Where the heart was

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ONCE STUDENTS OUTGROW THEIR HOMETOWN, GOING BACK TO VISIT IS NEVER THE SAME. WORDS BY VALERIE DITTRICH

H

olidays are not fun for me. Every Christmas, I take a two-hour long train ride from my apartment in Toronto’s east end to my parents’ bungalow in St. Catharines, Ont. While growing up, I would’ve called it “my house,” but now I refer to it as my parent’s. 

My house had my bedroom, painted sky blue, where I spent almost all of my time. Now at my parent’s house, I sleep in a single bed beside the laundry room. The sky blue room is now a gloomy grey with a flat screen, two large theatre chairs and my father’s framed comic books and Star Wars posters hung above them. 

I can’t really blame my parents for making use of the space. It’s been over three years since I packed up my life and moved to Toronto to pursue journalism at Ryerson. I didn’t just move to be closer to school—though at the time, I felt like I needed to get out. I felt like if I stayed in St. Catharines, I wouldn’t move forward in my career or in my own personal growth—I would remain stagnant. This fear of being trapped was so pervasive that now, I can’t go home for more than five days before I begin to feel antsy.  I start to feel that same anxiety, as if the nervous 16-year-old girl who just wanted to fit in somewhere is slowly creeping back into my consciousness. 

Every holiday, every birthday and every weekend I’m there, it feels like an emotional minefield just trying to get through a few days. It’s exhausting. I slip in and out of depressive episodes, laying down on a bed that doesn’t feel like mine and waiting until I can take the train back. 

According to individual and family therapist Joanna Seidel, there’s a number of reasons why someone may want to move away for school besides the university itself. Moving out is often depicted as a stepping stone to adulthood and an opportunity to gain more autonomy and independence as an individual. 

Others may leave the nest for reasons that have nothing to do with money—sometimes it’s forced, and other times it’s for survival. Leah Lucas, a registered psychotherapist who specializes in psychoanalytically oriented therapy says that students may decide to leave to get out of a toxic situation. 

This is particularly true for queer youth. According to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, LGBTQ2S youth are estimated to make up 25 to 40 per cent of the overall homeless youth population despite representing five to 10 per cent of the general population. The most frequently cited reason for homelessness in queer and trans youth is “identity-based family conflict resulting from a young person coming out.”

In other situations, students act on an overwhelming need for change, Lucas says.

Regardless of the reason, when a young person has outgrown their hometown it can be challenging and even harmful for them to return—whether it be an issue of mental health, shifting family dynamics or even homesickness. 

“More often than not, people will want to put a large distance between them and the family, so there’s more of an excuse not to go home,” Lucas says. 

I often feel guilty about how infrequently I go back to St. Catharines. My parents let me go, but things will come up: my mother, over a hushed phone call, asks if I’m coming home for my father’s birthday this weekend. My father sends me photos of his workshop and all the projects he’s working on, asking when I’ll be down next to see them. I miss them, but the feeling is overwhelmed by the anxiety and dread that comes with even the thought of going back home. 

For 18 years, my entire life was confined to less than 100 square kilometres of sprawling suburbs; the kind of place where you can’t go to a grocery store without seeing someone you know. The landscape still looks the same: my high school around the corner, the fish and chips shop down the block, the faces of my friends who knew me back when I had braces. But I don’t feel the same.

T

ess Stuber loves her childhood hometown of Bexley—a suburb of Columbus, Ohio— so much so that she has a tattoo of the front door of her family’s house.  The door stands slightly ajar, with the number 745 on the doormat. 

“The door is open because my mom always made it clear that our home is an open house,” she says. 

Stuber says Bexley is the kind of place where you know almost every face walking down the street, and people stop to say hello and ask how your family is doing. Growing up, she loved the sense of community and how neighbours became like family to her, often having block parties and bonfires in the summer months. 

Stuber moved to Toronto from the U.S. for school last fall. The now second-year journalism student initially considered schools out of state, but the tuition bill was upwards of $50,000 per year. Her girlfriend at the time was living in Toronto, so her attention turned North, to Ryerson. When she visited the city for the first time, she was awestruck. 

“I drank all the kool-aid,” she says. “I soaked up everything Ryerson pitched to me about the journalism program and the experience of living downtown.” Stuber’s first few months in Toronto were nothing short of a fantasy—she loved the eclectic energy of the city, the diversity and the open environment. Compared to Bexley, Toronto was pulsing with life.

That winter, Stuber went home for Christmas break to stay for two weeks. She was greeted at the door by her excited dog and her siblings. Before she left a few months prior, she had packed up and purged the remainder of her bedroom, so she knew she wouldn’t have a personal space to come home to. But her room was now a home office, the space in which she experienced her formative years now reduced to a few office chairs and a desk. 

“When I sat down and looked at the way the room had changed, I started to think about how my life has changed,” Stuber says. She didn’t have that same “jump in your bed, happy to be home” feeling anymore. She was very happy to see her family, but the household had shifted in her absence. Her little sister was practically an only child now and the way her family now functioned day-to-day was completely different.

Her beloved neighbourhood didn’t look the same; it wasn’t the vibrant streets of Toronto, and the people in her household weren’t the faces she knew so well from her residence building. “That feeling of home wasn’t really there. Somehow, it slipped away from me.”

Seidel says that going from a small community to a big city can be overwhelming or isolating for students “because they might be more used to people who are helping them or a connection through family and community.” Having a tight-knit community can help people form connections; but in a city as big as Toronto, finding that type of connection that you had with your circle of friends in your hometown proves to be a much greater feat. 

Lucas echoes Seidel’s need for community and vulnerability. “Unconsciously, we always want to go home…with the safety and security of being taken care of.” 

In this sense, home is not always about the destination so much as the feeling of being among people who care. 

Stuber hadn’t realized it, but she’d actually left her home behind when she flew to Ohio. While she still loves the open door with the number 745 on the doormat, she doesn’t consider it home in the way she considers Toronto her home. “I cannot imagine my life without the people I have met here in Toronto. I have built incredible friendships here. The thought of not having those friendships that I have now makes me sick.” 

Not all students have a negative relationship with their hometown upon leaving. For second-year business management marketing student Ali Atallah, moving 9,000 kilometres away from home made him appreciate it in a way he hadn’t before. 

Growing up in Egypt, between the cities of Cairo and Alexandria, Atallah says he felt pretty restricted, sneaking around a lot with his friends and keeping his girlfriend a secret since his parents wouldn’t approve.

When he came to Canada, he says he felt free to be himself and do what he wanted without the fear of judgement from family or friends. However, he couldn’t help feeling a little homesick—once he left, he found that the people back home seemed to care about him more once he was gone. 

“People became more personal with me [and] wanted to talk about my feelings,” he says. “My parents never used to talk to me about my feelings [when I lived at home].” 

He remembers walking into a cafe near his house when he went home for winter break and every worker in the shop coming up to him, asking how he was doing and being interested in his life and where he was now. He says that never happened when he was growing up in Egypt. 

A 2014 study from the University of Windsor found that 87 per cent of first year international students communicated with their families every week, likely due to loneliness as a result of struggling to connect with domestic students. The study also found that international students struggled to adapt to being independent; missing the days when they could rely on their families for support. Overall, a lack of social relation combined with the struggle to manage on their own led to the students feeling homesick. 

When he flew back to Toronto after the break, Atallah was sad to leave. He missed the hot weather and the antics he got into with his friends, and he wished he appreciated it more when he was growing up. 

Atallah also feels disconnected from his identity in Toronto—specifically not speaking his native language, Arabic, all the time. “Speaking my mother language…I missed that. It’s something I didn’t appreciate before.”

W

ith a population of just over 7,000, the small Ontario town of Hanover is wedged between Walkerton and Durham. There wasn’t much to do growing up, says James Stocovaz, a second-year business management student, except attend the occasional crappy party in the middle of a field and stop at a local Tim Horton’s after driving laps around the town for a few hours. 

One of their most prominent memories of being a teenager in Hanover was the town’s version of tobogganing: attaching a thin plastic carpet with no structure or brakes to the back of a truck, and riding it around town while someone else drove. Because most establishments closed at 8 p.m., the roads were theirs to enjoy. “It was the most fun I’ve ever had,” Stocovaz says.

Growing up was comfortable and easy for them—because they didn’t know anything else. “The whole town felt like home. Nothing was strange to me.” But they soon realized Hanover was starting to feel restrictive—racist and bigoted jokes were tolerated and the standard post-graduation path was going straight to work and drinking beers with friends in the evenings. 

Now at Ryerson, they feel like they’re apart of something bigger—bigger than what they would have been doing in Hanover. Stocovaz has always felt like more of a city person, and found the adjustment from small town quietness to the big city hustle and bustle to be quite easy for them. They loved their newfound sense of independence and change in scenery—so much so that going home felt like a chore. 

The first time Stocovaz went home for a long period of time was around Christmas, for about three weeks. When they drove back into town and saw the large “Now Entering: Hanover” sign, they felt their eyes droop a bit and their body quickly become tired. “I look around me when I’m in my town and I’m walking on a trail or something, and I just think like, ‘I used to have fun doing this.’”

Stocovaz would previously would go out and find something to do during their free time in Hanover. Now, they just stay in and wait until the day they can head back to Toronto. They can’t handle being home for more than a few days and connecting with old friends is even harder as well—most people they knew had stayed back and were “very passive” about ever getting out of Hanover. Although they seemed content, Stocovaz couldn’t imagine their life being like that. They would never go back.

Lucas says that most people never want to return to their actual hometown after leaving. “Once they make it and they’re successful in their lives, they hate going back. And I would say, in my practice, it’s more the minority of people that want to go back to their hometowns.”

Research shows that moving back home after a period of independence could even prove detrimental to a person’s wellbeing. A 2018 U.S. study published in the journal Society and Mental Health found that young adults who moved back to their parental home experienced an increase in depressive symptoms relative to their peers who lived independently. They’re also more likely to experience certain setbacks, like a decline in income or relationship loss. 

The study suggested that more research be done into how “boomeranging”—meaning moving out but then having to return to the parental home—can produce feelings of failure and distress. 

Stocovaz is happy to be living elsewhere. Nonetheless, they can’t shake this sense of guilt from leaving their family back in their hometown. They didn’t speak to their family too much when they were away; maybe a few texts here and there every couple weeks, but certainly not FaceTiming every day. “When I see my family when I go back home, I get that feeling of loneliness. I feel like I ditched them. You feel like you owe it to your family to stay, and I never even thought of that until I left.”

E

very time I go back to my parent’s house and drive through the grey streets of my hometown, I feel like I’ve outgrown it. The narrow sidewalks and five-story buildings used to be enough for me. Now, I realize there was so much more out there; all I had to do was take the first step and leave.

It’s still hard to be back and I don’t know if  it will ever get any easier. I go home because I know my parents and my friends miss me, and it’s nice every now and then, but I constantly have to remind myself that I’m not there forever. It’s only a holiday, a weekend, once in a blue moon. I’m not 16 anymore—I don’t have to feel stuck in one place.

When the train I’m on announces that we’re pulling into Union Station, I feel all my muscles relax and my jaw unclench. That’s when I know that I’m truly home. 

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that everyone in Tess Stuber’s family has a tattoo of their street address, that she has step-siblings and that Bexley, Ohio is a conservative city. Stuber’s family is considering getting tattoos, she does not have step-siblings and she does not consider Bexley conservative. The Eye regrets this error.

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