Lessons learned from living alone

by Sarah Luna

I’ve been asked by a few people for advice about living alone versus living with others during the critical first year after college.  It is crucial in this time of transition to understand what we need from a living space.

Living alone is a unique experience; most women especially don’t get the chance to live alone. They go from living with family to living with roommates to living with a spouse. This is perfectly fine, of course; it simply meant that I didn’t have anyone to get advice from.  Now that other people are asking me, I will try to give a candid assessment.

Living alone means that you have to provide for yourself emotionally. I depended on my roommates for encouragement, so I had to learn to encourage myself. Back in February I wrote: “A big part of living alone this past year has been learning to affirm myself. Previously, I had always had family and close friends living around me to encourage me when I struggled and to congratulate me when I triumphed. I depended on them for that positive feedback and reserved my own thoughts for focusing on how to improve. Now each day I come home to a house occupied only by my thoughts. At first that meant I came home to a house of practical criticism. I would analyze every part of my day, pinpoint my shortcomings, and create a plan to improve the next day (this works wonderfully, by the way). I realized over time that I had to take responsibility for recognizing my accomplishments as well–that I needed to cultivate a sense of proper pride as well as the appropriate humility.”

Living alone reveals who you are when no one is watching. Some of this knowledge is flattering: I am strong; I am well-prepared; I know how to run a household. Other knowledge is not: I waste time when no one is watching; I leave dishes in the sink for days; sometimes I skip meals. The only person holding me accountable is me.

Living alone forces introspection. “I’m learning to identify and acknowledge my own feelings and, consequently, express them more often and more effectively…I often forget that my new friends don’t know much about me yet.” They can’t know what is important to me unless I open up. Likewise, I have to define what is important to me before I can express it. This became especially apparent around Christmas time last year. Anyone can celebrate when there are people around, but does Christmas still have meaning when I am alone? If so, how do I celebrate when I’m alone and any extra time has to be stolen from sleep?”  In other words, I learned why I do what I do.

Living alone can be scary. There are noises and shadows and spiders. Sometimes the smoke alarm goes off in the middle of the night. One time I thought the carbon monoxide light went off (it didn’t, but I was really scared). If something happens, nobody will know. I got stuck in a snowstorm coming back from NYC with SP and friends. We had to stop in Binghamton for the night, and SP said: “Ok, everyone, make sure you let your roommates know where you are so no one worries!”  And I just looked at him and replied grimly: “I live alone; if I died, no one would know.” He was rather appalled.

Living alone is liberating. I get to define every part of my household. I set the thermostat. I choose how to lock my doors. I organize my kitchen in a way that is logical to me. I choose when to invite people over. I can stay up as late as I want studying or reading or writing or talking on Skype without worrying about disrupting anyone else.

Living alone reaffirmed my need for a community. I appreciate my colleagues and my ballroomies so much more because they make up my only social interactions. I cherish time spent around other people in a way that I hadn’t before. I value every phone call and Skype date and lunch plan and birthday celebration. Making a home on my own gives me crucial “me time” that charges me for interacting with others.

Living alone is a sanctuary. On the hardest night of my most challenging week, I came home and cried for two hours without holding anything back. There was no one to be strong in front of–no one to “be fine” in front of. My apartment gave me the time and space to sort through my thoughts and understand what I was feeling. 

To finish up, living alone has been one of the most rewarding parts of first year in Ithaca. During a year when I have had to define my academic and social purpose, it has been invaluable to have a quiet space of my own for reflection and prayer. But it is difficult…so difficult to be alone all the time.

Tomorrow, I’ll follow up this post with a list of considerations for people who are thinking about living alone next year. 

Let me know what you think.