All Alone? Hug Your Inner Child
Now’s the time to look in the mirror and say, “Everything is going to be alright.”
I live alone. I live in a 23-foot recreational vehicle with no home base, other than my friend’s place, which I picked as a mailing address solely because she let me and because she lives on Independence Road. I travel alone. I spend a lot of time alone. I enjoy playing my ukulele alone. I like going to the beach and swimming in the ocean alone. I am sitting here, writing alone. I’m happy.
When I was a child, I was pretty happy, too. I had an older brother, but he never wanted to hang out with me. I had a big circle of stuffed animals and an imaginary friend (her name was Sally) as company to roam my safe, suburban, American neighborhood. I picked wild raspberries, watched tadpoles in a nearby stream and tasted the sweetness of honeysuckle plants.
It was, as Jimmy Buffet once sang, “before I knew what cash flow meant.” It was also before I racked up the life experiences that make me feel bad about myself. You know what I’m talking about, because I know you have them too.
We all have our traumas. We all have the pain that we have been working to repress or forget or “let go of.” Even those with the best of childhoods have things that are holding them back from realizing their wildest dreams. It’s rare indeed to find someone who is living their best life, being content and blissful every waking minute. Are you one? I’m not.
As an adult when you’re alone, you have a few options for handling whatever life throws at you. You can drink copious amounts of alcohol or binge endlessly on tasty snack food. You can dive deep into work and try to make as much money as possible, later blowing that hard-earned cash on stupid stuff delivered to your doorstep. You can allow yourself to get pushed or pulled into drama on social media. Or, you can spend energy getting to know and love yourself.
I’ve been practicing being alone (and healthy) for what feels like my entire life. Other single people I know have been dealing with the loneliness of the coronavirus pandemic in much different ways. This may be the first time they’ve really been alone. A lot of my friends aren’t doing so great, mentally.
I know because I’ve been in that lonely space. I lived by myself (with a dog and a cat) in a farmhouse in the countryside of Argentina for three months. Then I moved to New Zealand, where I rented a car and drove around that country for weeks by myself. I lived just outside Seoul, North Korea, where no one around me spoke any English and looked at me quizzically. I signed up for yoga classes in India by myself, toured the Galapagos Islands solo, took myself out for vegetarian food in Uruguay and watched many romantic sunsets over oceans with just me to hear me sigh.
“Wow, you’re living the dream,” well-meaning friends have said. But many simply didn’t know how challenging it is to be by yourself for days on end–until now.
It’s actually not uncommon for me to have a hard day, when my mind wanders back into another time. Maybe I’m lost in thought about a failed romantic relationship and the hopes I had attached to that person, who is now in love somewhere without me. Maybe I think about my less-than-perfect family and how I struggle to feel accepted. Maybe I simply feel sorry for myself when something doesn’t work quite right.
Like the time I was out for a run on the cobblestoned roads of Guatemala and tripped, bloodying my hands and muddying my clothes two miles from home. Or the time my cell phone was stolen, or that dirty old man grabbed my breast, or when my ex-boyfriend scared me so much I broke my toe trying to run away from him.
If I’m not careful when left alone with my thoughts, I’ll start to wonder why so many things go wrong. Maybe I deserve these problems. Maybe I’m not worthy of love or respect. Those are the kinds of feelings that are easier tuned out with a stupid television show or a frothy IPA. But I’d rather take a good, hard look at the situation.
When I feel sadness encroaching on my day, I give myself a full stop. I say aloud, “Oh, I feel some sadness coming up.” Then, normally, I cry. I give myself permission to cry, sometimes loudly, gasping for air as snot runs down my nose. I am alone, after all. Oh, woe is me! The whole process rarely takes more than 10 minutes.
That’s often enough for me to move through the emotion and on to the rest of the day, which is filled with whatever I want to do. But sometimes, it’s not that easy.
Recently, I worked with my friend Le Annu, who I had met while living alone in Bali. She does cool things like facilitate ecstatic dance events and, interestingly, shadow work. Shadow work is something that I would recommend for everyone.
I told her that I was feeling bad about myself. I was living in a small room within a share house in Colombia at the time, and I just felt low. I had gained a few pounds and was lonely. She asked me when I first felt like this. Without much thought, I flashed back to an experience I had when I was in fourth grade.
Some girl in my class, someone who I considered a good friend and with whom I had just returned from sleep-away camp, had been nasty to me. She confronted me outside of school one afternoon. She called me fat. She declared that she and my other friends weren’t going to hang out with me anymore because I wasn’t good enough. And that’s exactly what happened for three months, until my mother finally couldn’t take me crying all the time and called the girl’s mother. The next day, the girl acted like nothing happened.
Le Annu asked me if I wanted to say anything to the fourth grade me. I first wisely replied how I understood why the girl was so mean to me. Hurt people hurt people, right? Le Annu pressed gently, encouraging me to be the caring adult that I needed at that time. So, I imagined my adult self in that school yard. I told my young self that I wasn’t fat. I was beautiful. In fact, the girl was just jealous because I had won an award at sleep-away camp and she hadn’t. I deserved that award, I reminded myself. I did a good job. A true friend would be happy for me, and that’s exactly how I’ve been my entire life when someone else does well. I reminded my little girl self that it’s better to be kind than “good enough” for people who aren’t. I imagined giving myself a hug. It felt really good.
It’s not every day that you can give your inner child a hug. Or is it?
With “shelter in place” mandates happening throughout the globe, people are spending a lot of time alone with themselves. And they’re scared. They’re scared to be alone and, potentially, die alone. They may be avoiding some tough emotions by endlessly scrolling social media or drinking too much or stressing out.
It’s an overwhelmingly hard time, mentally, for everyone of all ages–but especially for those who are alone. There’s no one to hug us. There’s no one to say the kind things we all need to hear.
For years, there was a part of me who believed that mean girl. When romantic relationships didn’t work out, it was a self-fulfilling prophesy. Maybe I was too fat or not cool enough to hang out with. I had given a lot of my power away, and that made it hard to be alone with myself. It felt unnatural to support and love myself when the going got tough.
But, during the last years of solo travel, I gained confidence in my ability to land on my feet. I learned to care for myself, because there was no one else to do it. I wasn’t too fat to hike up a volcano or run 5K. I could SCUBA dive with hammerhead sharks and practice headstands in yoga class. I have a lot of friends who enjoy my company as much as I enjoy theirs. You know what? That mean girl was wrong.
We all have a story about ourselves in our minds, and it’s not always a nice story. When people ask us simple questions about ourselves, we often say the same, well-rehearsed thing. It’s easier to just decide that some things are true, even if they don’t make us feel good. It’s so easy to be triggered, especially in a world filled with anonymous social media debates pulsing with ad hominem insults. I get angry. I get frustrated. I get sad.
But that sadness started with a foundation that was built 30 years ago. If I didn’t have a part of me that lacked confidence and support, I would easily laugh it off when someone disrespects me or fails to see my value as a human being. On its face, I know that’s their problem, not mine. And yet, I have those hard days. It is my problem.
The shadowy past creates a dark pathway for the hard emotions we face as adults, making it difficult to be alone. If you’re alone now, it’s time to shine some light on the shadows. Now is the time to reach out to the child within and give her a big hug.
Tell yourself that everything is going to be alright. Go on: Look at yourself in the eyes in the mirror and tell yourself that it will be alright. Do it if there is no one else there to say it. Do it if the people who are there aren’t saying it. Do it if you’re afraid to ask others to say it. Do it because it’s true. It’s going to be alright.