Anything to avoid running into myself
This piece is in no way meant to diminish the very real struggles that many people are experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic. I write now about my own tribulations while acknowledging that I am incredibly privileged in this crisis.
I never learned how to be alone. Before COVID-19 burst onto the scene, the prospect terrified me. Who was I to spend time with myself? What could possibly be so interesting about me that I would want to prolong the lifetime I was already forced to entertain my own body?
In the before times, I tried to be out the door by 9 am; return home close to midnight. I stayed occupied between classes by spending hours at the gym, at the library, at coffee shops. I joined unnecessary meetings and always volunteered to stay late… anything to avoid running into myself. I biked home when even Starbucks had kicked me out, only to fall into bed completely exhausted. Not a moment of my day was left unoccupied.
But that was before. Before the word “social distancing” crept into common discourse, and the pit in my stomach began to grow. It grew, and it grew until the deepest part of my belly knew it could no longer be run from. The notion of staying inside was too much to bear. I felt trapped: my least favorite feeling.
Facing the prospect of isolation, I could not remember the last time I had spent even one day alone. In the before times, in college, I stayed on campus all day, parties and bars in the evening, letting different friends and lovers spend the night. Plus, my best friend was my roommate. She’d wait for me on the couch when I got home and wished I’d stop bringing so many people over. She used to stare at me in equal parts awe and disgust: “How are you not exhausted?”
I’m an extrovert! I would loudly proclaim as I spent my days balancing three internships, four clubs, and the class I was teaching. Can’t you see we’re just different?
But the truth was, I was exhausted. My face hurt. I hadn’t watched a tv show in four years. To sit alone and stare at a screen? Not even the most intense drama could distract me from the thoughts bouncing up and around. So I’d join another group, take on a new challenge, jump through the next hoop… anything to keep the thoughts at bay.
During this time, there were many fragmented parts of myself that refused to talk to each other. I excelled in school, led workshops for thousands of students, and mentored dozens more. I taught my own class, was well on my way to graduate school, and at the end of the year, I was asked to be commencement speaker. My 21-year-old self absolutely dominated. But when I was alone, I was somehow five years old again, unsure of how to feed myself or do the most basic tasks. I struggled to fall asleep, binged on sugar to try and fill the void. That part of me barely showered because I was so scared to be in there alone.
Sometimes I watched these parts of myself struggle for control. I had no say in it. I sped through the day with precision and strength. I felt like I was on another level sometimes, crushing my goals with ease. At night, I crumbled. An absolute mess. A child. I could not stand to be with that child so I problem solved with people. Not a moment alone. More people, more parties, more excitement, more lovers, more problems to solve. It was never enough.
In my senior year of college, I fell in love. What a relief to never have to be alone! This man came over every night, saving me from myself. It was so chaotic and all-consuming. I experienced a level of exhaustion I had never known. On top of classes, internships, a job, partying, and teaching my own class, I now had screaming matches and combatting fiery jealousy to participate in every night. Not a moment to myself, he was always there in my bed and in my dreams. I was terrified to upset him, terrified for him to leave. I felt suffocated and empty, but I would do anything to avoid spending time with myself.
“Why are you with him?” My best friend would ask me as I sobbed on our vodka stained carpet, in her car, in the bathroom of clubs. “Please leave him.”
I love him! I would blubber, Can’t you tell this is my soulmate?
But the truth was, I was just terrified to be alone for even one moment. The nights he stormed out angrily were the nights my thoughts rattled in my head. They were so loud I’d get headaches, and only begging for him back would soothe them.
We graduated. Rented an apartment together. Tried to get jobs. I got one and quit after five weeks. I was tired. He couldn’t get one, so we traveled around the country together; got tired of each other… he finally found a job.
While he was working, I waited for him with bated breath, dinner on the table right when he got home. Weekends were my favorite because I’d wake up, and he was still there. It was so comfortable and so lonely. I thought, if I’m this lonely with another person right here, I would never survive actually being alone.
And with that fear making all of my decisions, I stayed in that relationship 12 months too long. “You’re so unhappy,” my mom would tell me. And all I could feel was mediocrity and the terror of the potential of solitude.
But that was all before.
In the after, there was social distancing and my new household of one. My school announced all in-person activities were cancelled, and I starred at the tiny apartment that I would finally have to make my home. I wanted to bolt, but there was nowhere to go. I guess that was the point. The force of isolation stared me dead in the eyes, cackling, understanding that after all these years, it had won.
In my new one-bedroom apartment, we eyed each other. It was a tentative thing, not much anger there, just a lot of fear. But even the fear melted a bit when I realized I had never really looked at myself before: didn’t even know what I was so scared of in the first place. So I peeked under the curtain.
That’s when the thoughts came, like a tornado. Every single thought I had stuffed away for the last 15 years rolled out, creating a blistering storm in my brain. I swear, I fell to the ground. Lay my head on the cold hardwood floor and begged those thoughts to leave me alone, but they wouldn’t. They grew stronger, and they morphed: into feelings, into memories. Light blues and deep reds poured under my eyelids and shook me. Fear made me want to bolt. Shame and guilt pinned me there. I lay on the ground for hours. I thought this is never going to end.
It didn’t end, but it momentarily subsided. I sat on the couch with myself, eyes darting back and forth.
Who are you?
But it was clear that neither “me,” nor the me that was observing myself, knew the answer to that. I sat on that couch for a very long time trying to figure it out. I lit a candle, the first of many. Such a simple gesture, but in the before, lighting a candle was a luxury I never afforded myself.
Okay, so it was clear I didn’t know myself. I spent a few weeks in panic; even drove across the country once, the thoughts haunting me. I tried to leave them in different states, but they were travelers too. My dreams got so vivid. Every part of me demanded to be heard, to be felt, to be seen. I spent weeks listening. Listening to my thoughts and feelings was a full-time job. I got migraines, but I also felt relieved.
As I began to spend this mandatory time alone, allowing myself to think and feel, another glaring issue emerged: I had no idea what I liked. I didn’t know how to take pleasure outside of time spent with others. I did not know how to enjoy or make myself feel seen. Back in my apartment, we sat on that Wayfair couch, confused. What do people do with themselves?
I went for a walk. I had always liked walks. And so it started with the trees in autumn.
I had never noticed them before.
The bright colors! Red, yellow, and orange just everywhere. I hadn’t seen anything like it.
I ask my friends: were the trees always this beautiful? This bright? Full of color??? Did we have autumn last year? They laugh. Yes, of course. The trees look like this every year. But I had never noticed before.
Next came the Christmas lights. A Jew marveling blown up Santas and light-up reindeer. But I had never seen such a beautiful display. I walk around my neighborhood all night, marveling at display after display of little baby Jesuses and trees covered in a rainbow glow.
Was it always like this? I ask my friends again.
And again, they laugh. It’s Christmas, they say: this is what happens during the holidays.
But it had never happened for me.
I couldn’t remember the last time I had marveled at the beauty of my surroundings, but, suddenly it was a fun activity to do with myself. We picked out our favorite installations in the neighborhood and returned to them nightly.
The next thing we did was lay in bed; after all, there was nowhere to go in the mornings.
I used to be so ashamed to lie in bed all morning alone but could do so easily with a partner. Why? Now I lay there for hours or make myself breakfast and bring it back. I make MYSELF breakfast in bed. I like omelets.
Slowly, I get to know myself, and as I do, the memories start to come:
When I was little, I spent too much time alone. I was an only child. It wasn’t my choice. To tolerate it, I had to fragment into a thousand different pieces. I had to become a million versions of myself and nest my best selves into others. But now I’m an adult.
The adult me makes a home out of my space, a home I never had. She gets excited to take baths and to read books and make candles out of beeswax. She likes to make desserts and then clean the kitchen. She likes to look at old photos. She writes these articles and works through the shame of exposing herself.
And with it, the parts of myself begin to unite. The 24-year-old and the five-year-old make a pact. They talk so much that they become the same person… me.