I was calmly holding it together in the campus psychologist’s office until he asked, “Are you lonely?” Involuntarily, tears started pouring down my face and I stammered that yes, yes, I was lonely. I made the appointment to talk about how I screwed up every relationship I’d been in, but this revelation was unexpected. I did not return to find out how to fix it.
I am independent to the point of fault. I’m an only child whose parents are aggressively self-sufficient, and I was not brought up to need other people. Want to play? Make up an imaginary game! Need help? Pay someone rather than asking a favor from your friends! I am used to being alone and am perfectly capable of entertaining myself with a book, a diary, or swirling my own thoughts around in my head. At 22, I moved across the country to a city where I knew no one. Six months later, I moved to another continent where I, again, knew no one and only sort of spoke the language. And I barely even thought twice about it. Maybe it was that sophomoric idea of invincibility, but I wanted to go, and so I did, figuring everything would work itself out. Another point towards my motto, “This will be good, or it will be a good story.”
Other people seem to think I am brave for striking out on my own, but for me it was just natural. If you aren’t depending on people, why would you be tied to a specific place? I love the freedom of being able to do what I want, and whenever people show a heavy reliance on others I am confused. Why would you only do something if your friends do, too? Why do you need a girlfriend’s input on your outfit to a party? Why do you ask your friend to hold your purse? I take care of my shit, I trust my own judgment and if I want to do something, I do it—end of story.
My friends and boyfriends can sense this lack of need, sometimes to detrimental effects. I think my friends can sense that there is this part of me that will be OK without them, and as a result they hold me at a distance to give space. They definitely don’t feel the need to check in on me, as they might with someone more fragile. Sometimes people don’t understand my willful independence—I had a boyfriend call me selfish when I didn’t rely on him for help: “God dammit Erin, you can’t go through everything in this world by yourself.”
And it’s true. I can’t.
There is a duality to this independence that almost no one sees. I live by myself. I mostly stay in my own office. I communicate via messaging. I haven’t had a real relationship—the kind where there is always the option to wake up next to each other, the kind where grocery shopping is done as a team—in years. I spend so much time in my own head that when I start to spin out of control, there is no one to stop it.
My friends have their own shit. All of them are in long-term relationships and I don’t want to bother them to say I need help. Hell, I survived moving to another country. I am independent, OK by myself, I can survive this. With their ever-present other half and their roots contrasting my freedom, they wouldn’t understand my problems anyway. So what happens when I break down?
I hate that half of my bed is always empty. I hate having no one ask about my day. I hate seeing couples at the store, sharing a cart, arguing over which pasta sauce to buy for their week’s meals, together. I hate that my planning mind is anxiously counting the decreasing amount of time available for each stage in the relationship → marriage → baby timeline. I hate that if something happened to me, or if I did something to myself, the first people to notice would be my co-workers.
Being independent doesn’t always mean being lonely, but sometimes it intensely, acutely does. And when that happens, because of the way I’ve set up my life, I have no one to tell about it.
On the Myers-Briggs test, I am never definitively introverted or extroverted—I need both to be happy. My friend recently asked me to list my relationship needs, and the first thing I said was, “Someone who can leave me the hell alone every once in a while.” I need my space to write, to regenerate, to avoid feeling stifled. But I need other people too, to pull me out of my own spirals, to believe in me, to remind me that I matter.
Life is always a balance of push and pull, and I understand that it sounds like I am asking for a paradox, or being hard to please. But there is one, simple thing that has helped me immensely: Someone asking, “How are you? Are you happy?” And listening to the response. I am incredibly fortunate that both of my parents do this, even though it is not always the best source of relief because there is only so much I can divulge. Sometimes this help comes from unexpected places: A friend I haven’t talked to in years, or a one-night-stand living in another city, whose check-ins saved me more than he will ever know. Even now, my independent self cautions that no one can save you, you can only save yourself, but if you ask me what got me through, I have to admit it was knowing I would have a text when I woke up, knowing someone cared.
I am not asking for help—though this year has been difficult, I am in a much better place. I’m not saying every strong, independent person is secretly in pain. I’m not saying you should be someone’s psychiatrist if they are having serious problems. But I am saying, asking how someone is doing, even or especially if they seem fine on their own, can go a long way—further than you may even be aware.
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