There's No Place Like Home (sickness)

Updated: Jan 3, 2019

By Megan Lillick

Illustration by Sahar Sobhani

Homesickness is an interesting word, especially for etymologists. Just look it up on Wikipedia, and you’ll see for yourself — there are 29 references to help explain such a distress, citing everything from historical definitions to symptoms and coping mechanisms.

Its meaning is tricky. For instance, if you applied the same logical interpretation as you would to carsickness, you’d probably assume being inside, at home, makes some people ill, and that nausea and the occasional vomit out the window would be common symptoms. Thankfully they’re not, and the definition is — and symptoms are — quite the contrary.

Homesick — the adjective and word’s root — is the longing for one's home when away from it for a period of time. The length of time can be short lived or long; it really depends on the person and his or her triggers for missing home.

Most expats become very familiar with homesickness at some point during their stint(s) abroad. If it isn’t triggered by little inconveniences of their new country’s culture, it often sets in during the holidays, when one would usually be home, taking part in all the family festivities. But because flying anywhere is ungodly expensive during Christmas, FaceTime is Expat Elliott’s best alternative for being home. Luckily, he has a tech-savvy cousin who helps pass him around the dinner table while everyone’s mouth is full of his favorite family recipes and drunk on eggnog. “Being there” just isn’t the same.

Luckily, barf bags aren’t handed out at the Bürgeramt (or whatever your new country’s registration office happens to be called) because, as mentioned before, vomiting is luckily not a symptom. Unfortunately, though, sufferers of homesickness today typically report a combination of depressive and anxious symptoms.

Depression sucks, but at least doctors have long since debunked homesickness being a cause for an excessive amount of black bile in the blood, as the Greek physician Hippocrates (ca. 460–377 BC) had once thought. An educated guess for that time, sure, as the Greek gods were likely quite sad, being many days away from their gorgeous goddesses, fighting wars in treacherous conditions — conditions of which would turn their spit black. Fighting in coal mines, perhaps?

Then, in a document dating back to 1691 the word, Heimweh — a “nostalgic reaction” or literally “home pain” in German — makes its debut via the Swiss. Back then, it was a common phenomenon amongst the many Swiss mercenaries serving in different countries across Europe. They’d often be away from Switzerland for many years, and unfortunately for some, they never made it back, dying in battles abroad.

Because of this historical reference, homesickness was once thought to only affect the Swiss. That is, until great migrations of Europeans swept across the continent, reporting similar symptoms. And soon enough, homesickness found its way into general German medical literature in the 19th century.

Which then of course — English being a Germanic language — the word was picked up and translated so American colonists, immigrants, gold miners, soldiers, explorers and others spending time away from home had a word to describe that icky feeling they got in their tummies when they missed Mom. Or maybe it was just her cooking.

Whether you call it Heimweh, homesickness, or the more specific and untranslatable French version of the word, Depaysement — “the feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country; being a foreigner; feeling that you don’t really belong, like a flower uprooted from a lovely garden and thrown into a small pot on the windowsill” — today it is now known to be a form of normative psychopathology reflecting the intensity of a person's attachment to home, native culture and loved ones.

Perhaps you’re thinking that all that history is interesting and all (or maybe you find it a bore), but you really just want to know is what’s considered “home” anyway?

Now, home is also a tricky word. For most, it’s the place where one resides and is living. Others take the Dorothy Approach and believe it to be where one grows up, where the family is rooted. And, there’s no place like it!

For me, home is where my childhood house and family are. It’s the foundation of me. But I also do my best to make a “home” out of wherever it is I’m living. Since moving out of my childhood house, I’ve had a lot of other places of residence — from dorm rooms to shared apartments and duplexes to waterfront, mountain, and city homes. One thing is for sure, though; not one of them comes close to the significance of the one I grew up in.

Because I was obsessed with the Wizard of Oz as a kid, wherever I lived in the world, my grandma would always tell me to do as Dorothy would by clicking my heels and come home when I missed it. One year, she even bought me a ruby red slipper ornament to remind me of this. I hang it year-round, reminding me about this unique space in my heart. Even to this day, when I look at it, I feel a little hug around my heart. The hug of home.

For those who still have their childhood bedroom to sleep in during visits back home, you might have this more literal connotation to the word. Those who don’t likely tend to use the symbolic meaning of it, reminiscing on what once was a literal place, full of familiar things and people.

Whether home is near or far — and whatever it is to you — it can make you sick for it. But having that pull to go back every now and then is only natural. It’s a good thing. It means home played a fundamental and good role in your life. And there will never be another place like it. If you’re lucky, though, you can always go back.