Alone, not lonely

I can still remember a time, when I was in high school I believe, that my mom told my boyfriend “even when she gets married, she’ll still need a room of her own”.

And she was right.

I like my own space, my alone time, my own personal time-out from the world and from people in general. I’m okay with not seeing, talking to or being around other people for days at a time.

At the time I thought, what’s so wrong with that? Doesn’t everybody feel that way?

The label “introvert” was only reserved for psychologists and psychiatrists back then I suppose, not used in any parenting handbooks (if there were any) or written about in widely published magazines. Being an introvert was considered being shy, or quiet, or just plain weird in most cases. It wasn’t “popular” I guess you could say.

And don’t misunderstand, you can be an outgoing personality that can talk to anyone, or walk into a room full of strangers and make it work, and still be an introvert. The difference is that an introvert would never choose to do those things everyday, they may even find a way to avoid them, but an extrovert craves it.

The way it was explained to me, after taking the Meyers-Briggs test during my RA training in college, is that an introvert’s thought process happens internally. They only express what they need or think once they’ve worked it out in their own mind, without outside involvement. Whereas an extrovert processes externally, talking through whatever situation (sometimes down to every last detail with detours included) and needs to get it out of their head, out loud usually, to figure it out.

If only I could go back in time to those sometimes painful days of my teen years, and find a way to explain what I was doing and why I actually needed the time out, maybe people would’ve left me alone a bit more. It would have explained why locking myself in my room for hours on end was not a cry for help or why going to the movies with fifteen of your “best friends” did not appeal to me.

Sometimes I just needed to recharge and shut out the world.

I needed to recenter myself and collect my thoughts about things. I needed time to look at life from all of the different angles, with all of the possible scripts of the many different scenarios, to be prepared for the next time. Whatever and whenever that would be.

I was trying to be prepared in a way. I was born to be a Boy Scout, it’s obvious to me now.

So after many years of dancing to that same old song that includes finding a life partner, I am finally able to be alone without question or worry – for the most part. There is always someone insisting that I need to find someone to love me the way I truly deserve, to keep me company in my golden years, someone to fill a void that they assume I have.

But I don’t.

I had a void during the last thirty something years, or more. Something was missing, I just didn’t know what it could be or could quite name it. But it was there. And not just during my marriage, it was there in most of my long term relationships, if I’m truly honest. Something didn’t flow, it didn’t come easy, I kept trying to find the missing piece. If only I could fix it, could do the right things or read the clues properly, it would all come together for happily ever after.

But something was missing. Or was it that there was just too much of something?

It’s one thing to be alone, but a completely different thing to be lonely. Being alone is usually by choice, deciding to forge ahead without a group or a partner as your safety net. Being lonely is more of a reaction to existing conditions, most times that you don’t have control over. It’s trying to be a part of something, only to realize that you’re not, you are not included.

Sometimes even in your relationship. There just isn’t enough room for you.

So alone again, naturally. I wish that I could say that it bothers me, and maybe sometimes it does, but not enough to make me try to fill that void this time. No, this time I am content to sit in the quiet of being alone and absorb it.

Relish it. Appreciate it.

This time I am opening myself up to the possibilities, and the opportunities, that come with being alone. I am accepting the challenges to get out of my comfort zone and do the things that I enjoy, or may have always wanted to do, without the safety net (or sometimes hurdle?) of having a companion.

I recently went on a trip to visit a friend in Europe for her 50th birthday. We have been friends for many years, have supported each other in good times and bad, there was no question whether or not I would fly there to celebrate with her. I was going.

And I was going alone.

No kids, no partner, no friend to sit next to or share a hotel room. Just me and a plane ticket. It helps that I have the incredible good fortune of having stayed in contact with more than a few friends that I made along the way during our expat experience, and was invited to visit and stay with a few while I traveled. Not just in Germany, but other countries as well.

Not bad for a girl who “hates people” and “doesn’t have any friends”, don’t you think?

So my “simple trip” for a friend’s birthday party slowly turned into a “European Adventure” that took me from Iceland, to Germany, to Greece through Turkey and into Italy before heading back home. What started off as a short trip for five days, because I worry that I should be at home for my kids like a good mom is supposed to do, had eventually snowballed into an odyssey of twelve days!

I got out of my own head and asked for help, so leaving my boys at home wouldn’t freak me out nearly as much, and surprisingly it was easier than I expected.

My first stop was in Iceland using a budget airline, because it was the cheapest way for me to get to Germany. I have a problem with feeling good about spending a lot on a plane ticket for some reason. I remember looking at the fares and the available connecting stops and thinking “I’ve always wanted to go to Iceland…”

There were choices of layover times from three hours to nineteen hours, quite a big difference obviously, but for some reason the thought of a three hour layover that would only allow me to see the inside of an airport, in a country I had only seen in advertisements, made me sad. I would be there, but not really be there. Nineteen hours would give me time to see something, to do something, to have an experience or two.

Why not??

If you ask my mom, and my family and a few of my friends (and I’m sure anyone else I told along the way) they thought I was insane. A woman traveling alone and running around a foreign country with less than 24 hours is crazy talk! Aren’t you scared? Aren’t you nervous? Where or when will you sleep?!

I booked it. I was giddy, and excited…and yes, I was a bit scared. What am I going to do in Iceland for nineteen hours…alone??

Turns out, quite a lot.

And it was glorious. Planning my own itinerary without having to consult with anyone, taking my time to look around or shop, or just sit and take it all in, absorbing it all without any background noise was incredible. I felt at peace and alive at the same time.

I didn’t go it completely alone the entire time, I also joined a group tour for a pub crawl that night – after soaking in a geothermal bath for the day – and met some fabulous people while drinking and dancing and swapping travel stories. It is so much easier to talk to strangers on your own. There is no pressure to move along to the next thing or place, or to pay attention to someone that you are traveling with, creating your own social cocoon. You are open to the world and the people around you if you allow yourself to be.

The universe will bring you who you need at that moment in time. Trust me.

During that nineteen hours the last few years of heaviness and heartbreak faded out of my memory, my divorce story wasn’t the core of my identity, and I remembered who I used to be not so long ago. I felt lighter, unencumbered and free, for the first time in a very long time. I caught a glimpse of myself at 25 once more, laughing and dancing and making friends along the way. And I liked her.

I didn’t think it was possible to be her again, to recapture her spirit, but turns out it is.

The rest of my trip was spent house hopping to visit friends, catching up and hanging out with no real itinerary planned. I wasn’t on a sightseeing vacation, I was on more of a “world tour of friendship” vacation and it was amazing for my soul.

I drank my favorite beer in my favorite city center, sat at various kitchen tables and talked for hours, laid on a beach taking in some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable, and I did it all with some of my closest and dearest friends.

All because I said yes to a party, and yes to myself. Yes to being alone.

My last day and night I spent completely alone going through Istanbul to get to Venice, where I stayed for one night during my 20 hour layover, before heading home.

I will admit, traveling alone had it’s moments of anxiety and doubt, but I muscled through it and felt even stronger because I managed it without breaking down. The Istanbul airport was a bit confusing at first, so many people going so many different ways with so little information, am I in the right place at the right time?? But once I took a moment to breathe and relax, it wasn’t that confusing at all, it was just busy in a European way.

Nothing that a Turkish coffee and Greek yogurt at a lovely airport cafe couldn’t fix.

I then made it to Venice, after almost sleeping through my flight boarding (thank you to the angels in the airport that woke me up in time!) only to get off on the wrong water taxi stop and wander around lost for almost an hour. My familiar anxiety began to grow and panic began to set in as I traipsed through the Jewish Ghetto with a 40 pound backpack, wondering how I had missed the hotel that was supposed to be 500 feet from the taxi stop?

I could hear the irritated and whiny voices of past travels running commentary through my head, pointing out my mistakes, asking me why I didn’t know what I was doing or where we were going. Accusing me of poor planning with the pressure of expectations that I should know what to do to solve the problem – even when I couldn’t know what to do because I had never been there or done it before.

I was lost, yes. But I was lost in Venice. Freaking, amazing Venice.

Finally I chose to stop and sit in a cafe, ordered a cocktail, and watched the people go by. I was lost in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, a place I had only dreamed of going to for years, and now I was sitting here enjoying a cocktail watching the people walk by around all of this stunning architecture, with only myself to worry about. And really there wasn’t a whole lot to worry about if I was honest with myself.

It would all work out.

I most likely would not have been as successful in calming myself down and readjusting had I been traveling with a partner, or my kids. Traveling with someone else comes with higher expectations. The planning is more intense, in the attempt to make everyone happy, which is a tall order no matter where you go. This was a new idea for me, to travel almost free-form, making adjustments along the way sometimes even rerouting my trip to accommodate another opportunity.

(I missed my connecting flight from Iceland to really start the trip off on an interesting note, but it all worked out)

In my relaxed state, it dawned on me that if I didn’t find my hotel eventually, I would just book another one and pay the price. Or possibly I would wander the city streets all night, stopping to eat a good meal and drink some fabulous wine, until I was ready to get back on the water taxi and head to the airport. It didn’t really matter, because I was the only one I had to be concerned with this time.

Plus, did I mention that I was in Venice? Lost or not, it was worth it.

Being alone is not being lonely. It is being self-sufficient, testing the limits of your mental strength and critical thinking, taking on the challenges life throws your way without the burden of proof to please another. It allows you to be open the world around you, and the people in it, or to go along your merry way without any distractions.

It’s truly taking care of the most important person in your world. You.

I came back home feeling the most accomplished that I have ever felt, at peace with life and recharged, and so happy with the life that I’ve made for myself that has given me so many friends that I have gathered along the way – old and a few new. I came back confident, reconnected to myself, looking forward to my independent life alone.

(I came back. Believe me that was one of the toughest decisions ever…)

At a time when most people expect me to feel empty or lost, expecting me to be desperately trying to fill the void that my tidy ‘happily ever after’ expectations didn’t deliver, I actually feel full and found. I feel hopeful, full of possibility, making plans that truly connect to the dream life I never gave myself permission to pursue. A life that I can now ask the honest question: what makes me happy?

Alone again. Naturally.

 

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Clusters

You always hear that things happen in three’s. It’s usually referencing the deaths of movie stars or famous people, but other things also do I’m sure. It sounds so religious, the trinity symbolism being carried through the ages, but in many ways and often times it’s true. It just works out that way.

I think I’ve personally dispelled the myth of the threes for myself. Mine are more like fives or sixes. Clusters.

And maybe they aren’t really happening to me in clusters, maybe I only notice them after there are a few things in a row strung together, usually only able to connect the dots in the aftermath.

During my last pregnancy I was 39 years old. We already had two boys that were around 18 months apart, but now we had waited almost five years to decide to add to our family. One last baby to have our desired three. Before I turned forty.

My ex is from a family of three, I am from a family of three, it only seemed right to follow the pattern. The trinity and all, God’s plan right? That wasn’t the reason, but it made sense in some way. Three is a solid number.

During that pregnancy I had a cluster of bad luck events that I can only blame on hormones sucking out my braincells. Seriously. I cannot remember being this big of a moron during the other two pregnancies.

I was also a bit younger with the first two.

The cluster included a fender bender in my brand new minivan while trying to park at the school, only weeks later filling up the tank with the wrong gas in the same newly minted minivan (my first experience with a diesel tank…and my last), missing a school ‘thank you’ award ceremony for room parents (which I was that year) that left my oldest son standing on a stage in front of the entire school, with flowers in hand, waiting for me to appear (yeah, I still wince and feel sick to my stomach every time I remember that one) and walking right into a glass door not realizing it was even there, my very pregnant belly bouncing off of the glass to the horror of one of my friends.

Where is a camera when you need one? That would have definitely been YouTube worthy.

You can’t always blame hormones on mishaps or uncomfortable circumstances in your life, sometimes it’s just life happening to you – or karma, or bad juju, or the universe speaking to you, whatever you want to name it. The fact that it happens in a string, or cluster, may only be because you can now look at it as a whole and connect the dots.

Maybe you made one off decision that lead to a multitude of more challenges or surprises than you expected. Too many to deal with properly, in constant succession.

It’s like a wound that is left uncared for, not properly cleaned and bandaged, without first aid. At first it seems that it can heal on it’s own, it’s not that big of a deal, it’s only a scratch and you’re healthy and strong. But then dirt gets into it or you scrape it again. The skin around it can’t heal properly, it weakens and your body’s resistance gets lower the longer you leave it unattended. It gets infected and the infection spreads.

After a couple of these life challenges, your resistance and resilience gets lower and you just can’t fight as hard any longer. You can no longer make sound, rational decisions, or deal with life’s surprises as well as you could before. And that causes you more stress, adding to your already overloaded heart and brain, leaving you desperate to catch your breath and grab onto something or someone, for help or support.

You just need to take a break from it all. You need time to heal and get stronger.

Along this “life happening” journey of divorce, I’ve learned a lot, and dealt with many “clusters”. More than I ever expected, in a multitude of ways, and sometimes more lessons than I ever wanted to learn about the world and the people I thought I knew.

I’ve grown in ways that were born out of making tough decisions, decisions to protect myself and my kids mental health. Sometimes it included distancing myself from the very people that were close to me, that I trusted deeply, to save my own sanity. Family and friends, clubs and social circles, have now been trimmed of excess to reduce the possibility of new energy-draining events that will only weaken my resistance. I’ve gradually begun to create new boundaries, to insist that people respect them, finally drawing a line in the sand and sticking to it.

Standing up for myself more often than usual is only an added bonus.

And I know I was brutal at times, sometimes even hysterical I’m sure, no longer employing my usual habit of censorship to save someone’s feelings it was most likely shocking to some. But to make them listen, to really hear me and finally ‘get it’, I had to use extreme tactics. I had to be blunt and brutally honest, for fear that I wouldn’t be heard or taken seriously once again. I needed to tell them everything that I had been thinking for the last week, month, year…or decade.

Because in the end, in the thick of the cluster, what more did I have to lose?

I needed to purge. To unburden myself and strip away the heaviness I had been carrying for so long, trying to protect their feelings at my own expense. I needed to vent, unload, scream and let it all out.

I needed to breathe. I needed the surprises and challenges to just stop, for awhile. I needed someone else to take some of the weight off of my shoulders, for just a little bit. If only for a day, or an hour, I needed a free pass to not be the normal version of me that they were so used to seeing, to believing, who they wanted me to be to fit into their world view.

My life was messy and hard and relentlessly pushing down on me. I had to build the walls, put in the moat, and protect myself and my kids to weather this storm of clusters, with or without them. I no longer had spare energy or extra brain space to worry about pleasing other people, or saying or doing the “right things” to keep the peace. I was in survival mode and it was my turn to need support, understanding, love.

And for some, it was too much to ask. They weren’t prepared to understand or support. Or love.

Over my lifetime I have been an enabler, an empath as it’s commonly called these days. It started early on in childhood, and with each passing year and each new relationship added to my emotional history, it grew in strength. I slowly buried who I really was, denying myself what I truly wanted out of my life, my relationships and my dreams. I put myself at the end of the line to wait patiently for it to be my turn, because there were always more important issues and bigger problems for the people in my life. More urgent matters, that needed more attention, than anything that could be going on with me.

I was the therapist, the organizer, the sympathizer, the cheerleader, for everyone…but myself.

I’ve lost a couple of family members, and a couple of what I considered close friends, in the last year or so during this storm of challenge and change. I don’t regret it, as horrible as that sounds. I think everyone needs to purge once or twice in a lifetime, possibly more often than that, to really clear your mind and your soul, to reset your moral compass and your personal boundaries.

Change is part of growing, and growing isn’t always easy.

These days I feel lighter, able to breathe and relax a bit more. My days of pleasing others at my own expense, or at the expense of my children, are over. Am I sorry that I’ve lost people along the way? A little, but it’s really more about disappointment than sorrow.

Disappointed that those same people that I’ve tried to give my best self to, tried to be supportive of, couldn’t rise to the smallest challenge of just being there for me in my darkest hour, my darkest year. Unable to show understanding when I needed it the most. Unwilling to protect me in even the simplest ways. But instead of filling my heart with regret and sorrow over that loss, I’ve filled in those gaps with people that truly bring joy, happiness and support into my life.

People who can give of themselves as well as receive, reciprocated support and love.

The next cluster may be just around the corner, because that’s how life works, but it doesn’t scare me as much now that I’ve tightened up my inner circle and feel more secure in who I am and the boundaries I’ve set. I’ve come through the longest cluster of my life, a better and stronger version of myself, surrounded by the people who only want the best for me and will help me fight for it. I’ve rebuilt my support system, revamped my walls and boundaries, with the hope that I am better prepared for the next cluster when it comes my way.

 

A different filter

About a year and a half ago my oldest son broke his phone. Not a new occurrence when you have teenagers with phones. They forget they have them in their pocket as they jump into the pool, or try to tape it to their handlebars to take an action video and inevitably it goes flying off during one of their “tricks”, or any other simple to avoid circumstance that they just didn’t think through. It also gets lost, or stolen.

It happens.

When it happened this time, I was not as willing to get him a new phone. This was the second (or third?) time within his contract period, he was able to repair it the last time, and it was beyond frustrating. So, I “punished” him with my old phone, an iPhone 4s. Yes, I know, the horror! I could have dyed his hair pink and it would have been less offensive to his teenage ego.

But he took it.

This made the most sense at the time, it was definitely cost effective, who doesn’t agree with “free”? Plus, we were still paying off the previous (broken) phone. We agreed that he would use my old phone until the contract was paid in full, about six months. A painfully long time for him, I’m sure.

He assured me that he would wipe the entire phone of my personal data; texts, contacts, email, etc.

Word to the wise: take it somewhere that does this as part of their business. Never, and I mean NEVER, trust your teenage son to do this type of thing for you. It’s bound to disappoint. And possibly instill incredible fear into your heart and soul.

He got his new phone about a year ago and has been happily using – and protecting – his new updated connection to the outside world. But just today, I happened to come across my old phone sitting on the family room table. It looked so small, so out of place, that I didn’t even recognize it as being mine. It had 6% battery life.

Not really realizing that it was indeed my old phone, I opened the screen to check the contacts to get an idea of which one of their friends it belonged to. Imagine my surprise when I found my list of contacts, and then looking at texts saw my old texts from two years ago.

At first I panicked, wondering if he had read through my texts or my email. Not that I was plotting or planning anything illegal or immoral, but some of my text exchanges with friends can be a little “colorful”. Not really meant for my kids to read, you know?

As I scanned the list of texts, I came across a set of old texts between my ex-husband and myself. I winced. What would I read there? Would it make me feel hurt, upset and raw like I felt during that long year of our divorce process, or happily vindicated in our decision, glad to have moved on, relieved?

They were texts from only two years ago. It was a crap shoot in my mind, the sequence of events and timing not nearly as clear at that moment.

I scrolled through, holding my breath.

There were texts from the early days of him commuting to his new job, plans for wine and pizza when he arrived home, asking what he wanted me to get from the grocery store for an upcoming fishing trip. Communications about plane delays, weather reports, car repairs and family gatherings being planned. Updates about our kids.

Jokes, intimate only-we-can-understand type of jokes. I could feel the smile that I must have had back then reading his messages, the eye roll I must have done in response to some of his sarcastic comments.¬†And there were “xoxo”s mixed in among the few emojis, usually at the end of his texts.

I could feel the love.

At that moment, my heart ached. And I realized that it was real at some point, or at least we did have some pretty good stretches of “good” in our marriage. Maybe it was better through text and over the phone? Possibly.

Another mark on our permanent record for poor verbal communication skills.

What happened to us? Where did that go? I realize now, that those were the things that kept us together for so long. Those small things. The little stuff that makes you smile, makes you feel connected, and forget that that other person can really annoy or upset you on any given day.

But the small things couldn’t fight off the big things in the end, could they?

It made me sad. It made me miss that part of us, the part that bound us together and made us a family with our boys. At that moment I looked past the sad, the bad and the ugly from our marriage. I changed the filter and saw only the soft edges and warm light. I saw the film reel of the highlights playing in my head. I heard the music of our laughter and the language we shared.

And I missed it.

If only for a moment, for a few minutes, I forgot all about the ugly words we had exchanged over the last year or so. In person, by email.

In texts.

I pushed aside all of the resentment, the hurt, the bitterness and only felt what I thought we had all along. A solid foundation to build on, to hold onto in the hard times, the challenges we took on together and came out on the other side even stronger. A partnership beyond the basic necessities.

Love. Somewhere, deep inside of it all, there was love at one time.

And it made me mourn for both of us. We both went into our marriage with such hope and promise, dreams and plans. So many years invested. All for it to implode almost instantly in the end. How did that happen?

I don’t have the answer, still. I play the reel of our marriage over and over in my mind, I look for clues and hints, but nothing really stands out as “the moment” that it went off the tracks, unable to be corrected. The little things pop up like spikes on a Richter scale, most of them small, barely registering, with a few larger ones over the entire marriage, but nothing of such magnitude that it should have crushed our foundation. At least I didn’t think so at the time.

It doesn’t really matter now, it’s done. It can’t be rebuilt. It won’t be rebuilt.

Finding my old phone, and old texts, made me aware of how the filter that I choose to look through can change everything. It can make me feel a completely different way if I let it. I do like the feeling of this soft focus filter, the warm fuzziness of it all, at least for the moment, for a day.

It gives me a welcome rest from the sharp clarity of my memories, and my everyday real life.