From Loneliness to Solitude: How I Learned to Be Alone

September 4, 2020

A few years ago, I had just broken up with someone and moved into a luxury apartment in a new town—close to my hometown but uncharted waters nevertheless. In other words, I had fled the scene of the crime. Save for the furniture I had just moved into my new bedroom, plus one awkward futon that would serve as a makeshift couch in the living room, the three-story unit was empty and didn’t yet feel like home. There wasn’t even a TV or WiFi set up to distract me from it not feeling like home. Before my roommates moved in, my family was staying over. I put my mom and step-dad up in my bedroom. My step-brother, his pregnant wife, and their three-year-old son slept on a blow-up mattress in the bare living room, while I lay on the futon next to them. Early the next morning, we would all be boarding a plane for Hawaii. My new address was centrally located, so that my out-of-town guests didn’t need to book a hotel near the airport. Even though I was spending my first night surrounded by family, I lay in the dark not sleeping, feeling utterly alone on my awkward-futon island. I didn’t miss the boyfriend I had just broken up with, but the thought of not being in a relationship made me feel lost at sea. (I would say it was because I was approaching 30, but the truth is I had lived with the idea that I needed a relationship to define me for most of my adult life.)

The last time my family and I had vacationed in Hawaii together, I was in a serious relationship. They adored that boyfriend. Even though I knew he wasn’t my person, his presence made my family happy, comfortable, satisfied with my life choices. To them (or so it felt), he made me complete, whole. I had hoped to have found someone else to enjoy these family trips with, and perhaps a small part of me wanted to prove to them I had made the right choice when I broke up with him. He had, after all, moved on, quickly proposing to his next girlfriend (he might have been already married at this point), and I was still floating in uncertainty. To clarify, this wasn’t the relationship I was fresh out of. No, this is the one that had haunted me for five years after I left him to find myself in New York City, trading my safe little life for the unknown. In breaking his heart, I shattered my world and disappointed a lot of people around me. I now know it was necessary, the best decision I ever made even. However, it took me awhile to see clearly, and I definitely hadn’t realized it at this point. 

When I moved back to California, I reluctantly started dating. Let me rephrase that: I let my best friend take my phone and do most of the swiping for me. In fact, I was confused when I matched with this more-recent ex-boyfriend. He didn’t look like anyone I would have chosen for myself, but he sure was my friend’s type. Rather than trusting myself, I went on a date with him. Rather than trusting myself, I kept dating him (coincidentally, very similar to how I continued dating that boyfriend my family loved so much). This new guy was great on paper: responsible (he owned his dreamy, two-story house in the Oakland hills overlooking the SF bay); ready to settle down (he wanted me to move into said dreamy, two-story house); active and outdoorsy; and attentive (he even brought me coffee—sometimes with morning buns!—in bed whenever I stayed over). The problem was: I didn’t feel anything for him. The people I did feel things for seemed to hurt me, so decided to go against my instincts, betray and abandon myself, to see if I’d turn up different results. 

And here’s the thing: I was successful at getting all the things I thought I wanted, all those things society told me I should want and have by now. (I “manifested” them, as us spiritual folk like to say.) But they didn’t make me happy. I couldn’t stomach any of them. I reached my breaking point eight months in. I decided I’d rather be alone forever than in a half-hearted relationship for another second. I traded all the security he had to offer for uncertainty, floating, my island. I again moved out of the (new-and-improved!) safe little life I had built and into the unknown: an empty three-bedroom townhome that would soon be occupied by the neighbor I grew up next door to, his wife, their toddler, and me. Everyone around me was in partnership or starting a family. Even though I knew staying in the relationship wasn’t an option, I didn’t feel empowered by my decision to leave. All I felt was afraid and alone, seeking refuge from stormy seas on an island in the dark. 

As I lay on the futon that first night, I could hear my step-brother’s family joking and giggling with each other next to me. For a second, I felt a wave of sadness—only it didn’t wipe me out like I feared it might. In fact, to my surprise, it warmed my heart. I didn’t buy the fear-based story in my head that I was separate. They were my family, and their joy brought me joy. How lucky I was to have them so close, an arm’s distance away. How lucky I was that my family likes each other enough to want to travel (and keep traveling) together. They couldn’t see me in the pitch-black room—they probably thought I had already fallen asleep—but I was smiling, silently laughing to myself with them, when it dawned on me that I wasn’t alone at all. Sure, they were in love, and I was not in love. But more importantly, they were (and are) love, just as I was (and am) love. We all are love. I didn’t need a relationship, nor any amount of external validation, to prove that. Though we were on different islands (mattresses), we weren’t separate. We were linked by love. 

Reflecting on this moment a little over four years later made me think of a metaphor Glennon Doyle describes telling her daughter, in her memoir Untamed:

I told her that maybe when we were born, we were poured from our source into these tiny body buckets. When we die, we’ll be emptied back out and return to that big source and to each other. Maybe dying is just returning—back out from these tiny containers to where we belong. Maybe then all the achy separation we feel down here will disappear, because we’ll be mixed together again. No difference between you and me. No more buckets, no more skin—all sea.

‘But for now,’ I told her, ‘you are a bucket of sea. That’s why you feel so big and so small.’

She smiled. Fell asleep. I watched her for a bit and whispered a little prayer into her ear: ‘You are not the bucket, you are the sea. Stay fluid, baby.’

Glennon Doyle, Untamed

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