Ever since I was little, I've had a predisposition for wanting to be alone. My first word was "no," and one of my earliest memories is of my mom driving me to a park one summer afternoon and me refusing to get out of the car until all the other kids joyfully playing on the monkey bars had left.
I started out this way — an only child, a Taurus, a loner. And now, as a 42-year-old woman and a writer who works from home, I am still this way.
It seems as though my prepackaged introvert costume fits too well to ever take off. This is my role, the only one I've ever played. It's natural. It's comfortable. It's what I know.
But sometimes I wonder ... is it healthy?
When I was in college, over 20 years ago, I woke up one morning and found that I was no longer able to go outside and get the mail.
I was in school for journalism, at a university that was quite literally in the middle of a cornfield in Illinois, and was already in the habit of treating class attendance as a loose suggestion because, well, journalism. I'd show up for tests and hand in assignments, and that was pretty much it.
Every day I told myself that I opted to stay indoors rather than go to class or, well, anywhere because I liked it in there. I had my books. I had my records. I had my live-in girlfriend. I was comfy. I was a "Gilmore Girls" episode.
Then, one morning when I went to open the door to check the mail, I started shaking. And then crying.
I suspected something might be wrong. Was I lying to myself? Maybe I wasn't just a "loner" — maybe I was actually sick. I made an appointment with my school's shrink and walked out an hour later with a prescription for Paxil, an SSRI marketed toward people with social anxiety.
I know medications work for many people, but what that particular one did for me was cause me to gain a bunch of weight and develop an extreme shopping addiction — so extreme that when it was at its worst, I was ordering video cameras (LOL, remember those?) off the internet and then throwing them away, unopened, in the dumpster outside so my girlfriend didn't catch on.
Sure, I was able to get the mail again, but I now had a whole new heap of issues.
Instead of going back to the shrink or trying a different medication, I flushed the ones I had and did what I've always done: I told myself it was no longer a problem. And, just like magic, it seemed to all go away.
But as we all know, things don't just go away.
Flash forward 20ish years
I'm happily married. I own a house. I have two cats and a puppy. I'm varying levels of successful. And sometimes I don't leave the house for a week. That's seven days and seven nights. And it feels like nothing to me.
I get up, have coffee, read for an hour, work from my office, exercise. My wife comes home, we have dinner, we watch TV. Sometimes we have beers and hang out in the backyard. This feels like a life to me. Some people live theirs *out there,* but I'm living mine *in here* — it's just me being me.
The image I have of myself is that of a '90s Winona Ryder. Smoking and sarcastic. Loved for her sassy way of being closed off yet still, somehow, charming. Part of the world, inexplicably, while holed up in a dark room reading books for hours.
Then there are the times when I receive a text that starts with "What are you doing tonight?" and ends with "Wanna hang out?"
I feel severe waves of pukey anxiety that don't go away until I reply with some excuse as to why I can't. And it's a temporary fix, because I know another invitation will be just days away (although, by this point, I don't know why they still try). And then I'll have to thwart that invite to preserve my comfy but carefully monitored insistence on being as alone as possible.
But sometimes — god only knows why or how — I DO make it out.
Every so often I'll get one of those texts, and maybe it'll hit at a point in the day when I've already showered and gotten some work done, I have money in the bank that I can spend, and I have literally no excuse but to say yes. So I'll say yes. When I agree to plans, honestly, it feels terrible.
If I make a plan, acquiesce to a plan, or get guilted into a plan, I will basically not be able to think of anything else for whatever span of time ramping up to said plan. I will write "blah blah blah with blah blah blah" in my planner on the date for the plan and then be a nervous wreck about it for literally no reason.
It could be anything — getting drinks with someone I genuinely respect and adore or meeting up with a client or family member who's coming to town for the weekend. I will think of whatever excuse I can to get out of it, and sometimes I'll get out of it.
But when the plan does manage to take place, independent of my internal interference, do you know what happens?
I have fun. I *always* have fun. And I feel better afterward.
Going out gives me a story to tell. It gives me something to laugh about or think about. It helps me maintain friendships, which I honestly wish I'd let myself have once in a while. It feels like a genuinely healthy thing to do.
And then, as is my way, I go right back to never wanting to do it.
It's like the main stressor in any social situation isn't necessarily the situation itself, it's me. I am the "self-care" queen, leaning on the right to skip out on going to an important event my wife helped organize because self-care.
Alone time "comes from a nurturing place within ourselves," Jennine Estes, MFT, a marriage and family professional counselor at Estes Therapy in San Diego, tells HealthiNation. "(B)ut we also know that we are social creatures — and too much time alone is actually very damaging to our mental health."
Still, my very cells scream, "Stay home. Stay home forever."
I do not identify as a "social creature." It's the way my brain chemistry still zigs instead of zags, playing sneaky bitch.
Picture a cartoon of a snarky, eye-rolling brain. Gray and wrinkly. Chain-smoking. Grumbling something along the lines of "Why fight your own nature? Cancel everything. Die in this house like the modern Emily Dickinson you are!"
I want to side with that cartoon brain. I think she's hilarious. But I remind us both that if we were doing things right, we would have had more than two people at our wedding.
Where does self-care stop and self-isolation begin?
Social worker and life coach Melody Wilding, LMSW, addresses this head-on in a 2018 Medium post, saying "just because something feels good doesn't mean it's helping. Very often, self-sabotage masquerades as self-care." For me, "self-sabotage" is the takeaway here.
As wonderful of a friend as self-isolation has seemed to be, it's taken from me much more than it's given. I've lost friendships, romantic relationships, and even jobs due to not being willing to get out of my own way.
My interests and idols (movies about misanthropic eccentrics, a general love of early goth culture, snarky lesbians, etc.) have reinforced my isolating tendencies for my whole life. And it's taken 42 years for me to even begin learning that only fictional characters can thrive this way.
Now, when I recognize that I'm going to be stressed out no matter what, I take a deep breath and do the thing anyway. I pay attention to my body and my brain. I operate now from a place of knowing that I'll never feel comfortable and push forward from there.
I'm still prone to hyperventilating when confronted by even the most base level of human interaction, be it taking a phone call or checking out at the dollar store down the street. But long gone are the days of not being able to go outside to get the mail.
It hasn't come naturally. I may not have thrown an unopened Amazon package in the trash since college, and I can stay indoors for a week and feel fine, sure.
But the work for me is in keeping an eye on that and nudging myself, bit by bit, to get out there more, if for no other reason than that the last 20ish years, between my darkest days in college and now, feel like the blink of an eye. We have only so much time, and there's no certainty in just how much time that will be.
So for the rest of us, especially me, it's healthy — nay, necessary — to open the door and let the fresh air blow away some of the toxic clutter that's built up inside. You just gotta open that door. And I do now, about 45% of the time. Which is a step in the right direction.