The Loneliest Number

[I previously posted this for a brief 10 hours and then had it taken down.  But some private reactions have convinced me that it’s worth publishing, if only to encourage others who struggle with these things that they are not alone.]

Warning: This post is somewhat sad.  However, if you read all the way through it does end on a non-despondent note, faintly redolent of gratitude.

Over six months ago I decided to do something I had never in my life wanted to do: live by myself.  Just looking at those words, and seeing how long ago it was, makes me realize how much easier it turned out to be than I ever could have expected.  Yet, the ease of that change is not what strikes me today, nor is it what I think of when I think about living alone.

One thing that has always intimidated me about living alone is the concern about safety.  As an imaginative person who as experienced far more than her fair share of nightmares, going to sleep in a place where no else lives can be scary.  If there is an unsettling noise, or a hint of danger, one does not have the comfort knowing, “Oh, so-and-so’s in the next room.  You’re okay. You’re not alone.”  One must be the brave grown-up all by one’s self.  That means knowing where one’s self-defense tools are, being ready to call the police, and having no one with whom to confer about what the freaky sounds mean.

Equally if not more distressing is the fact that one could have a nightmare.  When you have a nightmare, you can remain mentally trapped in that framework of terror after you wake up.  Other people are an essential connection to the reality outside of your horrible dream haze.  The sooner you can connect with another person, the sooner you can be freed from those terrors and find enough peace to go back to sleep.  Sometimes, just knowing that the other person is physically within reach (for example, in the next room) can be enough of a lifeline.  It affirms that you exist in the world with that other person – you hold that shared reality up against the crushing world of your nightmares and they start to wither away.

The above concerns have turned out to be far less troublesome than I had anticipated.  The first, fear for personal safety, I mostly eliminated by moving into an expensive but extremely safe apartment.  Locked building access and a high second floor unit give me peace of mind about intruders.  Having a studio allows me to have a good sense of my space all at once. There are no creepy corners or rooms shrouded in mystery at the end of long corridors. Even when I once heard scary bums yelling outside our building in the middle of the night, I wasn’t that intimidated.  I felt secure in my tower of sorts.

As for the nightmares, I cannot account for their lack but I am very grateful.  Perhaps no longer living under the oppression of unknown deception took a weight off my soul.  A new weight of loneliness, sorrow and grief took its place, but it is not nearly so dark, and it gets a little bit lighter every day.

However, I am more apt to think it has been the prayers of those who love me, including those bound up with the beautiful icon of Christ and the Mother of God hanging on the wall by my bed, that have kept my slumber from too much torment.  In any case, I count myself blessed.

If only these pleasant contradictions of expectations were all that I had to share of my experience! (Cue tiny violins.) But if those hurdles were easier to leap past, others seem much taller and more formidable that I had guessed.

The first is coming home to an empty house. The worst is going to sleep in a lonely bed.  In between is the struggle to remain motivated about the daily bits of evening life: cooking supper, cleaning up, settling down for bed. Each carry potential for pain.

During the first thirty years of my life, I had always shared my residence with others.  Most of those years I had my own room, which was good, because I certainly need my alone time and privacy.  My bedroom has always been a sort of sanctuary to me, where everything is just how I like it to be.  But I have always liked knowing that outside the door to that personal space is a home occupied by friendly people ready, most of the time, to interact.  Even if there’s no conversation, we can at least share the same space and air.

I have said before that I am perfectly content to spend much of the day alone, up until about an hour before dinner time.  As the sun goes down and I start to think about cooking, my appetite for companionship increases.  Cooking, eating, cleaning up; these things all benefit from the pleasure of an accompanying conversation.  I cannot tell you how many wonderful, fun, happy memories I have from loitering in the kitchen with roommates as we made our own meals, or how tangentially long chats made the washing of many stacks of pots and pans to pass quickly, even joyfully.

Now, most days, I come home, be it from work, or a run, or the gym, and I confront my kitchen. Usually tidy, always cold, its glistening granite counters glare back at me.  The emptiness looks sterile instead of just clean.  The apartment is a social vacuum.  The barren walls reflect the silence of the room.

I open the fridge.  At most it is a third full, but usually a quarter or less of the space is filled up. There’s leftover food from a meal I got myself to cook but made too large (adjusting back down to food for one has been another transition all its own), a few fresh ingredients, almost always eggs, butter, and milk, and, of course, at least one item that has gone bad. But that’s not the point. The point is that even the contents of the refrigerator are lonely.

Of course, I always eat supper, though in moments of particularly great self-pitying and wallowing I contemplate hunger strikes. But that would only hurt me – it would keep me from the things that I enjoy.

After the meal, usually eaten in silence, I can deal with the mess as I see fit, since I am the mistress of my castle.

The hardest part is yet to come.  One would think that given the fact that I only shared a marriage bed for a little under two years, sleeping alone again would be one of the easiest habits to pick back up.  It is much easier to see how sad and lonely it can be to eat alone, do chores alone, entertain oneself alone, without meaningful interruption of that solitude, especially when that was never one’s previous experience.

But come now, morose author, sharing a bed?  Is that really so hard to get over? You spent approximately ninety percent of your sleeping hours over the course of your life ALONE.  Sharing the bed should have been the adjustment – not getting it back to yourself!

Maybe that is true for many people, but not for me.  The silly thing is: one of the things I looked forward to most about marriage was sharing a bed.  I have always been someone who preferred not to sleep alone, for as a long as I can remember.  It probably started with wanting the protection from nightmares.  Lucky for me, I’m also a heavy sleeper, so it’s rare that movement or snoring or anything else will disturb me in the night. That means I do not experience the frustration that many other people do. (My bed mates might though, as I still talk in my sleep routinely!)

About two months ago I bought a bed. My first REAL bed since I moved to Eugene. I was thrilled about this bed when I bought it. But then, the night it was delivered, I felt cold.  I had rushed with excitement to put the new, washed sheets, fluffy bedding, and four pillows onto it.  Finally! After four years on futon mattresses, and the floor, and five months on an air mattress, I was going to sleep in a proper bed!

I looked at the bed. I felt sick . . .  like someone had gored me through the middle.

I hated it. I did not want to touch it.

It stood there, swathed in crisp clean sheets, feather pillows and a huge down comforter, and it sneered:

I am YOUR bed. JUST yours. You have a whole great big QUEEN-sized bed with special inner coiling and fancy-pants blankets and you DON’T HAVE TO SHARE. Just you. You, you, you, and only you. Ha!

That first hour or two was not fun.  We’ll call my reaction a tantrum and leave it at that. I felt so stupid, so ungrateful, to be angry at my beautiful new bed. But feelings are feelings. (Damn them!)

Fortunately, there was a happy ending.  Pacified by one of my therapeutically long hot showers, I pulled back the comforter and top sheet. The excitement came back. A REAL BED! I was jumping up and down inside with excitement. I got into the blankets, savoring the sensation of my feet slipping through the sheets to the other end of the bed.  I nestled in and covered myself.

Bliss.

The bed has never sneered at me again. But it has hinted many times since then of my solitary nights. So have the twilight, the evening stillness, the knowledge that my chores are done, the very fact of bed time.  These hints, they prick me. Sometimes, like a stubborn little child I threaten to forgo sleep altogether. But, that, like a hunger strike, would be stupid and futile.

I’m not one for regrets because the past is done and unchanging, but the sadness and pain I have encountered as I struggle with living and sleeping alone sometimes make me wish I could erase ever having known life with a partner.

This might be one of my most confessional blog posts, so I would like to close on a positive note: My nights are not all one uninterrupted stabbing of sorrow, despite what’s depicted above.  In fact, nowadays, I would say at least seven out of ten nights at home are good. On some nights, the solitude is downright enjoyable!

Equally as important to note, not all my evenings are spent in solitude.   The truth is, I often don’t cook alone; I make and break bread with Mr. Mountain Man on a regular basis, usually with culinary flair!  I visit friends, I host friends, or we all go out together.  This post was about empty spots in my life, but there are many that are full.

2 thoughts on “The Loneliest Number

  1. Thank you for reposting this, Jessica. Your writing reminds me of a loquacious Emily Dickinson, whose poems I highly recommend.

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