Alone or Lonely?

I have a recurring dream that I’m back in college. The basic plot is as follows: the administration of Rhodes College realizes that they mistakenly allowed me to graduate without taking a math course. So I have to return to campus as a 44-year-old mother of two and live in a dorm room so I can take a math class in order for my degree to be legitimate.

Side note: Yes. I have a legitimate Bachelor’s of Arts in English from Rhodes College. No. I never took a college math class. Instead, they let me take three science classes. Ah, the joy of a Liberal Arts education! But, hey, I can balance my checkbook, understand a P&L statement and create a zero-based budget in an Excel spreadsheet. So, there. 

I usually spend the majority of the dream wandering around campus, confused as to why I’m back in Memphis and not in Little Rock raising my children and going to work. I can’t find the room where I’m supposed to register for the class. When I attempt to find my dorm room, the stairs do that crazy Hogwarts thing where they switch directions, so I’m never on the floor where I need to be. I arrive at a door that I think is mine, but it has someone else’s name on it. Nothing looks familiar.

I go in search of my friends. I have this sense that they are all off somewhere together. I spy them in The Rat (slang for the Rhodes cafeteria). They’ve all gathered without me. They don’t seem to realize or care I’m not there. I stand right by their table, but they don’t see me.

Over the years, I’ve interpreted this as a simple stress dream. I’ve always focused on the fact that I can think of nothing worse than being forced to take a college-level math class and being told I have to live in a dorm again. The dream is clearly about having too much to do and not being able to control what is going on around me.

At least that’s what I’ve always told myself. I mean, I’m aware I have control issues. Even when I’m supposedly relaxing, my right hand is usually in a clenched fist. When I feel out of control – at work, at home, in relationships – I clean and organize things. It’s both a procrastination method and a way to exert control over SOMETHING … ANYTHING.

I’m working on it. Promise.

Last night, I had the dream again. It was more or less the same. I tried to find my dorm room and couldn’t. I tried to register for the class, but I couldn’t find that room either.

The big difference was the heightened sense of panic I felt over not being able to find my friends. Added to that panic was a new storyline about how desperate I felt that I couldn’t get any boys to pay attention to me. (I mean, hello?! Am I back in college or middle school?!) Even the guy who I could ALWAYS count on in college to make out with me wouldn’t give me the time of day. I was invisible. I was alone. I was desperately lonely.

Somewhere in the chaos, a professor appeared at my side to encourage me. Oddly enough, the role of the calming professor was played by Stockard Channing. (I’m still binge watching The Good Wife. She plays Alicia Florrick’s meddling mother. That’s all I got.) As she tried to convince me to stay on campus and finish the class, I broke down in sobs, saying something to the effect that I couldn’t stay in a place where I was so horribly lonely.

Thank goodness, my alarm went off in the middle of that pathetic break down. Sheesh.

I lay in my empty bed in my empty house for more than 30 minutes trying to make sense of this vivid dream. I’m still not exactly sure what it means, but I think it has something to do with my struggle to understand the difference between being alone and being lonely.

My children (and my dogs) have been in Alabama with their father for two weeks, now. They won’t be home for another two weeks. For the first time ever I’ve had to learn to be truly alone in my house for an extended period of time.

It’s been wonderful. I cleaned my house the day they left, and it’s still clean. I hosted an almost impromptu BYOB/potluck for three girlfriends without worrying about little eyes and little ears. I wake up in the morning, stream Pandora on my TV, sing loudly and dance while I get ready for work. I’ve had the time and energy to invest in a new relationship. I think I’ve been to the grocery store once, maybe twice. I’ve done exactly two loads of laundry in two weeks.

It’s been scary. My house makes noises: clicks, creaks, pings and pops. The motion light outside my bedroom turns on every time a leaf blows within range. My house is extraordinarily quiet. Sometimes, I find myself wandering from room to room looking for something to clean or organize, because being alone makes me feel out of control. There’s nothing for my fist to clench on to – no kid drama, no schedule chaos, no dinners to cook, no kitchen to clean, no laundry to fold.

At my core, I’m still scared that being by myself – either temporarily or long-term – means I’m going to be lonely. I hate that desperate feeling. It makes me feel weak. It makes me feel like I have no control.

I have to remind myself that the times I’ve felt the loneliest have been when I’ve been in the company of others. When I was married, I was lonely. I’m sure he was, too. We were completely disconnected from each other because of denial, shame and blame. I purposely disconnected from friends and family because I didn’t want them to see the cracks in the armor. There were very few people who knew my marriage was ending. Now that’s lonely.

But here’s what I’m learning: being alone is absolutely not the same as being lonely. Being alone doesn’t cause loneliness. Being disconnected causes loneliness. I can do alone. I LIKE being alone. I think that bears repeating: The extrovert who draws her energy from other people LIKES to be alone. Keep your hands of my remote, people. That’s my Netflix!

I can honestly say that I’ve not had a lonely moment in two weeks, despite the many hours I’ve spent by myself. My heart tells me that’s a wonderful thing. What I have to remember to do is to reach out. To connect. To speak my truth. To not play games. To not put on armor. Geez, it’s hard to be healthy. But I’m getting there.

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