Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time alone.
If that sounds bleak, it isn’t. At least, not for me. Most of the time, I like being alone.
There’s something inherently taboo about enjoying your own company. The carpe diem attitude championed by the self-help industry implies that choosing to be alone is somehow a cop-out, that in order to be making the most of our lives we need to be stuffing every second with brunches and first dates and weekends away and big nights out.
The truth is I get the same satisfaction from the prospect of a weekend without plans as I do from a brand new notebook and a collection of freshly-sharpened pencils. Both contain the delicious sense of possibility.
However, there’s a world of difference between choosing to spend time alone and having solitude thrust upon you. It’s the difference between being alone and being lonely.
The loneliest I’ve ever been was when I was living in Madrid. It was the 3rd of January 2013. I had 24 long hours between my boyfriend flying back to the UK and my friends arriving back in Spain. I was in a city of 3 million people and I didn’t know a soul. I ugly-cried solidly for hours, forced myself to go for a walk, felt even worse, came home, watched a season of Friends and cried myself to sleep. Yet, the next day, I woke up feeling absolutely fine. I was alone, but no longer lonely.
That’s the thing about loneliness. It hits you like a sharp shove to the chest, a blow to the ribcage that knocks you sideways and leaves you struggling to breathe. Sometimes it hangs around for days, weeks, years. Other times it pushes past you roughly and backs away, disappearing before you’ve had a chance to process what you just experienced.
Loneliness is becoming something of an epidemic in the modern world. Although the Internet has led to us being more connected than ever, being constantly plugged in only serves to emphasise how isolated we really are. This is because loneliness stems from the quality, rather than the quantity of social interactions. One brief conversation can do more to dispel loneliness than fifty Facebook likes.
On my part, the relationship between the Internet and loneliness is a complex one. Skype got me through some of the most difficult periods of my year abroad. It has allowed me to remain close with my best friend after she moved to the other side of the world, to catch up with my sister who lives in Paris and to speak regularly to my boyfriend when he’s travelling.
On the other hand, a quick browse of Instagram or Facebook can make me forget that I actually enjoy spending time alone. It’s all too easy to lose your sense of self down the rabbit hole of carefully-curated digital memories.
For me, the key to tackling loneliness has been to spend a little time alone every week. As with any habit, the more you do it, the more natural it feels. Sure, I occasionally find myself googling ‘activities for one in London’ and cursing my own vulnerability as I devour listicles chirpily telling me to take myself out to dinner (‘bring a good book and you won’t even notice the judgemental, pitying stares of the other diners!’). But the main reason I love alone time is the pure satisfaction of ending a weekend knowing I’ve spent it in exactly the way I wanted. For a lifelong people pleaser, that’s a feeling that’s worth the occasional black mark on my search history.