I had roommates all through college and was one of few Peace Corps volunteers who lives with another volunteer. I had roommates in grad school and roommates when I moved to Boston. Then John and I lived together and got married, and now I have two pint-sized, rather demanding roommates in the twins.
The truth of the matter is that I never wanted to live alone. Many people crave their own room in college or their own apartment once they are out on their own. Not me. I am a people-person by nature; I like the company of others and I make friends easily. I like to talk. I find that most things in life that I enjoy are even better when enjoyed with the company of a friend.
There are some less sunny reasons that I have always chosen to live with others. I need to be validated. I have a hard time making a decision when there's no one else to discuss things with. I don't like to be in my own head too much. If I don't have a sounding board, I can think that what's swirling around in my head makes sense, then later I'll try to vocalize it and realize that my keen analysis wasn't so sharp after all.
Over the past few years, I've gotten to know myself better. In part, that's been voluntary. I was pretty hardcore about going to Al-Anon for a couple of years about five years ago, and that was a life-changing, positive experience in which I learned a lot about myself. John's illness and my role as his primary caretaker certainly pushed me into a place where I had to get more confident in myself; I also had to learn more about spending time on my own as John wasn't always up for being social, and, frankly, neither was I.
It was during John's illness, in fact, that I first truly began to appreciate solitude. We were—and the twins and I still are—blessed to have multitudes of amazing friends and very supportive family. When John first got sick, friends and family arrived in droves with food, offers of help, and shoulders to cry on. They never left. We host lots of weekend visitors and we often have friends over in the evenings or on weekends (or we go visiting). While I love all of our friends and our family, during John's illness, it was rare for me to get a moment to myself. In fact, I never got a moment to myself as even when friends were not around, I was always with John and was always thinking about his care. I wouldn't change that, believe me, but it was a constant. Then the twins were born, and their presence and needs were another constant, and the visits from friends and family just increased. Then John got sicker and the visits increased again as people came to say goodbye.
At the time, I didn't realize how much of a toll this lack of solitude was taking on me. I'd never wanted to be alone before, so it had never occurred to me that being alone might be just what I needed. After John's death, I had family or friends staying with me for weeks. I dreaded the first night that I spent alone in the house with the twins. I had a schedule of friends set up to come be with me in the evenings so that I would not be on my own.
I was scared. I was scared that I couldn't handle the twins on my own. Scared to be by myself and have to deal with my feelings. When someone else is around, I hold myself together out of some sense of internal obligation. When no one else is around, anything can happen. I didn't want to find out what would.
Inevitably, I spent evenings on my own with the twins, and then, when they were in bed, time "alone" in the house. At first, I felt a bit at loose ends, so I found lots of chores to keep me busy. I was very good about keeping up with Maddie and Riley's photo website, the laundry was always done, the sink empty of dishes. I cooked special food for the twins. I sent e-mails and returned calls. I sorted junk in my basement and sold stuff on Craigslist.
As time went on, I got more and more efficient with the chores around the house. I now have a schedule for laundry and running the dishwasher, a schedule for prepping M&R's daycare food for the week. At this point, most nights, the kids are in bed by 7:30 p.m. and I'm done with the things I need to do around the house by 8:30 p.m. at the latest. After that, the time is all mine, just me and a dark, quiet house, the thing I long feared most.
But here's the thing: I love that time. I am at a point where I need that time. I no longer stay on top of the photo site, I no longer return e-mails and calls in a timely fashion. I barely remember to pay my bills. Once I've done what needs to be done, all I do is . . . well . . . nothing. I watch TV. I read (usually People magazine, or cookbooks). I eat junk. I play Wii. I wander around aimlessly. I go to bed early, then wake up in the middle of the night to read for an hour. I paint my toenails and take long, hot showers. I think about the things I could be doing and then decide not to do them. I fantasize about how great it would be to have a week of time like this. A cruise, or a stay at an all-inclusive resort. I never used to understand why people traveled alone. Now it all makes perfect sense.
All the years of giving, all the years of being around others, all the years of constant company have finally caught up with me. I still love my friends and family, but I also need to recharge. How long have I been going to individual and group therapy, reading books, and hearing about "self-care"? Years. And it's all finally starting to click.