Learning through Loneliness

Learning through Loneliness

A single takeout tray, a smudgy coffee table, Sex and the City marathons, a stack of half-read poetry books. A string of outgoing texts to out-of-town friends, early bedtimes, and a full French press of coffee to myself in the morning. This is what my loneliness looks like. Cavernous, gaping, hungry. This is what my loneliness feels like.

I texted a friend last night. He asked how I am and I said, “Lonely… sort of.” He asked me if I feel lonely often. I told him that I did and not to tell anyone—it is my secret. I’ve long believed that admitting loneliness is synonymous with admitting weakness; that my inability to feel comfortable alone is something I should be ashamed of and keep to myself. The truth is, empty rooms often feel as though they have the ability to swallow me whole, and I’ve feared acknowledging this at the risk of giving loneliness more power. I’ve always been this way.

After the politics of childhood parties where moms controlled the guest list and everyone was invited, we all began to establish memories of times we excitedly waited for a promised call that never came. I’ve gone to bed in a full face of makeup that never made it out of the house—and cried after seeing pictures from get-togethers no one invited me to. As far back as the age of eight, my diary entries express confusion about friendship and are riddled with stories of the games girls play—like the day when they all wanted to be my friend and the next when none of them would sit by me at lunch. All the awkward silences when I entered a room. The time the other girls swam to the opposite side of the pool to gossip as I watched the water reflect on the underside of the diving board. I pretended not to notice I was alone.

My first roots of insecurity erupted at a young age; many of them stemmed from issues in friendship. Thoughts of something being wrong with me inhabited my mind. I picked up the habit of second-guessing things I said as soon as conversations ended, and developed a desperate desire to be likable. It wasn’t long before I established a need to cling to anyone who I felt seen by—anyone to hide behind. By middle school I found a loneliness shield; a pattern that I would carry with me for life, and that was the need for a single person to pour myself into, someone to make me feel safe, wanted, and necessary. 

I met Danielle in eighth grade honors English class. She had a short bob, glasses with lenses so thick the size of her actual eyes was difficult to decipher, and braces on both her back and her teeth. She was the epitome of awkward and could make me belly laugh until my sides ached. Because of a move across town the year before, I found myself in the unpleasant role of “the new girl,” and her friendship made that school feel less foreign. She was the first friend I loved like a family member and we were inseparable for years. My freshman year of college I met Hypatia. She lived down the hall but often slept on my futon and we were rarely seen without the other. Before long we were dressing similarly, reading the same books, listening to the same music, and so intertwined that everything felt like a mutual understanding. She was my campus-exploring partner, Urban Outfitters sales rack competitor, and the person I couldn’t wait to return back to after weekends and holidays at home. Then I met the guy who would eventually become my husband, supplying me with a shield for years, until it became clear that a barrier had developed between us rather than around us. Over time, the loneliness pervaded every room in our house—even the ones we were in together. It’s been said that the loneliness with someone else is more devastating than the loneliness when alone. I would argue that it’s a different sort of desperation.

This morning, three years post-divorce, I woke up and listened to Norah Jones “Come Away With Me” on repeat while I got ready. I secured my wet hair into a low bun, put on my favorite dress, and danced in the living room. Sometimes I revert back to my childhood spent in the tri-level house on Chamonix Court where I would pretend I was a princess and pass downtime joyfully. Living room dancing was, and still is, my favorite way to do this. It reminds me of the years I felt at home in my body, the time before the lonely diary entries, when I would happily occupy myself and wait for my dad to come home, put on a record, and twirl me under his arm.

Today my nails are freshly painted, I’m well rested, and I’m moving slowly. I’m realizing that if I let go of the lonely feeling, even for a moment, all I can feel is peace. My house is organized and smells of lilac oil, the dryer is humming as it tosses damp laundry, and my mind is generating poetic lines that it can’t create when I have company. I look around and I see myself everywhere. I’m in the furniture I selected, in the stack of books with freshly folded down page corners, in the remainder of a meal I just ate because it’s what I was craving, in the record spinning on the turntable dad restored and handed down to me, even in my favorite light reflecting the shape of shifting palm branches onto the dining room wall. It is clear that now is the perfect time to observe, learn, and value the person I am when I am completely free to be who I am. These are the days I’ve been graciously given to learn that my body doesn’t become valueless when it’s the only one in the room.