As a college student, I was pathologically extroverted. I needed to be near people at all times and detested being alone. My craving to be around other people was so intense that I panicked if I couldn’t find anyone around that I knew. I’d return from class and hang with the dozens of smokers lined up along the benches outside of my 500-person dorm. I’d wake up too early the morning after a late night of drinking and stalk the halls of my friends’ rooms, straining to hear signs of life. I don’t think I spent a night in, by myself, my entire college career. I was always with someone.
I sought company even during typically solitary activities. I read a ton, but even when I was reading, I preferred to be reading alongside someone else or at least reading in a public place where I wasn’t completely alone. As a music major, I was required to hole up in a room for many hours practicing alone, but even for that I would get a friend to practice “with” me, in the room next door, and we’d meet in the hallway every half hour for a break. It calmed and motivated me to know a friend was practicing next door.
My need to be constantly surrounded by people was not due to true extroversion. Introversion and extroversion have to do with the ways a person draws their energy and how they recharge. Extroversion isn’t supposed to manifest as a panicked fear of being alone any more than introversion should show up as a fear of other people. I needed to be around other people. I truly panicked about the idea of being alone. I needed to share every experience.
In one of her specials, comedian Sarah Silverman told a dark joke (I can’t remember the joke because of what she said after it), and as the crowd reacted with groans and laughter, she said something like, “I just couldn’t be alone with that.” I had never felt so seen. That’s exactly how I felt for so long. I couldn’t keep anything in. I couldn’t be alone with anything.
A year ago, I made the excruciating decision to come out as gay and end my marriage. I’ve since moved out of the home I shared with my former husband, and now he and I split time with our two kids. That means I am often left on my own in my house with no one to talk to but the dog.
My newfound love of being by myself is about more than just relishing quiet time in an empty house.
This terrified me at first. Being alone in the house overnight for several days on end is not the same as being alone in the house for a few hours during the day as a work-from-home mom. It means extended periods of quiet during which I may have no tasks planned, no children’s needs to attend to, no low chattering of YouTube videos streaming from their rooms. It’s very, very quiet, and I am very, very alone.
AND OH MY GOD, IT IS THE BEST THING EVER.
To be clear, I would always choose having my kids with me as opposed to not having them with me. They are my favorite people and I love hanging out with them. Even when they’re at their worst with me, I still never wish they were somewhere else. I love having them under my roof, love knowing exactly where they are and what they’re doing.
But also? An evening spent nibbling on snacks rather than cooking a proper dinner for multiple people and having to clean it up is pretty frickin’ sweet. Working on the couch with my laptop open on my lap, a bowl of popcorn beside me (no eating on the couch? Ha!), Gilmore Girls playing in the background, the rest of the house dark and silent… I have to admit, this is some unexpected bliss.
Sometimes I turn on my bluetooth speaker and blast Lizzo and shake my ass with a complete and utter lack of inhibition. It ain’t pretty, but I’m alone so who cares!
After 40 years, I am finally getting to know myself, and I like what I am learning.
And sometimes I stand in the middle of my house and just turn around and around, taking in the space, my cute mid-century dining set with the half-finished 2000-piece puzzle, my couch with too many mismatched pillows, my tall shelves filled with books, my beloved piano. In the quiet, I can recognize these things as more than just things. They are the life I have carved out for myself, the life I never thought I’d have. It was a goddamn hard road to get here, filled with anxiety and depression and unquantifiable amounts of guilt. It’s still hard sometimes. But look, I did it. I’m doing it. Here in the quiet by myself, I can fully sink into that feeling.
But the wildest thing I’ve learned since I’ve been forced to spend days on end alone is that I actually like myself. I like the thoughts in my head. I like having an uninterrupted thought, or hell, a whole series of uninterrupted thoughts, that I get to keep all to myself.
It has taken me decades to get to this place where I can be honest with myself and honest with others. Settling into that honesty, though it hasn’t been without its struggles, is a massive relief. After 40 years, I am finally getting to know myself, and I like what I am learning.
I often wonder where my intense need to be surrounded by others originated. I know some of it had to do with a massive case of FOMO, but I think a lot of it was just me not being comfortable with myself. I had no idea who I was and wasn’t sure I wanted to know. Maybe I wasn’t really anybody, maybe I didn’t have much substance. Maybe I wouldn’t like myself. Surrounding myself with other people meant I didn’t have to spend much time considering who I was.
That’s the biggest change, I think. Yes, motherhood is a noisy, often thankless endeavor, so naturally a mother would appreciate long stretches of silence, some good quality alone time. But my newfound love of being by myself is about more than just relishing quiet time in an empty house. It’s about finally getting to know this unmasked, non-performative version of myself, and enjoying spending time with her.