Home is not a place

Around 2005, 15 years ago now, I fled the chaos and moved out. I moved 100 kilometres to go live in the city where I was attending university, Eindhoven. Life wasn’t easy, having just left the home I grew up in without much preparation for the outside world and carrying guilt about leaving my younger brother behind. I felt bruised and in many ways I was, emotionally and spiritually hurt somewhere. I was scared, actually. I didn’t know how long the list was of things I had to fix about myself but I resolutely tried to fix things. My attempts at filling in mood trackers in, back then, illustrate how dysregulated my entire nervous system was and how I had never been taught the names for emotions or how to deal with them. I just had no fucking clue what I felt, it was chaos. My struggles with the words “home” and “friend” similarly illustrated that I had words in my dictionary, I could use them in a sentence, but that the chaos I grew up in had made it impossible for me to attach valuable meaning to either of those words. My subconscious mind threw up topics and themes that desperately needed addressing.

textile under the wall mounted hooks

In a memory, I’m in my student house, deeply troubled by the word home. You see, we’re trained from a young age to refer to the house we live in as “home”. We don’t really realize how the words that are really important on an emotional level do not actually exist in dictionaries or on paper. Words like I, me, my, love, home, belonging, safety. Words like that are self referential in dictionaries. These words only truly exist in heads and hearts. My mom once probably asked someone or looked up what the word cozy meant and likely received an answer describing a candle lit dinner. I derive this to have happened because she, suddenly one day, started lighting candles at dinner or at random times of the day, notably when she was stressed out, and proclaiming loudly that “it is now cozy”. Well, maybe the dictionary said so, but it didn’t miraculously feel cozy to me..

When I was around eight years old, as me and my little brother walked home from school alone because they forgot to pick us up, I declared that I would never call my parents mommy and daddy again. “They don’t deserve it”, my eight year old self told my five year old brother. My parents didn’t even notice or care that we changed abruptly to call them ma and pa. But the liberation, or detachment, did not extend to any other words, like “home”. If I had realized as a child how many words are important in a similar way, I would have denounced that word as well. Maybe it’s good that I didn’t, at least I still had the word on paper somewhere.

So, I remember sitting in my student house contemplating the difference between the words house and home. In Dutch, “going home” translates to “naar huis gaan”, where the juxtaposition of “naar” transforms the word house (huis) to mean home (thuis). A confusing change of meaning. My grappling with the words arose when I caught myself talking about “going home” when I went to my parents over the weekend. (I had a side job there still.) Increasingly, this made me uncomfortable. Note: it was the normal thing among many students, to go home in the weekend and have laundry done by mom. For me, in hindsight, the subconscious part of me was trying to get through to me. Home was a word that made me feel uncomfortable.

One weekend, returning to my student house after staying at my parents house for two nights, I broke down. I was completely stressed out, tense and shaking. It happened every time I came back to my student house. I cried and for years I would cry after any encounter with my parents, to relieve the tension that I built up in their vicinity. I realized I walked on eggshells every time I was there, shifting back into that “fuck, what’s going to explode next”-gear. I had spent 48 hours in a mine field, no wonder I was shell shocked, you never knew what would set things off. I barely realized it. It’s impossible to explain. You know something is wrong but you also don’t know any better. The family system that is dysfunctional, molds you to fit into that shell of a system. You come out all warped and twisted and even though you face gut wrenching terror if you go back, it’s the only place where you, in some sick way, fit. You tuck in your legs like this, hold your arms like that and hold your breath and you find that even though your muscles scream bloody murder at you, the deformed bone was shaped by the pressure so much that you fit right back in. I picked pick up my role as bomb defuser without wanting to.

I didn’t want to stay at my parents ever again and asked my side job if I could transfer to my new town. When I realized the use of the word home was not correct for me, I slowly stopped referring to my parents place as home. It felt too troubling.

It was the place where I had to listen to screaming, shouting, threats and pouting. Where I was told to suck it up, where I received no life lessons but only hallmark cards of advice. Where I had to listen to the most absurd stories as a child. How my mom wouldn’t give him a blowjob, he’d whine and complain to me, a child. How if he was allowed to blow his load, it was huge! I watched him pinch my brothers nipples. He didn’t dare to do this to me. At one time, I had to repeatedly listen to the gory retelling of a man who worked in a morgue and his wife. His wife went to the doctor for abdominal pain. They found maggots. The man was doing it with corpses. I had to listen to that story over and over and over. It obsessed him. Especially when we visited the cemetery, that story came up. No wonder I never go to the cemetery. And no wonder my views on sex were warped.

My brother once eloquently put it: There’s no love in that house. That sums it up. I was spiritually and emotionally homeless.

I started referring to the house I live in as home. I don’t think I use the word very often though, but I do. First my student house, the later the apartments I lived in. And then, on holiday, Joep said “let’s go home”, referring to our hotel room. I was surprised. I knew he didn’t mean to fly home early. I was amazed that he would refer to the hotel as home. I don’t remember exactly how, but for Joep the concept of home transferred to the hotel. The room was “ours” and that it shortly would no longer be so didn’t matter to him.

Why changing schools doesn’t solve anything

When I was a kid, I was called names, chased, kicked, spit on. It was impossible to miss, so my parents turned to the school and discussed switching schools. The head of the school, according to my father, had said: “At another school she’ll have this too.”

I can’t trust those stories anymore. Everything gets twisted and warped to make sure that any possible hint of responsibility is shifted away. The implication in its retelling was “I tried, see? Someone else has now relieved me of any responsibility because you would have this everywhere”. It’s a short leap to “I’m not to blame, it’s all your own fault”. I’ve been very very angry about this. First, I was angry at the head of school. However, now, I realize shifting blame is what my father did all the time. The anger for that belongs with him. There are other insights that followed.

I already had childhood PTSD at the time and as a child I did realize there was something wrong with me. It’s true that something in me was different than other children. What the head of school said will most likely have been a concern for my well being: I did have some friendships in that school, no matter how frail. Taking me away might have done me more harm.

photography of school room

I remember in group 3 (age 6) that a new boy, let’s call him Dan, came to our school. He had been bullied at his former school, teachers told us, and they admonished us to not bully him.

Do you know what happens to some kids who were bullied? They decide that they are never going to be bullied again and do whatever it takes to prevent that. Preemptively strike if necessary. I like to imagine that in another universe the teacher would have added: but if he’s a little prick to you, let us know and we’ll handle it.

The new kid sought the first chance he could get to make sure he wouldn’t become the bullied one. So when I, one day, listened in on group 4 (we shared a classroom) and copied down a difficult word (“champignon”, Dutch for mushroom) they were being taught, Dan, the little snitch, shouted “Missus, Diana is copying from group 4!!!”. A silence fell. I stammered the explanation of a six year old who is eager to learn new words (and who had been held a year back on account of being born late in the year, i.e. a bit younger, but was now bored): “I collect difficult words”. I understand this childlike explanation of wanting to expand your vocabulary is funny to hear when you’re a teacher, but the response was devastating to me: she burst out laughing and all the other kids joined in. I can still hear that entire classroom laughing. It deeply embarrassed and hurt my feelings. It ruined school for me, the learning place was not a place to learn things, it was the do exactly as you’re told at the pace you’re supposed to place.

I made some very astute observations that year. I recognized when a classmate started stuttering out of fear. I also saw how Dan, the middle of five children, was being neglected by his mother. There was a brief period where I went on play dates with him, a fact he later vehemently denied, where I noticed that his mother was overly concerned with his two year old brother and his sister who was a baby. Dan was left fending for himself. I can’t remember Dan’s father being involved with the children. Even the oldest daughter had something hardened about her, as if all five children had been left to fend for themselves when the next kid came along. I surmise that when Dan encountered difficulties at his former school, he was transfered to put a stop to it and that was considered, by the adults, the end of it. But it didn’t solve anything. On the surface you could argue that it did: the bullying stopped, didn’t it?

If Dan would truly have gotten away from the bullying, he wouldn’t have been so eager to find a scapegoat who would carry the bully-me sign. He wouldn’t be so determined to pass the parcel. In his head he was still carrying that parcel, that fear and that label. Fighting against something is always, first and foremost, a confirmation to yourself that the bad thing exists. By rebelling against an idea in your head, you accidentally tell yourself (and others) that to you the idea is true. Trying to use positive affirmations to get rid of your depression? You might be affirming your depression. When you start fighting the monster in your head, it becomes more real, not less. (When the monster is really as big as you envision it now that might be a good thing, because then you get clarity of what you’re up against. But in practice we make that monster bigger than it really is.)

There was a commercial when I was a kid, I’m pretty sure it was for War Child. The closing lines were

You can take the child out of the war

Bit you can’t take the war out of the child

Changing schools ended the bullying there for Dan, but it probably did not restore a sense of safety. In fact, knowing what I know now, bullying and social exclusion of boys often happens to those boys that are unable to participate in the group. Boys test their strength against each other and each will, by a push and pull of mind, body and/or will, be tested by the group. A boy that cannot take up some useful position in the group, commonly due to attachment problems, will find himself excluded. The only way for a boy once he has been excluded to be included again is by doing something heroic in front of all the boys. Or as adults would put it: Foolish boy, you’ll break your neck!

For girls, it’s easier. One girl can introduce you to the group by vouching for you. If no girl will vouch for you, you’re out. But you’ve got more options than boys, you can try to strike up a friendship with any of the girls. Furthermore, there are often at least two groups of girls in any age group, so that spreads your chances. I don’t know how it is for boys, but girl groups schism all the time 😉

This has implications for how kids look at their position in the world. A boy who is evicted from the boys’ group becomes, in his own mind, a loner. He’ll have to fend for himself, without boys backing him up. He knows he can’t approach the group again unless it’s to prove that he is an asset to the group. If you’re out, you play alone.

For girls, once you indicate you want to adapt to the social fabric again and you’ve shown this to one other girl that you can, then adding you back in shows that the group is kind and fair. By allowing you back in, the group therefore becomes more virtuous and better in some sense and so the act of adding you to the group is good. You can join by bringing a jumping rope or marbles when it’s that toy’s season, by showing that you can read these social cues. A girl who is excluded from the girls’ group and cannot rejoin becomes, in her own mind, a loner. She will have to learn to navigate the social script without help from other girls.

Once the self labeling is present, it doesn’t go away even if social interactions improve. Dan, viewing himself as outcast, felt he had to prove himself at his new school and he took it. But it didn’t change much to his self esteem. In the years to come, no matter how well he may or may have been taken up in the group (I can’t gauge his acceptance by other boys very well obviously, since the boy dynamics weren’t so visible to me as a girl), Dan still stood out as a bit of a loner, a boy who had to prove himself all the time, but often did so all by himself. When playing soccer, I remember he wouldn’t pass the ball to others, he was set on scoring goals alone. During the lip sync evenings in our village (yes, cringe, I know) he impersonated Michael Jackson alone. Other kids did things in groups or with their family. Dan showed his inner contradiction in his behavior: he was constantly proving himself by himself, thereby showing that he wasn’t convinced that any heroic act would ever redeem him to the group. He placed himself, in his attempt to prove himself, outside the group, his heroic acts were for his own benefit, not for the benefit of the group, so outside the group he stayed.

I faced similar issues. I never really felt like I belonged to the girls’ group and so I never fully engaged with them. I had play dates at girls’ houses separately, but honestly I couldn’t keep up in a group. I still prefer one on one interactions, groups drain me. In a get-together of women, I still feel the odd one out, even though my social interactions are successful.

You don’t reason this away, no matter how hard you want to repeat that it’s not true. The body considers true that which it experienced. When a feeling is instilled early in life, it may take years to undo. Vice versa, when a feeling was not instilled, it takes years to build up. And the old patterns don’t ever really go away. You pave a new road beside them, but it’s easy to fall back into the old track, especially in times of stress.

So, what is home?

Home is a set of associations you have built up. If all was well for you in the first home, then every home, yours or somebody else’s, is cozy. If all was not well, at first no house will feel welcoming. Home is the coat around your soul that you carry with you everywhere.

If the coat doesn’t keep you warm, how do you change it? I don’t think there is a fixed recipe. The coat has to fit you. Nonetheless, building a home around yourself is done like it was in the first years of your life: through physical interaction with it. I can’t tell you how, but I think you need to literally get your hands on every part of your house. Every plant, book or wall. Remove what makes you restless. Add what makes you feel more content. Don’t go for happy, aim for content. Happy is short-lived and overrated. I don’t remember where I heard this but it made sense: your house has to be the place where you would still want to live if you were miserable. It can’t just be the place where you want to be happy. It should be the place where you could be perfectly miserable(*).

(*) Edit: Joep remembered, it was in Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill (Mevrouw Verona daalt de heuvel af), a novel by Dimitri Verhulst.

So very often we have it backwards. You don’t build a house and call it home. You grow the concept of home inside yourself. Home is not where the heart is. It’s not a literal ‘where’: Home is in the heart. Same goes for a sense of belonging in a group. You can be profoundly lonely in a group. You don’t just change the house, or school or group and then you’re done. (I know, I’ve tried.) Moving is sometimes good for a fresh start and it certainly changes the physical surrounding, but the start isn’t the finish. If nothing changes inside yourself, you will not feel belonging, you will not act as if you belong, and you’ll step into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Moving is just the first step and if you stop there, nothing has truly changed. Home is not a place. Home is a sense of belonging that lives inside yourself. To grow a sense of belonging, requires repeated successful interactions with the world around you. To sustain it requires the same.

I remember one day, as I was biking around town in Eindhoven, after I had moved there and had changed offices for my side job, when a powerful new feeling came over me. I realized in that moment that, after some time, I felt at home in this new town. I had never felt that before, it was a delightful experience. Although I wasn’t able to give more words than that to this sensation, I sensed that it was capital-i Important. The memory has stayed with me ever since.

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