I work from home, so I spend a lot of time alone. Eight hours a day, actually, and often more than that. I miss having coworkers (especially because my Frisky coworkers are so freakin’ awesome), but my ADD makes it really hard to get anything–especially writing–done anywhere other than a totally controlled, calm environment. When I tell people about my work schedule, they usually say something like, “I can’t believe you spend all day alone. I would go crazy.”
“Thank you,” I say stoically. “It’s hard sometimes, but it’s really good for me.” And then I go back to debating the finer points of gun control with my quesadilla.
Spending so much time alone led me to the logical conclusion that I’m pretty good at being alone. I mean, not everyone can work all by themselves day after day, right? I figured that made me some kind of professional loner. But recently I realized that maybe there’s more to this whole “being alone” thing than the hours you put into it, and maybe I’m still learning how to truly be alone.
It all started with a therapist, as epiphanies tend to do. Oh yeah, did I mention that after years of searching, I’ve finally found an amazing therapist? Her practice is inspired by Buddhist philosophies, and at the end of each session she talks me through a brief mindfulness exercise to help me center myself. One day a few weeks ago during this exercise, she had me close my eyes. “Ask yourself what it is that you need,” she said in her soothing voice, “and listen to the answer.” I was expecting to just take a few deep breaths and maybe hone in on a specific feeling or an abstract thought, but instead I heard two words, clear as day:
I opened one eye a bit to make sure my therapist wasn’t trying to “Inception” me. She hadn’t said anything. The voice was my own, coming from somewhere deep within myself that I’m usually too busy or distracted to notice. I took another deep breath, and as I exhaled I heard it again.
After my appointment I walked home and thought about what had happened. How could I possibly need more alone time? I spend the majority of my days alone. I spend more time alone than anyone I know. Plus, the thought of being alone at the end of my workday or on the weekends was less than appealing. With 40 hours per week spent with just me, myself, and I, the remaining hours become precious social currency. I need that time to spend with my boyfriend, friends, and family; to have real conversations with people instead of quesadillas; and to, you know, leave the house. I really didn’t want to listen to this voice inside me demanding more alone time, but since it’s not all that often I hear voices (more like never), I thought I’d better give it a try.
The following Saturday I woke up after my boyfriend had left for work. I made myself a cup of coffee and answered a few texts from friends wanting to get together. “I’m busy today,” I replied to all of them, and then sat on the couch staring at the wall. This wasn’t my idea of a healing ritual. Feeling antsy, I laced up my high tops and walked out the door. I ignored the urge to call my best friend to chat while I walked, which is my usual routine. Instead, I spent the next few hours walking around the city; no headphones, no cellphone, just me. At lunch time I headed toward a casual restaurant where I could eat quickly at the counter and my solo status wouldn’t seem like that big of a deal. But before I reached the door I stopped; this day wasn’t about avoiding the fact that I was alone, it was about embracing it. Obviously I needed to leave my comfort zone, so I crossed the street to a nice Thai restaurant and said, “Table for one.”
This was the first time I’d ever eaten at a sit-down restaurant by myself, and I was incredibly uncomfortable. I shifted in my seat and tried not to make eye contact with the other patrons. I felt totally exposed and yearned for something to occupy myself, but I resisted the temptation to reach into my purse for my phone or a book. Finally, my food came. As I ate, I looked out the window next to my table and wondered if this weird, lonely day was really worth it.
When I left the restaurant I realized something: I felt sad. Like, really sad. My first instinct was to call a friend to cheer me up, but like I’d done all day, I forced myself to go it alone. Instead of avoiding this wave of sadness, I just felt it. I walked laps around a nearby park and let the tears fall down my cheeks. I thought about the conflicts I was having with loved ones and the losses I’d suffered in the past couple years. It occurred to me that I had never fully let myself process some of the heavier things I’d been through because I fill up every waking moment with work, friends, social media, and a plethora of other distractions. It occurred to me that these kinds of feelings–big, dark, intense ones–really freak me out, and maybe that’s precisely the reason spending quality time alone is such an unappealing proposition. Because when you take away the other people and the noise and the phones and the computers and the TV and the deadlines, all that’s left is you and that little voice inside telling you exactly what you need. And suddenly that little voice isn’t just easy to hear–it’s impossible to ignore.
I spent the rest of my alone day tracing my route back home, letting long-buried feelings make their way to the surface, letting them out, letting them go. It was exhausting and exhilarating. And it never would have happened if I hadn’t been alone.
When I woke up the next morning, I felt a sense of lightness and clarity I hadn’t felt in a long, long time. I had plans with friends later in the day but my morning was free. My cellphone and my iPad were sitting on my bedside table tempting me to connect with the world, but if my alone time had taught me anything, it was that I needed to connect with myself first. I sat up in bed and took a few deep breaths like I had in my counselor’s office. I listened for that little voice, and sure enough, I heard it again.
“This,” it said, “is exactly what you need.”