My “28 days of solitude,” as I dubbed it, was an unintentional social experiment I entered into nervously and unwillingly. Immediately preceding, I felt a little like I do whenever I’m about to get blood drawn—reluctant, and embarrassed at my fear of such a minimally invasive yet still technically painful experience.
Allow me to explain.
I got my official full-time job offer literally 30 minutes before the end of the last day of my internship on September 1. As a result, I knew I’d have some time off before my start date to account for new-hire paperwork, background checks, and the like.
It just so happened that the last day of my internship coincided with the beginning of Phil and Wendy’s Mexican vacation, leaving me alone in their (already too-big-for-its-inhabitants) home for the first 10 days of September. My apartment move-in was scheduled for September 10, but my roommate Rob won’t be arriving until September 28. And alas, there you have it: the framework for my 28 days of solitude.
People who live alone are probably a little unimpressed, and I admit this premise would lose most of its significance if I had been working this entire time. But my lack of daily occupation rendered this four-week period a vast, unpunctuated expanse of time helplessly subject to whatever exploits I filled it with.
It was a verifiable crash-course in autonomy.
I move into my first “real” apartment (made real by the fact that I’m paying for it) almost entirely alone, save for the help of my moving crew, and then assembled all of my bargain-priced Amazon furniture equipped with only a borrowed screwdriver and shallow patience. (If only you could have heard the self-talk during the day and a half I spent building all my furniture.)
While setting up utilities, moving in, and buying groceries kept me fairly busy for the first week or so of the month, after I got settled in I had the sickening realization that I had nothing else to do.
Freedom is weird. Most of us spend so much time complaining about our jobs and working for the weekend—but being buried in free time is a little terrifying.
I found myself inventing tasks. I’d go to the store to replenish groceries that were only half-gone in anticipation of running out, as if I wouldn’t have time to replace them once they were actually gone. I’d work out in the morning and at night, just to give myself two solid bookends for the day. I’d wake up at 7 a.m. only to realize I didn’t really have anything pressing to do and sink back under the covers feeling simultaneously relieved and guilty.
I’ve always been a little restless. I find great value and fulfillment in productivity. A handful of people were shocked and disgusted that I wasn’t using this time to travel, but come on—paying for plane tickets now feels unjustifiable, and besides, I had just dumped thousands of dollars into this new apartment. I was not about to (what feels like) waste another several hundred on something that had been and will continue to be free to me in a few weeks.
Not wanting to squander the gift of true alone time, I decided to fill it doing all the things I enjoy doing on my ideal Saturday—wake up early, get iced coffee, run, read, relax—but with a more intentional twist.
I went to Half Price Books, picked up a few hardbacks that looked interesting, and Googled “coffee shops near me.” I made a list of all the non-chain coffee shops in Dallas and picked one per day, where I’d sit and read for hours.
Is this sounding cliché yet? Let’s exacerbate that!
I journaled nearly every day, chronicling my mood in a scientific-adjacent manner. I’d write about my weird concerns, inflated by the amount of time I had to overthink and analyze every passing thought, and then play my own therapist to dissect why I felt that way until I reached a satisfactory conclusion.
It’s not that I didn’t see friends, but my time with them was mostly limited to the weekends and for a couple hours on weeknights.
Oddly enough, I was out one Saturday night when I had a strange realization—I was actually craving the comfort and silence of my new bedroom, a place where I could lay in bed, watch Real Housewives, eat Nutella toast, and avoid meaningless small talk.
I had just spent nearly four days alone in my apartment, venturing out to run the Katy Trail or aimlessly wander the aisles of Target, and there I sat in a crowded bar wishing I was alone. (I warned you I was going to exacerbate the cliché.)
In perhaps the most cheaply symbolic move of all, I bought a book called Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own which I read in public with the book jacket removed so as not to alert the other people around me of my impending insanity.
The book’s thesis was eerily parallel to the micro-life I had made for myself in my little Solo September, in that its author, a feminist theorist, discussed what it’s like for an adult woman to elect to stay single and live alone.
To make a 300-page discourse short, her argument centers around the opening line: “Whom to marry, and when will it happen—these two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice.” It’s funny, too, because she rattles off the “maintenance” young women undergo to ensure they’re ready to be picked like the shiniest apple in the organic fruit bin when Mr. Right wanders into the produce section: manicures, pedicures, blow-outs, facials.
I realized—humiliated—that I absolutely belonged in that camp.
She goes on to note that this same question does not govern the lives of men.
To men, marriage is something much more abstract. A choice to be made, rather than a central theme around which to arrange a life. Call it internalization of cultural norms, but I definitely consider marriage to be one of—if not the—most consequential thing I’ll ever do.
In a lot of ways, I think women feel like everything they do up until meeting “the one” is just biding their time; occupying the days until their “real” lives start. The author, Kate Bolick, is intelligent, gorgeous, humorous, independent, and ambitious, and is unmarried by choice in her forties. Obviously, she lives alone.
I wonder if I could live alone like this forever, I’d wonder, glancing around my room taking inventory of all my inanimate companions. I wondered what it would feel like to come home from work every night for the next 40 years to an empty apartment (except for a few cats, obviously). Would I be content, or would I be mind-numbingly lonely? I really don’t know.
I do know, however, that this little exercise in solitude reinforced one thing for me: to be a functioning adult, you must learn how to be alone without being lonely.
And not just “alone” in the temporary, fleeting sense with the promise of companionship just around the corner: alone in the grander sense, as if this is all there is and all there will be. If you were going to be alone for the rest of your life, would that change how you spend your time now?
When I was young, I remember getting really bored in the summers and whining to my dad. He’d chuckle and tell me I needed to learn how to entertain myself. What wise advice to be serving up to an 8-year-old on a continuous sugar high.
Maybe it’s a little counter-cultural and silly to read one book about the spinster lifestyle and devolve into a panic that I’m not cut out for long-term solitude. After all, marriage is around for a reason. People need companionship. But the notion that maybe it isn’t the most important thing and your choices as a woman shouldn’t revolve around whom you’ll marry and when is an interesting, paradigm-altering concept.
At the very least, it’s good to be aware of who’s in the driver’s seat of your psyche and what impulses are controlling your decisions. Learning to be comfortable and happy alone is more or less a requirement of life today, one that some are able to put off longer than others.
But honestly, now I really do want a cat.
I'm probably just as confused as you are: my thoughts on love and relationships.
The fine print: