My first night living without my wife, I used the summer heat as an excuse not to leave the apartment. That one night turned into two, then three, until finally an entire week had passed, and I’d only left my apartment to go to work and then head back, my co-workers and strangers on the street the only people I had had any real contact with. By the next week, I told myself I’d try to fight against the loneliness, but I knew deep down that this wasn’t new behavior for me.
I’ve dealt with depression for most of my life. But it had been a long, long time since I’d been truly isolated, nobody there when I got home or waiting in the next room. As a kid, I got used to being lonely, moving between my parents’ houses during their divorce, trying to figure out a way to fit into yet another school. Later, when I was a teenager, after my mother moved away to another state, I spent the bulk of my high school life sleeping in strangers’ houses, on their floors, in their basements and spare, forgotten rooms. That feeling is always there; it’s just pushed deep into the back of my head. Even now, when I’m in a room filled with friends, I still can sense it, some hint of loneliness that I can’t quite place. I think we all feel similarly from time to time, but my way of dealing with it was to try to ignore it and attempt to act like I was fine.
In fact, I thought I’d forgotten about what it felt like to really be alone until my wife left to pursue her doctorate over three hours away. The distance in miles or minutes wasn’t that much, but it was still enough that we’d only see each other on the weekends and during breaks. She needed to be in one place for her career, and I couldn’t move without giving up my job, which helped to support us both. It would be fine, we agreed. Couples live separately all the time.
Then, that first night after I dropped her off more than 100 miles away from our apartment, I drove home. Our small apartment—a dream home to me after so many moves during childhood—suddenly felt so big and empty. All the books on the shelf and pictures on the wall were mine to take care of while she was away. Our newly framed wedding photos sat on the floor, and instead of putting them up on the wall like I promised, I just stared at them. I sat in the chair by the window. I picked a book off the shelf, telling myself maybe I should read something to help put my mind in a different place. I opened the book, a thing I’ve found solace in countless times before in my life, but nothing. I turned on the TV, but that didn’t help either. The lonely feeling had set in: that damp, dark hopelessness that kept telling me, even if I knew better, that I never really had anyone to count on, that there was something wrong with me or different about me.
After a few days of this, I decided I needed to be around people, that cooping myself up wasn’t helping. I walked to the bar down the street, ordered a drink from the bartender whom I’d gotten to know, and sat there just looking at it. I was drinking alone, I thought to myself. Sometimes I enjoyed going and getting a quiet beer on my own before returning home to my apartment, back to a space alive with the sound of my partner’s voice and her energy, but tonight I was drinking because it felt like I didn’t have anybody else.
I cut myself off after that. Drinking alone was one thing; getting drunk because I was lonely probably wasn’t going to fix things. I paid, walked back to my empty apartment and sat with the quiet until I fell asleep on my couch.
A few days later at work, I slogged through my normal morning routine of wading through spam that clogged up my in-box overnight—most of it emails that I’d never read. There was one subject line that piqued my interest, however: “Jason, don’t you just want to be alone?”
It felt like a weird sign, so instead of answering “no” out loud to an email, I clicked it.
“Jason,” the email started out in one font but turned into another, a sign that I was part of a bad spam list and not in line for some sort of weird divine interruption. “Don’t you just love to be alone? Wouldn’t you love your man cave to be the best man cave for you to do your thing without anybody bothering you?”
I sent it to the trash without looking at what it was trying to sell me or get me to read, but after I did that, I sat there thinking how we’re all told that being on your own is okay. We have the internet to connect us to people all across the globe, and that’s supposed to be just as good as human interaction. Right? And for men, who are taught from an early age that we’re supposed to want to be alone, being a loner somehow plays into these ideas of masculinity we’ve built up. We’re led to believe we’re supposed to be cowboys, mavericks, soldiers; we’re supposed to be tough. What we’re not told is that alone means closed off, and being closed off can lead to some dark places no matter how much we want to hold up this idea of the rugged dude on his own.
I started to think about it even more. Do men really enjoy being alone? Am I weird for longing for connection? Most of my friends are women, and I’ve heard plenty of them openly admit to often feeling lonely, in private conversations and also publicly on social media, but I have a hard time recalling a guy friend doing that. I know loneliness isn’t exclusive to a gender, but the way certain people are taught early on to confront it might be.
I thought about that before my wife and I FaceTimed each other. It was our new nightly ritual. Instead of a kiss good night, we talked on our phones for a little while, digitally face-to-face. It wasn’t the same as having her there, but it was something, and I enjoyed catching up and talking together about our days apart. But I wanted to make sure this new chapter in our lives was going to be different. When she asked me how I felt about the distance between us, I considered saying nothing. She was getting used to her new school, adjusting in her own ways and trying to succeed. But I decided to be honest.
“I feel pretty lonely,” I told her, worried that I was doing the wrong thing. She’d just started school; maybe I was throwing her off. Instinctively, I followed up, “But I’ll be fine. It’s a big adjustment.”
There was a pause.
“I’m also lonely,” she told me, “but we’ll be fine.”
And just like that, I started to realize I really wasn’t as alone as I felt. I even wondered what would have happened in the past if I had reached out to someone—a teacher or a friend or even another guy who might have been in the same situation—and made that tiny, totally mind-changing shift from me to we.