I recently left my steady job in university administration, my lovely flat and my favourite people behind to move across Europe to become the impoverished full-time PhD candidate I had dreamed of becoming ever since I began my doctoral studies. As long as I can remember, I’ve felt content with being by myself. I used to love the weekends alone at home, travelling on my own and spending some quality time at the library with none other than moi. Loneliness wasn’t a concept that made any sense to me.
The last time I can recall that I felt properly overwhelmed by a feeling of homesickness was probably when I was eleven years old and begging my mum to take me back home with her instead of dropping me off at summer camp. And there I was sixteen years on. In a room barely furnished smelling of cat pee, a city I had never been to, and worst of all (and this would send anyone over the edge), the Wi-Fi wasn’t working properly.
During these first few days, I felt as if I was floating through space with no sense of time or direction. I saw my entire future laid out in front of me: I’d never have friends again, I’d spend all of my days alone, I’d be constantly freaked out, never finish my thesis and eventually move back home where I’d remain unhappily ever after because of the opportunities I missed out on. It also made scared of the time post PhD – the what-the-hell-have-I-done-I-think-I’m-having-a-heart-attack kind of scared.
This move was supposed to make my life easier and not create a completely new set of paralysing problems. It made me seriously question whether this was a lifestyle I could sustain in the long run and I pictured myself having to go through this process over and over again when all I wanted was to pull the duvet over my head and never face the world again.
Very dramatic, I know. Fast forward: it’s now a few months into my relocation and I don’t spend all of my time alone. While I still struggle occasionally, I feel that I’m going to be just fine.
Here’s a few things that have helped me, and continue to help me:
It’s ok to feel whatever you feel. It’s ok to feel overwhelmed, helpless, sad, frustrated, freaked out, scared, worried, angry and out of place. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. Accept that your subconscious is complicated and while you think you’re ready, she might need extra time to adjust to the new environment. Be kind to yourself, have a nice meal, take a bubble bath, binge watch Netflix, buy lots of nail polish (guilty!), re-read your favourite book, call your friends and family – whatever floats your boat.
Be relatively organised
If you’re anything like me, you like to plan ahead and organise your life. While this is generally a good idea, because it might give you a sense of agency and security (it did for me), you might also run the risk of feeling completely overwhelmed by the eternity that is your future. Step by step. I tried to come up with a rough plan for the year (dates for chapter submissions, conferences and trips home) but apart from that I’m taking it week by week.
Force yourself to go outside, to do and see things. Explore your new surroundings, check out art galleries, museums and cafés. Do some exercise; endorphins are not to be underestimated.
Also show an active interest in your colleagues at work. You’re new (which sucks at times), so it’s very much up to to you to take initiative to form new alliances and remind people that you exist. Everyone is busy, so don’t let an apparent lack of interest in your person discourage you from approaching fellow students/staff members. I can’t stress enough how important real life contacts are.
You’re not going to be able to re-create your own life immediately and neither should you feel you have to. Pace yourself and accept that it might take a little while to find people you like hanging out with. In the meantime, cherish these precious first weeks of novelty and find a way to turn them into a generative and productive force for your own work – it might just be the fresh perspective you’ve been waiting for!
Be the light for someone else
I cannot help but think that this is the most important of all of my points. Do your best to move on from your initial feeling of complete and utter instability but don’t forget what it felt like. Let it humble you and make you more understanding of and kind to others who find themselves in similar situations. If you see someone who is new and struggling, offer your help, have a cup of coffee together and you in turn will also be one step closer to building a new social network.
You’ve got this!
Veronika Schuchter is a Visiting Scholar at Nottingham Trent University (UK) where her doctoral research on contemporary women’s writing is supported by the Austrian Ministry of Science. When she’s not busy being a feminist killjoy, she enjoys painting her nails, writing postcards and jumping into puddles.