By Sara Harowitz
“Do not whine... Do not complain. Work harder. Spend more time alone.”
-Joan Didion, “Blue Nights”
It was in the grocery store that I really felt it for the first time: I’m alone again.
I’d spent the last four years shopping for two, thinking about what he liked to eat just as much, if not more, than what I did. But then we split, and suddenly I was faced with an abundance of choice—I can purchase anything! What was the vegetable he always hated? I’ll buy ten! But truth be told, I felt paralyzed. After being so enmeshed in a relationship, I wasn’t sure who I was on my own.
Photo taken by Lauren D. Zbarsky
There’s not much you can do in those moments except face yourself head-on. I had a simple choice: start crying in the produce aisle, or trudge on through my mud pit, aimlessly picking items and filling my new fridge with them. I managed the latter, and it felt like a small but important win.
A separation is never fun, especially when it involves a living situation; doing it all during a pandemic certainly added another layer of salty complexity. I went from having a quarantine buddy to being a party of one literally overnight. I was forced to spend more time alone than I ever had before, and had to figure out how to be by myself again—how to be alone without being lonely.
Little victories like that first grocery run became central to my healing strategy. Didn’t cry today! Ate three full meals! Reorganized my books! It’s amazing the things that can bring you delight if you let them. I took pride in decorating my new space, sparing no expense to upgrade my things. Some of it was necessary, as I found myself without a coffee table, a mattress, a couch, any cooking utensils—but some of it was pure indulgence, and I did it happily. The trendy Instagram-famous pan? I went there. A new rug, just because? Sure did! An abundance of art; a fancy bath towel? Yes, and yes. Linen bed sheets? You bet!—and they’re like sleeping on a god-damn cloud.
It may have seemed frivolous, but then again—considering how good it made me feel—was it anything other than a form of self-care? I was spending so much time in my apartment, thoughts folding over themselves in my head until I’d baked mental croissants. Why shouldn’t I at least like the way it all looked? Wasn’t there value in that?
There was, and there is.
I started to feel good again, slowly but surely. Then, half a year after my breakup, I was dealt another blow when a dear uncle died. The pandemic meant I couldn’t attend the funeral; I had to watch it on Zoom. I couldn’t be there for my family, and I couldn’t say my own goodbye to him. The emotional and mental work I’d done until that point started to crack, and I felt alone once more. I had to figure out how to move forward—again.
I spent a lot of time in tears, I’m the first to admit. But I also learned to sit with my pain and to let it run its course. Feelings leave when they’re ready, or rather, when we’re ready. In some ways, the forced quarantine during my breakup prepared me for the isolating loss of my uncle. Sure, I took a few steps back, but I was already armored up.
So, I continued to discover simple joys. When I got a hand-me-down espresso machine from my brother, morning coffee became a luxurious ritual (and when I bought a fancy bean grinder, things went to new heights). Seeing the crema form at the top of my Americano still brings me pleasure every day.
I also found refreshed solace in reading. Stories humanize us, and they center us; for me, books became a lifeline and an escape. They were there for me when I needed them most. Instead of watching the Food Network until bedtime (okay, I did that some days, too), I curled up with a book* and let the world melt away. It was, and still is, an important coping mechanism of mine: a way to simultaneously engage and calm my brain, to subconsciously sort through my own problems by relating them to the experiences—lived and fictionalized—of others.
All of us require time to heal. There is no silver bullet, and in my opinion, there is no grand arrival. Emotional wounds don’t disappear the way physical scars do—instead, they change, and we change with them. Spending so much time alone in a period of personal devastation forced me to cultivate my own soft landing, to become my own support system.
This allowed me to see my strength. To embark on a path of exciting discovery that I’m still very much on. To meet myself with fresh eyes and with open arms.
*Start with: “Heavy” by Kiese Laymon; “Split Tooth” by Tanya Tagaq; “Luster” by Raven Leilani; “Stray” by Stephanie Danler.
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