12/29/2014 09:53 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Strays Among Us


At a party two weekends ago, a new acquaintance asked me how I would describe myself. "Stray," I said. I'm a stray animal, a wandering child who feels at home both anywhere and nowhere. "It's kind of a gift. The way some people talk about 'home'? I've never felt that. So I'm as at home here, in this room, as I would be in the house I grew up in, sleeping on the floor in Ecuador, or at a Mardi Gras ball. It's all the same to me."

Sometimes, I feel sad about this condition, this unplacedness which saddens my family and mystifies my friends. "You mean you don't like going home?" Oh, I love it. I just don't feel like I need to stay there. "What about when you've travelled?" I learned Spanish pretty quickly and developed an accent which, in a week, fooled my host family's friends to believe I an (admittedly) dimwitted local. I'm the modern equivalent of a Zelig. But for all of the curious benefits this might afford me, all of the little slides I can make to fit in, at the end of the day, yes. I still feel lonely and displaced. Yes, I feel that too. I feel sad that my parents are saddened when I don't come home "because... why?" and I feel sad when my friends light up Facebook with tagged family members because I long for the feeling of permanence and place that they were either born with or were able to create for themselves.

When I was little, we moved a lot. There were six different "homes" before the summer I turned 13 and lived in a State Park. My mother and I were homeless for about three months that year. As of tonight, at the age of 32, there have been 23 different addresses, three P.O. boxes and too many hotels, couches, and inflatable mattresses for me to recall. And while this might seem very foreign to most of you, I know I'm not alone. There are thousands, even millions of "strays" who know what I'm talking about when I refer to this detached longing.

It's not just the sense of rootlessness. Chances are, you know or work with someone who feels or has experienced this same sensation. We feel we don't belong. Group photos make us feel strange -- we either overcompensate by cheesing it up or look curiously out of place whenever you take a snapshot. It's a whole network of displacement, of ghosting from parties, of emotional unavailability in relationships, of failed endeavors. And while each of these can be frustrating, we're also the people who are there for you when your own life becomes scattered because... well... we get it. Life doesn't always work out the way you planned it. More than anyone else you know, we're the ones who get it, are "there" for you, and will let you stay on our sofa without meddlesome questions until you find your feet again.

Bridget, merchandise manager for a bookstore in Glendale, CA, says that while she certainly wanted the American Dream as a child, "There was definitely a moment [in my twenties] when my brain clicked on to 'Wow, I do not want any of this!' One by one, all my friends started settling, picking spouses that were 'good enough,' keeping jobs that were 'good enough,' moving to houses just to own a house and all I could think was 'eff that.'" Now in her thirties, Bridget says she has grown into being a stray. "I feel like being called a 'stray' is a good thing. I can take care of myself; I don't rely on anyone to provide for me. We do what we want, when we want, for no other reason than ourselves."

But it's not easy. Or even our choice. A study conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and published earlier this month in the journal Health Affairs revealed that childhood trauma dramatically impacts our physical and mental health, even shaping our future opportunities. It's tough to say "I'm going to grow up to be a biologist" when your formative years are a series of traumatic events. You learn to adapt to chaotic environments and never develop the ability to settle down and stabilize.

I've both seen and experienced this. It certainly makes you feel crazy, living out the consequences of "failing" to conform to what society expects of us as adults. To adjust. To grow up and take responsibility. As a well-intentioned relative recently said to me during the holidays, "I just thought you'd be somebody by now. Be married, settle down, something." Even if we grow up relatively "normal", the financial, relational, even spiritual decisions we make during high school and our twenties create an identity we have to live into. If we were not already inclined to buck the system, one or two choices can "derail" us, ensuring that being a stray becomes the prevailing script of our life. But is this "crazy" feeling real?

A Univ. of Berkeley study published earlier this month in the journal Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice concluded that, "A deflated sense of power or disappointment in social standing was associated with a higher risk of depression and anxiety, while excessive striving and ambition meant a higher risk of bipolar disorder and narcissistic personality disorder." In other words, yes. The feeling is very real and is continually being reinforced. "One's perceived social status -- or lack thereof -- is at the heart of a wide range of mental illnesses." When we feel like don't fit in at work, that we haven't "made it" like our friends, or are told by family members that we "just need to grow up," there is a very real sense of not belonging. And that, the studies point out, creates conditions from which we may never be able to emerge. While strays are often known for their Bohemian lifestyles, part of that life is the inability to be anything else.

While autonomy, a sense of altruism, or even creativity certainly compels many of us to go our own way, what we might prefer to think of as an internal locus of control is, admittedly, circumstantial. It feels real because it is real -- our society, culture, even economy reinforces conformity and those of us who "stray" from what is expected are sometimes rewarded -- think Steve Jobs or My aunt is so cool! or Randall has so many stories to tell!-- but more often, we are penalized in a series of unfortunate events. Capitalizing on those staples of our individuality becomes more difficult as we age, making a series of educational, financial, even relational mis-steps along the way. "Even if I did want the house and the wedding and the kids," says Bridget, "I feel like I'm trapped by the economy. I can't take a risk and go for the job I want because I have debt and the debt owns me."