Mental Challenges

My Relationship With My Childhood Home Changed This Year, and I Couldn’t Be More Grateful

Saanya Ali

Photo: Getty/Thomas Barwick

Growing up, my family lived all over: Switzerland, France, Bahrain, Texas, and Washington D.C. Somehow I never felt I could call any of these places “home” in the way that I can my small apartment in New York City’s West Village, a historic neighborhood filled with 20-somethings and 70-year-old ex-punk rockers who have seen it all.

For all its annoyances—climbing six stories with four Trader Joe’s bags, unairconditioned apartments in the summer—this is, and has always been, the city where I feel most at home. A big part of the reason behind that comes from the feeling of independence I get from living on my own. I’m solely responsible for paying my utility bills on time and cooking all of my meals, save for a Seamless sushi order here or there. This fierce sense of self-reliance has become a pivotal part of my mental health. I credit the city for all the things that I love about myself: my ability to talk to anyone, my creativity, my quirky sense of style. I also credit it for the ways that I have grown and become stronger since I moved here, like battling low mood episodes on my own and cultivating a strong sense of self reliance and confidence to stand up for myself.

Conversely, I associate a lot of my mental health struggles with Washington D.C., where I suffered severe depression, bullying, low self-esteem, and anxiety during middle school and high school. I would always get tense going back to my family’s home in D.C., fearing that all the negative emotions would come charging back—and they always did. When COVID-19 struck, and I needed to be in D.C. to be a support to my parents, I braced myself, not just for the uncertainty of the pandemic, but for how my mental health would fare.

“For a lot of people, home is a safe space. It’s where we can relax, so when suddenly you feel trapped there, that can feel like a very deep betrayal,” explains Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist. Any negative experiences that we have gone through or associations that we have with a place often become part of our inherent memories tied to that certain place.

But this time felt different. As soon as I arrived home in D.C., I was swept into a whirlwind of activity. My otherwise all-together parents were feeling nervous. Typically, I am the stress ball, needing their constant reassurance and support, but the tables had turned. I became lead chef, planning out groceries and meals, and taking over everyday decisions of how to manage a new normal. I felt a new sense of adulthood and a different feeling of independence. I felt stronger and more in charge; I had a purpose, to care for my parents and make sure we all stayed safe. (I was also in charge of a lot of laundry.)

For the first time, being in D.C. for more than just a few days felt normal. I was more at ease and less agitated, despite the difficult circumstances. Taking care of my parents and stepping into a responsibility that they had always shouldered gave me a renewed sense of confidence.

Dr. Daramus says that to break these negative associations we have with a certain place, we often need to infuse it with new memories. “To rewrite the memories, try giving your body what it tells you it wants, such as comfort, excitement, connection, or silence. You can also try to bring back positive associations by looking at pictures, doing art, journaling, or listening to music that you associate with happier times. You’ll know it’s effective if you feel a sense of release or an improvement in mood.” This newfound respect and comfort in D.C. came from moving from a childlike role, where I associated the place with experiences from growing up, to an adult place where I was able to show how far I’d grown. In the same way, I feel self-reliant and in charge of my day-to-day life in NYC, so too, did I finally gain that sense of independence in my childhood home when faced with tricky circumstances.

I realized that I could change how I felt in D.C. That my sense of self and feeling of strength and independence was not inextricably tied with where I was, but who I’d become and for that sense of home within myself. And for that, despite the trials that 2020 has brought, I will always be grateful.

I’ve finally found peace in the change, the growth, the discomfort, and the difference.

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