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Nov 12 2013

Miri’s Survival Guide to Moving Across the Country Alone in a State of Terror and Panic

I have known I was going to write this post ever since I first stood in my stifling Chicago apartment looking at a bunch of empty boxes and thinking, “Wow, moving is going to be difficult! I’d better take good care of myself and give myself time to be a little sad and process things.”

Juuuust kidding. What I actually thought was, “Fuck me I hate this why am I doing this why am I such an idiot this is what I’ve always wanted fuck these boxes I don’t want to put my shit in these boxes I’m going to get Chipotle now.” And so I did.

Unfortunately, when it comes to emotional self-care, I’m a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do kinda gal. I’m working on it. But, to paraphrase a John Green character slightly, if you don’t say the honest thing, it never becomes true. I’m writing this as much for myself as I’m writing it for you–I’m giving myself permission to need the advice that this post provides.

I was and remain incredibly lucky. I moved not out of necessity, but out of passion. I had a loving family with the resources to help me move, and even more family who welcomed me when I got here. I moved to my favorite place ever. It continues to amaze me every day. Not everyone is so lucky when they move, but given how difficult a time I still had with it, I figured maybe someone might benefit from this advice.

To be clear, this is not a post about the logistical/practical side of moving. It’s a post about the emotional side of moving. I’m the last person who should be talking about the former, but maybe only the second- or third-to-last who should be talking about the latter. So latter it is.

Care for yourself.

I don’t just mean in the typical self-care ice cream/chocolate/funny movies/bubble baths way, although that can also help. (Good luck getting a New York bathtub to cooperate with that, though.)

What I mean is to be kind and gentle with yourself, just like you’re (hopefully) being with the fragile things you’re packing up.

Sometimes before and during and after the move, I had to talk to myself sort of like a child. “Okay, we’re going to get in the minivan and drive for a very long time. No, we’re not coming back. We’re going to a new place.” “I know this apartment feels weird and scary right now, but this is where you live now. I promise you’ll start to like it when you get used to it.” Sometimes that was the only way I could handle thinking about the immensity of the changes that were happening. Sometimes you need to let yourself be a little kid again.

But other times I was very bad at this. I berated and blamed myself endlessly, guilt-tripped myself for not being more grateful for the opportunity, played the sort of endless games of “But you TOLD me you wanted to move” and “Didn’t you SAY this was where you wanted to live” that I absolutely despise other people playing with me, and would never try to play with someone else.

Finally I had to ask myself how I would treat a friend who was moving to a place they loved but was having a lot of trouble coping nonetheless. What if it were one of my partners? What if it were Kate? What would I say to them?

I felt so ashamed when I realized that I was speaking to myself as though I resent myself. I realized that even if a random person from my friends list whom I barely know messaged me and shared concerns like the ones I had, I would still be infinitely kinder and more patient with this person to whom I have no connection and owe nothing than I was being to myself. There was no good reason for this.

Be as kind to yourself as you would to anyone you love and value.

The internet is probably your friend.

If you’re reading this, you probably use the internet at least a fair amount. Congratulations!

During this transition, just like all the previous difficult times of my life, the internet kept me sane. Not only did it help with all the logistical stuff, but it gave me something to “come home” to when home didn’t feel like home. (I mean, home still doesn’t really feel like home.) There were definitely days when I came home, threw my stuff down, closed the door to my room, went online, and talked to my friends. And the amazing thing was, the internet is the same internet no matter where you are. The same people I talked to when I was in Chicago were still there. I watched Grey’s Anatomy on Hulu in Chicago and I watched it here in New York. I read the same blogs. I listened to Citizen Radio. Finally, something in my life was stable!

It’s important not to go overboard with this, but use it if/when you need to.

But remember to go out and try to put down roots.

I am, again, incredibly privileged to live in New York. As soon as I got here I started seeing the friends and family I already had here, and quickly made a bunch of new friends. I went to lectures and films, I tentatively ventured to some Meetups (although there are still tons of interesting ones I haven’t gotten to), I went to parties I got invited to, I saw friends in neighboring cities that were once a plane flight away but now just a $30 roundtrip ticket and a 2-/3-hour bus or train ride away.

And, as always, I went out alone to explore the city. Wandering around as an inhabitant of the weird space between tourist and New Yorker is fun.

But even when you’re not sure you really want to, try to get yourself to do social things at least sometimes. In my experience, the most amazing friends/partners will appear in your life in a way that seems random, but really isn’t. Maybe you go to a party that’s totally boring except one of the people you talk to there mentions offhand a cool-sounding Meetup group and you look it up and go to it and meet a cool person who doesn’t become a super close friend but who does eventually invite you to a poetry reading where you meet someone awesome who becomes one of the people you cherish the most.

This process can be extremely frustrating. But, given enough chances, it will work.

BUT try not to fall victim to FOMO.

I got FOMO bad. Real bad. I have, in the short time I’ve been living here, somehow managed to convince myself that if I don’t do every single thing to which I am invited and/or hear about then 1) I am a Failure and 2) I will never make good friends and find my people.

Something that helped was hearing my friends talk about when they moved to new places. Some of them didn’t do social things for weeks or months, either because they couldn’t handle it emotionally or were too busy with whatever they moved there for or just couldn’t find anything to do. And yet, somehow it ended up working out. Now they have friends and partners and communities and activities. You don’t have to Create Your Entire Life all at once.

So there were also nights when I made myself stay in because I was exhausted and I needed it. I fidgeted at my desk or in my bed and told myself that I have a very long time to do All Of The Things, and that doing All Of The Things at once is not worth it if I’m exhausted and miserable. 

If you need to, get some perspective.

I’m lucky to have a family of immigrants whose stories are horrific and hilarious and inspiring enough to have kept me going at times. My aunt told me about how she moved to New York from Russia years ago and spoke no English and had no money, and ended up doing the same long walk from Battery Park to Central Park that I once took in the summer heat with no cash to spare for a bottle of water or for the bus. She worked cleaning houses before she was able to pass her medical licensing exam and become a successful physician. My mom told me about moving to Israel from Russia right before I was born and living in one of the worst neighborhoods in Haifa, while pregnant with me, taking care of my then-8-year-old brother, and trying to find work. And, of course, not speaking any Hebrew.

Their stories of awful landlords and crumbling apartments and culture shocks and exploitative jobs makes me grateful, despite all the difficulties, to have been able to move here relatively easily.

Your mileage may vary with this strategy, because hearing other people’s tales of woe may not necessarily make you feel better about yours. For me, it often doesn’t. But the way my family members tell these stories and the fact that I can see how far they’ve come since then gives me a good dose of perspective.

One thing that I’m really sensitive to, personally, is condescension. I had more than my fair share of Adults being really (unintentionally, but still really) condescending and giving me patronizing advice that I didn’t ask for and telling me that I was Doing It All Wrong. So go to people you trust for things like this. My family was great about it. Random people on my Facebook, not always.

Speaking of which, now is a great time to enforce your boundaries.

While enforcing boundaries is always important, it becomes especially important when moving, when so many other things are out of your control. It’s not too much to ask of your friends and acquaintances not to do things that really bother you, whether it’s bombarding you with patronizing unsolicited advice or constantly asking for updates on how packing’s going or (if they live in the place you’re moving) pressuring you to make plans to see them when you’re not ready to yet.

My own personal issue was that, as soon as I started making plans to move, and especially as those plans drew nearer and nearer and especially after they happened, a large portion of my Facebook friends list decided that I would be their Official Repository for “Humor” Articles About How Much New York Sucks. How expensive it is. How shitty the apartments are. How hard it is to find them. How annoying the subway is. (It’s not even that annoying.) How rude New Yorkers are. (They’re not even.) I try to think that people thought I’d find this funny because I can relate rather than doing it to piss me off. Unfortunately, though, it turned out to be a huge anxiety trigger. Because guess what! I do have doubts about moving here. It is hard sometimes. The housing situation really is a little dismal. Shit really is expensive. Do I really need to be reminded of this? No.

The entire genre of LOLOL WOW LOOK AT THIS CRAZY STUPID NEW YORK SHIT LOL NEW YORKERS ARE SO WEIRD LOL articles really needs to die out, in my opinion. But until it does, I didn’t want any more of them posted on my wall. So I told people that and explained why, and enforced that boundary whenever people broke it afterward. It made my life just a little bit happier, at no cost to me or anyone else.

If you’re someone who likes routines (and most people do), create some as soon as possible.

When you move to a new place it might be tempting to Try All Of The Different Things to try to get yourself to feel more comfortable and at home. Sometimes this can be really helpful and fun, but sometimes what you need to feel at home is routine.

That’s why I quickly established My Gym and My Deli and My Work!LunchPlace and My School!LunchPlace and My Cafe. My School!LunchPlace is Chipotle, which people make fun of me for because why would you move to New York and just eat at Chipotle. Cause it makes me feel comfy, okay? I will probably eventually get tired of my love affair with Chipotle, or its CEO will say something really bigoted, and I will stop going there and start enjoying food from Every Country In The World. (For real, right next to the building where I have class is a Mediterranean place, an Ethiopian place, an Italian place, an Indian place, a Chinese place, and a Japanese place. And that’s without walking a few blocks to where Harlem begins.)

Routines help me feel like a resident rather than a tourist. In a city of tourists, that feels nice. Knowing exactly where to stand on the platform so I get on the train at such a spot that when I get off the train I’ll be right by the stairwell that will take me to the next train I need is cool. So I stand on the platform in the same spot every time.

Relatedly, unpack as soon as you can. Unless it’s too stressful. Then don’t.

Typically, I find that unpacking helps me feel at home and gives me fewer things to worry about, since I can finally stop living out of boxes and start knowing where all my shit is. But this time was a bit different, because it was very difficult to fit everything into my limited storage space, and every time I tried to unpack I just got terribly anxious. If this happens to you, let go of any perfectionism you may still have after moving across the country alone in a state of terror and panic (that tends to really cut down on the perfectionism) and let things just lie in boxes or piles on the floor. There will be time enough to put all of the thingies where they need to go.

Avoid reminders of your past home when you need to.

The wisdom on this goes both ways; some people feel comforted by such reminders, while other people, such as me, break down crying in public. That happened today, which is actually what prompted me to finally write this post and stop putting it off.

It was the first actually cold day of the season, and the first snow. There’s a Target near where I work and I needed to get some stuff. Tights. A pillow. Whatever. I found the Target and walked in, and the glass door slid shut behind me, and suddenly…I was home.

I don’t mean home as in a shopper’s paradise, although that too. Home home. The Target was laid out exactly the way the one back in my hometown in Ohio was, with the women’s clothes and the accessories just to the left of the entrance. I walked over to some purses and scarves and just stared stupidly at them. I remembered doing my college shopping four years ago. I remembered buying Pokemon cards for my little brother. I remembered when my ex-boyfriend and I bought identical folding sphere chairs. I remembered clothes shopping with my mom. I felt like I could do a 180 and walk right back out and be in the sprawling wasteland of a parking lot with the mall across the street and the pool down the road. I could get in my parents’ car and drive home (driving?!) and my family would be there waiting for me.

If you’ve never walked aimlessly through a nearly-empty Target crying and not being able to breathe properly, I don’t really recommend it.

It just felt so stupid. It’s a stupid fucking generic store. They have them everywhere. I’ve even been to plenty of other Targets in plenty of other cities and states, without any bouts of Sudden Crying. But there it was.

I bought my shit and left the store without my coat on, thinking that maybe the sudden cold would make me snap out of it. It didn’t. The wind reminded me of Chicago and I just cried even harder. I put the coat on and went to the subway. I cried all the way back to Manhattan, half-napping part of the time. By the time I got to Times Square, I felt like I was back in New York again and not wallowing in some Midwestern past, and I felt a little better.

The point of that whole story is: I’m probably not going to go to Target again. At least not alone, or at least not until I’ve settled in better. It’s not worth it. I almost want to, because that stupid store is the only place in the five boroughs that has ever given me that visceral I-could-walk-right-out-into-Ohio feeling. I know I could chase that feeling if I let myself, but I won’t. I moved here for a reason. I left that place behind.

But remember where you came from.

I spent many useless years trying to shed Ohio and the Midwest from my identity like so many useless outgrown and unfashionable clothes. In college, I remember being extremely proud whenever anyone told me that I looked or sounded like I was from New York, which was often. And in my junior year when I was taking Hebrew, I was practicing with my teacher and asked her how to say, “I want to be from New York.” She said, “You mean, ‘I want to live in New York.’” I said, “No, I don’t just want to live there. I want to be from there.” (The correct translation, by the way, is Ani rotzah l’hiyot meh-New York.)

I am not from New York. I am never going to be. That ship sailed 22 years ago when I was born in Israel (not too shabby a place to be from), and sank somewhere in the deep sea when my parents bought a house in Ohio. So it was. Instead of a childhood in Central Park and the Met and Rockaway Beach, I had a childhood reading in my backyard and hiking and going to the pool and riding my bike for miles and miles. Oh, and unlike kids here, I never had to take a fucking exam just to get into middle school. Could’ve certainly done worse.

Even if your move is not quite like Miri’s Brave Quest To Finally Be In A Place She Belongs, you might still be struggling with the desire to fit into your community versus the desire to remember where you’re from and the way you lived there. As you get to know new people, tell them about your old life and what your past homes were like. Let people understand you as the product of all the experiences that led up to your move to this new place, not just the new ones you’re having with them now.

It’s tempting sometimes to see moves as opportunities for total reinvention, and I definitely had a bit of that going on. But sometimes that can feel very isolating, like there are huge pieces of you that you didn’t bring with you when you moved. So bring them.

16 comments

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  1. 1
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    This is awesome, and I’m so glad to hear you’re enjoying yourself, even with the scary and not-good bits thrown in.

    I have a not-very-secret desire to live Somewhere Else, but at the moment have too many entanglements and too little sanityspoons to do it, because my version of Somewhere Else would be a place where English is not the first language: Japan, Russia, Germany, somewhere French-speaking?

    But I have people who love me near here, people who don’t have the money to come see me in a place like that. And my depression is far too deep as yet to think going to a place where I’ll be deliberately and knowingly Utterly Socially Isolated!!! is a very good plan.

    OTOH, I’m not getting any younger, either, though I have a reasonable family-based expectation that I’m only halfway through my life this year.

    On the gripping hand, I require a lot of meds to function, and getting reasonable access to those meds at an affordable price in both money and official suspicion is a privilege here in Canada that I can’t easily forego.

    Blah. Anyway, I’m dead glad that you’re liking your time there, and I hope you come to feel as at-home and “from there” as you want. :)

  2. 2
    Ross the Boss

    Your description of the slow development of feeling “at home” in your own apartment.

    Your solace in the online world that is always there for you and constant.

    The struggle with the chain stores that can offer the comfort of a consistent experience, but can pull you back into your past.

    The triumph of little moments like knowing where to stand at the subway.

    These are things I strongly relate to, and I know others do, as well. Never think that what you say isn’t relevant or very important to others. You are voicing and forming these thoughts and ideas that people may have, but haven’t coalesced together like you do here. Thank you.

    1. 2.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      <3

  3. 3
    Ashley F. Miller

    Perhaps not an answerable question as you seem to have known the answer for so long, but how do you find a place where you think you belong?

    1. 3.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Well, I sort of got lucky. I went to New York many times throughout my adolescence and college years because I have family here and it’s such a center of Russian Jewish culture. Spending some time in the city made it clear to me that I really love it, and as I got older and understood what sorts of institutional, infrastructural, and cultural assets I need in a city (i.e. a strong progressive community, lots of artsy/literary events, openness to gender/sexual minorities, diversity, immense physical size, good public transit system), I saw that NYC had a great deal of them.

      There are probably other places I’d like just as much that would have something NYC doesn’t have and lack something it does have, but I just haven’t been to those places.

      The way I felt (and still feel) as I got to know New York didn’t feel all that different from finding and getting to know a new partner. Both things can be very difficult to find and depend to a large extent on random chance. Sometimes you just “click” with someone, just as I clicked with the city.

  4. 4
    highlyeccentric

    Having just moved across the globe, I found this reassuring! Thank you :)

  5. 5
    arno

    Thank you for the post. I’m currently anticipating a slightly different situation: I believe I’m already living in the place where I belong, but it seems likely I’ll have to move away next year – my contact is running out. While I found moving to places where I want to be quite doable, I really dread that move.

  6. 6
    johnradke

    Be as kind to yourself as you would to anyone you love and value.

    Ugh. Why is this so hard sometimes?

  7. 7
    AMM

    Was that Target the one by the #1 stop at 225th street?

    I ride by that one every day on Metro-North, and always wondered what it was like inside.

    And, yeah, New Yorkers aren’t as impolite as they say. They don’t say “hello” to everyone who passes, because there are just too many people for that. But most people will go out of their way to help somebody if they think they need helping. Stand on a streetcorner with a map and a lost look, and people will come up to you and offer directions. We’re all in this together….

    1. 7.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      No, actually, I work in Flushing so that’s where it was. Would’ve been funny if we were at the same place at about the same time, though. :)

      I’ve never failed to get directions when I needed them. People often come up and ask me for directions, too, and the more time passes the more often I’m actually able to help.

      1. 7.1.1
        CaitieCat, getaway driver

        My limited experience of NYC as a visitor (twice as an adult, once as a child) is, in fact, that people are more likely to start up pleasant conversation or be helpful than in, say, Toronto or London where I did most of my early growing-up. Especially on the subway, I found people to be much more willing to chat with me than I was with them – not rudely so, but friendly inquiries to some obvious tourists (us). I’m yer typical highly-repressed English girl, who passes generally only strictly informational conversation-time with strangers on the street.

        I was surprised because of NYC’s rep, but my being unsettled was entirely my own thing, and not anything they were doing wrong, just outgrowths of anxiety and stuff.

        1. 7.1.1.1
          smrnda

          My experiences were the same, along with the fact that it seemed (to me) that drivers in NYC were more mindful of pedestrians than I’d experienced elsewhere, which is a feature that usually stands out to me.

  8. 8
    leftwingfox

    Heh, I called those “Catapult moves”. Launch yourself from one cost to the other, and hope you land on your feet. I’ve done way too many of those. The first was with a single suitcase and camping gear, as well as a round trip ticket in case I didn’t get the job. The new boss let me crash on his couch for a few days while I found an apartment.

    The second and third time, I shipped everything to myself through the post office. Worked out surprisingly well, if you don’t have any furniture worth taking.

    That said, you missed a vital step here:
    BACK UP YOUR COMPUTER! Seriously, losing my hard-drive to move-related damage marked a dramatic break in my life.

    1. 8.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      That said, you missed a vital step here:
      BACK UP YOUR COMPUTER! Seriously, losing my hard-drive to move-related damage marked a dramatic break in my life.

      As I said, this was advice on the mental side of things, not the practical stuff like backing up hard drives. :) Plenty has been said about that elsewhere.

      1. 8.1.1
        leftwingfox

        Ah, sorry. :)

  9. 9
    angharad

    I’m with you on the perspective thing. After my second child was born I had what felt like the worst case of mastitis known to medical science (I did have a 3cm by 3cm abcess in my breast so for all I know it probably was). But I was in a lot of pain and not able to feed my baby, with all the misery and guilt that comes with that. Then my gran rang up and told me about the time she had mastitis. She was living in Singapore at the time, as my grandad was in the RAF and had been posted there during the Malayan Emergency. She had two toddlers and a new baby and was on her own in a foreign city. The doctor told her he could admit her to the base hospital but she couldn’t bring the children with her. So she had no choice but to tough it out.

    It made me feel better anyway.

  1. 10
    New Year, New York » Brute Reason

    […] college, nature, pretty much anything in the world I could conceivably miss. As I wrote in my guide to movingit’s a process that doesn’t end once you get there and your stuff’s unpacked. I […]

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