science of us

What Happened When I Took a Year Off From Having a Personal Life

Photo: martin-dm/Getty Images

The first time I realized I was entirely by myself, I was sitting on the floor of my apartment eating frozen pizza and drinking wine out of a coffee mug. It was ten o’clock at night, and after spending the bulk of the evening trying to squeeze an oversized coffee table out of my car, up the stairs, and into my apartment, I’d given up, leaving it stuck there with the door half open. I blinked back tears, and wished I had someone to call to help me.

It was a small moment, but it was a fork in the road. It could have been a chance to lean into independence: a moment in which I wasn’t alone, but autonomous, part of a  new life chapter in which I was confident and capable and answered to no one about anything.

Except it wasn’t. I didn’t feel the surge of independence I’d hoped for. I was in the middle of what would become a year-long break from having a personal life, and all I felt was alone.

My self-imposed hiatus started off as an accident. If someone had told me at the beginning how I’d spend the next year — no dates, few texts, next to no plans — it would have seemed unfathomable to me. But then the breakup happened, and I set the metaphorical (and literal) phone to vibrate and let myself disappear.

After my first significant relationship ended, it took me a long time to be interested in anyone else. But when it finally happened, it hit me hard: He was my opposite, extroverted and smooth to my quiet and goofy, with a swagger of self-assuredness that made me feel good in my own skin, too. He became my confidence surrogate: With him, I was a girl who could let her guard down and pour dance moves out, lip-syncing Talk Dirty to Me as it played on the radio while we flew down the highway on our first date, talking animatedly to strangers at a party instead of taking up my usual post in a corner. He made me bold.

When he asked me to join him for a weekend out of town after a few months of dating, I was giddy, floating on the Champagne-buzzy euphoria of knowing something was clicking. I’ll just give the quick version of what happened next: I arrived, he stood me up, and — in the kind of grand finale only predicted by terrible rom-coms — I found out three days later that he was on a beach with a girlfriend I didn’t know he had.

And something in me snapped.

In the stories I tell myself, my boundless leap into total self-reliance was spurred less by a relationship gone wrong and more by a desire to change my life, the guy just the final straw. That was partly true: I also had a job offer in a new city, and I’d been feeling for a while that I was growing apart from my friends. So I didn’t think twice about accepting a job in a city I’d only been to a handful of times — I packed my bags, plotted the perfect gallery wall for my apartment, and signed a lease, shoving the memory of the person who made me feel brave into the back of my mind.

Living alone in a new city offered the chance to cut the ties that had trapped me in a cycle of less-than-stellar interactions. Suddenly, I wasn’t socially obligated to hang out with “friends” whom I had little in common with beyond the fact that I’d known them a long time. The divorce from that social circle also dropped me off the radar of the same group of guys that seemed to light my phone up whenever they needed conversation.

Including my ex. A few months into my move, his old standby hit my iMessages: a coy, politically charged text designed to seduce me into debate, my vice. Only this time, I didn’t reply.

I settled into a life on autopilot, working and working out, rising at 5 a.m. to knock out a yoga class before spending the workday managing performance logistics. I pored over books and caught up on movies I’d been meaning to watch.

There were moments of paralyzing frustration and loneliness, like when I received dream career news about a piece I’d written, and discovered I didn’t know who else to call other than my mom. When my car stalled in an area where Uber wasn’t yet mainstream, I popped the hood, gritted my teeth, and reminded myself that I was self-sufficient. But those reminders didn’t come easily: When I was with my ex, I’d co-opted his confidence; once he left, it did, too.

As the year ticked on and fantasies of my fresh-start life — like hosting Oscar parties in my apartment and weekly dinners with a table full of friends — faded away and the loneliness continued to build, a sense of guilt set in, too. I’d wanted to prove that I was independent — so why did it make me feel like this? I was supposed to embrace the ability to go to movies alone, go out to eat alone, enjoy my own company in the solitude of my apartment, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how nice it would be to have someone to do those things with. Admitting I wanted someone felt like weakness, a betrayal to who I wanted to be.

When an acquaintance dropped into town and invited me to dinner, I said yes, and the floodgates opened. “Oh,” she said, shaking her head over our shared bread basket when I told her about my lost year. “Picking who you want to share your life with — not just dudes, but friends — is the most powerful thing you’ll ever do.”

That was my turning point. Taking a break from having a substantial personal life was, in some ways, also a personal reboot — but it took a year to realize I’d also used that break to burrow deeper into so many of my fears: Fear of opening up to people, fear of risk, fear of ending up alone, not by choice.

The habit is still being undone, every time I text a friend first for dinner, say “yes” to a trip or outing, and retrain myself to be vulnerable. Being alone is the simpler option — there’s more clarity, less messiness, and little fear of going all in and getting nothing out. But I’ve also noticed, especially in moments when I’m almost falling off a bike laughing with a friend in a random spin class or just sitting on the couch chatting in great company, that a life full of complicated and chaotic and sometimes confusing people feels infinitely more fulfilling.

These days, my circle of people is small. But when I make it home by myself at the end of an evening, I think of the calmness of those precious moments of solitude — how glad I am to have them, and to have fewer of them.

What Happened When I Took a Year Off From My Personal Life