Welcome to House Rules, Curbed’s advice column; today, our columnist answers questions about the psychological side of living alone. (The last column explored whether living alone is worth it.) Other house-related dilemmas? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are many mornings when I struggle to find the motivation to get out of bed and face the world. Living on my own, it’s far too easy to just turn the alarm off, roll over, and go back to sleep, or to lie there in bed thinking about how tired I am and how pointless existing is. There’s no one to hustle me out of bed or to put the kettle on for me, and likewise no one that I have to be out of bed to hustle or make tea for. This isn’t a cry for help—I’m getting good mental health treatment and medication has worked wonders for me—but I could use some practical suggestions of how to make getting up in the morning seem like a goshdarned good idea!
—Snoozing in Connecticut
When I’m emerging into consciousness, I sometimes miss being awakened by my mom, who angelically brought me coffee in bed every morning when I was in high school. But I’m also deeply thankful I’m no longer in danger of being awakened by my dad, who would start each day of our childhoods by snapping on our bedroom lights, pulling off our covers, bellowing “Up and at ’em!” at us, and, if that didn’t do the trick, squeezing water from a cold washcloth onto our faces.
My adult life is devoid of such carrots and sticks, but it’s still possible to improvise some external motivation. Here are some tactics to try:
- Leave your phone and laptop in another room. If you’re a social media addict like I am, curiosity about what’s happening on the internet may tug you out of bed. And sleeping without screens nearby is supposed to be good for you anyway.
- Buy an appliance that will brew your preferred beverage so it’s ready when you wake up. Pretty much every electric coffee percolator is programmable. You could also get a “teasmade”—a combination alarm clock/tea maker that has been around since the 1890s. Though mostly made for the British and Commonwealth markets, they can be found in the U.S. as well.
- On that note: Try an alarm clock that will wake you gently with light, or an alarm clock that is actually a cozy rug that must be stood on to be silenced!
- Bribe yourself with breakfast. I like to get up in time to make myself an egg sandwich, but some people are motivated by the pursuit of bagels or burritos in the outside world. You know what will work for you.
- Develop some kind of morning routine that infuses meaning into your day. Read a page of a life-affirming book while you brush your hair, look out the window at the sky and take some deep breaths, or light a candle and say the names of a few people you love.
Waking up may never quite seem like a good idea, but it can at least include some things to look forward to.
I am a single, middle-aged woman with no children who has lived alone for the past six years. As a homeowner in a neighborhood filled with couples close to my age who have multiple children, I often feel isolated and “out of the loop.” While I am out every day walking my three dogs on my street, the neighbors don’t seem to know what to do with me or how we should interact (and vice versa). They are not unfriendly, exactly, but I don’t get invited to block parties or cookouts and I’m not included in any of the impromptu conversations that seem to spring up organically between them. We are all vaguely polite to one another, but I know almost none of their first names. How do I get to know my neighbors when we lead such different lives? How do I feel less isolated in my own neighborhood?
—The Neighborhood Eccentric
It’s so great that you have dogs! You have a totally legitimate reason to wander by your neighbors’ houses every day, plus you have a natural topic of small talk with any neighbors who might also have dogs. As a non-dog owner and occasional dog-sitter, I am often amazed at how much discussion between strangers can be derived from comparing notes about dogs’ breeds, ages, histories, temperaments, tricks, ailments, and the stories of how they got their names. When you see a fellow dog owner in the neighborhood, ask them a question or two about their dog. I guarantee you will be on a first-name basis with many of your human and dog neighbors pretty quickly.
Other options to explore, both for you and for people in similar situations who don’t have dogs:
- See if there’s an online neighborhood group for you to join. Online groups or neighborhood pages can be a window into your neighbors’ political views that you might regret seeing, but they can also be a way to find out about cookouts, yard sales, book groups, holiday celebrations, volunteer opportunities, and other chances to mingle.
- Check the local library or coffee shop bulletin board to find out about neighborhood happenings, and attend the ones that interest you. If you can’t find one, consider starting your own.
- If you have a stoop, front porch, or verandah, sit on it, and wave and say hi as people walk by. (You can even add some plants to make it more welcoming.) Be the friendly neighborhood face you want to see in the world!
I live alone, and for a while over the last year, even though I’m lucky enough to be generally healthy, I was filled with anxiety about getting sick or hurt and/or dying and the thought that no one would know. I made one of my sisters and several friends promise they’d follow up if they hadn’t heard from me in a while. This wasn’t really enough. Would welcome advice on how to deal with such anxieties!
—Probably Not Sick or Dying in California
Your anxieties are both mostly unfounded and very common. It’s highly unlikely that a healthy person will suddenly drop dead and rot undiscovered, but in freaking out about this distant possibility, you’re following in the grand tradition of thousands of solitary dwellers, including the legendary Bridget Jones, who famously worried that she would be found half-eaten by Alsatians.
You have a few practical options. You could buy that thing from the “I’ve-fallen-and-I-can’t-get-up” commercial from the ’90s. You could also call or text someone at the same time every day, or whenever anxiety starts to rise. It’s useful to cultivate friends in different time zones so you can check in with someone at any time of night.
In extreme situations, don’t hesitate to reach out to medical professionals. When I was dealing with insecticide in my eye in the middle of the night, I called the poison control hotline and talked to a very reassuring person.
But not every moment of living-alone anxiety will have a practical or immediate solution. If the anxiety is persistent and severe, you should reach out to a mental health professional.
Additionally, perhaps in between bouts of anxious texting, it might be worth trying to face your fear, and seizing the opportunity to reckon with the meaning of mortality. I haven’t done this yet, but I’ve been thinking about trying.
As a single woman who has lived alone for half a decade, I still have not figured out how to manage a fundamental sense of loneliness that pervades every corner of my house. I try to keep busy, see friends. I have pets, have joined a bootcamp, a writers’ group, a book club. But I still have to take a deep breath before entering my house. I keep the television on constantly, even when I’m not watching it, for company. How do I grapple with the existential loneliness that often accompanies living alone?
—Alone in the Lone Star State
There is no living situation that can cure the loneliness of existence. Existential isolation can sweep over you without warning as you lie in bed next to the snoring stranger you’re married to, or as you hold your tired toddler on your lap. No one is immune to loneliness, not even your most coupled-up friends. But there is still a particular kind of solitude that is the special challenge of people who live by themselves. There are also some ways to navigate that solitude to make it feel less overwhelming.
I find that if I go for a day without some kind of interaction with someone I love, whether in person or on the phone, I start to get depressed as early as the next day. As a result, I rely on daily phone dates, group texts, and social media interactions with close friends and family to remind me that I’m loved and connected. I also try to meet up with friends often and to have them over regularly, even if it’s just for takeout and TV. People who live alone can’t rely on live-in partners or housemates to keep them adequately socialized, so making plans and taking initiative to reach out are essential.
Similarly, if I go for over a day without talking to another person “IRL” (whether I love them or not), I start to feel a little nutty by nightfall. As a result, I try to make sure that I get out in the world and have a human interaction every day, even if it’s only to buy milk or stop at the fruit stand. I’m also a regular at a local bar, and I’ve made friends with other regulars there. It’s a lot like Cheers, only more diverse. You may or may not be a bar person, but it’s worth looking for social places you turn into a home-away-from-home—a gym, a club, a coffee-shop.
Still, eventually it’s closing time and we all need to go home. It sounds like you’re already doing a lot to populate your house with pets and sitcom stars and to put yourself in places where you’ll interact with people. Beyond filling your house with friends as often as you can and becoming a “proud plant parent” of some sociable succulents, there might not be much more you can do. But remember that your loneliness connects you with every human who ever lived. And while you wallow in it, remember to enjoy to the fullest all the various perks of solitary living, including sprawling across the mattress, hogging the blanket, and getting to choose the channel.
Briallen Hopper is the author of Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions and the co-editor of the online magazine Killing the Buddha. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, New York magazine/the Cut, the Paris Review Daily, the Seattle Star, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. She teaches creative nonfiction at Queens College, CUNY, and lives in Elmhurst, Queens.