Feeling Alone, Being Alone, and Finding The Distinction Between Loneliness and Solitude

These days, I comfortably do a lot on my own. I travel, hike, drive, eat, shop, and genuinely enjoy my time by myself. However, for a long while, that was not the case. It’s a bit ironic since I’m introverted, but I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of doing things alone and being alone. It made me depressed and anxious if someone wasn’t there, enjoying things with me and holding my hand through it all, and I daresay I felt I needed it for the moment to mean something to me. I took my first big trip alone in 2018 to Charleston, SC for my best friend’s elopement and I spent a fair amount of time on my own while there. It felt weird at first, sightseeing, getting lunch, and visiting the beaches by myself, so I ended up calling people on the phone or texting friends incessantly about what I was doing at any given moment. I remember being a bit fixated on feeling lonely and I didn’t allow myself to entirely enjoy the experience, which I mildly regret. It did awaken a little something though.

In 2019, I went on a big two-month vanlife adventure with my cousin. During the first half of my trip, I was internally wrestling with a lot of thoughts and emotions. There were a lot of happy-looking couples hiking and camping and living in their vans and I envied them hugely. At the time, I specifically wanted a romantic partner to join me as we climbed to the top of mountains and drove into the sunset. I got really depressed for a little bit and had to knock some sense back into my brain and remind myself that I was definitely not alone and was with my cousin and still enjoying everything that those couples were also enjoying. Eventually I realized that I was just feeling insecure and being unrealistic about an idealized fantasy I had running around in my brain and this was an opportunity to feel differently about things. I won’t go into the psychological complexities of my brain and the life experiences that led me to feel the way I did (we all have a multitude of life experiences that have molded us into who we are, for better or for worse), but this was a massive step in a better direction for my personal growth. After I crossed that hurdle, I felt more excited about the adventures I was having with my cousin and was a good deal happier.

Sometimes, it is divinely decided that it’s time for a life lesson and two-thirds of the way through my vanlife trip, I found myself temporarily travelling alone. This led to what I consider to be one of the most important moments in my life. I had a lot of mixed feelings at first, including fear. I spent my first night alone in El Paso in a truck stop parking lot, wedged in between some contractors’ vans, after drinking a decaf coffee at Denny’s and talking to my mom on the phone. I woke up and wondered if I should just drive straight home to New York, go north into New Mexico and be somewhere familiar for a bit, or drive into the emptiness of west Texas and explore as I originally intended to do. I ended up continuing on I-10 and drove into west Texas. My destination was Big Bend. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had no one to talk to. I stopped at a gas station for snacks and gas and it was there that I acquired a feathery companion. A baby pigeon ran over to me in the parking lot and hopped into my hand. I called my mom and tried to figure out what to do as I couldn’t find a nest nor the mother, and I ultimately popped him into a shoebox, went back inside to find something for him to eat, and kept driving. Eventually I found a grocery store with bread and baby supplies and I bought a bottle and a feeding syringe to make things easier for feeding the little guy. I stopped about every hour to hour and a half and fed him the strange mash of bread and water and it kept my mind off of things. In Marfa, I stopped to feed him and had a conversation with a mailman passing through, who was curious about the lone girl and her baby pigeon, travelling through the scrubland in a 1985 Ford van. He told me to stay safe and I continued on towards Big Bend.

When I arrived in Big Bend, it was encroaching on evening. The visitor centers were closed and the last two families of tourists left as I was driving in. I had no cell service and the last town I had been in was about 70 miles away. I was confused and didn’t actually know anything about the park. All I had was a map that was posted at the entrance. I stopped at one visitor center and filled up my water bottles at the water fountain outside. Everything felt huge and empty. When I got back into my van, it wouldn’t start. I tried a few times and it struggled and still wouldn’t turn over. What I didn’t know at the time was that it was just my starter going out, but in that moment, I was frustrated and ignorant of that fact. I waited a few minutes and tried again and eventually it started, but the fear had already set in. I drove to a self service pump next door and filled the van with the highest quality gas I could. I didn’t see anyone anywhere and knew I was clean out of luck if I broke down. The stress of the previous days started to press in on me and the vast, empty loneliness seeped into my veins. The baby pigeon was starting to chirp again for food and I broke down in tears. I was scared. I looked at the bird and asked it how I was supposed to help it if I couldn’t even help myself? Anxiety swept in to confuse my thoughts and give me doses of the worst case scenarios. For the first time in my life, I felt alone. Not lonely, but truly alone. I had felt alone before, but was always a call or text away from someone. This time I wanted to call someone and cry to them, but my phone was useless. Everyone had left the park. The nearest town was a long drive away. The sun was getting lower in the sky. There didn’t seem to be a single soul around and I cried long and hard about it. I prayed out loud that my van would stay alive and that I’d be safe with my baby pigeon friend. I was mid-anxiety attack when I stopped and asked myself what the heck I was going to accomplish by sitting there, bawling my eyes out. There was only me. Nobody was going to hold my hand this time. Nobody was going to magically show up and listen to my fears. My closest friends were not going to wipe away my tears. I only had myself to push me into gear. So I put the key in the ignition and it started and I drove to a campground I found on the map. I cried over the steering wheel, but I kept going. I only had me so I was going to have to be my friend. I had finally stopped crying and found new resolve when I arrived at the campground. There was one other person there. He was an old man who watched me too closely as I drove in and I made a mental note to park myself on the other side of the campground. I set up camp, fed the pigeon, and ate a dinner of cold garbanzo beans and curry powder. I practiced juggling in the dying light of the sun and read a little bit. When the sun set, I tried to make myself comfortable, but the anxiety was lingering, along with new worries. There was the strange man on the other side of the campsite, lightning in the distance and I fretted about flash flooding since there had been some in areas I’d driven through, packs of coyotes ran around like groups of madmen cackling and it frayed my nerves, and what sounded to be a group of javelinas came by and investigated the van. I laid there in the thick heat of the desert night, motionless, with my hunting knife next to my head and I began a mental battle against my fears and worries, attacking with logical retorts and realistic probabilities. I didn’t sleep much that night, but when I awoke the next morning, I felt like a new person. The sun was shining and it brought peace. I made my coffee, fed the pigeon, and moved forward with my adventure. There were people at the visitor center and the atmosphere had lost its emptiness. I made the decision to take the pigeon to a rehabilitator and asked a ranger where I could find one. On my drive northward out of the park again, I felt a lot more comfortable. I sang out loud with my windows down and took in the scenery. I was the only vehicle on the road all the way up and it didn’t bother me at all. I dropped off the pigeon at the only local shelter I could find and they gave it to a bird rehabilitator. I heard back months later that he had grown into a happy and healthy bird and lived with a family in their barn because he had imprinted on humans. Continuing east, I no longer felt lonely, but finally felt and understood solitude. I could do anything, go anywhere, and it was delightful.

I have done a lot more travelling and exploring on my own since then. When I have company to join me, it’s now just a bonus. I noticed recently that I don’t really think about fear anymore when I’m doing something by myself. It just feels second nature to be enjoying a hike or a sunset over a highway or a campfire by myself. I admit that I quite like it. I can sing and laugh as loud as I want and hike as far as my legs will take me. I can eat whatever meal I want to without worrying about someone else’s preferences and can play my weird music without complaints. I still enjoy exploring and travelling with the people I love, but I no longer need someone else there experiencing it with me like I need air or water. I think I’ve come to a happy place of balance with that. There are still aspects of the social part of my life that I need to work on, but it is a journey and I am happy with how far I’ve already come. Loneliness happens and it’s a normal part of being human, but for me it became an obsession. It took truly being alone for a moment to leave that baggage in the desert and discover sweet solitude.

3 thoughts on “Feeling Alone, Being Alone, and Finding The Distinction Between Loneliness and Solitude

  1. What a wonderful breakthrough! I’m glad to hear how you achieved it. I’ve been through similar experiences before, and it is freeing. I also found it helped when I would sometimes just chat with God, knowing that he was with me no matter where I was, and if I wanted to yell at somebody in frustration, he was perfectly amenable to that. And when I had no one to talk to when I was really scared, or in a dicey situation, it helped to know he was there, even if I couldn’t speak to him at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a story. It’s a great discovery, isn’t it? That we’re capable of doing so many things alone. I myself prefer that, because I get to do whatever I want without having to wait on others. Inspiring stuff here. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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