On my last solo walk of this challenge, I thought a lot about solitude.
I was never a fan of it in my younger years. In fact, I was so unaccustomed to being alone that I once asked Matt, before we were dating, whether he would bring a chair into the communal bathroom in our dorm and sit there so I could talk to him while I showered.
This was, first and foremost, a sign of my growing desire to be around him all the time. But it was also a sign of my need for constant social interaction (and, more honestly, distraction).
Having grown up in a family of six, sharing a room until my sister went off to college when I was 16, there was never much opportunity for privacy. I was very active in communal extracurricular activities, so even my time outside of school was filled with opportunities to further flex my social muscles.
Personalities change, however, and as I got older, lived in a single, and had more opportunities to be alone, my raging extrovert tendencies gradually began to give way to more ambivert qualities. I still got energy from being around people, but I also needed a healthy dose of alone time to recharge after pouring so much of myself into those interactions.
As I mentioned in my last post, I often used socializing as a way to try to release my anxiety (and, honestly, I probably used alcohol too frequently to lubricate those social interactions and calm my nerves).
But as my anxiety got worse and the stakes of these interactions got higher, I felt more and more self-conscious about small missteps that I made in my conversations with others. As is common for those suffering with anxiety, I replayed every moment in my head, wondering if people hated me for saying the wrong thing, even though I had no evidence to support that claim.
This made socializing increasingly exhausting, and while I still eagerly did it with friends and family I trusted, I started to avoid situations in which I needed to meet new people or mingle with mere acquaintances. This was a marked change, as I used to be comfortable being dropped into the middle of a party and striking up a conversation with anyone there. I felt like I’d lost a piece of myself, especially as Matt’s personality started to shift in the opposite direction and he became more extroverted. He took on the majority of the responsibility for making new friends for us, and I went reluctantly along for the ride.
One place where I still felt entirely socially confident, however, was in work settings. The constant day-to-day interactions with the same people, in a context in which my motivation to succeed was high, was the right combination of comfort and pressure to help me manage my anxieties and develop strong relationships. Which is one of the reasons why COVID’s shift to teleworking has made things more difficult for me (and many others): without those informal, water cooler interactions, my social habits are rusty and I find myself feeling awkward and self-conscious in digital interactions with my coworkers. This has only been heightened by my insecurities surrounding my bipolar diagnosis and the subsequent encounters I had with them during my episodes. Losing the comfort of those social interactions was a real blow to my confidence, and for a while after my diagnosis I floundered around, trying to make sense of who I was and how I socialized as a person with bipolar during a pandemic.
Eventually, however, somewhat out of necessity, somewhat out of reflection, I started to recognize that becoming less extroverted was not necessarily a bad thing. Although I mourned these noticeable shifts in my personality because they stemmed from a place of anxious discomfort, they also provided me with a new opportunity to explore what it meant to be be less reliant on others and take responsibility for charging my own batteries (insert some joke about being on lithium here).
For me, flexing my alone muscle requires the same kind of intentionality and offers similar rewards for my personal development and growth as flexing my social muscle. I try to spend my time alone in intentional, productive ways, which leaves me with that refreshed feeling that I used to get from socializing with others.
I noticed, when looking at the self-care board I developed for myself, that almost everything on it involves me spending time alone: whether that’s exercising, meditating, or taking a bath. This is challenging to accomplish with a toddler, yet necessary. This is not only true for me: Matt needs his self-care time too. We recognize how important this is, not only for our healing, but also for maintaining the necessary stamina for parenting. So we prioritize self-care during nap time, post-bed time, and in the small windows where we can trade off responsibilities during the day.
Of course, it’s not a perfect system. Our house could be cleaner, and Matt and I could be better about prioritizing quality time together. But they don’t have to be long activities: I might read for 10 minutes or dance for 20.
Even these small doses of solitude help me to clear my head: to grapple with who I am and what my current beliefs are. To reassure myself that I still exist as my own being: despite how often I might be asked to care for the needs of a tiny tot. To use dancing as a way of releasing the pent-up energy that I sometimes don’t believe I still have, and to use reading as a way of reminding myself of the world outside my own brain. To use meditation, journaling, and walking as ways to sort through and understand my own emotions, without needing to filter them for other people’s digestion or comprehension. To use writing as a way to organize those thoughts more clearly once I’ve reflected on them, and to feel a more quiet and controlled social connection by sharing them with others.
I don’t pretend to do any of this perfectly- I still spend way too much time scrolling through my phone in avoidance of true solitude, and I still avoid many of the tasks I know are good for me on the days when I’m feeling lazy. But after 34 years, I think I am finally learning to appreciate solitude for what it is: an opportunity to socialize with and energize yourself. And that’s a beautiful thing.
Thanks for reading,
99 miles down, 1 mile to go