The Newcomer’s Blues

by Sonja Haller

The Arizona Republic

Unfamiliar weather, landscaping and fashion sense. These things, small as they may seem, have ruffled Michelle Norton’s sense of belonging and self.

Six weeks ago, Norton, 24 moved with her fiance from Phoenix, where she’s lived all her life, to Portland, Ore.

She feels conspicuous in her bright pink raincoat in a rainy city where people prefer khaki, greens and browns. And it’s understandable, but still unsettling, that the barista at her neighborhood Starbucks doesn’t know her name. She feels isolated and depressed.

“Without the structure of a job or friends and family to be around, it can be really tough to remember what it was you like to do,” Norton said.

Norton is experiencing what author Susan Miller has coined “moving affective disorder.”

Miller has firsthand experience with the loneliness and loss of identity that can accompany a move – she has moved 14 times. And based on her observations at her seminars and classes, women seem more acutely affected than men.

“We like to put down roots,” said Miller, Scottsdale resident and author of After the Boxes are Unpacked: Moving On After Moving In. “And starting over, not having friends, not knowing where to go or what day the garbage pickup is, is hard on women. We generally handle the big things of life pretty good. But those little things can get us.”

Miller, who is actively involved at Scottsdale Bible Church, formed a non-profit ministry in 1995 aimed at helping people around the country, and military families around the world, cope with the traumas of moving. Recently renamed Just Moved Ministry (www.justmoved.org), it hosts several classes during the year, and in September is sponsoring a seminar in Scottsdale targeting Valley newcomers.

A Census Bureau study released this year showed that the Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale metropolitan area was the nation’s top gainer of state-to-state movers – more than 48,000 people arriving annually – in the period from 2000-2004.

Neil Weiner, a Valley psychologist, said there are a few things that make Arizona a particularly hostile place for transplants.

The heat: People used to more temperate climates find that in the summer they can’t take their noon jog anymore or host their child’s birthday party outside.

The absence of community identity: “When you’re in Boston, you’re in the Italian section, maybe. When you’re in New York, you’re in the SoHo section,” Weinder said. Conversely, it can be more difficult to find a cultural or cosmopolitan connection in the Valley, he said.

The sprawl: Public transportation is limited to buses, so even people from other big cities may experience limited mobility. People from smaller cities may find the Valley”s vastness overwhelming.

“For most people it’s going to take three to six months for the feelings of isolation to ease,” said Weiner, who also owns GetPsyched, a Tempe psychology retail store that hosts workshops to foster well-being and a sense of community.

Karen Ortiz, 41,, of Scottsdale, moved to the Valley from Albuquerque in March. She finds the shopping is great and the people friendly. “But I feel anonymous,” she said. “Before I would go to the grocery store or to Target and bump into someone I knew. The sense of community is just gone.”

Ortiz dropped by an in-progress Just Moved class and experienced relief that she wasn’t alone or without guidance to assimilating. “I know it’s a process,” she said.

Miller said Norton and Ortiz are at the first step of the process.

Step 1: Feel the feelings
“For some this may be moving through the anger of being uprooted or feelings of “I didn’t want to leave that house” or “I loved that neighborhood,” Miller said.

Moving, after all, consistently ranks as one of life’s big stressors, along with death of a loved one and divorce.

Grieve for what was lost, Miller said, while giving yourself six months to a year to figure out the practicalities of a new place.

For Ortiz, an avid gardener in Albuquerque, that has meant hiring a landscaper to keep her grass green and forgoing growing strawberry and tomato plants until she knows more about desert gardening.

For Norton, that has meant trying to fill Saturday afternoons that for years had been booked with shopping and barbecues that included her sister, friends and mother. She also journals to help work through the woe-is-me feelings.

Step 2: Embrace the positive
The next step, Miller said, is to cherish what’s in the rearview mirror but also look at what the new place offers.

“I think people sometimes dwell on the negative,” Miller said. “The positive side of a place is what’s going to broaden your horizons, give you exposure to different people. And think of this: No one in this new place has seen your wardrobe.”

Norton will miss the smell of an oncoming monsoon but is choosing to embrace Portland’s offerings, including more temperature-friendly summers for mountain biking.

“Also, they have really good seafood and really good wine,” she said.

For Ortiz, it’s that the sprawling Valley just offers more: more shopping, more places to eat and more activities for her children, ages 6 and 9.

Step 3: Join in and join up
The third step in the process of overcoming “moving affective disorder” is to get connected. People who are connected rediscover their sense of place and belonging.

“Borrow an egg from a neighbor,” Miller said. “Do anything to get out and communicate.”

Ortiz took such a step when she chose to join Miller’s class. She intends to take the classes from the beginning to the end the next time they are offered. One helpful aspect is sign-up sheets connecting like-minded people who enjoy activities such as scrap booking, quilting and book clubs.

Ortiz said after one of Miller’s classes, she met with a couple of the women. “It’s just what you want, to sit there and talk and have an iced tea.”

And Norton has signed up at a gym to get her out of the house and meeting people while she looks for a job in public relations.

“I don’t feel I really belong where I’m at yet,” she said. “But I’m going to have to step out of my comfort zone.