"It's a little strange here," I wrote in my journal on the first night alone in my new apartment. It was a small concession, wedged between a list of to-do's ("paint my walls," "need lamps…better linen…a new comforter") and things done ("unpacked," "straightened up my files"). The overall sentiment about my new world order? "It is a fairly good feeling."
After the past six months, you'd think my newly acquired independence would kick open a door that led toward more triumphant living. Living with my ex-boyfriend during that time, I yearned for my own space. I would meditate on a vision of myself in the near future: Sitting in a living room, alone, quiet, content. I got the living room, I had the silence, there was no one to interrupt. The "content" part was hard to come by. I didn't feel so much free as I did hemmed in by the small quarters. Instead of feeling satisfied I could only ask: Had I simply switched cages?
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"For many, many people, a tested or failed relationship is the gateway into their most formative Phoenix Process," writes Elizabeth Lesser, author of Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow. Lesser describes that process as the path to inner peace; to willingly undergo it is to be changed by "the shattered pieces of a difficult time" and come out for the better. "Our illusions, our rigidity, our fear, our blame, our lack of faith, and our sense of separation: All of these—in varying strengths and combinations—are what must die in order for a more true self to arise."
The size of my apartment seemed to anchor my perceived inadequacies. By the time I found it, I was so desperate I would've agreed to pretty much anything within my price range. So when I walked into the 300 square foot "starter apartment" for less than $1,300 a month, my absolute ceiling on what I could afford, I felt the urge to snap it up. Especially since there was another man who saw it immediately after I did and wanted it as well. Never mind that the bathroom was tiled a Pepto-Bismol Pink or that the place had only one window or that the foyer wood floor was anything but level.
When I moved in, all of my furniture—one half of a green sectional sofa, a queen-size bed, a bureau dresser, and a small ladder desk and accompanying bookshelf—barely fit into the main space. It was all I could do to shove everything against the wall, creating a narrow pathway to the window. Because the place was small, things got cluttered quickly and overall, the apartment felt cramped. I was embarrassed to have people over because of the unfortunate layout of my furniture. The only seating available on the sofa pretty much limited conversation since no one could really speak face-to-face. After a while, even I didn't want to be in the apartment. I grew resentful that I was stuck with furniture fit for a master bedroom, all cramped together in my tiny studio. I cultivated a limitless reserve of small-apartment jokes.
It wasn't until the lightbulb went out in my study/bedroom/living room that I confronted my darkest thoughts. It was late, and I didn't have any lamps to compensate. The super wasn't calling back. There was no ladder. I had to change it myself, which culminated in my stacking my thickest books—a dictionary and a compendium of essays on living in New York among them—onto my dresser and then standing on that in three-inch heels, to achieve the height necessary to reach the bulb on the ceiling. The ruse was a success, but back on safe ground, I considered the ridiculousness of the gambit. If I fell, I could have broken my neck and then what? How long would it be before anyone knew I was gone?
The thought of dying alone suddenly put loneliness in perspective. I avoided the apartment because being alone there was too depressing. Staying in was usually a one-woman pity party, a cascade of negative thoughts triggering second guesses about the decision I had made to leave a comfortable nest with my ex. What if I made a terrible mistake and what lay in store was nothing but misery? Julie, a twenty-something recruiter based in Dallas, can relate. When she finally broke up with Peter, her boyfriend of four years, and moved into her own apartment, she recalls being constantly afraid. "I cried a lot," she says. "I didn't eat very much. I stared at the wall and didn't want to talk to anyone."
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