A Year of Solitude
I stalked out of the bar in a (slightly tipsy) huff.
No stranger to F-bombs and NSFW humor, I’d been taking my drinking buddies’ derogatory jokes in stride, returning their sexist quips with my own sharp jabs. Despite my ability to keep up with the banter, though, the conversation was going nowhere fun.
Eventually, the crude remarks had gone too far, for too long. And though it was a Friday night, prime time for letting loose after a long week, I was done. I grabbed my jacket and whirled out the door with little more than an abrupt “See ya.”
I wandered back to my cheap studio apartment, full of self-pity and loneliness. I’d packed up my wickedly fun (albeit painfully busy) old life and jaunted off to the other side of the planet…for what? For bad alcohol and meaningless bar talk? For relationships with people I totally don’t “get,” and who totally don’t “get” me? I may have been working an uber-exhausting job in the States, but at least I was surrounded by a like-minded, similarly creative and passionate group of friends.
Now, in China, I’ve found myself in the opposite situation: supported by a cushy, well-paying professional position, but—as nearly the only foreign woman in a small city—with virtually no one to whom I can really connect. I’ve begun making friends with a few Chinese women, but the language barrier prevents most of these from going as deep as I’d hoped. The majority of my acquaintances are other foreigners, mostly men, who for some reason (maybe because I am a fellow Westerner?) find it easy—and hilarious—to make jokes about or with me that they’d never make in the presence of a Chinese woman. And thick as my skin might be, the total absence of vulnerability in our conversations has made our little community feel incredibly…false.
Moving abroad has been my first grapple with real, extended solitude. And hey, I’d asked for it. Living in another country has been on my to-do list for the past 15 years—partly for the adventure, the exotic new foods, the strangeness, but also for the challenge. Life as an expat, I knew, would force me to acknowledge a lot of doubts and insecurities I normally drown out with a packed work schedule and social life. It would provide long stretches of space for self-reflection. It would be my time to figure out: what do you want? Really?
But, as is the case with any new experience, mentally preparing beforehand only got me so far. There’s a lot more emotional heaviness to a year of solitude than I’d expected, and learning how to handle that heaviness without the everyday support of my people, my tribe, has led to the cultivation of a few new habits:
1. Enjoy the freedom of being whoever you want to be
After a big move, you have no history—at least, none that anyone else is aware of. You aren’t the meek little mouse in the office, too intimidated by the bigger personalities in the room to offer your own input. You aren’t the people-pleaser in your new social circle, always saying “yes” to what everyone else wants to do so as not to rock the boat. And you aren’t the booty call for that crappy ex who’s been so difficult to get over.
Have an idea during the staff meeting that might be a little risky, but might just be awesome? Toss it out there. Revel in the bravery.
Don’t want to blow another thirty bucks on drinks and obnoxiously loud music at the club? Skip it. Stay home and pop in a movie. Your new pals can do shots and fist pump to their hearts’ content—and you can catch up with ‘em next weekend.
Lock eyes with the handsome stranger at the cafe. Rock the dress you’ve always been too nervous to pull off. For all anyone here knows, you’ve always been exactly who you are today. Savor that freedom. Own it.
2. Throw yourself into the projects you’ve always been “too busy” to do
I’ve read more books these past seven months than I did during the entire year prior. I’ve revamped my website. I’ve taken up yoga, am finally starting to cultivate a morning routine and have discovered umpteen new kitchen ingredients that haven’t yet made it from Asia to North America.
Though I can’t wait to return to the US, life abroad—especially in a city with a lower cost of living—is so much more relaxed. No traditional 40-hr/week job would allow for this much downtime, and every minute of it is worth enjoying.
3. Allow yourself to actually feel sad (or angry, or lonely, or…)
I used to be really good at ignoring my feelings.
Sadness? I’d think. Sorry, nope, that’ll mean I have to wallow. No time for that.
Anger? Nope, not doing that one either, because it means I’m a bad person.
Loneliness? Forget it. Only weak people are lonely.
We attach so much meaning to feelings—if I feel A, then it says B about me.
But really? None of that is true.
Feelings are just sensations. They are responses to thoughts or beliefs. They mean nothing. And it takes having to actually feel them for them to pass through.
If you’re feeling sad, let yourself be sad. And then the sadness will fade. Keep trying to ignore it, and it’s going to get stuck—just like a broken record.
Feelings don’t say a damn thing about your strength or character. They roll in, and if you let them, they’ll roll right back out.
4. Find a balance between being connected to home, and being tethered to home
Totally healthy and refreshing: emailing family members, Skyping with dear friends, hanging the drawing your nephew mailed you proudly on the fridge.
Totally unhealthy and draining: spending four hours clicking through photos on Facebook, mourning over the events you’re missing out on.
You are missing out on things, and that is a part of this move. It’s not easy to accept, but it’s reality. There are birthdays and weddings and new jobs that you will not be around to see. Your people are growing. Their lives are changing.
But so are you, and so is yours.
Be it walking down a previously unexplored street each day, joining a new group on Couchsurfing or Meetup, or just (finally) learning how to order something from the snack shop by yourself, revel in the events taking place in your own life.
Maybe this time is not “perfect.” It has its exciting points, sure, but it’s not the dreamy adventure you’d imagined.
That’s okay. There is beauty in even the darkest moments.
Discomfort means growth. And growth is good.
Claire Suellentrop is an eating strategist + health coach. She believes eating well and having a really good time need not be mutually exclusive, so she helps professionals in music (and other creative industries) maintain their health and sanity at Eat Well. Party Hard. Her ebook, a DIY approach to taking care of your body, is available now.