Setting Down Roots for the First Time
Updated: Jul 16
Growing up, we move a lot. It’s a given. Some of us were lucky and moved every 3 years in the summer. Then, there were those of us who were transplanted every 10 months, sometimes smack in the middle of the school year. However often your family PCS’ed, now that you are on your own, you may feel anxiety when it feels like it’s time to move.
Why is it so hard to set down roots for the first time? Packing up and moving has become so routine that we don’t know how to live in just one place. There is an internal timer set to go off, and when we don’t start loading a Mayflower truck, anxiety sets in. This is normal for former nomads, and there are ways to work through it.
Former military brats have been dealt a very interesting hand to play. We have lived in so many interesting places and have diverse cultural experiences to help us relate to a wide variety of people. We also get fun little quirks like our brains deciding that it’s time to start saying goodbye to everyone we know after two years. If this sounds familiar, keep reading. We’re about to name our issues and find solutions.
What is Gypsy Syndrome?
When I was in 5th grade, I made friends with the new new-girl. Her family moved a lot, too, but not because her parents were military or anything. I remember asking her mom why they didn’t just live in one house if they didn’t have to move, and she told me that her husband had “gypsy syndrome.” That stuck with me.
At the time, I thought, “Wow, how silly! Why would you want to move when you could stay in one house? You could plant a garden and watch how it grows every year.” Since then, I’ve used the phrase “Gypsy Syndrome” to name the swell of anxiety and panic that rises in my chest after living in one place too long.
Then, we started a series of short stations. Newport, Rhode Island for 10 months, Prattville, Alabama for 10 months, and Stafford, Virginia for 2 years. I remember the first summer living in Stafford, I was anxious and frustrated, my mind begging for change. This was a weird thing for me. What in the world was going on?
This was my first taste of Gypsy Syndrome. Maybe part of it was transitioning from middle school to high school. Logically, if I was changing schools the next year, I must also need to pack up everything in cardboard boxes, spend a week in the backseat with my sister, and endure however long in hotels until we had housing. That’s just what you did during the summer, right? I mean, what did I used to do during the summers when we didn’t move? I couldn’t even remember. I just knew that it was time for a change.
I felt the anxiety creeping up the summer after my junior year of high school, too. We’d been in Cheyenne for 2 years by then. Looking ahead, I already knew I’d be saying goodbye to all my friends at the end of my senior year, and I started getting that weird feeling again, but this time in a new flavor.
Maybe it had something to do with everyone leaving for college at the end of senior year, or maybe it was just that I had experienced trauma and had undiagnosed anxiety. Regardless, I started making really dumb decisions to break off my friendships. Somehow I thought ending things with people early would make leaving in May easier. It didn’t. I also thought maybe once I moved away, it would all get better. It kind of did, but then it didn’t.
Will Moving Make You Happier?
The thing is, everyone assumes the grass is greener on the other side. It’s not just those of us who grew up military. People who grew up in small Indiana towns imagine that Los Angeles is the best place in the world. Then, people who grew up in Los Angeles, imagine that small-town life might be for them. For me, I imagined civilian life would be so great.
In college, I never had to worry about Gypsy Syndrome creeping up on me. I moved from my first dorm to my parents’ new house for the summer. Then, there was a new dorm, followed by a rental house for the summer, followed by my first apartment for two years. Somehow, I survived that second year, though, I can’t say sleep deprivation and stress didn’t push the urge to move out of my peripheral (I don’t recommend that as a solution).
The point is all that moving kept me from feeling the effects of so-called Gypsy Syndrome, but did it make me happy? I don’t really think so. Much like going for walk will only temporarily ease the effects of Restless Leg Syndrome, moving doesn’t solve the root of Gypsy Syndrome.
Moving Will Only Make You Happy if You Land in the Right Place
Is there any case where moving did make me happy? Well, I can say that I’ve made three big moves with my husband: Los Angeles, Lafayette, and Nashville. When I moved to LA, I was already pretty depressed (a month isolated on a military base without a military ID will mess you up), and I thought moving would make that better.
I loved my internship, but I hated the traffic. I loved the beach, but I hated not being able to afford to do anything fun. And I loved my husband but hated that his job sent him away for weeks at a time. I mean, seriously, I married a civilian whose job had about as much TDY as my dad’s did. After 2 years, I could feel the Gypsy Syndrome flaring up. It was too much, and I imagined moving back to Lafayette where I went to college would fix things.
Getting back to a small town was refreshing at first, and we loved it for a while. Then, our apartment started being surrounded by this horrific sewage smell and someone built a hideous house on the field where we used to have a beautiful country view. Everyone was in college, and we just felt old. It wasn’t right either.
The move to Nashville, however, has made me feel at home. A lot of that has to do with control over our living situation. It’s nice to have a house to call my own in a nice neighborhood, a garden view that can’t be beaten, and a growing family. The other thing I think has helped us greatly is that we built our own home in a new neighborhood, so all our neighbors are just as new as we are. It definitely helps to not be the new kids on the block. We feel like we fit in here, and it’s been easy to make friends.
I am coming up on three years in the same house, and so far, I haven’t felt the effects of Gypsy Syndrome setting in. I don’t want to move, and I’m even scared (thanks to current affairs) that we may actually have to move away. This seems to have worked for me, but who knows if it’s permanent or if it’ll come back. And what about you? What can you do?
How Do You Break the Desire to Move Every Year?
While I have found my home, I still wonder when the anxiety will start to set in. There are days when I start feeling a little blue or want to rearrange the furniture, and I wonder if it’s starting. If you know that feeling, I bet you’re wondering if there’s anything we can do to heal our Gypsy Syndrome permanently.
I wish I could give you a definitive answer, but the truth is that I am 3 years settled. Like AA, it’s a one-day-at-a-time process. Here are a few things you can do to process your anxiety and work toward getting past the urge to move.
Take Your Time Unpacking. Was your military family completely unpacked, pictures up on the wall, and boxes in recycling within a week? My dad prided himself on the one time he had us totally moved into base housing in one day. That is really great when you are living somewhere short term. However, when you move into your “forever home,” it’s better to take some time. Looking forward to home improvement projects (even small ones) helps lengthen your moving in/settling in time-frame. The more time you take to make yourself at home, the deeper you’re putting down your roots. This may mean having a room full of boxes for a month or more. It may mean hanging up pictures a year after you’ve moved in. You might even find yourself buying new throw pillows and rugs to decorate 3 years later. Let yourself go slowly, adjusting your space as you go. For once, you have a space all your own. It’s important to personalize it and make it yours.
Spend Time in Your Neighborhood. This is more specific to people not living in the middle of nowhere. Go for walks around your neighborhood and smile and say, “hi” to the people you pass. This is a good way to meet your neighbors and make some friends. My husband is admittedly much better at this than I am. He got out and chatted with every new neighbor as they moved into their house. Now, one of his best friends is our across the street neighbor. Our daughter squeals and runs to hug our next-door neighbors when she sees them. We can walk down the street in either direction and meet friends for a little chat. I don’t want to leave them because they are now a part of my life. Maybe you’re really not a people person. That’s okay, too. Even if you just fall in love with the trees lining your neighborhood streets, find ways to appreciate the immediate area around your new home.
Join Some Groups. Just getting a job is one way to join a group. Going to church, joining the rotary, PTA, Weight Watchers, book club, or a gym are all great ways to get into the community, too. Put yourself out there, and you’ll find yourself making friends all over the place. It’s nice to have people you have something in common with to ground you. While you may only talk to them at your meetings, you will probably run into them at the grocery store, too. There’s something just really nice and homey about seeing a friendly face when you’re out and about.
Call Your Family. Even though you’ll probably live far away from your family (unless by some miracle, everyone agrees to settle down in the same place), you still need to keep in touch with them to feel rooted. Sometimes it feels like we’re too busy at different times, and it’s hard to stay in touch. Put it on the schedule to call your mom and dad once a week, your siblings, your grandparents, and whoever else. When it’s part of a routine, you know for sure there will be time for everyone. You’ll find that losing touch with the most important people in your life will trigger Gypsy Syndrome as well as depression.
Wander. A lot of people use the phrase Staycation, now, and this is a similar sentiment. Get out in your city and explore. Try new restaurants, shop in new stores, and hike in new parks. The more you get out and see your community with fresh eyes, the less likely you are to feel sick of it. And on the other hand, schedule cool vacations. Getting away for a little bit can often help you feel more settled in your home. You know how much you want to sleep in your own bed after too many nights in a hotel. This helps to satisfy your urge to get away but also deepens your roots.
Dealing with the Anxiety of Not Moving
In some cases, your anxiety is beyond the cute moniker of Gypsy Syndrome. I’ve personally felt the persistent chest tightening, nausea, and tunnel vision that comes with moving anxiety. This is when you should consider counseling. We’ll be getting into the stigma of therapy in a later series, but for now, I think it’s really important to state that there is nothing wrong with getting help for mental health improvement.
Children growing up in the military have a lot of unresolved bitterness, trauma, grief, and other things that will lead to anxiety and depression as adults. Some of us are a lot better adjusted as adults, but some of us could use some help. That’s completely normal, and no one should feel like working toward self-improvement is bad.
The first step that we would recommend is finding a copy of Third Culture Kids by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken. In terms of instant relief, this book will help you name your feelings and unpack the issues you packed in a cardboard box as a child but never reopened. You will feel like you aren’t so alone anymore. But this is really only Step One.
The second step is talking to a professional therapist. It helps to have the vocabulary in your toolbox to name your feelings, but you need someone to customize a process to work through whatever you’ve been through.
Why Seeing a Therapist is Recommended
In a 2011 study of military brats in secondary school, 30% reported 2 or more weeks of depression symptoms the past year, and 25% admitted to contemplating suicide. The statistics were drawn from a subsample of 14,299 7th, 9th, and 11th-grade students in California. The study concluded that there was an increased risk of mental health issues, especially during wartime, and that additional mental health screening processes needed to be implemented to care for our children.
Unfortunately, anyone who grew up in the military knows how mental health treatment is regarded in a negative light. That’s why it’s so important that we, as adults, remove that stigma and get the help we need. I’m looking at that 1 in 4 statistic. A quarter of us considered ending our lives, but more than likely never got help. That scar tissue may still be causing you stress when it comes to putting down roots for the first time.
There is no perfect answer to how to set down roots for the first time after a life measured by moves. There are a few things that you can do to prevent the feelings of Gypsy Syndrome like taking your time moving in, getting to know your neighbors and friends, and finding groups to join. There are also steps to take to heal the scars of past trauma like doing some research and seeking help through therapy.
We want you to feel grounded, safe, and balanced. This is a crucial part of transitioning from the military brat life to being an adult, whether military or civilian. You are important.