Many people crave being alone—in fact, they need it to function—but are far from lonely.
Until I left for college when I was 17, I had this weird tendency to look out the window of my bedroom at the parking lot of the movie store across the street from our house, to see if the store was closed yet. Of course, it closed at the same time every night. I liked seeing the lights on, the people walking in from their cars, imagining them walking around inside, smelling the greasy popcorn popped in a machine in the store, picking a movie, maybe quickly, maybe after a long debate. I loved the idea of people moving around in the world outside, especially when things inside felt desperate and awful. As long as there was movement, I was not alone.
So far in life, I’ve had a strange relationship with aloneness. Even as a kid, I was more likely to choose being by myself over spending time with other people. (The exception was high school, when I completely believed that not having plans on Friday and/or Saturday made you an aberration.) Now, in my 30’s, aloneness is something I crave like food. I need to be alone a lot, in ways that are complicated and bewildering, I think, to some of the people around me.
I am good at being alone, it’s one of the things I like most about myself. I’m proud of it. Knowing that aloneness is something I’m not only comfortable with, but crave, has meant that I seem to need less of it. As long as I can close a door, or walk away, or sit by myself, I’m fine. Being alone makes me feel powerful and peaceful. It makes me feel like my brain is a gold mine, and I’m so lucky to have this imagination. Being alone has always felt deeply indulgent to me, like a day off or being able to buy whatever you want. I can subsume the need, of course, if I have to, and there’s a part of me that thrives on crowds and bustle and ambient noise. Too much, though, and I get cranky and sad and thoroughly unpleasant.
I am a person who needs a lot of space, not the physical sort, but the distance from others kind. I’m pretty sure I can’t go on vacation with someone because I’d be grouchy if I couldn’t spend at least 60% of the time alone, wandering the streets or reading. This is something I’m pretty sure (very sure, actually) that a few people in my life find this disarming—because eventually you’re supposed to stop being by yourself and find someone to be with instead. You stop being a solitary creature with your own space and start building a space with someone else. And then you add more people to that space. You should do this for a lot of reasons, but also…you don’t REALLY want to be alone, right?
We have bought this, I think, the idea that being alone is something we should avoid at all costs. Women who are alone, who live alone after a certain age, who aren’t partnered, are pathetic and deeply suspicious. Men who are alone are either oversexed, perpetual teenagers, sad, asexual creatures, or creepy perverts. Being by yourself is not a choice anyone in their right mind is supposed to opt for.
Charles Bukowski wrote, “Loneliness is something I’ve never been bothered with because I’ve always had this terrible itch for solitude.” It’s important to know the difference between being alone and being lonely, and they’re often confused. For me, being alone is something I choose, loneliness is the result of being alone, or feeling alone when I haven’t chosen it, but they aren’t the same, and they don’t necessarily lead to one another.
It’s assumed that if you are alone, you must be lonely, or there must be something wrong, especially in a culture in which we emphasize the heterosexual couple as the symbol of the ultimate satisfaction. Spending time alone is another method of developing a relationship with myself, of actively engaging with what I want and what the possibilities could be. It’s a loss, I think, that being alone has become something else that we police socially, because the result is that we miss out on an important part of what it means to live in our bodies.
Chanel Dubofsky is a writer in Brooklyn, New York, and the creator and editor of the Marriage Project, an interview series about marriage in imagination and reality. She has published essays in the Forward, Tablet, Gender Focus and The Pursuit of Harpyness, and fiction at Monkey Bicycle, Matchbook and Quick Fiction. She blogs at Diverge (www.idiverge.wordpress.com).