Finding home in myself
This week I’m reflecting on two things – another year around the sun, but even more significantly it’s the anniversary of my move to London, which happened two days after my 18th birthday and now means I’ve lived in the UK half of my life.
I had only ever planned to be in London for four years, do my art foundation and degree, then I’d be on the next plane out of here. I didn’t know where, but I knew it would be warm! Little did I know I’d be here all these years later, a totally different person to the one who arrived here with her whole life in two suitcases as an only just 18 year old.
It’s been such a journey these past 18 years, I totally lost myself when I first got here, have been through quite a few dark nights of the soul, but I’ve also found myself. I’ve had a complete love-hate relationship with this city, I begrudged living here in the beginning, but now won’t take any bad-mouthing about ‘my place’. A friend recently said to me that when you fall in love with London, you’re ready to leave. I think all these years later, it might finally be my time to go.
Back in 2000, I moved here reluctantly (almost kicking and screaming) as I didn’t want to come to university and leave all that I knew in Kenya where I grew up. My beautiful house and the lush, tropical environment; friends; the weather – oh the weather; my six younger siblings and parents – although we certainly had more than our fair share of family issues, leaving them was not something I would have chosen to do.
When I got here, I was shocked by how busy and crowded it was more than anything. Sure, I’d visited my family and family friends in the UK over the years, but that had been in a safe, protected bubble with people that knew London and would be there to show me around. This time, I was on my own, to fend for myself and I felt like a small town child in the big, bad city.
I had the assumed safety blanket of my university, but it too was different from anything I had imagined. There was no campus life and everything within easy walking distance, with shops, a library etc right on hand, like you see in the movies. No, this was London, and I had to find my way around as Londoners did. At the time it felt like a cold harsh reality check that I needed to grow up.
The first time I got on a bus, I got in the back entrance and the driver yelled at me, I felt humiliated and scared. I didn’t think I’d ever fit in! But, as with all things, I started to figure it out and found my way around. I felt quite proud of myself as I learned where to do laundry and buy groceries and which buses to take to get to my different classes.
But, alongside this little victory for me, my homesickness was getting more and more apparent. On days I had classes I would be distracted and immerse myself in what I was doing – although, not very well as I was feeling so low inside. But, still it was a distraction. On other days I would watch TV all day long! It was getting colder and colder outside and the dark nights were getting longer. Being a tropical girl inside, this was weird and not something my body was used to, all I wanted to do was eat and sleep.
That’s what I did. I began to eat and drink excessively as I found comfort in the warm doughiness of baguettes packed with cheese, endless sweet and creamy coffees, muffins, pizzas, you name it. If it was a quick and easy white carbohydrate I was on it! I also chose to escape in bottles of cheap red wine – yes, being a student didn’t help. But it came too easily as a way to avoid reality.
Coupled with the homesickness I was becoming more aware of my identity, or confused identity as I even gave my first email address. I was repeatedly being asked to define my race, and it felt so weird to tick the box for ‘Asian – Indian’, when I didn’t identify with this on the inside. I identified with so many things, I started ticking the ‘Other’ box and began to resent having to answer questions about where I was from.
I felt so disconnected for most of my university years. I made a few friends, who also felt as homesick and rootless as I did. We bonded over our love for the tropics and dislike of London, we really didn’t make much effort to enjoy the city or even try and appreciate anything. I just picked on the reasons why I didn’t like it – it was too cold, too expensive, too crowded. Nothing here was ever going to be good enough and I was doing everything in my power to not like it and to not fit in. Instead I escaped in food, drinking and smoking weed.
It was a vicious cycle of disliking myself for doing everything to excess, followed by gaining weight and feeling crap because I wasn’t looking after myself, then doing it all over again as I would do anything to not feel the pain that was bubbling away under the surface. There’d be moments when the hatred for my body shape and self would get too much and I’d jump on the bandwagon of the next ‘lose weight quick’ celebrity endorsed diet to try and lose some weight, thinking I’d be happy if I just did this. I inevitably yo-yoed between losing a bit of weight and then gaining it all back plus more.
I look back and I wonder how I got through those years. There were definitely moments when I didn’t want to be here. I saw no point, no purpose and thought there was nothing I had to give anyone, let alone myself. Nobody knew how sad I was inside, I’m sure it probably showed but I didn’t talk to anyone about it. Even though I frequently thought about ending my life, I just knew I couldn’t for my younger siblings. I knew I had to get through this, although I saw no light at the end of the tunnel. I didn’t even remember what it felt like to wake up not feeling the emptiness and despondency that were my existence. I couldn’t remember what genuine happiness felt like. Oh how I missed my school days and life back in Kenya.
But things began to turn around when I began a job working in a PR company. I started to have a reason to get up in the morning, I had a distraction in the form of paid employment, I had people who began to rely on me to come in and do my job. This gave me a purpose, a sense of belonging, I made some wonderful friends and began to enjoy the London social scene for the first time.
However, I was still hurting and confused inside. Even though I was busy and now seemingly happy on the outside I still didn’t really feel like I fit in. Colleagues would be so into the work, they knew they wanted to do PR, but I had done an art degree, which I hated and had no idea if this career path was for me; or if I even wanted a career path at all! I also didn’t feel like I had a home. Yes, London was where I lived and I was actually getting out and enjoying the city, but it didn’t feel like home. My immediate family were all over the world by this time and I had a lot of resentment and anger brewing from my childhood – I wanted a break from them all, so I was less and less in touch.
My solution, was drinking. I became addicted to the release and escape I found in drinking. I didn’t know how to feel like I belonged or comfortable in my own skin. I felt trapped and powerless to change it. Again I fell into another vicious cycle where I would try and stop drinking for a few weeks, resume exercising and I would notice some changes – I would start to feel a bit better, perhaps shed a bit of weight and there would be a glimmer of hope in the distance. Maybe I could like myself a bit, maybe there was hope things could change… But then as soon as this feeling came I would self-sabotage and go right back to drinking and partying, and the hope and possibility I felt initially would fade.
It was only when a family member who I love dearly got a life-threatening illness that something in me clicked. My intuition, which I had been ignoring and numbing for so long, told me that in order to help I needed to heal myself.
The message I was getting and wrote down at the time was: “Forgive yourself, you deserve love and happiness. Stop sabotaging yourself every time something good happens or you make progress in life. You are here today to help and serve others, but you have to serve and help yourself first, by forgiving yourself. Let go of the past you can’t change it. Why would you want to? It has made you who you are today. Feeling guilty and beating yourself up for things that happened will not help anyone, least of all you. You deserve love. All kinds of love. Especially everlasting love from yourself. Show yourself love, treat yourself the way you have always been treating others. The way you treat people you admire and respect. Show yourself that unconditional, unwavering love, that you have always longed for. Start today.”
This seemed totally counterintuitive, and the old me would have thought I should put my brother first and not worry about myself, but the feeling was so strong and I so badly wanted to help that this is what I started to do. I stopped drinking the following weekend and cut out all processed foods, I even signed up for a yoga class, which I had been meaning to do for years! I continued this way for two months and this is when things really started to shift in my life for the first time. I started to make small choices in favour of my own self-care like choosing to have a night in instead of a night at the pub, or prioritising a yoga class on the weekend where before I would have been in bed hungover. I stopped feeling like I was missing out and started to tune into what my body and mind wanted and how I was feeling. It was all very new to me.
Truly beginning to care for myself was the turning point in me beginning to feel like me. As I peeled away the layers that I had built up around myself, I uncovered the pain and feelings that had been buried and never felt. I allowed myself to mourn the death of my mother, I empathised with myself for feeling like I had to figure it all out on my own, I felt and forgave my father for his coping techniques and acknowledged him for doing his best. It was messy as I worked back through the layers, but there was relief as I felt everything fully for the first time. I started to like myself and put myself first, which radically changed my life as my outer world began to reflect how I was feeling inside. As this happened I began to also physically shed my layers (more easily than any diet I’d ever been on) as I let go of anger, sadness, feelings of being alone and not knowing if I had a purpose.
It truly has been an extraordinary 18 years, this past one has been the best in my life so far and I just know it’s going to keep on getting better. My self-care journey is evolving and it includes me doing things to be more ME. I feel I know why I am here now, to help others heal, which I could never have done if I hadn’t started healing myself first.
I no longer care about questions to do with my identity. I’m proud to have such a diverse background and love that I can identify with people and places all over the world. I want to learn more about my Indian heritage and embrace it as a part of me. I feel so lucky and grateful to be the person I am today and truly blessed to have gone through all the things I have, as that inner voice said all those years ago ‘They have made me who I am’!
I am no longer searching for home. I have found it. It’s actually a sense of inner peace and connection – I found it inside myself. Now, no matter where I am in the world, it could be London, it could be Kenya, I am home, as I am happy in me.