Asking for a Friend: Should I Strike Out Solo?

Dear Olive, 

How does one know if living alone is the right choice? Is it better to suffer through odd roommate habits or strike out on one’s own, risking isolation and loneliness?

-Contemplating Solitude

Dear Contemplating,

I’ll admit that my very first impulse upon reading your question was just to repeatedly pound on the exclamation point of my keyboard to impart to you just how strongly I feel about the glory of living by yourself.

I’m living alone right now, for the first time ever, after years of various New York apartments with variously wonderful and exasperating roommates and rent that was always on the verge of what I could afford, followed by a year of living in my teenage bedroom nearly 10 years after moving out — a story for another time. Now, I live in a city small enough that my Brooklyn roommate rent gets me a one-bedroom all my own just a couple blocks from a river, a bakery, and about 17 coffee shops. In the six months I’ve lived here, I’ve: bought a glorious medium-ugly couch so wide it scraped paint off my door jamb; learned to make dinner out of dry beans and bone broth; vacuumed up a startling number of box elder bugs; spent a month thinking my oven was broken while turning the knob the wrong way; danced around the apartment to Britney’s “Work, Bitch” on loud while brushing my teeth; accidentally drooled toothpaste on the floor while dancing; put up twinkly lights above my bed even though Apartment Therapy said not to; and eaten apple crisp every night for about two weeks in October.

I’ve gotten to spread out as far as I’ve wanted — well, as far as my giant couch lets me — and listen to exactly as little news radio as I care to. I’ve cracked my head on cupboard doors I’ve left open, woken up before sunrise all winter, and filled the fridge with sauerkraut that I sometimes eat out of the jar. I keep a (mostly) tidy kitchen and a (mostly) messy bedroom. I sweep the floor with gusto. It’s like playing life-sized house, and I love it.

There’s something startlingly soothing about not having to cater to a single other person for these uninterrupted stretches when I’m home alone. I get to live in my nest exactly the way I want to, without stepping on toes or resenting anybody else’s on mine, and when I close my front door in the morning, I step out into the frigid winter air full of the sense that I’ve been only and exactly myself for the last several hours at least. It makes it easy to continue being that way for the next several, too, to resist bending too readily to the demands of friends and strangers. I send my rent check gladly every month — though it’s still on the edge of affordable — because I know it gets me 30 more days of total domestic self-determination.

But I was really lonely when I arrived. I’d moved across three state lines — in the west, where state lines are considerably farther apart than the width of Long Island — and I missed my family on one coast and most of my friends on the other. During the first few weeks, when I was still hunting for cheap furniture in every secondhand store in town and eating farmer’s market melon cross-legged on the floor, summer sunlight and empty space made everything feel new and possible. I thought I’d miraculously left all my bad habits behind me: no more getting stuck in Netflix, no more sugar crashes, no more resentful cleaning for somebody else’s sake; only joyful daily dish-washing while listening to edifying podcasts. I thought that by jumping into a new space of my own, I’d somehow outrun the self I had been around roommates.

Well, I have never been a very fast runner.

Within a month, my regular self was back. Loneliness led me to turn away from the small daily duties of caring for my space and my well-being — and from the pleasures of caring for them, too. I felt wrapped up in distance. I missed friendly touch. My brand-new therapist suggested I get a gerbil.

It was, let’s say, not the brightest time (though the apple crisp helped). With roommates, it would have likely been easier to skim along the top of that murky feelings pond instead of getting sucked into the muck. I didn’t have roommates, or even nearby friends, yet. I got sucked in.

That could happen to you, too. But it can happen whether you live with 14 commune-mates who boil the same pot of soup every Sunday or you re-heat beans for dinner by yourself every night. Proximity doesn’t guarantee connection. No matter what, building community — or even just one friendship — takes work.

How do you plan to reach your antennae out to your people? How do you anticipate weaving a network that will tether you to your neighborhood, your hobbies, your big dreams that emerge from kitchen sink conversations? How do you imagine inviting people into your space?

Or if all those answers come easily, but the idea of spending Sunday evenings by yourself looms terrifying, what about the opposite? How do you plan to stake out space for airing out your unasked questions? How will you sink into the agitation of having no easy distraction to turn to? What will you do when there’s no choice but to face the parts of yourself you’d rather ignore?

The thing when you’re nearly drowning in loneliness — when you’re treading cloudy pond water — is that you have to figure out how to fix it; there’s only so long you can fight to stay on the surface of everything you feel before you just get too tired. There are, of course, all sorts of stopgaps and shortcuts: online shopping, recreational drugs, raw cookie dough. Practically the entire internet is designed to distract you from the details of your own life and pull you into the details of someone else’s. Lots of people do that as long as it’s available, clinging to whatever is close out of fear of what’s hiding in the water.

But if you care to, there’s also the opportunity, when left to your own devices, to see what you find when you turn inward, rather than away. It’s harder to run away from your mess when you have no one near to blame it on. Along with the loneliness and isolation that lurk under the surface, there’s self-knowledge. There’s freedom. There’s the weight of responsibility for your own life, your own ambitions, your own damn breakfast dishes. That weight sometimes feels like a burden, but it’s also a gift — an opportunity to meet yourself face first. And on the other side of the discomfort of looking so closely is a chance to stop clinging to the surface, take a big breath, and swim.

Love,
Olive

 

For a little unprofessional advice in these uncertain times, send your questions to our anonymous portal. We want it all, from the epistemological to the inane. We’ll dig deep to find some answers in the next installment of BLARB’s advice column, Asking for a Friend.

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