I have always felt a little bit like an outsider. From as far back as I can remember, I didn’t quite fit in. I was different.
I was never the most popular, sought-after friend or the one with the most talent in anything (in anything that mattered anyway). Winning my school’s spelling bee in sixth grade didn’t win me friends or admirers. Being first chair of the trumpet section in the band wasn’t listed in the junior high school yearbook like captain of the basketball team was.
There were many times that I felt like a total outcast, but to be fair, I was never really that. There were students who were horribly treated because of their socioeconomic status, their clothes, their “weirdness.” That wasn’t me. I was never the object of serious bullying, and I always had friends, even if they sometimes exhibited some mean girl behaviors (who didn’t from time to time?).
Even though I was friendly with many people, I never seemed to have a bestie – that one person from whom I was inseparable – and I really longed for that. I even felt the need to compete with others for that status with some of my friends, hoping to achieve the best friend title, which never led to anything good. It was the same with boys. I was attractive, liked, sometimes pursued even, but it never really went anywhere or lasted very long. I only had short-lived or lukewarm boyfriends, if they can even be called that. I never wore someone’s class ring or letter jacket, got lavaliered or pinned, and I’ve never come close to being engaged.
For a really long time, those facts as I’ve just stated them, made me feel lonely. I never had automatic plans with someone on the weekend, and it was often uncomfortable or even stressful to wonder if anyone would want to hang out with me. It was painful to call person after person, after person to do something and find that they already had plans, and to feel like I was the one always making all the effort because I wasn’t sought after. This continued through high school and even college. I was always the one scrambling for a date to dances, being fixed up by someone else’s dates’ friend or taking someone as “just a friend.”
After spending both Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family, all the ways I am different were put into stark contrast. I’m still single, living far from home, childless, always struggling financially without a lot of material possessions. I have very different beliefs, values and politics from everyone else in my family. It is sometimes surprising to me to realize just how differently I think in the middle of a discussion about current events.
I used to view being different as bad, and now I truly recognize the value in it. I am an Apple devotee, and their slogan for many years has been “Think Different.” If I weren’t different, I wouldn’t so often travel alone, and I would miss out on many of the adventures I treasure. If I weren’t different, I wouldn’t have approached cancer differently, and I wouldn’t have shared what I learned with others. If I weren’t different, I wouldn’t have written a book about being single with cancer, helping others feel less alone in their own experience. I also wouldn’t be sharing my deepest darkest intimacies with you right now, and perhaps something I’m sharing strikes a chord in you as well.
On a recent trip to Hawaii many people I met asked me what I was doing out there on my own. Of 78 people on the snorkeling trip I took one day, I was the only solo traveler. At one point in my life, that would have made me self-conscious, even embarrassed. This time, it didn’t bother me one bit. I even relished snorkeling without a buddy, able to go where I wanted at my own pace without waiting for someone else. I loved being spontaneous about plans for each and every day, doing whatever pleased me at any given moment, and the freedom to change plans at the last minute.
The truth is, I’ve become accustomed to my solitary state – even embrace it. I believe I’ve created this way of being for a reason, whether always conscious or not. I am beginning to embrace the incredible freedom of not being tied down to a job, a spouse, a family or a place, and I actually love that. Even though I own my condo, I rent it out when traveling (which is often) so even that doesn’t restrain me.
I have so many amazing people in my life, a loving family, interesting men to hang out with when I want to. How could I have ever made myself feel badly about any of that? Why did I feel like a freak for choosing something different for my life? I now know that more and more of us are choosing this. More than half the U.S. population is single, and rates are rising in other developed and developing countries as well. In the United States, more than thirty-percent of us live alone. In Denver, where I live, it’s 40-percent - in Atlanta and Minneapolis too. In D.C. and Manhattan, it’s 50-percent.
I now recognize how much I truly love my alone time. Really, really love it! I rarely feel lonely anymore, but when I do, I have lots of great friends I can call. Often, they call me too. Some of those friends would give their right arm for three hours of quiet alone time to gather their thoughts. I know I am blessed, and I know how much.
I have chosen the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.