I’ve struggled a lot with loneliness in recent years. It doesn’t help that I’m an introvert. I crave solo time, it both recharges and calms me. I also struggle with anxiety and depression, which can often make it difficult to find the will to get up and go out and be with other people, which means I end up spending a lot of time alone, hence my struggle with loneliness.
Over the last year, though, I’ve found a little respite from parts of my loneliness as a result of living near family. I’m very close to my parents and siblings. There’s an ease in being around them that I don’t find with many other people. There’s no anxiety in it; it’s easier to get up and go out and be with other people when they’re the other people. But even as I was less frequently physically alone over the last year–which certainly eased some of the loneliness–I grappled with the loneliness that comes from being a single 30-something person in profound ways in 2016.
It can be incredibly difficult to be a single in a world full of couples. Coupled people like to tell you all the reasons you should be grateful for your singleness. That, or all the things you’re doing wrong. The truth is, though, that it’s a crap-shoot. There are some incredibly amazing people in this world who are single and some incredibly awful people who are in a couple. There’s no real rhyme or reason to it and I’ve long believed that the key to contentment is in making the most of whichever side of that equation you find yourself on. I believe that, but still, it can sometimes tricky in practice. Actually, “tricky” is probably an understatement. At times over the last year it felt impossible.
Since moving back to the Midwest, I’ve met less than 10 other single people (I haven’t kept a detailed record, it could be more like less than 5, but you get the idea). I’ve spent the last year immersed in a world full of couples, where it seems everyone my age married 10 years ago and spend the last decade producing a posse of children. It’s tough to make friends you can relate to when you realize your adulthoods to-date have followed such starkly different paths. And, after awhile, it can make you feel like you missed the boat, and like you’re damaged in some irreparable way. You feel incapable of doing something that comes so easily to everyone else, something that seems so basic, so fundamental, to being human. I’ve felt incredibly heartbroken about it in the last year, and so frustrated to be still struggling with something I’ve struggled with since I was, like, 13. But, recently, something funny happened.
Sometimes, when you’ve been working on some part of yourself for a very long time, it can be easy to feel like no progress is being made and like nothing will ever change. You write about it and read about it and pray about it. You seek help and guidance. And, on occasion, you kick and scream and cry. It’s so defeating. And then one day, seemingly out nowhere, you have a moment when you realize that something has shifted. That progress has been being made all along, that you’ve been chipping away at The Thing in thick tiny, thick pieces and one day you step back and realize that The Something Beautiful and Magnificent that was hidden underneath has been revealed.
Here’s how it happened for me: I’ve chipped away at my insecurities about being single by doing things like buying myself flowers and taking myself on a solo vacation and talking about the pain of it all in a very real, very honest way with the people closest to me. I gave myself permission to feel really, really badly about it when I needed to; sometimes I felt completely broken, often wondering why someone who would try so hard and want something so badly would be deprived of it.
And then one day a few weeks ago, I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Dear Sugar Radio, while in the midst of trying to make a big decision. I was trying to decide whether to stay the course in my current job while living in Michigan or to resign and move back to Colorado and pursue my writing career. My heart wanted the latter. But my head wouldn’t shut up about how irresponsible it would be to do that because of things like financial security.
In that episode of Dear Sugar, one of the hosts, Cheryl Strayed, was talking to her husband, who was a guest on the show, about how they’d supported one another over the years in their various artistic endeavors. He described a situation in which he, a documentary filmmaker, had been offered a full-time position at an advertising agency. The position promised a steady salary and the financial security that comes along with it at a time when the couple was struggling financially. He told Cheryl he felt like he had to take it, that he didn’t have a choice and it would be foolish to turn it down. And she told him not to, that he’d be miserable and it just wasn’t worth it. So, he didn’t take the job and felt relief and peace because of it.
I listened to that story and thought, I wish I had someone in my life to be that kind of champion for me, to tell me it’s OK to choose the path of art and passion over the security of a traditional career (not that life in the nonprofit sector is anywhere as oppressive as I imagine the corporate world would be) and salary. That thought was immediately followed by this one: you can be that person for yourself. I swear it was that clear and that simple. After months and years of agonizing over the fact that I don’t have a partner it was suddenly so obvious that I don’t need one.
I can be my own champion. I can give myself permission to take risks and cheer myself on as I accept new challenges. I don’t need anyone else to do those things for me. I feel content and strong and relieved in the wake of having discovered this.