Teaching Yourself Solitude 

To set the scene, it’s May. Squashed between the end of exams and the start of summer, I had woken up too early from a bad dream, decided sleep was a lost cause, and instead spent the morning out and about. I walked to the top of Kelvingrove Park, I ate a croissant from Prêt, I posted a letter. My stomach was uneasy, but I couldn’t help being smug – it was the only time I had voluntarily spent by myself in months.

It never used to be hard for me to be by myself. I grew up introverted – I was the kid at the lunch table with a fat, dogeared novel ignoring everyone around them. My sister sometimes says that her dominant memory of childhood is me refusing to play with her, in favour of reading alone in my room. I think she’s still kind of mad about that. When you’re a kid, your main hobby is reading, and your friends are sparse, you kind of naturally come to the conclusion that this is the way you are. This is what you like – being by yourself. I spent all my time in my head, watching and thinking it all over and over.

When I was older, I began to think maybe this childhood introversion was more the result of awkwardness and inconsistent friends, rather than a natural predisposition. After all, I loved people. I loved the new friends I made, I loved spending time with them and didn’t often feel the need to take time away or be by myself. But I could still do it. I could spend whole days by myself, reading the newspaper in the Botanics, messily eating hot sandwiches, or people-watching. Then I would go home, stay up late with my friends, make dawn runs to McDonalds feeling cherished and young. I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time but looking back now, I think I’d reached this lovely sort of equilibrium, where my pleasure from being with people equalled my pleasure from time spent by myself.

Around the time I turned nineteen, my brain began to betray me and the scales began to tip. My body, usually such a consistent creature, began shaking at the slightest thought. I stopped eating and sleeping. It’s hard to describe, but I slowly spiralled into a state where I could not be by myself.

My days were spent in constant company. I needed someone to walk me to the shops. I needed someone to stay up with me, as late as possible, calming me. The idea of sitting by myself in a coffee shop (like I am right now) was unthinkable and I would end up in tears. There obviously were times where I would be left alone (trains, buses, nights where my flatmate went out), but they were short and painful. I couldn’t cope with the absence of distraction; I needed people around me, all the time. The truth was that, then, I wasn’t someone I liked spending time with. I would have spent time with anyone else rather than her.

That day in May was a breakthrough, to be honest; the first time I’d been brave enough to decide “I’m going to spend this time alone”. And I’m still trying to figure out how best to do it. I still hesitate before I go somewhere by myself, or linger at my flatmate’s door, waiting until the last minute to leave. But it’s more force of habit than anything now. I’m naturally more extroverted than I gave myself credit for; I get my energy from being around people and meeting strangers, turning them into friends. Taking time to be by myself is not so natural for me as for others, I think. So every time I was alone, I was teaching myself how to do it; until it became easy, as simple as falling asleep. For me, it’s a learned skill. I’m learning, in small ways, how to like being with myself.

Here’s the thing, I don’t need to blare my music up all the way anymore. It used to feel like I had to fill the space as much as possible, like I had to drown something out, but now I turn down my music. Sometimes I take out my headphones altogether. I just listen to the roll of the bus I’m on, or the twigs on the window, the sound of people. I’m not scared of the thoughts I have anymore. I like it being quiet in my head.

I don’t need an escort to go to the shops – I like going by myself, muttering to the fruit, absentmindedly talking to the veg as I decide if I want aubergines. I like cooking by myself with no one else in the kitchen, nothing to distract me. I like the bus and the train and looking out of the window. I like it when my flatmates leave for the night because I can sing as loudly and as badly as I want.

Today on the bus home, I was reading bell hooks (a cliché choice, but not a wrong one), and I read a passage where she writes that “many of us seek community solely to escape the fear of being alone…. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape”. It really hit. I had been trying to escape, and it was never going to work. And she is entirely right, in that I don’t think I could have formed the relationships I have now with my beautiful, wonderful friends had I not learned, bit by bit, how to like being around myself. It turns out that it’s so much easier to love being with people when you’re not scared of them leaving you alone.

I will never be an enthusiastic introvert, delighted to stay in or decline an invitation. But I can sit still now, and I can feel the peace that people would always talk about. I can look forward to the next time I see someone with quiet patience. Things I will not take for granted.

By Ailsa Morgan (she/they) @a.ilsa_m

Image credits: @gia.eva.art on Instragram


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