Have you ever been forced to sit by yourself in public amongst your thoughts for a period of time? It sounds pretty intimidating, especially when all you see walking by you are droves of people walking in pairs, or talking on their phone, or interacting with another human being in some way. Whenever I was forced to sit by myself for any length of time, every time a friend would approach me to end said period of Steve Glansberg-ing they would always say, "Wow, Alex, you just looked....so lonely."
I feel like I've spent a lot of time alone. Yet, it took me almost 22 years to actually learn how to enjoy it.
For someone who had always been very independently minded, I was extremely reliant on the presence of others for a good portion of my life. I always had to have friends around me when I could. I always had to have a crush on a boy or be talking to a boy when I could. Despite having a hard time making friends at my high school, whenever I did make a friend, I clung onto them and did not fathom the idea of solitude. It was a terrifying concept to my socially stressed-ridden mind. Freshman year of college, the idea of sitting in the dining hall by myself during a meal gave me anxiety. I never would want to go out to a coffee shop to even do homework by myself. I specifically remember a situation freshman year at Chatham where I had asked my friend Hannah if she could come along with me to go to the doctors. Hannah being Hannah looked at me and said, "You're a fucking adult, Alex. Take yourself to the doctors." To me, being alone and appearing alone to others meant I had failed at socially adopting to situations and being able to constantly interact with others. In high school, I worried about this; in college, where making friends was as easy for me as grabbing a $5 pizza with ranch from Sorrento's? I reveled in the fact that I was not having a difficult time socially making new friends anymore, because I was constantly surrounded by new ones. Here's the thing, though; I still always felt pretty damn lonely.
This anxiety only grew after I was assaulted at a party the beginning of my sophomore year. This was when I really didn't know how to handle my own thought process; I still would constantly feel the need to be surrounded by people. Always. I hated even having my own room because being by myself scared me at this point. Being by myself meant having to confront my feelings on what had happened to me. Being by myself meant allowing the feelings and emotions I had tried so hard to silence come out in my mind. It wasn't until the spring of 2014 that I started realizing this was an issue beyond what had happened to me the year before. The feelings of loneliness that I had always had began to fester; I felt like I wasn't always present within my interactions with people, I was putting up with shitty relationships with people who treated me like shit, and ugh, God, the ever-present cry of the millennial population: "People just don't get me," became my reasoning for why I felt so unsatisfied with my relationships and friendships. Despite coming to terms with my assault, and learning to forgive myself for putting the blame on myself, I still felt that there was something off in my life. I was extremely closed off emotionally, still, despite needing peoples presence near me. I was making a lot more progress than I had the year before; but it wasn't even close to enough. What was wrong?
Then it happened again.
A week before my 21st birthday, I was waiting for a guy I had a date with one night. I was 15 minutes early, something I had hated being, because that meant I had to be in public by myself and wait, and most of all, watch people give me the pitying, "Awww, did you get stood up?" glance. He showed up on time and came up to the table and automatically said, "Hey. Sorry you had to wait. Oh, Alex, you just looked so lonely."
I got home that night and thought about that sentence and how many times it had been said to me before, how everyone had the same brief sad look on their face when they said it to me. Then I thought about how I always had to ask someone to go get dinner with me, or go shopping with me, or go anywhere with me in public. The only time I could really stand to be by myself and amongst my thoughts was when I went on long runs and had music blasting in my ears. I thought about all the times I would sit awkwardly and twiddle my thumbs when I was by myself in public because people were running late and how I felt in every single one of those situations. Hell, I was living in an apartment by myself and absolutely loathed it. Was there a way to be alone without being lonely?
I got my answer to that question at work one night. I was serving a table at the restaurant I used to work at in Pittsburgh. It was a popular Shadyside destination, and usually the crowd I catered to was the happy hour seeking, very drunk young professionals that would show up in masses of three or more. So it was a very welcome, yet odd surprise to me when I had a young guy seated at a table by himself in my section on a Friday night. I approached him and asked if he was waiting on someone, and he said no. I went back to the server station to grab his drink and my friend/coworker Francart (nickname) was there. I looked at him and said, "I feel so bad for people that are dining alone. It just makes me feel so sad for them. I want to sit with them and converse with them and make them feel not so lonely." Francart immediately looked at me and did not share my sentiments as I had figured he would, but rather said, "Why? Do you just assume they don't choose to do that? Why do you assume he's lonely? Sure, he's alone, but he's not lonely. I do it all the time. Once you learn to get used to it, there's something really beautiful about being able to enjoy your own company." Surely enough, I peeked from around the corner of the server station and watched the man study his menu. The look on his face was not one ridden of social anxiety, or fear, or sadness; but rather, a face that personified what the word content meant. It was that night that I realized that I wanted to become that comfortable with myself. I wanted to be alone without being lonely.
Last summer, I would take my LSAT practice book or a book I was reading at the time, walk down my street to a nearby coffee shop, and sit by myself for an hour every couple of days. I knew I needed to teach myself to not only be alone, but to enjoy it. Putting myself on a schedule to do so just made it easier for me to accept that it was happening, especially with how busy my schedule was last summer. Being alone and sifting through my thoughts meant getting closer to fully understanding myself, and appreciating myself. It gave me time to think about all the toxic friendships and relationships I had let into my life just because I was afraid of being alone. How much I had put up with to keep people around who shouldn't have been around in the first place. How I was so quick to forgive people treating me terribly because I didn't want to lose them. If anything, starting to be on my own started to give me the time to think about the "what went wrongs?" of my life and reflect on them. Then, it turned into me not so much reflecting, but thinking, "How do I make this better the next time?" I realized being by myself gave me time to listen to my own thoughts and finally teach myself that they are of value. That the right people will find them of value as well. That it's okay to not always be surrounded by other people, because really, the only person you need to be okay with being around constantly is yourself. The approval of others really starts becoming something so trivial and irrelevant when you begin to come to terms with the idea that solitude is not an isolating, awful thing when you don't let it be that way. Giving yourself time alone means you are giving yourself time to reflect and grow. Learning to be by yourself in public means you are practicing appreciating your own company, so that you don't always have to rely on the presence of others. One of the best realizations I came to in the past two years is that you don't need other people all the time. To quote a TV show all basic white girls who still order Cosmos at the bar and their mothers who put ice cubes in their white wine like to watch, (hint: Carrie Bradshaw) "Don't forget to fall in love with yourself first. The most important relationship is the one that you have with yourself." I've always read that quote, and agreed, but never knew what the ingredients to having a great relationship with yourself entailed. I still am learning, constantly. However, I think it (partially) has something to do with these things:
1) Learning to be alone and not lonely.
2) Appreciating silence, and understanding that silence is sometimes super fucking loud.
"I got fascinated by silence; by what happens to the human spirit, to identity and personality when the talking stops, when you press the off button, when you venture out into that enormous emptiness. I was interested in silence as a lost cultural phenomenon, as a thing of beauty and as a space that had been explored and used over and over again by different individuals, for different reasons and with wildly differing results. I began to use my own life as a sort of laboratory to test some ideas and to find out what it felt like. Almost to my surprise, I found I loved silence. It suited me. I got greedy for more. In my hunt for more silence, I found this valley and built a house here, on the ruins of an old shepherd’s cottage."