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.
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.