I’d been so excited about moving into my own place. It was 2016, and I’d just landed back in London after a couple of years abroad. Bar a short stint in my early twenties, where I’d technically lived by myself but practically lived at my boyfriend’s place, I’d always lived with housemates, friends, or family – in other words, so close to other people as to be practically tripping over them. But during my last overseas placement, I’d had a taster of what it could be like – a large apartment, with space to sleep guests, a kitchen to myself, and a private balcony. Granted, my door was always open and a steady stream of friends and colleagues meant I was never really alone. But an idea had been planted.
Back in London, I looked at what I could afford and found a small place south of the river. I was thrilled, and couldn’t wait to move in. My parents came to help, my friends trekked south to see me. I got to know the neighbours. A new job started, and life seemed to be moving forward. I relished the freedom to organise things in my own way – to buy furniture to my taste, to pack the fridge full of the things I liked to eat, to have sole use of the remote control in the evenings. I loved coming home to my cosy flat, shutting the door to the outside world, and being completely at peace.
Then, just three weeks after the move, a tragedy happened. My wonderful, beautiful Dad died at the age of 67, suddenly and with absolutely no warning. I was (and still am) absolutely devastated – and plunged headfirst into overwhelming grief. The first few days and weeks passed in a blur. I remember the enormous kindness of people who went above and beyond. I remember my memory and my appetite shutting down, and the simplest tasks seeming complex. And I remember the sheer exhaustion, that seeped into my bones and made even climbing the single flight of stairs back at the flat seem like Everest. I would often come home, close the door, and slide down to the floor, too tired even to drag myself to the sofa, or to my bedroom.
And coming home to the flat, night after night, I realised that all the things I’d enjoyed about living alone had become unbearable. The deafening silences. The time, late in the evenings, when I was alone with my own thoughts and had nothing to distract me from replaying the night Dad had died, over and over again. The burden of being solely responsible for everything – the bills, shopping, the cleaning, laundry, maintenance – when all I wanted to do was crawl under a cover and sleep. Enduring long, solitary weekends, because I hadn’t had the energy to plan anything in. I drifted through six months of dark, painful depression before anything started to seem worthwhile again.
It took a few months before I could really talk about what I’d been through. Through that time, I had had no doubt that the way I was feeling was 100% about losing dad – and there’s no denying that the loss I had suffered was at the heart of everything. But when I did start to talk, I noticed something interesting. While everyone without exception was sympathetic and supportive, there were a core of people who seems to really relate to particular parts of the story I was telling. The loneliness. The sense of overwhelm at being solely responsible for keeping a household going. The realisation that all your friends are busy, and you are facing another weekend by yourself.
They were, of course, the people who lived alone. The men and women – ranging in age from 24 and 83, from all over the country and from all walks of life, and some of the most wonderful people I know – who instinctively and instantly understood what I was saying. And who, despite their differences, shared a surprisingly similar set of experiences.
And as they started to tell me their stories, I realised that something else had been going on all along. That the isolation of my living situation had actually been exacerbating my grief, making its worst excesses worse still, and allowing my mind to wander to some very dark places. With so little real connection during that time – no-one to come home to, to simply make me a cup of tea at the end of a long day – I had had nothing to validate or distract me. As well as dealing with my grief, I realised I had started to fundamentally doubt myself.
Once I realised all of this, it was like a light switch going on. I was able to take action, to start practising self-care. I booked a cleaner to come every fortnight, just for a couple of months as I got back on my feet. I signed up for online grocery shopping. I asked friends to come and help me out with a few household DIY jobs, and I began to plan my weekends so that I would always have at least one thing to look forward to. The world started to seem brighter again. Gradually, slowly, life moved on.
Even now, a few years on, the experience hasn’t left me. In two years, I’ve talked to more and more people who live alone, and the messages don’t change. Living alone can be a wonderful, strengthening, even life-changing experience. A lot of people choose to do it, and never look back. But – particularly if you have come to living alone unexpectedly, or are facing painful challenges elsewhere in your life – it can also be incredibly tough. Sometimes these two sets of experiences can exist side by side.
Some of that original group have become part of the Living Well Alone Project Team, helping draft content and survey questions, checking back for tone and meaning, and putting forward ideas for future stages of the project. Starting to help build a community, and figuring out what we need, while living by ourselves, to live healthy, happy and connected lives.
To find out more about the Living Well Alone Project, and take the survey, click here.