For the last 7 months, I’ve lived in a small one-bedroom flat, the upper half of a duplex I bought before I was married. It’s not a bad little apartment; it has some cute vintage features and built-in bookshelves and a little alcove with a window and a tree just outside. In fact, if I’d lived here in my 20s I probably would’ve thought it was near perfect. But right now, it feels pretty miserable. Of course, the circumstances that brought me here play a role in that, but mostly the thing I hate about being here is living alone.
Some people thrive on living alone, cherishing their solitude like a thick, warm blanket in a storm. I am not one of those. I grew up in a big family and had lots of roommates throughout my 20s and 30s. When I did live by myself, I had a very full social life as well as a social job (in retail), so the few hours I was home alone each day didn’t faze me. Nowadays, I’m self employed and working from home most days. The loneliness creeps in around midday, a dense fog, and by mid-afternoon I am either stir-crazy or want to crawl back into bed. I end up going out way too often. My dog is my savior, but sweet as she is, she can’t carry the weight all by herself.
I fantasize about having a commune of sorts; a halfway house for my misfit friends where I would cook supper every night and tend to people’s broken hearts and disappointments and melancholia, or celebrate their successes and triumphs. We’d drink wine and play music and dance around the kitchen and soothe each other’s troubled souls. Or, we’d each go off to our separate rooms for a night of calm and quiet, but take comfort in knowing that the others were close at hand.
When I was married, M would work all day and then either retreat to his office to watch TV solo, or go out after work without me, leaving me to question why I got married in the first place if it meant sitting at home without company? I mean, the principal reason I thought anyone would get married was to not be alone; to have a partner in life. Ironically, I think I was worse off then than I am now, for whatever that’s worth. Being in physical proximity to someone so emotionally absent creates a depth of loneliness even greater than actually being by yourself; a concept that I couldn’t have fathomed before it happened to me.
All of this is not to say that I can’t be by myself or in my own head or that I constantly need attention or interaction. Not at all. During family weekends at the lake, I adore sneaking off to read on the beach before anyone else gets up, or taking a stroll through the pines, soaking up the stillness. And there are many occasions- after a busy work event, for example- where I just want to retreat and decompress. But more often than not, even if I’m doing something like reading or writing, I like it if someone’s in the room with me (in fact, I read a lot more when I lived with M than I do now). The key here is choice; whether or not the solitude is optional makes a huge difference in how I perceive its value.
We are made to feel that neediness of this sort is a character flaw; that it indicates you’re not “secure” or introspective enough. People who relish their singlehood are put on pedestals for being independent, strong, self-sufficient, etc. In reality, many of the people I know who prefer solitude are damaged individuals who choose to keep others at arms’ length lest they have to deal with the sometimes messy complications of human interactions and relationships. I suppose that’s their prerogative, but at what cost? Despite the pain I’ve experienced at the hands of family, friends and lovers, I don’t think I’d change a thing. The joy and inspiration and insight I’ve gained from these intimacies far outweigh any distress they’ve caused. And even with M, as painful as it was at times, I can’t say that I didn’t gain something. I learned a lot about total acceptance of other humans, something I struggled with before and which I think is such an important and worthwhile trait to cultivate. On that note, I’m sure my assessment of those individuals choosing to wall themselves off sounds judgmental; I don’t mean it to be. I don’t think they are in any way bad people for making this choice; it’s just not something I can understand or relate to at all. Even when I’ve been at my lowest and most hurt, I have always turned toward others rather than away, and I’ll always take a risk getting my heart smashed, because I know how beautiful it is to be that vulnerable with another person.
A friend of mine is fond of referring to people as monkeys. In regards to this topic especially, I couldn’t agree more. Our primate cousins are faring much better than we humans right now as far as societal structure though. You don’t see monkeys trying to “live alone”. First of all, it makes no economic sense. Sharing resources is far less stressful than trying to support yourself solo. Second of all, you put a monkey in isolation and it becomes depressed, and why would a primate willingly inflict that upon itself? A well-known study was done on rats where they were given water bottles with cocaine that they could consume at will. The rats all went crazy for the cocaine-laced water, bingeing to the point of heart attack. The study was held up as proof of how dangerously addictive cocaine is. But the researchers in this first study neglected to take in a crucial factor: their rats were all in isolation. When scientists re-created the study but left the rats in their normal social groups, the animals consumed far less of the drug. The implications about the importance of social bonds are clear and undeniable to me.
I’ve been looking for a new house for the last several months and it’s been a frustrating search. Everything I’ve seen has been too big, or too expensive, or needed too much work, or was great but got bought out from under me by someone who moved faster or had more money. I keep telling myself that everything is for a reason and that my perfect house is out there somewhere, but it’s tough not to get discouraged. Although my apartment is small, I wouldn’t hate it nearly as much if I could even just have people over for dinner. Being deprived of one of my favorite activities- making food for people- is draining the life force out of me. Luckily I have friends who will occasionally let me cook at their houses, which is nice. But I can’t wait until I have a place where I can spontaneously have dinner guests whenever I please.
I would love to hear counterpoints from those of you who are wildly happy on your own; maybe I’m missing some component of what makes it so great? Meanwhile, wish me luck in my search for a new hearth and home; I need all the good mojo I can get.