The day I turned 40, I was inconsolable.
I spent the entire day laying on the couch, crying at what my life had become: I was divorced, childless, unemployed, and overweight. I was also in the midst of a very deep depression.
I was not dating anyone, living by myself, and having very little contact with the outside world. As a result, no one called or emailed to wish me a happy birthday.
This was supposed to be a milestone year, and it seemed no one cared.
In retrospect, of course, it is very clear that after months of ignoring my friends and family because I was too busy moping about being alone, they all simply let me be alone.
But at the time, of course, I took it as proof that I was unlovable. I was utterly convinced that the remaining days of my life would be the same as this day: miserable and lonely.
Shortly before that, I’d read in the news about how one of my favorite guitarists was found dead….six days after he’d passed.
“That’ll be me,” I thought. “I could die right now and no one would know. Nobody would even care.”
Indeed, days would pass – sometimes weeks – and I would not call, email or text anyone. Apart from the occasional check-in from my mother or sister, those same days would pass with no one contacting me either.
In retrospect, I do not blame anyone for giving up on me; it was clear I’d already given up on myself. But upon further reflection, I would actually like to thank those friends and loved ones for leaving me alone. They taught me the great life lesson of facing my deepest fear.
For as long as I remember, I’d been a loner. But this was by choice, completely on my terms. Oddly enough, I also harbored a very deep-seated fear of being left alone, which was completely different than my loner’s love of solitude.
I looked on my time to myself as restorative and healthy, learning to love my own company and get lost in my own imagination.
But this time was nothing like that. It was not restorative, healthy or loving in any way. It was profoundly lonely and I was paralyzed with fear about it. The cycle became very clear: the more time I spent alone, the lonelier I got. The lonelier I got, the more alienated I felt. The more alienated from others I became, the more time I spent alone.
A difficult milestone
Added to that was the specific set of problems associated with being single and 40-years-old. It’s one thing to be single at 25, but it’s a whole other level of alone to be single at 40.
Suddenly, my lack of marketability became very real. I finally understood what single women 40 and older were talking about when they spoke of the difficulties in finding a suitable partner or even in getting a date.
Of course, I was in no condition to date anyone, but I was not aware of that at the time. What I really needed was some medical attention, but I had no health insurance.
Instead, I turned to prayer. And after many months of centering prayer, regular confessions and Eucharistic Adoration, I came to the realization that, in facing my deepest fear, I was conquering it.
This provided a certain measure of comfort, as I started to understand that while being alone was not pleasant, it was also not the most painful thing. I did, after all, still have family and friends who loved me and who would have been supportive if I’d only reached out to them.
But the most important thing I realized was that my fear of being alone had led me through years of destructive relationships. Now that I had been alone – really alone – for quite a while, I was less willing to enter into anything destructive again. After all, if I’d been alone once, I could do it again.
I no longer felt I was risking my sanity if I chose to avoid someone’s company.
In effect, I’d learned to become more discriminating in who I spent time with. I became acutely aware of people who’d been negative or discouraging to me. I quickly realized that I’d been fine without their company, and no longer desired their companionship.
This was an unexpected perk, because once I cleared a space, new friends appeared. These new friendships I made were far more supportive, positive and life-affirming. Months later, when I became ready to date again, I sought out a whole new caliber of partner. Although I had lessons to learn, I understood quickly that I was approaching dating in a completely different way; I no longer felt desperate.
I was not motivated by my fear of loneliness. Instead, I was a strong, independent woman, with passions and interests of my own, simply seeking out a suitable partner.
The second thing I’d learned in this process was that in conquering my deepest fear, I came out on the other side less fearful in general. I now liken it to a child who is afraid of needles: the entire time leading up to the shot, that child is gripped with fear and dread. But when the time comes, the shot is over before it even registered. And as we all know, the needle itself never hurts nearly as much as we anticipate.
Being alone seemed so much worse in my imagination, wrapped up in doom and fright.
After months of living in a self-imposed exile, I felt ready to take on new challenges. I returned to taking dance classes, only now I was ready to perform, after years of hesitation. I went back to teaching, ready to branch out to adult students, who I’d previously found too intimidating to work with. I started writing again and found a writers’ group to join, after years of shyness about my work.
As a result, new experiences I’d never dared to dream of became a reality to me: I am now a performing dancer, a published writer, and college professor. I am blessed beyond measure and would never have realized it if it weren’t for having faced my fear. In hiding myself from the world, I opened up parts of myself that were hidden inside of me.
I have nothing but gratitude for that one milestone birthday spent alone.