeed be in my future, but any escape will be futile if I don’t accept that no matter where I arrive, I will inevitably encounter “me” there.