July 14, 2010

Security blanket.

My first roommate was my brother. He moved in just after my tenth birthday, when he was old enough to sleep alone on the bottom bunk of the bunk-bed we shared in our small family apartment.

Unlike most, I’ve always been partial to the bottom bunk, but for my brother I would make the sacrifice — my little brother was my new roommate, and I was ecstatic to share my space with someone else. (We eventually switched bunks, when he was old enough to climb up the ladder and sleep without the risk of falling off the bed. I didn’t push for the change, but I definitely welcomed it.)

My brother was my roommate until I left for school out on the west coast when I was 17 years old. For the seven years we shared a room, we argued very little, and never really fought over anything that would usually come from being in such close proximity. Part of that may have been because of the special dynamic we share, but a large part of it is because we’re both incredibly at ease living with other people. Having a roommate was not an exercise in compromise for us, it was a natural state of being.

The two years I spent in British Columbia brought with them ten more roommates. College came with more roommates (housemates, apartmentmates, bedmates, etc.), as did my first few years out of school. By the end of it all, I had spent fifteen years with roommates, from the ages of ten to twenty-five; living with people had not just become the norm, but had become my preferred way of life.

I’ve been living alone for the past few years, and while having space to myself has its perks, I’ve recently learned one important thing: I’m not good at being alone.

I don’t mind being alone, of course, but it isn’t a natural state for me.

This doesn’t mean that I need to have someone there, all the time, talking to me, doing things with me — instead, what feels most natural is knowing that someone is there, is feeling a presence (whether that be a housemate in my apartment or a study buddy in the library or friend walking a few meters away as I stroll through the museum) of someone I know, not too far away.

I don’t need to come home and tell my housemate all about my day, but it would be nice to know that someone just might want to tell me about theirs, from time to time.

(I keep flowers all around my apartment as a way of bringing life into my home, but it’s not the same. Maybe I need to get a pet?)

It’s not that I don’t like being alone — I’m just not good at it.

This trait has its perks: I’m incredibly good at making friends with strangers (as anyone that has gone through the archives of this site already knows), I establish good relationships with my neighbors and colleagues, I’m comfortable in large groups, I’m remarkably easy to live with (so I have been told), and the friendships that I make are close, deep, intense, and long-lasting.

The perks of needing people around, however, are often outweighed by the perils: I have trouble with transience, and don’t understand making acquaintances for the sake of appearing friendly — I expect people to continue to engage long after we’ve met. I share too much, and care too much about what others share, often to the point of seeming overbearing and intrusive. I send a lot of messages (without expectation of a response), but this often overwhelms people. I regularly ask to see people and spend time with them (I’m an Asker, not a Guesser, so I ask without expectation), and this sometimes leaves people with a sense of obligation to do things with me.

The big trouble with not being good at being alone is that, by its very nature, it inconveniences the people around you. In some cases, it confounds, frustrates, and upsets them too.

Maybe, in this post, I’ve come across as too needy, too dependent on others, so I feel as though I have to repeat this: it’s not that I don’t like having personal space or that I don’t cherish my solitude — it’s more that I don’t like the feeling of not having someone to reach out to when I need to reach out. I don’t need to go out to dinner or play mini-golf with someone to feel connected; I just need to know that they are there, somewhere. For me, a lot of that comes from physical proximity.

I love reading a book and enjoying the quiet. I much prefer reading a book and enjoying the quiet when someone else in the room is reading a book and enjoying the quiet as well.

It’s a little like a security blanket, I guess.

After fifteen years of having a roommate, after a lifetime of being surrounded by friends and colleagues and family who always wanted to do something to the point of occasional social exhaustion, I’ve become used to having people around me, all the time.

Over the past few years, things have changed. A heavy travel schedule and other changes in my lifestyle have meant that I don’t get to connect with people as much as I would before. Living alone and working from home means I have to make more of an effort to see people. My life has become more solitary, and I have been learning to adapt.

I’ve been adapting well. I’ve been enjoying my tea breaks looking out the window, my solitary picnics in the park on sunny days, my dinners with a book. I enjoy these solitary diversions, but in the end it still feels unnatural, uneasy.

The past week, I’ve spent the majority of my time (when I wasn’t forced to interact with people for work) alone, either in my apartment or out and about in the city. I avoided my email inbox, Twitter, Facebook, my phone, and consciously created distance between myself and the world around me. Solitude seems to serve me well when I am unhappy or need time to reflect.

It was a good week of reflection, but I’m done with hiding now. I realize now that over these past few days, I was getting better at being alone. I wasn’t good at it: it still didn’t feel natural, but I stopped, for a while, feeling uneasy. I was alone — by choice — and I was okay.

I’m probably not going to break my apartment lease to move in with a new roommate anytime soon, and I don’t see myself going back to a lifestyle where I was on-the-go, doing something with someone all the time, so I guess being alone is something I need to start getting used to.It’s time to give up the security blanket. Like anything else, maybe all I need to get better at being alone is a bit of practice.