what counts as being alone

I was talking to a friend awhile back about the concept of being alone. I’ve lived with two different boyfriends over the past ten years, and I never felt like I could be alone if one of them was in the house with me.

“Wait, even if you’re not in the same room as them?” my friend said.

“Nope,” I said. “Not even then. I can be alone if they’re asleep in another room, but then when they wake up I’m not alone again.”

I like to be alone. In fact, I need to spend a decent amount of time alone in order to function. I’ve never really looked into why this is, and it doesn’t much matter, because I’ve always been this way.

I have fond memories of the weeks-long Christmas breaks we had in high school. With no place to be every morning, I’d start staying up later and waking up later, and eventually I’d be up until 4 or 5 in the morning. My parents and sister would go to bed between 10 and midnight, and after they were asleep the house was mine for the night. I loved it. I never did anything I’d get in trouble for like leave the house or take the car somewhere without asking. Mostly I stayed in my room listening to music and reading. It was the knowing that everyone else was asleep that was important.

But why would anyone want to be alone? Try it for a moment. Lock yourself in another room, one entirely without the presence of other people, other voices. Disconnect your internet, turn off your phone. Allow yourself, for just a few minutes, to let the poses fall away. The angles. Let your public persona, so exhausting to maintain, disappear.

Breathe. There is your throat. There is the fly, buzzing in the ceiling corner. There is, also, something else: the silence. A silent room has its own timbre, its own weight. Breathe again; keep breathing. Allow life, with its heaviness, its dust, to slip away, unimpeded.

I’ve had this discussion with a lot of my couple friends. “Can you be alone if your boyfriend/girlfriend/wife/husband/partner is at home?” I ask them. They always say yes. Sometimes I think I’ll eventually meet the person I can be with and be alone at the same time, but other times I assume it’s impossible.

A few weeks ago I was at the MoMA in New York with two friends, and each of us were kind of going through the rooms at our own pace. My friends stopped to watch a video, and since I’d already seen it, I continued on into the next room. I sat down on a bench in front of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and realized that I felt like I was alone. I pulled out my notebook and wrote this:

what counts as being alone what counts as being alone

These are the alone rules, and they match up with this part of the quote above: “Let your public persona, so exhausting to maintain, disappear.”

When I first got Maude, I was living alone in Houston. During our first few days together, I felt like I couldn’t be alone with her there. A dog can’t go out for coffee so you can have some alone time, so I was afraid that owning a dog meant that I’d never be by myself again. But that feeling went away very quickly and was replaced with the feeling that I didn’t know what I’d done without Maude for so long.

This is my hope for my eventual future relationship with a male human.

But is my “public persona,” as the quote says, really that much of a front? I wouldn’t have thought so, since who I am in front of people feels the same to me as who I am when I’m alone. But it’s sort of how the rules stack up, isn’t it? That I find it exhausting to be the me that other people see? Which of the mes is real? If it’s the alone me, does that mean I’ve never been real with anyone, ever?

I work from home now, so outside of seeing friends or family, my human interactions are limited to my time at the aerial studio and my time on the internet. Generally this is enough for me, but lately I’ve felt desperate for someone to talk to. In the evenings I find myself visiting Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, etc. ad nauseam. Has someone replied to my tweet? Sent me an email? Liked one of my photos?

This doesn’t bode well for my sanity, but it’s what is happening now. Sometimes people do reply to my tweets or like my photos or send me emails, and it helps, but it isn’t really enough. I want someone to talk to me.

I have a text file saved on my desktop with ideas for blog posts. It’s a fairly long file, filled with thoughts I might get to sometime, or thoughts I never will. The line of text at the very top of the file, the oldest line, says this:

a word that means lonely for talking about important things

Underneath that is some slapdash research I did for the post, mostly in the form of links to articles about untranslatable words from other cultures that I dug up in the hope that I could find my sentiment in a foreign language. The nonexistent word I feel like I’d use the most is just that: a word that means lonely for talking about important things.

I don’t know any other way to describe it, nor could I define “important things” without making an epic list that could be taken the wrong way. And I don’t mean “important things” like talking about them would have to be serious all the time. I guess I just mean that the way I get close to people, friends or family or otherwise, is in having open, honest conversation about the way we really feel about things. Without that, I get lonely.

The two states that make me feel the most fulfilled are being alone and talking about important things.

I haven’t worked out a way to balance both, especially in the context of a relationship. During the San Francisco part of my road trip, I was feeling super lonely, and I told a friend that while I enjoyed spending as much time alone as I was, I wanted there to be someone I could call. If I hiked up to the top of a hill by myself, and stood there looking at the view, I’d want to be able to pull out my phone, call that person and say, “I’m on top of a hill and you won’t believe how beautiful it is here.”

“You can call me,” he said. And I did, but it turned into a dumb mess and now I haven’t talked to that guy in years.

Because who is that person you can call? It’s a fairly romantic call to make, which implies some sort of relationship, and people in a relationship don’t normally quit their jobs and spend two months driving around the country by themselves. I can have someone to call, or I can have looking at the beautiful view by myself, but having both is a long shot.

For this reason I am worried about the initial months of my move to St. Louis. With no local friends to talk to, without a Person To Call, what will I do?

What would compel a person to do this, to run into the desert and wander, unabashed, until either her soul was scrubbed clean or she died? To love, sometimes, is to peel back the skin, and watch the bone bleach white beneath the sun.

(I don’t often want advice on the things I write about here, and I don’t want you to tell me you think I should join clubs in St. Louis or whatever, because I plan to. But I would like to hear about your experiences balancing relationships with loner-dom if you feel like you might have some insight. Thanks.)

8 thoughts on “what counts as being alone

  1. Back in high school, I spent hours and hours on the phone with certain friends, talking about “important things.” It got to the point with one of those friends that we joked that we only had a handful of topics left to cover, like toothpicks and Russian diplomacy. On the other hand, I occasionally would call a not-so-close friend out of the blue to ask their advice about something on my mind — usually matters of the heart. For some reason, it felt safer talking to someone I rarely got deep with than discussing it with the person who I could talk about anything with.


    I used to spend all day barely talking to anyone while at work — not because I didn’t want to, but because there was no reason to. That was lonely. And as Cinnamon can attest, when I worked from home and saw no one all day, by the time she came home from work I was desperate for human interaction. So I started working in a shared office. Even though I spend most of the day not talking to the people I’m in there with, I don’t feel alone, and when I need to take a break and chat, or if one of them needs that, it’s nice to have someone right there.

  2. Have you read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking? The need for time alone + genuine conversation is a hallmark of introverted temperament, which for me is an internal contradiction that intensifies loneliness: the absence of Person To Call is more keenly felt. Extroverts have less need for Person; just person will do. Cain’s book was revelatory for me, not because it solved the contradiction, but because it helps to know that it’s not simply some weird personal idiosyncrasy but part of your physiological being.

    That being said, I have been married for 5.5 years to an extreme introvert with whom I can very nearly be alone. Vice versa for him. But we both still require actual alone time. The best way to balance it, in my experience, is to form relationships with introverts who understand & share the need. Which is basically like saying “go find your soulmate.” But, practically speaking, understanding your own temperament and accepting that it’s a-okay makes it easier to not waste time on connections that won’t give you what you’re really looking for, and to accept your loneliness for what it really is.

    Or just go around giving the Myers-Briggs to everyone you meet.

    p.s. Hello. We met once, long ago in Houston, and I have lurked around this blog for many years. I love your writing. Thank you for all of it.

    • Me too. Sometimes that’s my favorite kind of alone, though it’s hard to come by in a driving city like Austin or St. Louis.

  3. Honestly the best thing for me is that my husband is a flight attendant so he’s gone half of every week. That way I truly have alone time for part of the time, and then have that “ooh hey come look at this!” option for the other half.

  4. My situation is very different from yours (married 10+ years & 2 kids), but I also enjoy being alone. I manage this in a couple of different ways.

    1. I am extremely strict about bedtimes. Because when the kids are in bed, that is my time. It is difficult when they are babies & you are up every few hours, but it does get better.

    2. My husband travels for work, for long periods of time. By the time he’s back, I’m often glad to not be alone anymore.

    3. When he IS home, it doesn’t bother me much if he’s in another part of the house. Perhaps my definition of alone may be a little looser now due to the kids? It can be really tough to get away from them. :) Husband is also an introvert & doesn’t mind if I just need some quiet in the evenings.

  5. I’ve been told being with an introvert is hard. My partner of 7 years has fallen out of the habit of mentioning it to me, at least. I’m deeply, madly in love with him, but we spend most of our time apart, even when in the same 1200 sq ft apartment. My biology of middle-age never gave me the ability to stay up into the wee hours, but rather its opposite, and getting up hours and hours before anyone else has given me that daily alone time that I need to prepare for the day, work through thoughts, etc. We’ve taken separate vacations (I don’t do well with traveling, so its more he goes off and visits distant family and friends), we have non-overlapping circles of friends in addition to those we share, and we have other sexual partners when the opportunity and comfort arises in the course of life. Like you, I work mostly in solitude, though I rarely do from home–I find the din of activity in my office to be helpful at times, and when it isn’t I have my headphones.

    It’s a unique relationship, one founded on mutual respect, but not limited to modern societal structures. Unburdening one’s mind from those restrictions really does give the spirit freedom to experience life in the most comforting way possible. I know finding a good man with a pulse is a search for a unicorn, so I sympathize that finding one with qualities that can mesh well in these situations is a search for a unicorn made of marshmallows that grants unlimited wishes. I had to import mine from Chicago to Denver after stumbling on him.

    Until then, audition everyone you know, even those you might not expect, to receive that call from hilltop. The worst that can happen is you lose the companionship of someone who can’t understand you, and that’s no loss at all.

  6. Walking down Manhattan on a Sunday morning before it really got busy.
    Alone, but enough people around to be safe.
    Especially with nice cool, breezy weather.
    I really miss that.

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