I have had 30 ripe years to think about solitude, all versions of it, whether it is being alone by myself or in a crowd, feeling lonely, traveling by myself, living with family, living with friends, living with strangers, being single, being isolated and more. I have lived all of these, some for extended periods of time (such as living with my family until my mid twenties), other briefly (living by myself for five days and hopefully forever in some fashion).
I find myself thinking about solitude more and more as I grow older. I value it fiercely, it is what keeps me alive, recharged, employed and sociable. Earlier today, I was catching up with a dear friend and we were talking about our homes and spaces and how much we value being able to close the door and keep the world out as we recharge, how even the most lovable of house guests can feel too much. I was joking about my sister’s recent visit, which was five days and felt three days too long.
I was reminded of the time after my father’s death, when my mother needed me to sleep next to her and I couldn’t, I simply couldn’t – I sleep terribly, I have insomnia, night sweats, anxiety dreams. Even the sound of someone breathing too loudly next to me can annoy me. It has taken me a while to be able to say this without hushing myself: if it ever comes to that, I am likely to always need a separate bedroom.
I remember thinking this as I was younger and pushing the thought away, as if it was a dirty thought, comparable to thoughts about masturbation and self-pleasuring. I am not the only one, I have friends who have wondered aloud about this. Hell, sometimes it feels right to even send a lover away for a peaceful night’s sleep. I have at least one friend who navigates the separate bedroom life well.
For me the notion of solitude has been gendered since childhood. Men need to be left alone, they have stressful days at work, they do not like to talk too much. Don’t disturb your father, let uncle watch cricket in peace, let him take a nap. Don’t talk too much, you know that it annoys your father. This was not the messaging around the women in my life.
Talk to your aunt, it is okay to wake your mother up to make you some food, gather in groups and stick together, if someone seems to want to be alone ask them what is wrong. Tell others about your entire day, have no thoughts that are only yours. Traveling alone, living alone, sleeping alone, heck even sitting alone at a restaurant, all of these forms of solitude were frowned upon for women. This is a silent, insidious form of control: if you are never alone, you are less likely to question the things around you. If your thoughts can’t be birthed and formed into complete ideas, then you will stay compliant.
Solitude is privilege and having it is a constant fight, never more so when patriarchy feels threatened. How dare you live alone, it must mean that the world is entitled to your body, you slut? You choose not to get married, how awful, what a disappointment you are to your family? What do you mean you don’t want to share a room, who told you this was allowed?
I now think of solitude as both comfort and defiance. Of course, it comes with its own share of guilt. I am told I am selfish for not wanting to share spaces – I recently shut down the roommate situation in my life and moved into a place of my own. Questions around that included will you be safe? Can you afford it? Do you really need it? The last one was particularly hard to answer. Do I really need this? Will I not live if I live with someone else? Of course I will. But will I live as well and as freely I want to? No. I won’t. Other people may. I suspect a large part of this need for solitude comes from existing on an introverted spectrum.
I have started to guard my life and time far more fiercely: I’ve written about toxic family earlier, I have phased myself out of friendships that had served their purpose, I leave parties and social gatherings when I need to and I intentionally avoid people that use guilt to make you stay places. I have started to accept that solitude is a choice that I will always need for my life, a choice which is unlikely to be understood easily and definitely not forgiven. But like this rented house on the corner of a busy intersection, the memories of traveling solo, this choice is mine and mine alone to cherish.
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