I Find Solitude Comforting, But Is It Good for Me?

Solitude going to the movies alone

It was a combination of unbearable heat and stifling ennui that drove me to the cinema in the first place.

I moved from Australia to London in early June as the city steeped in an unseasonable, unconscionable heat wave, and people were behaving strangely. (I saw a businessman remove his button-down shirt on a train.) I did all the things you are supposed to do when you move to a new country: I sent emails to everyone vaguely connected to my life to see if they knew of any jobs/apartments/friendship groups that might need me in them, immediately. I unveiled a British phone number in all of my WhatsApp groups. I recited my new pin over and over in my head, like some kind of financial Gregorian chant.

And then… Nothing. Two weeks of administrative activity evaporated in the heat and I woke up one day with nothing to do. No job, not that many friends, and nowhere to be.

Listless, hot and for want of anything better on the iCal horizon, I looked up the nearest cinema and arrived sweaty and unannounced on its doorstep. I bought a ticket to the first available movie, which happened to be Avengers: Infinity War. I also bought a Diet Coke the size of my head. The following day I returned for the McQueen documentary.

Over the next few weeks, my life took on a lopsided sort of rhythm: wake up, scroll through job ads, see some apartments (they were always shitty), and go to a movie. June is when Summer Movie Season elbows its way into cinemas, and I saw a lot of blockbusters: Jurassic World, Book Club, Whitney, Solo, Deadpool 2, Hereditary and Ocean’s Eight. When I had seen every movie that was on offer I bought another ticket to Ocean’s Eight. (In total, I saw Ocean’s Eight three times and as a result can now perform the Anne Hathaway press conference scene from memory.)

I’ve always been good at being on my own. I’m an eldest child and only daughter who, at this stage in my life, is basically professionally single. I’m also a Capricorn, so make of that what you will. And I love movies. I’ve been going to the cinema on my own since I had the babysitting cash in my pocket to do so; it’s one of my favorite things to do.

I subscribe to the theory that “doing things solo is important because it feeds our sense of capability,” as Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, psychologist and author of How To Be Yourself tells me. I agree with her when she explains that “doing things alone increases your comfort with being alone.” But I had to wonder: Was I getting a bit too comfortable with it?

Alone time, especially for those of us prone to social anxiety, can sometimes morph into avoidance.

I saw a movie on my own 13 times my first month in London. At first, I felt like I had cheated the heat-borne malaise and my anxiety about moving to another city. But as the weeks rolled on I began to worry that what I was doing wasn’t self-reliant, it was self-abnegating. Instead of learning how to be on my own, I was hiding.

“Alone time, especially for those of us prone to social anxiety, can sometimes morph into avoidance,” Dr. Hendriksen tells me.

Almost half of all American adults have reported feeling sometimes or always alone, according to recent research by Cigna. The loneliest age group of the study, they noted, was also the youngest: post-millennials aged 18-22. In 2016, a study by Age UK found that people are lonelier in big cities than they are in rural areas, a factor influenced by the number of single-person urban households, the prevalence of renters as opposed to homeowners (roughly two thirds of all New Yorkers are renters) and, according to some experts, the rise of social media. We’re more connected than ever before, but true connection is partially obscured by a screen.

Being alone is a part of modern life, which means that loneliness is, too. But there’s a difference between happily exploring a big city on one’s own and staying in because of sadness. The potential for danger exists when we become aware of our loneliness and fold ourselves into it, rather than pushing ourselves out. “If we do things alone because we’re afraid being with others will lead to judgment or rejection, alone time ceases to be empowering and instead perpetuates social anxiety,” Dr. Henriksen says.

I became aware of just how lonely — and anxious — I had been when I FaceTimed my best friend from home after two months of text-only communication. “What have you been up to?” she asked, waiting for breathless and ebullient tales of all-night raves in warehouses and celebrity sightings in the pubs of Hampstead.

I didn’t know how to tell her that I had mostly been seeing mediocre movies on my own, so I mumbled something about boring life admin and changed the subject. Later, hours after we had bid each other goodbye, I thought about how deeply I had allowed myself to burrow that month. I thought about what I might have missed while I was tucked away inside a multiplex in the middle of the day watching Ocean’s Eight for the third time. But what could I do about it?

Social anxiety is perpetuated when we try to hide,” Dr. Hendriksen advises me. “So don’t bury yourself in your phone in a dark corner. Instead, look around. Turn your attention outward, away from your inner worries of ‘What if someone sees me?’ and toward wherever you are in the moment.”

June ended as it began: Hot. A whole month melted away and all those ripped ticket stubs pooled at the bottom of my bag.

July was just as warm and just as sticky. But like everything new, the baking heat of the city – not to mention the city itself – had grown on me. I started exploring new neighborhoods; connecting with friends, new and old. I worked. I made plans. I deposited my first lot of pounds into my British bank account. I slowly came to realize that there was so much to do and how much fun could be had in the doing of it. A week slipped past, and another, and another until suddenly I could see the edges of August. I felt like I had emerged, blinking and bleary-eyed from too long spent hiding in the dark corner of a movie theatre. I didn’t go back to one all month.

By the time I did return to the movies, in August, an equilibrium had returned. I saw The Meg, for my sins, on a Sunday afternoon with a bucket of popcorn. Not because I wanted to hide in the dark on a Sunday — but because I really, really wanted to see Jason Statham fight a shark. Here was something I wanted to do on my own. That felt like an important distinction.

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer and podcaster living in London

Photo by J. R. Eyerman/Life Magazine/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images.

Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer and podcaster living in London

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