Important Lessons You Learn From Living Alone
Nothing had changed.
It was the strangest sensation.
I left the apartment just before 6:00 am for work and when I returned that night, nothing had changed in the intervening hours. The coffee cup was still by the side of the sink with its cold contents beginning to separate. The selected – and then rejected – outfit was still spread out over the surface of the bed. The blinds hadn’t moved, no new footprints were visible in the thick and dense carpet and the single throw pillow remained on the floor where it had fallen the night before.
Nothing had changed.
And yet, everything was different.
After more than a decade living with my husband followed by the better part of a year strung with my friend’s family while I navigated the divorce, I was now living alone.
And, I quickly realized, I still had a lot to learn:
Surrounded by Silence
Largely due to financial constraints, I had no television in my apartment. I did pay for internet coverage so that I would have access to my computer, but the AT&T in my building proved about as reliable as a flight time in a torrential thunderstorm. And thanks to my ex’s thefts, I was down to a $20 stereo and a literal handful of CDs.
I was surrounded by silence.
So the voices of my inner thoughts came through loud and clear.
It was uncomfortable at first, being left with my own thoughts without anything to distract. Scratch that. It was terrifying. Especially at night, when my thoughts seemed to reverberate around the mostly-empty space. I was forced to listen to my fears, questioning my decision to stay in Atlanta and wondering if I could actually alone.
But in time, my inner thoughts became more like friends. I began to relish the quiet that would settle in around me once I closed my door against the rest of the world. I began to recognize their cries of panic for the wolf cries that they were. And, surprisingly, I found that the worries faded after they were given the floor. Perhaps the only reason they were speaking so loudly before is that they had to scream to heard above the distractions that surrounded me before I lived alone.
Living alone provides the opportunity for you to become comfortable with yourself without distractions.
Taking Care of Business
I almost didn’t get approved for my apartment. The mandatory background check revealed outstanding utility charges that had my name attached, courtesy of my ex who had been awarded the house. I had to scrape together the funds to cover the unexpected expense and collect more court documents to show that my ex was the one responsible for accruing – and ignoring – the debt.
It was petrifying. Not only was my future independence called into question, I was having to take care of this on my own. And I had serious doubts that I could do it.
By transferring items that I intended to buy from the “need immediately” column to the “need soon” list, I was able to cover the past-due utility bills (with only a moderate amount of cursing about the unfairness of it all) and since the divorce paperwork was still easily accessible, it was easy to locate the papers that assigned this responsibility to my ex.
The apartment was mine.
I felt accomplished. In many ways, even more than when my ex and I managed to buy – and remodel – a house at the ages of 22 and 23. Because this time, I did it completely on my own.
It’s daunting to be the only own responsible for everything, but there is a sense of accomplishment and pride that can only come from taking care of business all by yourself.
Over the sixteen years with my ex, I had inadvertently allowed my husband’s preferences to become my own. Sometimes to a scary degree.
Since I left my former life with only my clothes and my computer, I had to purchase everything from a bath towel to a bed for my new space. It was strange, as I was pursuing the IKEA catalog, I was initially discouraged because none of the pieces fit my ex (either literally, as he was a tall man, or stylistically). I had to remind myself, this was MY space. I could furnish it like I wanted without any consideration for anyone else. (Although, in retrospect, maybe I should have considered my then-boyfriend and his dog when I selected a white slipcover!)
For the first time in almost two decades, my opinion mattered not at 50% (or less), but at 100%. As long as I could pay for it and could wrangle it up three flights of stairs, I could have it.
When we live with others, especially if we have a tendency to people-please, we can subvert our own preferences in an attempt to keep the peace or appear laid back. Living alone provides an opportunity for you to really learn what you like without the fear of someone else’s preferences taking priority.
My ex-husband was quite skilled at calming me down. Whenever I would enter the house after a challenging day at work, he knew exactly what to say or do to bring down my anxiety and stress. Then, once he was the cause of the stress, the friend I lived with never failed to lend a patient ear or compassionate look.
I’ll never forget my first emotional breakdown in my apartment. It was triggered by a letter from a debt-collection agency. I had been trying unsuccessfully to track down the current owner of the $30,000 credit card debt that my ex accumulated in my name (that included painful items like part of his honeymoon with his other wife). This letter confirmed the ownership and meant that I was soon going to have to begin the literal paying for my ex’s other life.
My body was wracked with painful sobs that echoed off the walls. Part of me was embarrassed at the thought that my neighbors might hear me.
And part of me secretly hoped that they would hear me and that someone would come to check on me.
I was alone.
And it was up to me to take care of myself.
Once the sobs receded enough that I could stand, I put my running clothes and hit the pavement despite the rain. I ran hard and I ran long, first down the road in from of my apartment then across a bridge where I could access a 6-mile trail along the river. Once I returned, I could barely make it up the steps to my apartment, my legs were spent with the effort. Luckily, my brain was too.
I drew a warm bath and collected a pile of library books for company. Later, in bed, I piled my winter coat on top of me for extra weight and tucked the throw pillows from the living room around me like a quilted hug.
I was still scared and I was still feeling pretty hopeless, but I was also feeling good that I had managed to make a dent in my emotional reaction.
When you’re living alone, you have to learn how to take responsibility for your own stuff.