In college, I used to dread the thought of doing anything alone: shopping, eating, walking on the quad.
It wasn’t so much a confidence thing as that I just wasn’t comfortable in my own skin. And by being surrounded by other people all the time, I couldn’t spend too many of my thoughts on introspection.
Like most freshman on my floor, my dorm door was always open so friends could pop in. I always made sure I had a friend or group of friends to go to T.D.R. (our dining hall at American University) with. And I’d never take the bus to Georgetown alone.
I didn’t have a boyfriend and so naturally, I did everything with my friends and was fortunate that I never had to worry about being “that girl” who spent all her time with a guy. I threw myself into my sorority (Chi Omega, for any sisters out there!) and built my world around my girlfriends.
I just never realized how dependent I was on them for my happiness.
Then I spent a semester abroad in Buenos Aires during my junior year of college (July 1999-November 1999).
Despite pleas from my parents to go to Europe, I chose Argentina because everyone else who spoke Spanish went to Madrid, and I knew I’d get there someday and probably wouldn’t have another opportunity to travel in South America.
I didn’t have a best friend with me on my program, and although four of my sorority pledge sisters were part of my program as well as some other people I knew from Spanish class or freshman year Micro, I didn’t have any close friends going with me.
And unlike studying abroad in Europe where everyone travels often, we in the Southern Cone were pretty much removed from the rest of the world. Adding to this “removal” … we arrived in July, the dead of winter in the southern hemisphere.
Talk about depressing — and scary.
I’d been abroad before (to Greece when I was 16) but never lived abroad; never had a return ticket that was not going to be used again for four months.
We all lived with host families, but whereas most of the people on our exchange program lived in the Palermo neighborhood by our university, I was one of four who was placed smack on the other side of the city in Recoleta (which is actually a beautiful, ritzy neighborhood near all the fabulous shopping and dining Buenos Aires is known for).
Right off the bat, this meant I was removed from most of my peers. I had no one to ride the bus with, no one to walk with.
We didn’t have cell phones at the time, which meant making post-class arrangements were not a cinch. But fortunately, Recoleta was where some of the best bars were, so at night, everyone would come to our neighborhood to hang out, which meant that even last-minute plans usually worked in my favor.
Although I made lots of friends and even had a little group, the very fact that I lived far away meant I spent a lot of time alone — for the first time in my life, mind you.
I can remember sitting in my bedroom just listening to Dave Matthews Band’s Tim Reynolds CD over and over and over, or when I was feeling homesick, drowning out the Spanish voices on the bus by listening to my Walkman.
Some days I’d walk to school. It would take me a good hour, but it was empowering to walk all the way along Calle Santa Fe. Past all the bakeries and jewerly stores, the kioscs and designer boutiques.
Later, I had an internship and I was the only one from the university there; I had no choice but to go on my own.
And so over time, I started to go shopping on my own. Sat down to eat at a cafe alone. I’d spend a Saturday afternoon without my map, deliberately wandering my way through the amazing capital city.
Our program had organized trips to the western side of Patagonia and to Iguazu Falls, but in addition to those, I went ahead and planned trips with my closest friends to Puerto Madryn (to see the penguins in eastern Patagonia) and to Machu Picchu.
When it came to after-class socializing, I started suggesting places to go, instead of following someone else’s lead. (remembering, it’s not the end of the world if everyone doesn’t want to go to the Spot that night (a bar we frequented).
I missed home a lot — my friends, my family. But I made roots there for those four months, and although I gained a lot of weight that semester abroad (everyone did; a lot of it was probably emotional eating though I didn’t recognize it at the time), I came back a much more confident woman who was more secure than ever.
Back at AU, I got an internship and started Metro-ing alone. If I needed a new pair of shoes, I didn’t wait til one of my BFFs needed to hit up the mall; I went on my own. And if there was no one to go to T.D.R. with, I’d sit alone in the Tavern or the Marketplace, two other places on campus. I realized I enjoyed the time with myself.
In fact, I got back into running, however sporadically — using it as “me” time.
Post-college, I was in grad school and working full time at the National Education Association, which left little time for myself.
And then I moved to El Salvador to be with my then-boyfriend/now-husband where I was teaching English six days a week and had no alone time whatsoever for myself. Plus, it wasn’t exactly safe for me to wander far there. He drove me everywhere or I took one bus route that dropped me off at Galerias (a chi-chi mall in San Salvador).
When I got my first “real” job in DC after moving back to the states, I suddenly had a lot more free time. And about a year or so into my job, I began Weight Watchers.
Suddenly, ALL of my “me” time became spent at the gym or focused on food. That was all I knew. My husband was overseas and a lot of my friends had left the DC area, so I had a lot of free time on my hands.
Now, I live in Michigan and our families and old friends live far away … but we’ve made new ones here and have a lovely social circle.
In fact, I’m going shopping this weekend with some friends, but even if they had to cancel at the last minute, I’d still go alone. In essence, that’s the difference between the 29-year old Melissa and the 19-year old Melissa. I’m not afraid to be alone, with my own thoughts.
That said, I’m learning to find balance, so all my free time isn’t spent at the gym but rather pursuing passions, like writing and scrapbooking. Home-making. I’d like to volunteer and engage in some unselfish activities, as well.
With my husband in class or studying so much, I have plenty of “me” time and no excuses; when we have children I realize a lot of this will change.
I know it makes me a better, more confident person when I can devote time to myself. And it probably makes me a more bearable person, too.
The bottom line is, I’m not nearly as co-dependent as I used to be. And I think that’s pretty awesome.
How about you? Do you value your “me” time? Do you need more? How do you carve time out for yourself? Have you always managed to do it?