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I’ve never been particularly good at being alone. Single? Sure. By myself for a bit? Of course. But alone? I can’t say that’s an environment I’ve ever particularly thrived in. For the majority of my working life, I’ve typically had the good fortune of living within walking distance of my office. If not within walking distance, then at least within walking distance to public transportation that offered me a quick ride to my destination. Even on those short walks to the office, or train, or bus, I’d built in not-alone time, meaning I’d routinely call my best friends to catch up. “How’s the walk to work” or, “Off a little late today, huh?” became the regular greetings I received in the morning or early evenings when my call was picked up.
Of course, there have been moments in my life, periods even, which I have had to spend alone, but I cannot say I relished these instances of solitude. Predominantly, they were spent half-heartedly nurturing neglected hobbies. Drawing, occasionally, cooking, if I happened to come across a particularly interesting recipe or a fun ingredient at the farmers market, or, more likely, feverishly scheduling plans with people in an attempt to be not-alone as soon as possible.
So, as you might imagine, I haven’t taken the current mandates to shelter-in-place and socially distance extremely well. I’ve taken them extremely seriously, but not very well. Above all else, I know that because I am healthy and I have a roof to shelter under, I am better off than so many, and I will continue to stay exactly where I am because it is the least I can do to help flatten the curve, and avoid the risk of getting sick or spreading sickness. However, having been keenly aware of my own issues with social distancing well before it became a public health concern, I knew that in order to get through this time alone successfully, I’d have to do the one thing I’ve always avoided: figure out how to be okay by myself.
Naming the thing
Having spent the early parts of my professional career working with students on college campuses as they navigated the various stages of collegiate life, it made sense to me to identify what I’m currently experiencing as, what psychologist Nancy Schlossberg would call, a transition. It might sound obvious, but this context is helpful because it’s a reminder that this state isn’t permanent, it’s something to move through. Transitions are something I’ve navigated many times in my life—maybe not this exact one, but others nevertheless.
Schlossberg also provides a framework for coping with transitions, by identifying four areas to establish strongholds in while navigating change: Situation, Self, Support, and Strategies. Situation and Self were pretty easy to identify—I am going to be alone for a while inside my apartment because of circumstances beyond my control, but I am healthy and I have a place to be. Support was also, thankfully, fairly simple to navigate. My friends, family, and coworkers were and are the sources of my support during this transition. And although they aren’t immediately available to me in the way they were before social distancing, they also aren’t gone from my life. Now, the ways we interact simply look different. What it really came down to was figuring out the Strategies that would help me navigate how to settle into this new, temporary way of being. I can’t say that I’ve done it perfectly, but here is how I’ve coped with being alone.
The first night I spent alone I sat myself down to establish a routine to follow that would become my new normal for the foreseeable future. I am a fan of routine, as it gives me a structure by which to navigate my days. But I was, perhaps, overly ambitious while writing out what my day-by-day would look like. I scheduled every moment from sun up to sundown, and upon starting that routine on day two, I followed probably less than half. As it turns out, there can be such a thing as too much structure. Now, rather than go minute by minute, I’ve established a routine that sets goals for what I’d like to accomplish during each chunk of my day. In the mornings I wake up, make coffee, read a little, get dressed, and make my bed. This sets me up to go about my day with the intention of getting things done. Then I work, break for lunch, work, and then find time to be outside, stretch, and move my body. For you, it might look similar, or vastly different. Whatever your routine may be, setting one, and then being graceful with yourself when adjustments need to be made, is one way to mitigate the feeling of restlessness that sometimes accompanies being by yourself.
Telling people what you need
Rarely, if ever, have I had to tell anyone in my life that I needed them—they have just been there. Friends have answered my calls, my roommates have been home, coworkers have been at work, lovers have been (mostly) present, and happy hours or movies or events have always been on the calendar. Now, that is not the case. It feels incredibly vulnerable to tell someone you need them, but I have found it to be an important part of the practice of being by myself. Everyone is dealing with their own version of setting up a new routine right now, so it’s not realistic or healthy to assume everyone will drop what they’re doing every moment I feel lonely. However, it’s been helpful to tell people when I need to hear from them, and then navigate what that looks like. For me, it’s looked like weekly movie nights with friends and game nights with my family. And although my daily commute calls are out the window (because I lack a commute), sporadic check-ins here and there are still very much part of my routine. It’s important to remember that telling people what you need doesn’t automatically guarantee you’re going to get it, and it’d be unfair to assume it would. But, especially now that so much in-person communication is unavailable to us, it’s the only way people have a chance of figuring out how they can be there for you.
What do you want me time to be?
Of course, for all the routines and movie nights I’ve set up for myself, there is still plenty of time I’ve been required to spend without the accompaniment of a digital presence. So, I sat myself down and asked myself what I wanted to feel in those moments when I am alone, and my answer came to me quicker than I’d expected; fed and free. For now, I’ve taken fed rather literally, and it’s manifested in cooking myself dinner every night. Cooking offers me the opportunity to walk away from my phone and computer, and focus on caring for myself in every possible way. It also takes a good bit of time and I also get to eat at the end, both of which are ideal situations to me. As for free, that’s looked a lot like two things. One, going on long, long walks outside. Despite it all, California is in bloom right now, and even if you don’t have blooms where you are, the sky is all the same and it’s been worth it to be under it. My other free moment is closing my eyes and dancing alone in my apartment. I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time thinking about what other people are thinking about me, in a way I don’t think I’ve ever noticed before. Dancing alone in my apartment, even with no other eyes on me, I still feel uncomfortable on a level, and so my new North Star for moving through this time is to shake off some of that concern.
I have no intention of coming out of quarantine having learned a new instrument or a new language. I can’t even tell whether or not I’m ever going to make it through the book I’ve been working on. However, I do think I’ll come away from social distancing with a better understanding of myself, and better ways to navigate how I spend my time alone. I can’t say that I’ll ever fully like it, or that, regardless of how many meals I cook or dances I dance, I wouldn’t rather be doing it in the company of friends, but I do know that, at least for now, just existing is enough.
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Garrett Schlichte is the Operations Manager at Dipsea, and also a freelance writer. Their work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar, and other places on the internet and in print. Please send iced coffee.