That May of 2012, I moved into a one-bedroom apartment in North Vancouver. It was the first time I had truly lived alone.
I moved out at 19, but I always had a romantic partner or housemates. I did travel alone before, but on my travels I am always out exploring and observing, which is quite different from just being in your own space.
It was a spectacular revelation.
Most of us spend an insane amount of time with other people. We grow up with our families, then there are more people we meet at school and work. We fall in love, or find friends to hang out with. We are hardly ever alone. When we are conditioned to be so used to having people in our environment, we have no idea what it means to have space.
I never really wanted to have that space anyway. For so much of my life I was trying to find that someone who would complete me, not understanding I was the only soul in the universe who was capable of doing that. I never felt the desire to be alone, because I equated solitude with loneliness. Being with myself exacerbated the gaping hole in my soul — people distracted me from feeling that disconnect, or so I thought.
But that May in 2012, I was ready to start a relationship with myself, I just wasn’t aware of it yet. It was gradual, the discovery of that space. The first morning I woke up all by myself, I felt something was different, but I couldn’t put a finger to why.
I slowly trudged to the kitchen to make myself coffee, I could have crawled if I wanted to. Nobody was there. Wow. Nobody was there. I no longer had to hide in my bedroom listening out to whether my housemates were awake because the last thing I wanted to do is to demonstrate my capacity to be polite in the morning when I have trouble adjusting to my mind and body upon waking up. I didn’t have to be awakened by someone pacing in the room. Nor do I have to deal with the possibility of waking up to someone upset about something. Or feel guilty that I negatively impacted someone’s morning by waking up angry with the world for no apparent reason.
I finally had that space to be me. To be as ugly as I wanted, as beautiful as I felt. To have that non-judgmental space for my emotions and moods to belong to. For my mind to kickstart into awareness before being hustled into a discussion about why I didn’t put my cup back to where it belonged.
I stopped having bad moods. I don’t even remember the last time I had one. It was so simple, only on hindsight. My adrenals have space to recover by not being triggered spontaneously by my external environment all the time. My cognitive load is drastically reduced because when I am alone, I no longer have to think and react to people’s behavior, their body language or anything, really. My stress hormones do not get fired up because there’s something different in the ambience. I no longer feel nervous all the time because there’s so much nervous energy in this world.
By shutting myself up religiously, I have created the space where I can be fully open to people and environment when I desire to. I am able to be present with the people I care about because I am no longer that perpetually stressed-out grumpy person.
I have been living alone since that May. It took me roughly two years, but I gradually healed from all those years of being under the stress I wasn’t even aware it existed. And how could I have known, when I never had the chance to be without it?
“Such an inability to suppress seemingly unnecessary cognitive activity may actually help creative subjects in associating two ideas represented in different networks.” — The Real Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness, Scientific American
Inability to suppress. Unnecessary cognitive activity. Whether I identify as a creative person is up to debate, but here is what I realized. I am ultra-sensitive to my environment, and that is a beautiful blessing and a potentially life-destroying curse. I cannot be the person I am and do the work I do if I am not vulnerably open to what’s going on around me. I absorb everything like a sponge and it silently manifests in ways I cannot imagine.
That also means if I am not careful and I stop protecting myself whenever necessary, I bear a literal risk of burning out my neural network at any given time. I have been there before — you know what is worse than feeling sad? It is when you feel numb and no longer give a shit about anything.
For a person who thrives on her empathy, feeling numb is worse than death.
I spend most weekends alone now. Sometimes I break the rules, for the people and work I love. But I hurry back into my solitude as soon as I can and I am always watching out for signs that I am on the verge of burning myself out.
And slowly, it is no longer about giving myself the space to heal. It is giving myself the space to just be. To write, read, think, be a slob, eat, roll around on my floor, stare open-mouthed at the window, or bite my toes if I want to.
The space to not react to anything, not even to myself, is one of the most beautiful spaces I can ever be in.