I’ve lost count of how many people told me not to move into my own place. And if they weren’t telling me not to, they were saying, “I could never do that!”
From people I hardly knew to my closest, dearest friends, it seemed everyone had something to say about my desire — nay, dream — to live alone. At just 23, and only one year out of university, I’ve found myself in a very privileged situation, which means I can make this a reality, and currently live in a modestly sized one-bedroom apartment outside of town. My commute is longer, my regular living expenses are higher than when I shared with a friend, and I’m now solely responsible for everything that can (and will) go wrong in the apartment. But I love it. I wear my PJs as often as possible, I listen to ABBA Gold, and I walk around with a lurid green face masks on. I’m living my own single twenty-something dream.
I’ve also found that living alone has greatly improved my mental health. My mental health history is blotted with arbitrary diagnoses, and periods of depression and anxiety. I’m fairly open about it, even considering myself a mental health advocate in some respect, and I now talk candidly about my experiences both personally and as a speaker. I’ve experimented in the past with not telling roommates, like at university, and disclosing my mental health status openly, when I moved into my first apartment after graduating. The latter was by far preferable.
Depression, for me, makes living with others difficult. Days when I am stuck in my own bell jar of unhappiness are made harder when avoiding a roommate for fear of “contaminating” them with my misery. When self-care slips, it’s hard to hide from someone that knows your shower schedule, eating habits and exercise routine better than you do yourself. I also have a history of OCD, diagnosed at 17. However, I did not exhibit any physical compulsions that one might associate with the “pop culture” stereotype of OCD (don’t get me started on the trivialization of OCD in the media!). But, the OCD takes its toll on cohabiting, too. I don’t like the thought of my belongings being used, even though it’s very much in my nature to share and be generous. I struggle endlessly with unwanted, intrusive thoughts, which are sometimes made more upsetting when there’s someone else in the house. I have annoying (for me and for others) personal issues with certain objects and actions. Plus, OCD is hard to both understand and explain.
This article aims not to encourage living alone as the cure to mental illness (it’s not), but to contest the notion that living alone is the cause of mental illness. I’ve always been more than happy in my own company, but I do understand how it can make some people feel uncomfortable. Let me clarify; I have a good social life with close friends, a great boyfriend, and a tight-knit family, all to keep me entertained as and when I feel inclined. But, I know for others, the thought of spending the night home alone without a roommate, partner, or family member padding around the house is unbearable, as is not having someone to watch reality TV or share the grocery haul with. However, for me, it’s the ideal living situation, and I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever been happier.
Of course, living alone hasn’t “cured” my mental health problems, or been a magic solution to any of the general, everyday problems in my life, either. In fact, living alone can be tough at times; being solely responsible for keeping every utility running, with no one else to spot you during a rough money month, is stressful. But mostly, I feel that going it alone has genuinely made my life better, made me a more well-rounded person, and helped me tackle my mental health hangups. Here’s why:
1. I’m not as obsessed with perfectionism as I was before.
Don’t get me wrong; having my own place has meant that I can decorate and furnish how I want to. I’ve really enjoyed getting things just right, but that’s where it stopped. Before I moved in, I obsessed over every minute detail of my future home — the paint colors, the light fittings, even whether to change the fixtures that were already installed (and brand new) when I moved in. Since actually living in the apartment, however, I’ve become more in tune with my needs and the disparity between a welcoming, functional and peaceful environment, and what I had in my mind (more throw cushions…many more). Through moving home, clearing out and settling in, I’ve been able to let go of the belongings and come to terms with what I need, what I want, and what I kept or bought just because others may have to see (and live with) it.
2. I make more effort with friends and family.
Now that I don’t have a ready-made friend or two right outside my bedroom door, I have to put more time and effort into fulfilling my social needs. Making formal plans to go out and enjoy the city, catch up over coffee or take a day trip with friends is now a necessary part of my life, rather than something I let other people organize for me. When you struggle with depression and/or anxiety, being proactive about spending time with those you care about can be difficult: it’s easy to go into your shell, ignore the world and keep to yourself.
However, knowing that if I were to do that, I could easily go several days without properly interacting another person (which would not be very beneficial for my mental health at all), it pushes me to make plans with those I love spending time with. Plus, knowing that I have a peaceful, empty home to go back to when the anxiety wave washes over me provides some comfort when things get rough.
3. My finances have hugely improved.
I’ve always been obsessed with personal finance, even though I’ve not always been great at keeping my own money in check. For me, it comes down to discipline. I’m a compulsive shopper and once I get a potential purchase stuck in my head, it’s mine. However, since living alone, and having to be the sole person responsible for every penny that comes in and out of my home, my financial literacy and competency has hugely improved. I live without the unnecessary things I once desired because I know that I put my way of living above the things I want to live with.
Knowing exactly how much and when every bill is going to be, what my food budget is, and precisely how much my commute costs means that every month, without fail, I can create a zero-sum budget. It’s allowed me to take control of my financial goals, and I know the exact month that all my current financial targets will be met, because I don’t have to factor someone else’s finance and lifestyle into the equation. I live “uncomfortably” when I need to, without having someone else to consider (I’m not worrying about whether my roommate will mind having the heating off any more!).
I can also make autonomous decisions about the goods and services I want to purchase without consulting another person. I can go with the cheapest broadband I know I can live with, I can scrimp and buy the store-brand toilet roll rather than the premium one, and I only have to pay for what I personally use and nothing more.
4. I appreciate other’s company more…and my own.
Simply put, I like being alone. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I prefer being alone to being with friends or family, but I enjoy my own company. Now that my “alone time” isn’t consigned to stolen moments, I appreciate it more because I have control over my time and space. On the other hand, I make more use of the time I have with others, as it’s intentional and purposeful. Rather than slobbing out in front of the TV barely speaking, I make sure to organize trips or activities, as it gives me a chance to get out of my home and catch up with others.
5. My home is my happy place.
Most of all, I’ve been so very fortunate to be able to create a space that I not only enjoy being in, but also one where I feel safe being myself. Not only surviving mental illness, but trying to thrive with it, is hard. Anyone focused on their career, building strong interpersonal relationships, or trying to lead a happy and healthy life whilst followed by the dark cloud of mental illness will know that. I’ve found that having a place where I can be my absolute true self on both good and bad days, judgement free without “burdening” someone else, has allowed me to bring my best self to the people and job I love.
Claudia Barnett is a communications specialist and mental health advocate from the UK. She’s into writing, long distance running, and petting other people’s dogs. Follow her on Twitter here.
Image via Unsplash