If, like me, you're in your late 20s and use Instagram or Facebook, you will no doubt have scrolled through a news feed full of photos of former classmates getting married, having children, and doing other things that are expected of you as a functioning member of society who has their shit together. And if, like me, you definitely do not have your shit together and go through life ricocheting from one thing to another hoping for the best, it's almost too easy to begin wondering whether you're less worthy in some way.
The crazy part about all of the ensuing self-comparison is that you start judging your life by the standards of others, regardless of whether or not you actually wanted those things in the first place. In reality, my relationships have mostly been dysfunctional, and I have all the maternal instincts of a rock. Never once have I felt the urge to sling on a white dress and shimmy down an aisle, or have children; I want to travel, read good poetry, and write books. So why was there a part of me that felt so inadequate not to have kept up with my peers when I never even wanted to? Am I less of a person because I wake up alone every morning in my one-bedroom apartment that I share exclusively with my pet turtle?
These thoughts are a recent addition to my life, probably because I've never actually felt truly alone until recently. I'd never really given much thought to my future, because it all seemed so far away. My lack of success in the romance department seemed more than a fair trade-off for the fact that I'd won the proverbial friendship lottery and was constantly surrounded by wonderful people. My group of friends and I spent our early 20s performing common rites of passage: drinking until we were sick and nursing the resulting hangovers at barbecues and parties thrown for no good reason.
I had a sales job that I knew deep down I was never cut out for, but it afforded me enough money to buy shots all around without ever having to check my bank account balance. During the quieter times, we watched films and played board games, or took various day trips to interesting places. It ebbed and flowed over the years due to the general commitments of adulthood, but my friends were a constant factor in my life, and I was never more than a few days away from seeing them, so much so that I would snort at anyone who dared to warn me that life wouldn't always be that way.
Until one day it wasn't that way anymore. Texts from anyone but my mum and the local pizza delivery outlet stopped. Friday nights out turned into nights in, spent drinking by myself, which led to mornings waking up with hangovers I couldn't begin to justify. The silence of my apartment became the theme song to my life, one so unbearable that at times, I felt I could scream. I once invited a door-to-door salesman into my living room and made him tea, just so that I could have someone to talk to for 15 minutes. I don't even remember what he was trying to sell me, but he must have sensed my desperation, as the look of pity he regarded me with made me feel absolutely pathetic.
My friends had all gotten into relationships and, almost overnight, I realised that I had become an unaccomplished demi-spinster with a job that was making me miserable. I was — and still continue to be — very happy for them, but I'll admit that I didn't handle the sudden onslaught of disposable time very well. I'd always blanked out a few evenings a week to read and write and devote time to my passions, but in hindsight, these occasions were cushioned by the knowledge that there was always some upcoming event to get excited for. This was different. This was a vast expanse of nothing that I was in no way prepared for. And I hated it.
With the newfound awareness that I now had more time on my hands than I knew how to handle, I became very depressed, very quickly. I discovered that I actually didn't like myself very much. My own company made me uncomfortable, as it laid bare the lack of investment that I had made my own life. I hated that I found myself so boring and that I couldn't stand to be around myself for too long. When I did try to talk to people outside of my social group, I was paranoid about saying the wrong thing and overanalysed every reaction, looking for signs that they found me as insufferable as I found myself.
I had never considered myself socially awkward before, but when thrust into conversations with strangers, I found that I had developed a colloquial way of speaking with my friends that I was sure everyone else just found weird. Every morning, I would catch my reflection in the mirror wearing my rigid office clothes and feel like a failure. I hadn't crafted a better life for myself or pursued any of the aspirations that had once driven me. My incessant need for regular social contact was probably the mechanism by which I'd suppressed that intense feeling of self-hatred and dissatisfaction with my lack of achievement for all those years.
Loneliness became a solvent that stripped away the surface of my life and left an uncomfortable realisation staring back at me. I was desperately unhappy. I barely slept. The insidious nature of depression meant that it wormed its way into every area of my life; I cried at work almost daily and subjected my colleagues to frequent rants about the meaninglessness of money and how our sales roles made us all meaningless by proxy. It was as if all the floodgates to every hang-up I ever had about myself opened at once, mixing with a tide of new insecurities that I wasn't even sure were mine to begin with.
I checked Facebook. Oh, how lovely, another girl I went to school with has gotten engaged, and I'm lying around in my underwear, drinking pinot grigio straight from the bottle. The smiling faces in accompanying photos, especially when contrasted with my own misery, echoed a growing belief that these events are the only markers by which success — and, ultimately, happiness — are measured. Having never placed emphasis on the idea of traditionally settling down, it led me to question whether or not I had been wrong to have such a blasé attitude toward it all of this time. I mean, is the alternative just endless agony? Is there no in-between?
The thing about loneliness (and there is a difference between loneliness and being comfortably alone) is that it acts as a kaleidoscope and makes you look at your life through distorted eyes. The beliefs you have held and the decisions that have led you to this point warp and bend in front of you, until all of your life choices look decidedly shitty, without any real level of perspective. I couldn't stop the spiraling, spangled negativity. The thoughts circled constantly in my head.
If I was easier to love, I wouldn't be in this position.
If I'd spent more time working out, then I'd be more attractive and worth staying with.
If I hadn't failed that exam in school, then I might have got a better job.
These thoughts, ridiculous as they were, felt real and true, but it was just the kaleidoscope. The truth is that some of my life choices were shitty, and it took time alone to make me realise that. Once I identified the things I could change, I was left with an ultimatum of either continuing to wallow in the hole I had dug for myself, or getting out and embracing the risk. I chose the latter.
My work clearly wasn't making me happy so, in a moment of recklessness, I quit sales and took a job writing advert copy for roughly half of my previous salary. The position became available within the company I was already working for, and I had watched various interviewees traipsing in and out of the building with a growing sense of envy. Finally, one lunchtime, I trawled through my bank statements and worked out what I could afford to live on before ambushing the manager of that department in the bathroom and begging her to give me an interview. The interview itself was one of the more surreal experiences of my life: I was shut in a room with a satanic-looking statue for 40 minutes and told to write an article that sold the benefits of owning it. To be completely honest, the thing gave me the creeps, and I was sure that my attempt to promote it had failed miserably.
When I found out that I had landed the job, I couldn't quite place the feeling that came over me. It took a few days to realise that I was actually proud of myself — probably for one of the first times in my life — a feeling that was magnified by the utter disbelief of those around me that I would choose to sacrifice a well-paying job for the sake of taking a step toward doing what I actually want to do. I was even approached by a member of the board, who told me that he thought it was admirable that I'd taken such a leap.
My friends celebrated with me and have encouraged me at every turn. As for the reduced income, I began to freelance more and more to give myself some disposable cash, each one gradually building the confidence I was starting to find within myself. I reduced my expenses and ate packet noodles more nights than I would care to admit to. My MacBook and I became inseparable. I found that there was very little time to be lonely, because I had filled so much of it doing something I love. Even better, I was being paid to do it.
As I focused on living life on my own terms, I stopped applying everyone else's goals to my own. I got out of a rut that I wasn't even aware I was in. I'm no longer jaded when I look at the lives of acquaintances through glossy Instagram filters, because I don't necessarily want the same things they want, and that's OK. I'm concentrating on freelancing full-time by my 30th birthday, for the sole reason that it means I can work from anywhere in the world and I'm not tied down to one place. Maybe I'll meet someone, but maybe I won't. It's totally OK that I haven't found that person yet, and the fact that I haven't doesn't mean that I've "failed"; it just means that I'm at a different point in my life to those around me. I never would have realised any of this if things were the way they always were, or if I hadn't gotten to know myself.
The time I now spend with my friends is sacred, and I'm so pleased to see them happy in their relationships, because it's the least that they deserve. All the while, I'm pushing myself to attain what I want, because I definitely owe myself that much. We all do.