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Why Do I Feel Loneliest Around Family?

I spend most of the year longing to go home. But when I’m there, I have to admit that something’s changed.

I still get embarrassed when I think about it. On an oppressively hot evening this summer, I scanned the crowd for my parents around the bar at a Caribbean resort. We had agreed a few hours before that the two of them, my husband and I, and my brother and his partner would dress up and take pictures before our dinner reservation to commemorate our first family vacation as adults. We hadn’t been on a trip like this together since I moved from Puerto Rico to attend graduate school in New York nine years ago. I found my parents chatting on a bench and asked them where my brother was. He and his girlfriend were sneaking a predinner snack at the buffet, my dad said. Then he added, “They came over to grab a drink in our room, and we took some photos before coming down.” He repeated a joke my brother told that I can’t even remember now. It was an innocuous comment, but it punched me in the gut. I felt my face redden and tears sting my eyes. I spat out, “Did it occur to any of you to tell me to come over, or do I not exist?”

That no one thought to shoot me a text was a little rude at worst. But in that moment, the fact that my family had excluded me was devastating. I imagined the four of them speaking a secret language created through sharing memories that don’t include me — all the birthdays and holidays I’ve missed, spontaneous weekend outings, Sunday dinners in my parents’ living room.

When I decided to leave the island at 21, I thought it would be temporary. I’d hoped that furthering my education would give me a leg up in an already brutal job market at home. Instead, the Puerto Rican government announced it was broke just months before I graduated, and the limited career opportunities dwindled even further. I was also in love with my now-husband and excited about living in New York. So I stayed. I’ve since built a meaningful life and career, but I wonder if it was worth the cost. Our lives run on parallel tracks, only briefly intersecting. My family and friends love me deeply, and I am genuinely happy when I get to hold them after months apart. But the time we steal together when I visit once or twice a year can’t make up for the prolonged separation. No matter how well we stay in touch or how much they try to make me comfortable, I feel like a guest in their lives who’s just passing through.

My outburst at the resort betrayed a feeling I’ve only recently admitted to myself: I’m loneliest when I’m home with my family. That night, I had an opportunity to tell them how I was really feeling, but I didn’t take it. I just told them that forgetting to include me was rude and that it made me feel shitty because I already have such little time with them. Telling my family I feel lonely when I’m with them — me siento tan sola — would have blown up an otherwise perfectly nice vacation. I know my parents already struggle with my absence. I see it in every good-bye at the airport, in the countdown app my dad downloads for each visit, in the hopeful way they nudge me to move back. What kind of daughter would I be to burden them with my feelings? Isn’t what I have good enough?

The writer Athena Dixon grapples with this question in her collection of essays The Loneliness Files. Reading it, I found myself connecting deeply with the passages in which she returns home to Ohio. Her town, “once built on the backs of steel mills and factories,” has evolved profoundly, she writes. People, businesses, houses — so many of them have disappeared, and others have transformed into something unrecognizable. “Each of these tiny deaths means the world as I knew it is no more,” Dixon writes. Those lines make me think of the weeds growing in the abandoned baseball field where my younger brother used to play and the shuttered windows of the businesses near my hometown’s plaza that have not survived the past decade of crises in Puerto Rico.

Unlike my loved ones, I have not lived through any of that profound change. I feel the chasm between us widen when my mom describes the way the concrete walls of my childhood home shook for hours as Hurricane Maria ravaged the island. I feel it when my best friend angrily tells me how she can’t buy a house because Americans relocating to the island for a tax break have pushed home prices well beyond what she can afford. I feel it when my brother talks about places where he doesn’t hang out anymore because there’s so much gun violence nearby.

We’ve all changed so immensely over time that we can’t quite clearly see one another. Their bonds have been forged in fire while I’ve just watched from afar. When we talk about the challenges of my job or my ambivalence toward motherhood, there’s always a question in their eyes. I know they try to understand this new version of me, but I don’t think they can fully grasp it. It hurts to feel on the outside looking in, yet I am overcome with shame — about not being physically present to help them recover from illness or natural disaster, about having these feelings in the first place.

My husband and I flew to Puerto Rico ahead of Christmas. The evening we touched down, I saw the four of them — my parents, my brother, his partner — retreat into their own bubble in between plates of mofongo and rounds of Medalla at dinner. They reminisced about a recent family party they went to, but it felt as though no one was telling me about it. They just talked among themselves. As I started to feel anxious about being excluded again, I thought of a conversation I’d had with Dixon about how she decided she needed to return home after years away. What kind of memories could I have shared with my loved ones if I had known the difference between what I thought I wanted and what I didn’t want anymore? she asked herself. Leaving Puerto Rico was a self-inflicted wound I can’t quite heal. But my family had a Christmas Eve celebration coming up, too, and I was going to be there. Didn’t they think our party would be better? I leaned over and asked them. While I’m here, we still have our own shared language.

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