A couple of years ago, I found myself living on my own for the first time in my life. I had separated from my partner of 17 years, and was now returning to an empty home night after night.
I realized something about living alone: I didn’t know how. I had never done it before. Like most people, I grew up in a family environment. After leaving home, I lived in student residences, or with roommates, or with romantic partners, until I got married.
Then, at the age of 43, I was home alone, permanently. Coming home by myself, eating fast-food meals alone, waking up to an empty bed ― it all felt like I was on a permanent business trip.
That’s not to say I’m a particularly social animal; in fact, quite the opposite, I’m an introvert. But introverts aren’t all loners; they often depend on a small group of people ― family and friends ― to provide them with the social support everyone needs. And when that support structure goes away, things can get bad, emotionally.
Knowing this, I jumped on Tinder and Bumble and began a concerted and relentless campaign to find a new partner ― quick, before I go insane! I dated, I flirted, I spent countless hours on social media, while living in my endless business trip. Fast-food containers and hampers of laundry piled up and up. In effect, I had suspended my life pending the arrival of my new second half.
But, after about a year of this, as one romantic interest after another went nowhere, a new realization dawned on me: I didn’t actually want this. At least not now, not after a 17-year relationship, and with barely any time to process its conclusion. I had begun to “discover myself,” as the cheesy saying goes, and no second half was necessary. For the first time since Gwen Stefani was topping the charts, I found out what I was like, as a person, without a partner.
Watch: Spending time alone is scientifically good for you. Story continues below.
I was six months into my new, voluntary solitude when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. Suddenly, whatever there was of my social life disappeared. As the lockdowns approached in March, I found myself staring down the prospect of total physical and social isolation. This new, “independent me” was about to become an “isolated me.”
I wasn’t prepared. After a lifetime of emotional dependency, the idea of spending months alone felt like being sent to the hole in a supermax prison. I tried to prepare myself emotionally, and failed. I went through a dark time.
I turned to professional help. A 10-minute phone call with a doctor yielded a referral to a psychologist. Talking to a counsellor on the phone didn’t work for me; I couldn’t make a connection to this person I had never met in real life. I came to a conclusion: There may not be help available for me in this pandemic.
That was the decisive moment for me. Coming to the realization that I would have to fix this myself awoke a new kind of resoluteness in me. Over the course of the coming months, I started the work of picking up the pieces of myself, and building a functional person again.
Having been through therapy in earlier years, I knew that taking control of my state of mind was key to turning things around. Needless to say, that’s easier said than done. But, I realized that, being alone, there was no one around to mock me or be disappointed in my failure. If I spun out of control, no one would ever have to know. There is freedom in that, freedom to try and try again until you succeed.
Which I did. I failed, and failed again, and then … succeeded. So, I’d like to share some of the things that worked for me as I learned how to be alone in lockdown. Everyone is different, of course, so my path likely won’t work perfectly for you. But you may still find some useful insights here.
Get selfish ― and ambitious ― about yourself
If you are struggling with solitude, it may help to remember that being alone means you don’t have to compromise your agenda for anyone. This isn’t punishment, it’s freedom. You can do whatever you like.
So, what should you do? Indulge yourself in the things that make you happy, but not in any mindless way. Whatever your interests, take them to the next level. If you’ve tooled around with the guitar for years, learn to play keyboards or a drum set. If you’re an avid reader, maybe it’s time to tackle those 19th-century Russian novelists you’ve been so scared of. If you love to paint, but can’t do faces, spend a year painting nothing but faces. Go wild, create the most whimsical faces you can. No one will see your failures, and you might actually get better at it.
One of the greatest benefits of friends and romantic partners is their ability to turn you on to new things. If you are alone, you can replicate this ― challenge yourself to jump out of your own, familiar habits.
If there’s a TV genre you don’t like, find a show of that genre that you think you might like, and watch it. Same thing with books, or music, or video games. Trick yourself into expanding your horizons.
“Being alone means you don’t have to compromise your agenda for anyone. This isn’t punishment, it’s freedom.”
Make bucket lists ― of all the songs you want to learn how to play, or the books you want to read or the neighbourhoods you want to explore on your walks around the city. Change your social media accounts so you are following people and groups that help you build your lists. Put things on the list that excite you, that you look forward to during the work day, and intersperse them with the things you need to do to better yourself.
Focus on a few simple things you want to improve about yourself. Not a total personality transplant, just measurable, achievable goals that start the ball rolling on positive change in your life. Maybe you want to lose weight, or learn needlepoint, or find the inner peace not to flip out every time you see one of your uncle’s political Facebook posts. Take those goals and build them into your bucket lists.
The more lists, the better. They will remind you that you have so much you want to do, and so little time, so you better get started now.
You could say I actually got too good at this; when the worst of the spring lockdowns passed and family and friends reappeared in my life, I was almost resentful of the fact they were holding me back from all the things on my lists.
Watch out for the clown at the door
Back in my early twenties, I dated a woman who was a fan of certain psychotropic substances that shall remain nameless. I didn’t partake because I knew from earlier experience that I had a tendency to “bad trip” ― to turn irrationally paranoid and anxious.
My lover had little time for my objections. “Tripping is like a circus,” she said, “but you have to watch out for the clown at the door. The clown will get you.” What she meant is, if you start your trip in a bad mental place, the trip will make it much worse. Being alone has a similar, exaggerative effect on your psyche.
The clown at the door is why people don’t like to be alone. You have very little to distract yourself from your own thoughts. If your mind tends to wander into dark corners, or swirl obsessively over things you can’t control, or drive you to compulsive and destructive behaviours, then things that heighten your mental state ― psychedelics or solitude, for instance ― become triggers.
You may, for instance ― and I’m speaking entirely hypothetically here ― find yourself wasting whole days in a fugue of angry, unanswerable questions about whether you wasted 17 years of your life in a marriage you should never have been in.
Mental health experts say one good way of shifting to a positive mental attitude is to list off the things you are grateful for. Personally, I’m too sarcastic for that to work (“Thank you for Donald Trump and COVID-19 …”) but I knew that if I wanted to find a solution to my problems, I needed to break out of those thought patterns that went nowhere.
So, I paid attention to the workings of my mind. When did these negative, destructive thoughts appear? For me, they came at the end of the work week, with the weekend coming. When my mind shifted from the high gear of work to the low gear of weekend, that’s when the clown would get me.
So, I changed my habits. I loaded up with bucket-list plans for the end of my week/beginning of my weekend. I would now wake up on the weekend with no free time to spend in self-pitying navel gazing leading to benders/meltdowns. In essence, I derailed my train of thought and built a new one, a healthier one. I changed my perspective by changing the things I pay attention to.
Sometimes, the littlest things can help the most. I was in the middle of a lengthy sci-fi book series when I came across the line, “The only right you have with anyone in life is the right to walk away.” That single line gave me just enough of a different angle ― just enough of a new way of looking at things ― to shift my perspective entirely on my marriage’s premature demise. The clown at the door stopped showing up.
To be sure, the problems haven’t disappeared. The system is not a magic wand. The mechanism still breaks down from time to time, and I find myself back at square one. But you know what? There’s no one there to see it. Pick yourself up, and keep going.
Change who you follow on social media
You’d think that in a time of isolation, getting on social media would be a good way to fight loneliness. Don’t count on it. Social media is just as likely to mock you and your dreams as it is to bring you comfort. That might seem obvious, but in these days, the effect could be even worse.
If you are under lockdown, seeing friends partying in other parts of the world will not help your state of mind. And even the mundane, everyday things that occupy most of our social media spaces can just be a reminder of any number of things that make us unhappy.
Other than collecting ideas for your bucket lists, skip the social media. Reach out one-to-one to the people who matter. Get on the phone, get on Zoom calls with friends and family. It can’t replace the real thing, but a genuine conversation with people who are talking to you is a million times better than the virtually guaranteed alienation of social media.
Trust me, you won’t miss seeing those Instagrams of your friends’ toddlers doing typically toddler things for very long.
The exciting (and strange) new you
The danger of spending vast amounts of time alone, and liking it, is that you may develop some peculiar habits that don’t jibe well with other people whenever they’re around.
For the most part, there’s nothing wrong with peculiar habits. That’s part of the beauty of being alone; you can be as quirky as you want. Having the luxury of working from home these days, I shower at lunchtime, while my leftovers heat up in the oven. I like spinach ravioli with ricotta for breakfast, and scrambled eggs for dinner when I’m too lazy to make a proper meal, which is pretty often.
My advice is simple: Unless it’s causing you serious social problems, ignore it. Don’t apologize, don’t explain. Circumstances may require you to start acting “normal” at some point in the future. Don’t worry, you’ll handle it. You’ve just been through the epic struggle of you vs. yourself, and come out the other side. The outside world is nothing compared to that.