What a lovely surprise to finally discover how un-lonely being alone can be.

– – – Ellen Burstyn

There’s a common misunderstanding about “being alone” vs. “loneliness.” Loneliness is about feeling separate and disconnected. Being alone is about being with yourself and enjoying your own company. I had a lesson about this last week when I was at a dinner party with three married couples. A few of them had birthdays close together and we were all celebrating. They are my inner circle of friends. They have been for many years and I love all of them in different ways.

The hostesses of the party, Ellen and Barbara, were generous as always and laid out a great spread of homemade food. They made everyone feel welcome. I had known Ellen, a superb cook, for years and years. When we first met, we discovered that we had both been born in Worcester, Mass, one year apart, in the same hospital,
delivered by the same doctor.

Rhoni and Cristina were there. I’ve known Rhoni since the eighties, one of those people with whom you make an instant connection the moment you meet, as if you always knew each other and you always will. She makes me laugh, she cooks like a pro, her food is nutritious and delicious, and since I rarely use my oven, I always love eating her food.

Caroline, another great chef, was there with her husband, Allen. I officiated their wedding years ago, I had watched them go through thick and thin together as married people often do, and they had come out the other side, more connected than they had ever been.

Then there was me. I feel loved whenever I’m around my friends, I feel heard and seen, but an unusual thing happened that night. I’m generally fine being without a partner in this stage of my life, but I looked at the three married couples and I wondered why I didn’t have someone like they did. Was there something wrong with me? Was I different or unlovable? Was I difficult to get along with?

The evening was a lovely one. We ate, drank, laughed and shared stories but I felt disconnected. Lonely. I guess no one knew how I was feeling, I covered it up, but when I got home, I felt badly and I began doubting my life choices. I can’t say that I’ve made great choices in men. When I left the ballet at 20 years old, I’d lived in a bubble and due to my unusual lifestyle of chasing perfection and performing with and for hugely talented artists, I hadn’t activated my boyfriend radar. I didn’t know how. When I began living alone, I was chasing excitement and a shiny life. The men I had danced with had perfect bodies and were Narcissistic in nature as most athletes are, so that was what felt familiar. I didn’t know how I deserved to be treated and what mattered in a relationship. I evaluated the men in my life according to how they looked and who was attracted to me instead of whom I was attracted to.

I had a few short relationships with unsuitable men, and I was so terrified to be on my own, I married one of them. He turned out to be a monster, but at least I wasn’t alone. I finally got away, I had to flee, and I had learned a thing or two. I could see that it wasn’t entirely my fault. On top of the unusual life I had led, I lived in a society where being with a partner is considered better than not having one. Some years ago, a woman who was a life coach scolded me for not looking harder for a partner. “You’re good looking, you’re in good
shape and you’re not being proactive enough to make yourself whole. You need to find a partner to fill up the hole.”

It turned out that her husband went to jail for fraud soon after that and she ended up alone, but that isn’t the point here. It’s about the way we are taught to view love and relationships. The truth is that some people are in wonderful relationships, some people are not, some people are terrified to be alone and other people love it. It has nothing to do with what’s right or wrong. Being alone needs work and acceptance, and so does being with someone. Neither state
is better than another. It’s about looking at your life the way it is, not how it was, how you want it to be or how you think it should be. If you choose to change things, that’s fine, but I couldn’t decide what I wanted until I stopped blaming myself and telling myself stories that one way to live was better than another. You can feel whole when you’re alone and you can feel lonely when you’re with a partner who doesn’t listen or understand you.

I had a bout of loneliness recently, I was isolating too much, a tendency that writers have, so I decided to host a gathering for my birthday and invite all the people that I loved and who loved me. Everyone I invited showed up, and as I looked around the room, I was filled up with love and I felt whole. These were my people, my tribe, and I vowed that when I got lonely in the future, I would remember that night. I would remind myself that having community is most important to me, above all else. I need my women who support me, my men who are there for me when I need a male point of view and my sister who opens her heart to me and always listens.

When my second marriage fell apart, I have to admit that I didn’t miss him as much as I feared being alone. I went to the supermarket and I felt a hole in my stomach as I bought food for myself. But I took it day by day and before I knew it, I had accepted my circumstances and I began to find comfort in my new life. I turned to my creativity and in the first few weeks after he left, I began to write a play that I’d been thinking about. I met someone about a month later and when it didn’t work out, I made some guidelines for myself. I would only date people who added something to my life instead of taking something away. I’m reminded of a hit song by Miley Cyrus who had just had a breakup. In her attempt to make peace with herself as a single woman, she sang:

“I can buy myself flowers, write my name in the sand.

Talk to myself for hours, say things you don’t understand.”

Some people call it a revenge song. I don’t. I see it as a statement of female empowerment and independence. I see it as a reminder that if we find ourselves alone, whether we chose it or not, we can be enough for ourselves. We can be alone without feeling lonely and when we want something, anything, we can fill ‘er up by giving it to ourselves.