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When the four walls you've grown up in are gone, where do you find home?

Content warning: this article contains discussion of anxiety and panic attacks which some readers may find distressing.

It’s the Easter vacation of 2018. I am standing in my sister’s bedroom. I am exhausted, trying to decipher whether the bags of glass pebbles under her bed are the product of hoarding or if they had some invisible sentimental value. I stare at them for five minutes. I sigh and throw them away. I move on to the next bizarre item, a broken ukulele she once talked about turning into a bird house. 

My family were evicted from our house part-way through my first year at Oxford. I was trying to balance revising for collections and packing all of our possessions into a storage unit. One of the more unexpected lessons I learned from the process was that “Home”, a place with so many meaningful connotations of family, security, love, is also a practical term for “place where you can leave all of the stuff that you’re not ready to make hard decisions about keeping or discarding”. I threw away so much the week we moved out. Toys, knick-knacks, old notebooks full of my fourteen-year-old angst, childish books I knew I would never read again. I was brutal, unflinching, ruthless, staring unfeelingly into the pleading plastic eyes of every one of my stuffed toy victims. I knew that, if I didn’t take them, I would have to take up precious space in our one and only storage unit, or take them with me to Oxford, unpacking and repacking them every eight weeks.

“Home” had always been a somewhat fraught term for me. It meant, at various points, arguing parents, love, telling friends at primary school that today was the day I was going to run away from home in a melodramatic preteen whisper, comfort, divorced parents, safety, frayed mental health, the familiar warmth of tradition, teen angst and an intense desire to be that wonderful and elusive thing, independent. I spent a long time running away, a long time hiding. Then, all of a sudden, it was gone. The oppressive security evaporated. The walls that I had fought so long to escape suddenly disappeared, and I was free-falling. I began living out of suitcases. 

A year on, my family have been happily resettled. Their council house is spacious enough, and homey, but, despite all of my mother’s best efforts, I don’t have a bedroom there. My younger sister, finishing her A-Levels, and younger brother, only ten, needed the available rooms far more than I did, and I am exceptionally grateful for the large, blue pull-out sofa that allows me to visit, allows us to all be together. It is a struggle, sleeping in the middle of everyone else’s space, being acutely aware every time I pack my suitcase at the end of term that I will be living out of it until Uni recommences, but we make it work as best we can. My mother bought me curtains to help me make the space my own, which made it much easier to change clothes and find moments of privacy, but still made the hyperventilation common to my panic attacks hard to disguise. 

My college has allowed me to stay this vacation, and it has made a huge difference. Yes, I still had to move my worldly possessions, but only across a quad. I can close my door when the world seems hostile, I can sleep late when my body is tired, I can try to tackle my lengthy vacation reading list in relative quiet, close to a million libraries. It gives me control. It gives me focus. It gives me a place to keep all my weird stuff; the four baby-dolls, the lamp that says “PARTY”, the giant plastic Marmite jar, the slow-cooker that my aunt gave me for Christmas. 

Ultimately, home means so many things, but it seems to me to be, in essence, more of a feeling or state of being than a place. I feel at home having a familiar meal with my family, or singing the same twelve songs we’ve karaoke-d since I was 10 on New Year’s Eve, or watching a terrible rom-com with my mom and sister. I feel at home watching vine compilations with my friends, or studying opposite them for several silent hours in a Costa in Scunthorpe, or eating a surprise Carbonara they’ve made me for my birthday. I am an improvisor and a stand-up comedian, and I feel at home on stage, inventing and imagining and generating laughter from a gathering of strangers who have decided to trust me and have fun with me. I feel at home anywhere there is an Oxford Imp. I feel at home watching TV with my boyfriend, or cooking together, or when he books me a doctor’s appointment because I am too anxious to make a phone call. 

Home is a feeling of control and safety, a sense of contentment and quiet, peaceful joy. I lost a physical space, a place touched and filled by people that I love and a stable base that gave me security, but I did not lose home. I have experienced home in ancient libraries, doctor’s waiting rooms, in college, in Slough, on Oriel 3rd Quad lawn at the height of summer, in Scunthorpe, at a Toby Carvery, on a helter-skelter slide, in Portugal, at the Globe theatre, mid-essay crisis, in the dining hall, in Edinburgh, at the movies, in Christ Church Meadows, in the middle of a panic attack, in Portugal, in Nandos…behind the closed door of my quiet, dark bedroom, listening to a rain hitting the window. 

In the UK, the charity YoungMinds offers help and further support with some of the issues raised in this article. In the UK and Irish Republic, contact Samaritans on 116 123 or email [email protected]

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