It’s family weekend, and over the rim of a red solo cup I murmur that my mother is visiting the next day. The face of the girl next to me lights up as she exclaims, “That’s great! You must be so happy to see her again!” Someone nearby turns around and says, “You’re so lucky! I wish my parents could come more often.” After I look down and stammer something about it not being a good thing, he sternly says, “Hey, you should be grateful for this. She’s coming all the way out to Iowa just to see you. Even if you’re sometimes annoyed by her, know that she always loves you.” The girl nods in agreement. Looking at me, she says, “I can’t wait to go home again. Where’s home for you?” My home is Grinnell College, but she won’t accept that as a response. She keeps repeating, “No, where’s your home?” as if I hadn’t answered that already.

As I quietly leave the room to some awkward stares, I think about what she was trying to ask. She was probably trying to ask where I used to live before college, where my parents and/or guardians kept me, where mail directed toward me would show up. This describes where my house was. Not my home. Here’s the distinction:

My house is where every day is a battle for survival.

My house is where I whisper my secrets into a tear-stained pillow, having nothing else to confide in.

My house is where I always lock the bathroom door, and hold bated breath in every room with one exit.

My house is where I furiously study for the next exam, wanting nothing more than to graduate high school and leave. Like my companions who can’t afford their own car, I know that getting in to college is the only way out.

My house is where I trust nobody. A family friend is an informant by another name, a cousin is just somebody who hasn’t had the chance to betray me yet, and a therapist only serves the people who pay them to “help me find the right path”.

My house is where a loving, mother’s touch leaves bruises on my chest and scars in my mind.

My house is where I make plans to be with a friend every weekend just to escape. This is all an elaborate game of pretense; I have no friends in the desolate place where my house is.

My house is where I furiously hide my unwanted tears so I can dine with the people who caused them. Any sign of weakness gives them an edge to manipulate me.

My house is where I pour my soul into a word document that I promptly delete. The last time I left a trace of my true feelings left me helplessly gasping, prying at the fingers enclosed around my neck.

My house is where I leave the bus and hug goodbye the fellow trauma survivor I just met. Our passionate sharing, which lasted through every adult passenger’s uncomfortable glance, left me sadder than ever to depart. Still, fear dictated that I must return to my house.

My house is where I gaze into the soulless, unforgiving eyes of the social worker who deems me “yet another case of a whiny teenager complaining about a perfectly fine family”. The record of my falsified report stays with me every time I apply for a job.

My house is where I wake up and find that my nightmares are real.

My house is where I sneak out and go through my classmate’s window so I can cradle her head and make sure she eats for the first time in days. As she weakly tries to keep her mouth closed, I selfishly hope I won’t live to see the day where she dies before me.

My house is where I walk down the streets and see some of my people, easily visible from the cuts on their wrists. They walk briskly, look down, and don’t want to be disturbed. In my darkest hours, I call upon the strength they must have to simply keep existing.

My house is where I hold a bread knife to my heart and contemplate whether anyone would notice if I died. My father’s face appears in my mind, shouting that I was never strong enough to take some responsibility. Every night I put my temptation back in the drawer, vowing to find a different way to escape from this prison that holds me.

That was never my home. That was simply the house I resided in. A home is a place of safety, a hearth to return to, somewhere that gives support. This place for me is Grinnell.

My home is large, confusing, and tumultuous, but something about its people makes me feel safe.

My home is full of stressful and tedious work, but I know that I would never give it up for anything else.

My home isn’t always understanding of my emotional needs, but I know I can trust many of its people to always be there for me.

My home is losing the self-governance it once cherished so brightly, but here I speak with the most powerful voice I’ve ever had.

My home is isolated and doesn’t give many city attractions, but that makes the few things I have so much sweeter.

My home is often bereft of nature, but I can appreciate it much more than I could elsewhere. It’s amazing what you can see if you only look up.

My home is where I still have trouble sleeping with my back faced to the door. I still can’t close my eyes in a shower. But maybe, just maybe, I’m getting closer to being able to.

My home is where I still have flashbacks of forced stripping and unwanted touching, but at least now I can stagger into the hallway and find solace in seeing those who want to love and nurture me.

My home isn’t perfect, but it’s the best I’ve ever had.

Home’s where the heart is. It’s not defined by residency, parents, or length of stay. I have my true family here. This culture is so much more a part of me than any other place I’ve lived. There’s no question about it; this is my home.

So when you ask me if I’m going “back home” for Christmas break, or tell me that I must be happy to see my “mom” again, or say that I must be “missing my home” by now,

Check your fucking assumptions.