SAN DIEGO — They had moved here from Boston. Both husband and wife were career success stories. They lived in a comfortable, elegant home in a lush New England suburb. The neighbors were "wonderful," the children's playmates difficult to leave.
But staying was out of the question--the parents got offers they couldn't turn down.
Corporate ladder-climbing brought them to San Diego, to "high-tech" positions of wealth and prestige. They didn't realize "America's Finest City" would be a tough nut to crack.
Trouble first surfaced in school, where little Johnny was emerging as Public Enemy No. 1, a grade-school James Dean.
"It just wasn't like him," said Dr. Larry Schmitt, the psychiatrist who treated Johnny. "As a student he was easily above average and very well-behaved, back East."
Schmitt, a spokesman for the San Diego Psychiatric Society who often deals with children, deemed Johnny's problem little more than "old-fashioned loneliness." It was, however, loneliness with a twist.
"It wasn't just the children," he said. "The parents had suffered as well. Talking it over, the family kept saying how nice Boston was, how hard it was to break in out here. They said, 'San Diego really has a peculiar culture, doesn't it?'
"We finally realized the family hadn't properly mourned its exit from Boston. What families fail to realize, in an era of high mobility, is that leaving can mean grieving--for a home, and a lost way of life."
Loneliness is one symptom. Homesickness is another. Both cut across generational lines, especially in San Diego, no stranger to high mobility.
Dr. Dominick Addario, another spokesman for the psychiatric society, deals mainly with an elderly clientele. From a window on the world in Hillcrest, he knows many in the post-65 generation who come here solely because of family.
"If you move with family as the only motive, you're asking somebody else to live your life," he said. "I try to warn people to tell their parents, 'Move here not because we're here, but because it's great--and you'll love it, too.' I try to coach them to prepare the elderly for what might happen if the family moves. What then? As adults, you've got to be accountable for your life, your actions."
Addario sees many who come here without the best reasons in mind. Many come expecting a tropical Hawaii-like climate, then feel betrayed when the temperature hovers near 50. Weather, he said, is "a magical motive" worthy of scrutiny.
"Many really believe--because of weather --that their existence will automatically be easier," he said.
He remembers a British man who moved here and sought Addario's help, feeling lonely, despondent, gravely depressed.
"He felt he had made a huge mistake," Addario said. "He slept many hours of the day in bed, lost 15 pounds, stopped playing bridge, stopped seeing people--he had no friends. Three to six months later, he had a new attitude. We cured his depression. He got over the illusion that this was paradise."
Addario recommends checking out an area beforehand and doing so thoroughly:
Be "picky" about needs, he said. If you're a golfer, live near a golf course. If loneliness is a problem, try communal arrangements. "Hung up" on the Sun Belt? Look outside San Diego.
"San Diego is less affordable than almost any Sun Belt community," he said. "Phoenix and Tucson are growing faster (among the elderly) simply because they're cheaper. In some ways, even Palm Springs is cheaper."
He also counsels the elderly to cultivate friends of all ages.
"If they do, they're gonna die young, at a very old age," he said. "They need to be young in attitude, curious, relate well to a spectrum of ages."
Dr. Paul Keith, an Addario colleague in the San Diego Psychiatric Society, often deals with adolescents, who share with the elderly a sense of isolation and aloneness. Many who move here with corporate or military parents end up feeling estranged--from family and community.
Keith said families should think twice about moves, and even more so with adolescent children. He believes "megabucks" salaries may be compromised by the high cost of living and by traumatized teen-agers.
"Families, fathers especially, need to take into account the effect on children and spouses," he said. "The wife may not like the new town, may be leaving her friends, her roots, maybe her family. If several moves disrupt her life and she gets nothing in return . . . "
Moves can work fine for kids, Keith said, until "the turning points" of 13 and 14.
"Adolescence creeps in, or thunders in, and the loss of peers is absolutely devastating," he said. "You can see school and behavioral problems in a matter of months. The child may have a wicked time adapting."
Some People Won't Reach Out
Keith is aware of some clients who, regardless of age, seem destined for loneliness. Many won't try to reach out and can't picture community--much less commitment--as a balm for a tortured soul. The shyer the person, the harder the task.