Daffodils in March, not September. Home at last.

It was going to be the start of a new chapter for our family. You know how the story goes — the current life isn’t right and the itchy feet can’t be soothed, so you turn things upside down. Happy faces on Wanted Down Under tell you it’s going to be just fine. Be brave. Just do it. And we did.

If I’m going to do something, I give it my all, and I did that too. But over the years, I watched my identity fade away until  I lost sight of who I was. Feeling powerless and distanced from the people I loved, I reached my lowest point. I thought there was no going back.

Life had been so different twelve years earlier when we moved to New Zealand. I had been excited about starting the new life we had glimpsed from a campervan the year before. A holidaymaker’s dream, we had enjoyed a whistle-stop tour of North and South Island and filled our cameras with the best of New Zealand.

On North Island we were charmed by Auckland’s Sky Tower views, Bay of Islands’ magical dolphins, Coromandel’s hot water beach, and Rotorua’s Maori culture and volcanic lakes.

A trip across the Cook Strait on the interisland ferry took us to South Island where we were soothed by Marlborough Sounds’ serenity and Tasman’s cobalt bays. We drove down the wild West Coast with mile upon mile of breakers and driftwood and not a soul in sight. In Hokitika, jade carvings, so exquisite, whispered native stories bound up in this rugged land. Inland, we were dazzled by Wanaka’s autumn splendour, Queenstown’s mountain backdrop, Glenorchy’s Dart River, Milford Sound’s surreal fiords, and Arthur’s Pass snaking the Southern Alps to Christchurch. We soaked up 100% Pure New Zealand, entranced by the peace and beauty of the place.

But living in another country is a different story and ours didn’t have a happy ending. We weren’t without blame. We uprooted ourselves from a small market town in the UK and transplanted our lives to a sprawling city on the other side of the world.

I had spent so many hours finding out about Auckland life that I was quite the expert. I could tell you about each suburb’s housing, schooling, sports facilities, nature reserves, and demographics, and I’d become so familiar with real estate, I could have started a new career if I’d had the gift of the gab. Where to Live in Auckland even told me how long people lived in a suburb before moving away. I found out that people rarely moved from the East Coast Bays on Auckland’s North Shore—it sounded perfect for our family. We could have our English life but with warmer summers and a safer place for our children in their teenage years. Apart from the obvious emotional wrench of leaving family and friends, I never even considered there would be downsides.

One day we were saying goodbye at Heathrow airport and the next, we were in the land of the long white cloud. We were immigrants fresh off the plane. It felt surreal.

My husband’s employer arranged for us to stay in a motel in Takapuna, a beachside town on the North Shore. As we drove over the Auckland Harbour Bridge, the sea below dotted with boats, the glinting glass of the city behind us, and the promise of golden sands stretching north up the coast, I felt giddy with optimism. I would always feel a sense of hope crossing that bridge, even when my life took on the greyness that sometimes dulled that view.

My husband started his new job a few days after we arrived. I set to work registering our children in local schools, finding a doctor and dentist, and scouring the North Shore Property Press each week. We lived out of suitcases and spent every weekend in other people’s houses in a busy schedule of ‘open-homes’. In England, seeing one property in a weekend had always felt like a major achievement. Even the process of buying a house was fast in New Zealand.

Four weeks after falling in love with a single-level brick and cedar house, our children started new schools and we moved into our first Kiwi home, camping on air beds until our shipping container arrived. Not only did we have a garden with lawns and flowerbeds, but we had tropical palms and ponga trees! The bush was ours to hide in, meander through, and tame if we wanted. With the sun on our backs, life felt good. From our deck, we looked across the tropical bush to distant glittering seas, the scent of hibiscus and frangipani so sweet and promising. When our container arrived, we unwrapped our hopes and put our expectations in place with the furniture.

But after the immigrant’s honeymoon, the cost of living hit us hard. There’s only so much you can find out from websites and books. Food, in particular, was expensive. We moved several times in the next twelve years in a chain of events that would change our lives for the worse.

If I could go back in time and change one decision, it wouldn’t be the one that took us to New Zealand. It would be the decision to sell our first house, which had become a much-loved family home even with its 70s flaws. I had never felt so emotional about selling a house before. I wish we had tried harder to make it work.

We moved to a rented house close by where we planned to stay until our new house was built, but six months later the owner was selling up and we had to move out—two days before Christmas. For nine months we lived in a soulless box built on a slope with the occasional shaft of sunlight and a knife-wielding maniac in the rented house opposite.

Our new house was finally finished eighteen months after selling our house in the bush. But over the next two years, the upheaval of three moves in three years, our daughter’s unhappiness and loneliness, and my husband’s stressful role in a redundancy process pushed us to the limits. Our son seemed to be coping, but he threw himself into study and sport, so it was hard to tell. We had no support but each other.

During a period of extended leave, my husband decided to leave his job to make a fresh start working together. My optimism returned, and my energy too. Yet we seemed to have learned nothing from the mistake we made in selling our first Kiwi home. I told myself I wasn’t so attached to the East Coast Bays that I couldn’t move away. We had moved to New Zealand, hadn’t we? Moving to the south of North Island would be easy, no worries.

But more of me was invested in our new house than I dared admit, even to myself. I had watched it go up from the first turn of the earth, stopping each day after dropping our children at school and making sure things were going to plan. I had hoped that by building a house from scratch on the plot with protected trees that nobody wanted except us, we might be able to put down our own roots. But some people find it harder than others.

Living on the North Shore had always felt like being on holiday. I experienced a wave of happiness every time I drove back from Takapuna, winding around the bays on the coast road with views across to Rangitoto Island. I could never quite believe this place was home—it was so beautiful, yet alien. And that was the problem. It wasn’t our home. Each year we said we would give it more time but each year the fish-out-of-water feeling remained. We argued constantly. Our family house had become an unhappy home and our children suffered because we couldn’t sort ourselves out. What had we done to our family?

The next new start was a radical one. It was heart-breaking to sell our new house, and for less than we paid for it, but we didn’t want to miss a business opportunity that another buyer was ready to take if we couldn’t meet the deadline. Caught up in the sales hype, we sunk a big chunk of money into a stylish Belgian chocolate café franchise in a city surrounded by barren farmland as far as the eye could see. Looking back, we realise how foolish we were to trust a slick salesman with a briefcase of dirty yet legal tricks, but at the time, his enthusiasm had hooked and blinded us when we were vulnerable.

Not far from the city centre, there was a Victorian park by the river. It was a peaceful place of English and Kiwi fusion, a blend of tidy borders and wild bush that became my haven, a place to breathe. The prevailing local culture of mediocrity, materialism and conservatism could be quite suffocating. I remember a customer telling me why she was moving away. “Living here sucks the life out of me,” she said. Her words seemed over-dramatic at the time. I had only just moved to the city, excited about opening our store in a new part of the shopping centre. But six long years later, the place had almost sucked the life out of me.

In the first few months, shoppers couldn’t get enough of the new-store novelty. They came from far and wide—even the Prime Minister popped in to mingle with the locals for a bit of PR. Then reality kicked in for us. The rent we were paying had been set during a retail peak but with the effects of an economic downturn and customers looking for cheap shit piled high, trade fell away as people sought the biggest bang for their buck. The franchise’s trademark quality was irrelevant in the shopping mall with fortnightly half-price sales and wall-to-wall bargains. We had no way of knowing this new section of the centre would quickly turn into a trade war zone. Some retailers had plenty of wriggle room on pricing, but when your rent is sky high and you’re selling premium Belgian chocolate, there’s nowhere to move.

We tried to sell the store, half-heartedly at first. We didn’t want to give up, so we changed the food menu and created our own posters and specials. Right from the start, we had always been there serving our customers and making them feel welcome, our smiles hiding our misery. We served and cooked and cleaned, and mucked in with our young team. We listened to our customer’s life stories and we cared. The store was the focus of our lives. But as we propped up the business, we watched the money left over from our house sale dwindle to nothing. We had a run of potential buyers, but their feet turned cold—no doubt they were excited, as we had been, but not so much that emotion blocked out the numbers.

The extortionate rent we had no control over was killing our business and us. I was becoming more anxious, more depressed. A couple of years earlier, when we knew the situation was hopeless, and even before we were forced to move out of a rented house yet again, I started drinking. Not much by some measures but enough to have an impact. It was so unlike me. I was a health nut. But I no longer had friends to share the ups and downs. The more I drank, the more helpless and lonely I felt.

By this time, our son was studying in the US—it had been his dream, but I missed him more than I could have imagined. On top of that, my mum could no longer make the long flight to New Zealand because of her health. One October, eight years after emigrating, I made my first trip back to the UK. I drove on tiny roads, walked along windswept beaches, and tried to watch birds through thick fog. But it was home. I missed the people, the places and the culture. By New Year’s Eve, filled with cheap fizz, the despair and hopelessness had become overwhelming. Maybe it was just a cry for help, I don’t know, but I was right on the edge.

Ashamed but resolute, I stopped drinking—a promise to our children. I found ways of coping—running in the park and studying for an English degree. I worked in the café, I studied hard, and I ran. I kept my head above water, although I knew it wouldn’t take much to go under again.

With little money left, we could no longer afford for our son to come home during university breaks. It got to the point where we hadn’t seen him for over two years. Our daughter took a short-term contract after finishing her master’s degree, so she no longer worked in the café. I missed her smile and her support. It seemed impossible to take a break from the café—even our day off together was often scuppered by staff sickness. With so little freedom, it was like being in prison, except every day, we watched other people lead normal lives. I would feel jealous of mums having coffee with their son after football, or planning a road trip with their daughter. They seemed unaware of how special that was.

“After six to nine months you’ll be managing the business rather than working in it,” the franchise rep had told us. He ran a thriving franchise, so with hard work, we could be successful too, he said. But six years later, we were still very much café assistants. He forgot to mention his foul play, and we weren’t the only victims as it turned out.

Feeling trapped and more alone than ever, I started to put my grief into words. Desperate to connect with others, I posted on Medium where the unexpected and heartfelt responses gave me comfort. It was a tiny boost.

I reached out to our family doctor, who knew our situation. “What would you do if you won a significant sum of money?” he asked. I usually refuse to take part in pointless fantasising, but perhaps he had a good reason to ask. I said I would give some of it to the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust and the Kakapo Recovery Programme.

“Yes, that’s fine, but what would you do for yourself?” I told him would go home to England. With genuine care, he told me that’s what I should do. He made it seem so simple. Of course, it wasn’t, but it was a turning point. My doctor had given me clarity, and in a sense, permission too.

I had two more appointments with a counsellor and we talked about the barriers to making it happen. For the first time in years, I felt empowered to act rather than wait for something to change. I worried that my husband would say it was impossible, but he had finally had enough too.

We had no choice but to liquidate. It was a devastating time—our staff were like family. We couldn’t tell anyone in advance, which made it worse. I value honesty and yet here I was with information that would affect staff and customers. It felt so wrong, but I had to keep quiet if I wanted to get home. I was in survival mode, saving my sanity.

We borrowed money for the shipping container and flights. We had just one month to arrange the transportation of our possessions, quarantine our pet bird, clear and clean the rented house, and clear the store on the last trading day without anyone knowing, such is the gut-wrenching nature of liquidation. My husband couldn’t be there on our final trading day because he was recovering from a biopsy. Telling the girls working that night that the store was closing was devastating.

With the other shops closed for the night and staff long gone, I felt like a criminal loading stock into a van with my daughter and her two friends. We had been advised to remove all perishable goods from the premises. We gave the stuff away to food banks, including boxes of luxury chocolate callets. It all felt unreal. I think the security staff, who had got to know our struggle over the years, probably guessed what was happening. They had seen other stores close over the years. I didn’t feel the relief I should have felt that it was finally all over. Instead, I felt overwhelming grief and loss. We had failed to give our children a happy life in New Zealand. We would soon be homeless.

In the final week, our precious cockatiel who had been with us for many years had a serious health scare and we thought he might not be able to come with us. I couldn’t leave without him, but neither could I imagine staying after all that had happened. It was the most stressful week of my life. I wasn’t sleeping. I thought I would crack.

It wasn’t how we wanted to leave a country that had given us many wonderful experiences in earlier years, especially with wildlife. When we opened the store, our plan was to sell up after two years and take a final campervan tour of our favourite wild places before moving back to the UK in time for the Olympic Games in London. I had been part of the UK team in the Los Angeles games. What a chance to see the games in our home country. The thought had kept me going, but the games came and went.

If we hadn’t closed the store, we would have missed our son’s master’s graduation too. It was unthinkable. He had been studying in London for two years but the campus and the library where he spent much of his time were a blank for us. We had waited four years until his bachelor’s graduation to see the Penn campus in Philadelphia that had been such a special place for him. Being there with him in the ‘city of brotherly love’, taking in the university’s history and meeting his fraternity brothers, we could finally understand why. We had to be in London for this graduation. Our family had to be together again.

We set the date. Our parents were so relieved they could finally expect us home. When we left they were healthy but now their age and ill-health made returning home more urgent.

I felt no sadness leaving the city known as the suicide capital of New Zealand. I did feel tearful though when our domestic flight arrived in Auckland, and even now as I write, I feel emotional. I think back to when we first arrived—to the blue sky and palm-lined avenue leading from the airport to our new life. I hope one day I can look at our family photos and not see the ghosts.

The 23-hour flight to London via Los Angeles was the longest of journeys as our little bird travelled alone in cargo. To my relief, he had seemed better the last two days before the flight but saying goodbye to him at the pet transportation depot had felt like betrayal. Every jolt and judder snatched at my stomach as I worried about him. Heathrow couldn’t come quickly enough.

There was no-one to meet us in Arrivals but after the stressful circumstances in which we left, we were relieved to have a quiet homecoming. At the Animal Reception Centre, Rocky was there to greet us so loudly that everyone could hear. It was the best welcome. Our tough little bird had made it home with us.

Living in another country gave our family new experiences and helped us grow in many ways, but financially we lost everything. I’m anxious about a future that looks nothing like we imagined at this stage of our lives. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve replayed the decisions we made and thought about how the outcome could have been so different. I’ve gone through a range of emotions—anger, resentment, regret, helplessness and grief—but it doesn’t change things. We lost our house and we have scars, but we came home with Rocky, each other, and resilience. We can start re-building. Happiness isn’t a place you arrive at, it’s a feeling you create in your heart.

Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay