‘Your emotions are meant to fluctuate… It’s a system that’s supposed to move back and forth, between happy and unhappy. That’s how the system guides you through the world.’ – Daniel Gilbert.
The featured image in this post is one of my absolute favourites from The Long Journey Home, taken in Beijing at the Olympic Park.
The longest stint I was away from friends and family in the UK was fourteen months, and coming back after all that time away was so strange. Not only did I feel like a different person, but I was also well aware that the people I left behind would be changed too – life at home obviously doesn’t stop whilst you’re off exploring the world. As such, I felt a whole range of emotions about returning back to the UK after my time away. From apprehension and anxiety to excitement and anticipation, from panic to bewilderment, I went through them all!
Through four short narratives, I want to share the feelings and emotions that I experienced upon my return from fourteen months in New Zealand, when I came home for Christmas in 2015. I will also touch upon my return from another six months away during which time I returned to New Zealand to finish the life I’d made for myself there and then spent three months travelling with P on The Long Journey Home, arriving back in the UK in June 2016.
Anxiety and Nerves
I lie in my hotel bed with C to my right and try to lull myself to sleep, but it’s not coming anytime soon. I feel restless and edgy, overly conscious of the fact that this time tomorrow, C will be boarding a plane bound for New Zealand and our home there, and I’ll be halfway back to the UK to spend Christmas with my family. The thought makes me feel a little sick – there is no excitement about heading home, only anxiety and nerves.
For the entire holiday in the Philippines, I have been feeling homesick. I used to get homesick as a child – more accurately, I used to get ‘Mum’ sick. I’ve always been a Mummy’s girl. When we went away with our grandparents on our annual Easter holidays, I’d cry myself to sleep most nights because Mum wasn’t there to tuck me in and say goodnight. Now, at the age of twenty six, and with fourteen full months under my belt since I last had a hug from my Mum, it’s less ‘Mum’ sick, definitely more homesick. But this time, I’m not only homesick for the UK. I’m homesick for New Zealand too.
My longing to return to NZ for a summer Christmas with my friends is battling with my desire to see my family, and it’s all coming together in one giant melting pot in my stomach, which has been a battleground of butterflies for days. I am constantly wondering what will have changed, what will be the same, who I’ll click back in with, who’ll be different with me. What if my friends don’t care anymore? What if my dog has forgotten me? What if… What if… What if… My stomach churns again and I turn over, punching my pillow into a more comfortable position. Why on earth am I going home now anyway? It’s a waste of money – I’ll be going home for good in six months time…
The anxiety compounds itself into over-thinking and a constant nagging doubt in the back of my mind, questioning everything, all of my choices. Self-doubt festers in my brain and takes hold. What if going home now isn’t such a good idea? I shouldn’t have been so hasty to book tickets back to the UK for Christmas, I should have just waited… My brain whirs ceaselessly. I feel overwhelmed.
Eventually, sleep overtakes me. I wake the next morning feeling groggy and as soon as I remember what day it is – the day I fly home – my stomach clenches as the nerves kick in once again. With no desire to lie in bed and mull over my flight home later, I get up immediately and head for a shower. Returning home is inevitable, and deep down, I know it’ll be wonderful once I’m there. It’s time to get a grip and start packing.
Half of me had hoped that my parents would be at Heathrow to meet me, despite the fact I changed our plans so that I could spend a flying visit with A before she headed off to Sri Lanka. I had pictured tearful, joyful reunions and giant bear hugs. It is not to be – they’ve stuck to the plan and will meet me tomorrow in Newport.
The airport WiFi is sporadic. I try to send a message to A to tell her I’ve landed and will be getting the tube soon into central London, but it’s not sending. I’m exhausted – I barely slept during both long-haul flights, and there was the six hour layover in Qatar as well. My anxiety of flying has left me feeling drained. Half of me had hoped that my parents would be at Heathrow to meet me just so that I didn’t have to deal with anything, like lack of phone reception, whether or not I need to top my Oyster card up or how long the tube will take to get me into London. These minor issues seem magnified in my brain.
I go to the toilets and lock myself in a cubicle and am suddenly overwhelmed. Panic grips me – this country that I left behind so long ago feels slightly alien, it’s foreign to me. Everything is so familiar and yet ever so slightly different to what I’ve become accustomed to. There are so many people everywhere, and they all seem to know what they’re doing. I feel like I haven’t got a clue.
I cry. Deep, wracking sobs that I try to muffle so that people in the adjoining cubicles can’t hear me. It’s not an appropriate response to the situation that I’m in, nor will it help get me out of it, but I can’t help it. I cry until all of my tears are gone, and then I dry my eyes and blow my nose and cautiously poke my head out. The coast is clear – I’ve chosen a good moment to splash my face and make sure my eyes aren’t too red and conspicuous.
Squaring my shoulders, I take a last quick look at my reflection and head back out into the arrivals lounge. My phone vibrates – A has received my message and is waiting for me, she’ll meet me at Elephant and Castle. I take a deep, steadying breath. This is it. I’m back in the UK. Panic over. It’s time to get on the tube and go and meet A. I have got this.
Anticipation and Excitement
Gnawing my hangnail, I gaze at the board overhead that shows all of the trains departing from Paddington in the next half hour or so. I’m searching for the service that runs to Swansea. When I finally spot it, my heart sinks. It’s delayed, by a whole hour.
It was meant to be only two hours until I finally, after fourteen months, got wrapped in a tight hug by my parents and we were reunited for Christmas. I am itching to see them – my nerves, anxiety and panic have faded and been replaced by anticipation. I’m bubbling, so eager to see my parents that I can hardly stand still. And now, due to potentially the most irritating signal failure in the world, I’ve been delayed. A whole hour!
I send a quick message to Mum and go to find a seat. She replies quickly – ‘Never mind, what’s one more hour when we have waited all year?‘. It’s vaguely comforting, but does little to assuage my impatience. I just want to get moving, I want to leave London behind now and head west. The final part of my journey home.
Finally on board and moving, I can barely keep myself from smiling. I fidget restlessly in my seat and try to stop grinning like a maniac at nothing. I watch the countryside speed past – the same as it’s always been, and yet I’ve not seen it for so long, it feels different. Before we plunge under the Severn, I spot the rolling green hills of Wales and feel my stomach do a little backflip of excitement. We are so very close to each other now. I keep feeling choked, wondering if they’ll be waiting for me on the platform. I can barely stand it.
I’m crying before I even reach them. Anticipation and the fact that they’re finally there, right in front of me, takes over. They look the same as ever and as they envelop me in the hugs I’ve been waiting for all this time, it’s as if I never went away. As we break apart, we start talking nineteen to the dozen. So much to tell. But we have time now. Lots of time.
Bewildered and Dazed
Six months later. P and I have just traversed China, Mongolia, Russia and Europe on our journey back to the UK. Now, I sit in a sunny beer garden in a smart turquoise dress and nude heels, listening as my group of friends discuss the fact that two of them are going on holiday that evening for a week. I don’t participate – the conversation seems distant, remote. I have no part to play in it, and my mind keeps wandering away from the sunlit table in this small town in the middle of Wales back to the vast open steppe of Mongolia and the smoggy high rises of Beijing. It all feels like a dream now.
This time last week I was in Prague, drinking cheap beer by the river and down to our last dollar. Two weeks ago we were exploring Warsaw’s Old Town and getting soaked in a sudden rain shower as we walked home. Before that, we were somewhere in the middle of Siberia, before that, riding horses across the Mongolian plains and before that, Beijing and the Great Wall. And now, here I am. Back in sleepy, quiet Llanwrtyd, about to head to a friend’s wedding. I’ve not worn a dress in nearly five months and I’ve just spent three months living out of a backpack. Now, I’m struggling to focus on the present whilst my mind still processes what has happened in the past few weeks and months.
There is a flurry as L arrives, all floaty summer dress and flustered because she’s running late and hasn’t finished her make up. She hugs me, it’s the first time we’ve seen each other since Christmas. I sit quietly whilst she applies her mascara and the conversation returns to whether 20kg of luggage will be enough for the week long holiday the others are going on. The whole thing feels surreal.
‘Are you okay?’ L asks, leaning forward. I am so grateful to her for noticing how dazed I am, how strange it is for me to be back here so suddenly, with barely time to decompress.
I nod, glad to have her with me. She may never be able to fully understand my Long Journey Home, but it’s a huge comfort to have her with me whilst my sleep-deprived, travel addled mind tries to process the past few months.
‘Just getting my head around it all,’ I reply, smiling, ‘But I’m okay. Let’s get drunk tonight. You won’t leave me, will you?’
L shakes her head.
‘Of course I won’t,’ she says, and she doesn’t.