I spent my 20s living with multiple roommates in multiple neighborhoods in New York City. I’d never picked out a bathmat or been able to identify all the food in the fridge.
On the cusp of 30, I decided I was ready for a “room of my own” before fate or family tied me to a life of compromising on couch color. With two months to go until my birthday, I decided to embark on a year of self-discovery and cooking for one.
Sure, I had done my homework on the pluses and minuses of single life. Studies show that living alone can potentially lead to a shorter lifespan and poor eating habits. But weren’t all those TV depictions of single women who overeat in bathrobes while bathed in light from their open fridge just a cliché?
I quit a long-term job and moved into my sparkly new studio on the same day. I was terrified of starting at a new company but eager to take on new challenges. Plus, after five years of writing my ass off every morning, I had a literary agent and an almost-complete book manuscript. And while my last couple of relationships had ended badly, I was excited about a close friend who was becoming something more.
As I began to pack up my belongings, I let myself soak up the last month of my 20s. I was living in the age of Beyoncé, and I was feeling myself.
A Wake-Up Call
The move went well, and my “close friend” became a fixture at my new place, helping me hang photos and put together furniture. I shared my first few meals with him there, and we spent those early weekends exploring the neighborhood together.
I was happy—independent but partnered, side-stepping the stereotypes I'd feared. My new job and apartment were big steps forward in my life, and having someone to share them with made them seem that much more real.
Then that someone became a no one to me: After six months of dating, I went to his house and found my toiletries hidden and another woman’s toothbrush by the sink. Stunned, I retreated to my apartment.
The place I had envisioned as a sanctuary felt like anything but.
But the place I had envisioned as a sanctuary felt like anything but. The studio that was supposed to be a blank slate on which I’d write my way forward in life was crowding me out with memories I now wanted to forget.
I was single and about to turn 30—a birthday that happened to coincide with the five-year anniversary of my mother’s death.
While I had expected this anniversary to feel like the others—sucky but bearable—something about this one stung acutely. At 30, my mother was married and on her way to having me. What would she think if she saw me now, pacing my apartment in mismatched socks?
That’s when I decided it was time to take charge of this whole living alone thing. I set out to consciously experience what was happening within my own four walls—and came to some pretty freeing realizations.
5 Lessons I've Learned
1. Living alone doesn’t automatically make you OK with being alone.
There is a huge difference between signing a lease for a studio and going to sleep and waking up alone. When that door shut behind me the first night post breakup, I wanted to crawl out of my skin. Listening to creaky floorboards in the dark and killing that first bug by your big, bad self are scary rites of passage, but the only way to get comfortable being alone is, well... to actually be alone.
Getting comfortable with yourself can be uncomfortable, but the process is liberating.
With that in mind, I began actively blocking off time to be by myself. I went out alone to crowded restaurants and the movies. I went for walks in my new neighborhood and found places I love and return to again and again. Getting comfortable with yourself can be uncomfortable, but the process is liberating.
2. Your smartphone can become your roommate. Don’t let it.
At first, there were moments at night when I began to feel panicky. I’d reach for my smartphone to soothe my nerves and connect with people via text and apps, scrolling through social feeds to see pictures of the parties I’d missed. I could blow through hours of “alone time” connected to a screen and completely disconnected from myself.
Then I made myself put the phone down. I’d look at the four walls around me and let myself feel anxious or sad or hungry or whatever it was I was feeling, and then go on with my day. Once I got in this habit, I realized that my inner life was fuller and louder than I had ever realized. I had just been too busy trying to drown out self-doubt to consciously enjoy my own company.
3. Your time is valuable... and you’ll finally start to believe that.
I had spent the past five years working full-time and writing on the side at the crack of dawn. I was constantly exhausted, but if someone wanted to grab a beer after work, I almost always said yes. At home, I showered—quickly—when the shower was free. My life was dictated by what other people wanted or what I thought they wanted. I was great at anticipating everyone else’s needs and making sure they felt loved and supported, but not so great at taking care of myself.
Sometimes what your body is telling you is that it doesn’t want to go to a concert across the city at 11:30 p.m.
Having your own place gives you the breathing room to check in with what you really want. And sometimes, what your body is telling you is that it doesn’t want to go to a concert across the city at 11:30 p.m. It wants to watch another episode of Transparent and roast some goddamn Brussels sprouts.
4. You're allowed to choose who to let in.
In my old life, all I had to do was walk into my living room to have a conversation with friends. Now I have to reach out if I want to see the people I love. Having to actually make an effort crystallized for me the divide between friends I could count on—the friends who made pasta from scratch and brought over a bottle of wine post breakup—and the friends of convenience.
Bit by bit, I started to realize an amazing but often overlooked perk of living solo: You can choose who to keep out and who to let in. Being conscious about the people you let into your life can deepen the quality of your friendships.
5. Where you are is who you are.
Following the breakup, I rearranged my furniture and put up new pictures—including my favorite one of my mom, looking confident and happy at the age I am now. I finally finished my book. I served New Year’s Eve dinner for four of my closest friends on the plates my mom used to bring out for family dinners. As I looked around at my friends in the last hours of 2015, I understood what Frances Mayes meant in Under the Tuscan Sun when she wrote, “Where you are is who you are. The further inside you the place moves, the more your identity is intertwined with it. Never casual, the choice of place is the choice of something you crave.”
I have six months left on my lease, and I honestly don’t know where I’ll be come August. But for the first time in my life, not having a plan doesn’t terrify me. I see the spring and summer stretching ahead of me and envision days filled with breakfasts for one, dinners with friends old and new, and a surprising excitement at the thought of getting to know someone I never really gave a chance: me.