When Home No Longer Feels Like Home

Chicago skyline

I dragged my massive suitcase onto the 81 Lawrence bus at Jefferson Park and carefully grabbed a seat, piling my smaller backpack on my lap and letting the suitcase jut into the aisle. Exhaustion and hunger overcame me as I had been up for nearly 48 hours straight making my way back to Chicago after three weeks in Nepal. Those weeks took a lot out of me and I longed for the comforts of home – for regular internet and electricity, for hot showers and familiar food and for outfits that didn’t including hiking pants or dri-fit t-shirts.

But I didn’t long for home.

I kind of dreaded returning to my mostly empty condominium, the place I called home for four years before departing on my career break trip in August 2011. I rented it out for the next two years and finally moved back in over Labor Day weekend but it hasn’t really felt like home again.  Gone was my comfy navy couch that I had purchased with so much excitement when I first moved to Chicago in 2001. Gone was my adorable antique baker’s rack that I ended up donating to charity because I couldn’t find anyone to pay me close to what it was really worth. Gone was my awesome multicolored wool rug that I fell in love with the minute I saw it at Room and Board. And gone were my cats who had been there to greet me when I returned home from Egypt and Germany and Peru.

Living room
My adorable condo before I left on my career break.

Instead, when I returned to my beloved condo over Labor Day weekend, I found a place that didn’t feel like home at all. I found mold on the bathroom ceiling and a bathroom fan that no longer functioned. I found burned out light bulbs and an air filter that hadn’t been changed in months.  I found walls covered with horribly patched up holes and shelves missing out of the closets. I found an oven that hadn’t been cleaned in two years and ugly shelves installed in the bathroom without permission. I overwhelmed myself with the mental list of things I needed to do (or hire someone to do) before my condo would again be in the condition that it was two years earlier.

I left for a weekend in New York just a few days after moving back in and then three weeks later, I was on a plane to Nepal. I have spent just three weekends in Chicago since Labor Day weekend, each of which was spent on freelance work or running errands to prepare for me trip. Aside from fixing the mold issue ASAP, I haven’t managed to do anything to fix any of the other issues listed above. But even when I do, I’m afraid it won’t solve the problem.

My now-drab condo since I moved back in 2 months ago.

The problem is that home doesn’t feel like home anymore. Toward the end of my career break trip, when I longed to return home to Chicago, the home I imagined was the one I left – with my couch and my baker’s rack and my rug and my cats. The home I have now consists of a full size bed that doesn’t come close to filling up my empty bedroom, a droopy couch and chair set that just don’t live up to my beloved navy couch, and a wobbly, but cute, coffee table and matching end tables that are really too large for the space. My second bedroom/office is more of a storage area, home to a dozen boxes and my half empty luggage from Nepal and subsequent work trip to Washington, D.C.  I am torn between wanting to fully furnish the place to make it cozy and comfortable and not wanting to spend a lot of money when I may not stay that much longer anyway.

Beyond my physical home that is my condo, Chicago as a city no longer feels like home. I don’t feel like I fit in here anymore. I no longer have the friends I can just call up to go have a drink when I’ve had a bad day. I spend so much time solo that I might as well be in a foreign city where I don’t know anyone. I worry about my safety here in a way I never did before. Stories of violence dominate the news and I passed signs on my way home the other night warning of recent robberies at gunpoint – all within a couple blocks of where I live. While I used to feel perfectly fine going for a run while it was still dark in the morning or after the sun set in the evening, I now feel nervous. In my own neighborhood. In the neighborhood that is supposed to be home.

So what do I do now?

In the short term, I make the best of it. I buy some shelves for my second bedroom and I finish unpacking. I patch the holes and paint and hang pictures on the wall and display my favorite souvenirs from my travels. I force myself to be social, to try to meet new, like-minded people to replace the friends from whom I have drifted. I continue to run since I’m training for a marathon in March, but perhaps I join a running group. And I try to not spend too much time looking ahead to the day when the real estate market has improved enough for me to sell my condo and bid Chicago goodbye – to the day when I find a new place to call home, wherever that may be.

Have you ever lost a sense of home? How did you get it back?


15 thoughts on “When Home No Longer Feels Like Home”

  1. I don’t think it is Chicago and I think you would feel the way you do in whatever city you’re in. You have to build a life for yourself and you can’t expect to make friends the way you did when you were in college. You have to accept that as people get older, they have their own families and their own lives.

    Find something you enjoy doing and commit to doing it regularly and for extended period of time. If you commit to being part of something, for example, volunteering every weekend for some organization, then you you are going to meet people and make friends. Handing out business cards will not make you friends. But working side by side with people on something you are passionate about over a period of time will.

    1. Thanks. I’ve been out of college for more than 15 years, so I certainly know that making friends out of college is very different. I lost touch with most of my college friends a decade ago or more. I would love to find something to volunteer with regularly that I am passionate about but have not been able to find anything – I joined one organization back in the spring that I was very excited about but due to work conflicts I have only been able to volunteer once and have only been able to attend 1 meeting. And the people I have met there so far, I haven’t had as much in common with as I had hoped.

      I just joined a running group, which is looking promising so far.

  2. Home is a weird thing. My parents and I moved to GA when I was 15, just in time for sophomore year of high school. I spent more time in GA, mostly in Atlanta, than anywhere else, but I never really felt like it was the right place for me. I changed apartments every year or 2 after college, each time thinking “I’m not moving again!” until something major happened to make me move. Now living in Germany certainly isn’t a completely comfortable thing because I don’t speak the language well, it’s so much colder than I’m used to, etc. But I have Andy, and somehow that makes our apartment feel so much more like home. Now we’re traveling a lot more, renting our place out for a few months at a time, and it’s really strange. I HATE the apartment we’re renting in Berlin right now, and it always feels weird to think about strangers sleeping in our bed in Freiburg. But I’m trying to adjust.

    I’m so sorry your place was in such bad shape when you moved back in. You told me about the mold, the bathroom fan and a few other things, but somehow the shelves that they installed without permission shocks me the most. I can see how people might get lazy about cleaning if they know they aren’t living somewhere permanently. (Not saying it’s right AT ALL but I get how it happens.) But why would they think it’s ok to put holes in the wall and hang up shelves? Ugh. I hope you’re able to get the place to feel a little more comfortable for however long you have left there.

    1. Thanks Ali. I did finally get a handyman in this week to take care of a bunch of things, and I bought some more (inexpensive) shelves and a TV stand that have made it feel a little more homey. I’m planning to paint over Christmas and then I can hang stuff up on the walls again and it will really start feeling like mine again.

      It’s funny I moved every 2 years growing up as well, and every year for the first few years I was in Chicago – but now I really just want to be in one place, whether it’s Chicago or elsewhere.

  3. Hi Katie — love this post. I can definitely relate to that feeling of losing a sense of “home.”

    The hardest part for me was the feeling that as each day passed and I fell back into the norms of home…it seemed to me like I lost a little bit of the person that I was while I was traveling! It’s a challenge…wanting to fit in at home and not wanting to lose what we gained through travel.

    Glad to know I’m not the only one 🙂

    1. Thanks Anne. And no, you’re definitely not the only one. I know what you mean about feeling like you’re losing a little of the traveling you.

    2. I completely understand that feeling. For me I feel like I just ground myself in people. Home is where my boyfriend is, where my family is, where my friends are. Because I’m constantly meeting new people and staying in new places home becomes a revolving door and its easy to confused.

  4. I feel for you, it must be difficult trying to find a place that fits after all of those travels. I was standing before a decision to buy a flat with my boyfriend, now husband the moment we’ve started our first jobs. It’s a nasty habit of people of Slovakia and Czech republic to get a mortgage as early as 25 and for a silly small two-room flat in not so convenient location you end up taking a mortgage for 30 years (because of low initial sallaries). It was pain in the ass listening to whole of our family that we’re insane giving rent money to someone else instead of paying installments for our own flat… well, I’m glad we didn’t. Also, I think that Western culture has taught people putting too much value into four walls as a sense of home. Too much rooting being done too soon sometimes forces us do worse decisions for us, only because they are the “safe” option…

  5. Oh, you know I feel you on this one, Katie. While I didn’t have my own home in England to return back to after 3.5 years in Korea and half a year of travel, I moved back to a home I’ve never lived in before, as my mum moved while I was abroad. The room I’m in is essentially the spare room, used for storage, and nothing about it feels like home to me, apart from the very little that I own that’s in there – clothes, toiletries, and a few bits and pieces.

    I’ll be moving abroad in January, and have vowed to make my new place feel like home, as I feel like I’ve been without a place that’s mine for so long now (since the end of February). I hope you’ll find a solution, whatever that may be. And the people that were living in your condo are assholes. Two years without cleaning the oven?! I mean c’mon!

  6. 🙁 sorry you feel that way. I kind of felt the same the last time I returned home. I still love Chicago but there was a big something missing. Sorry about the state they left your condo in too. If you need any help with anything let me know – ill be around in December and January.

    1. Thanks Val. I hope to have most things taken care of by then, but if there is still some painting left to do, I may be looking for volunteers! Otherwise, we can just go drinking. 🙂

  7. We struggled with this when we returned to DC after our RTW. We had lived in DC before, but 6 years time had passed. Our friends that we were close with had gotten married, started families, or we had just drifted from them because of different priorities and life paths. We did have the same bed and mattress and couch, etc, so a lot of our furnishings felt like “home” in our new apartment outside of DC, but we could not recreate the life we had in DC so long ago. We had also given up our cat before the RTW. DC never quite felt right. I am not sure if we would have felt different if we had moved back to Chicago instead. I think for you, you need to move away from trying to recreate the past, and instead create a new life and a new home (even in the same condo). I am sure that it is easier said than done. Good luck!

    1. Yeah, I’ve long given up on recreating the life I had – and in some ways, I’m not sure I even want to, I just haven’t found or built a new life that I love yet to replace it.

  8. I have never had a sense of home in a city I was born and raised in. So I moved out to a place I fell in love with and I’m starting everything from scratch. It’s been 3 months I live in Armenia and it feels way better than Poland….Are you thinking of moving out of Chicago? What about selling this condo and buying another one in a different part of the city? This might be a new start too!

    1. I would love to sell the condo, but the real estate market hasn’t rebounded enough in Chicago for me to do so. It will likely be next summer at the earliest before it would be possible, maybe longer. And after seeing how my tenants treated it while I was renting it out, I really don’t want to rent it out again.

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