It is crazy how much you can change in four years. It is even crazier to think how much you can change in one.
A year ago I was a bright-eyed girl checking off an experience that had been on my bucket list since I was 15-years-old: studying abroad in London. My semester abroad was my first time really being on my own. Technically speaking, college was my first time on my own without my parents, but studying abroad was my first real opportunity to be truly independent. My parents were eight hours behind, which meant in the case of an emergency, I would have to rely on my own grit and resilience to figure it out.
I can remember my first morning waking up in London like it was yesterday. I was exhausted, having been far too excited and jetlagged to get any proper sleep, but I crawled out of bed, bought my morning Pret coffee with coconut milk and sat at the window in my flat just staring out the window. I was in disbelief. I couldn’t believe one of my lifelong dreams was happening before my eyes. I was also…completely alone.
Besides my roommate, I did not know a single person I was abroad with. I thought I would feel terrified and outnumbered by the students who knew each other. Instead, I felt liberated! Not a single soul knew who I was. This phenomenon simultaneously thrilled and terrified me. On one hand, I could take advantage of no one knowing me and try on a different version of myself to see how I like it. I could try on a wildly outgoing version of myself, one who stays out multiple nights in a row until 4 a.m. and boldly flirts at bars, or in other words adopt the mindset, new country, new me! I quickly decided that wasn’t my style and went for the second option: keeping to myself.
While I was abroad, when I was not with my roommates or other friends, I spent minutes, hours and full days by myself. I spent long weekends living by my own rules, walking the streets of London and picking a direction at random and walking until I was hungry. I visited bookstores, knick-knack shops, art museums and sometimes popped into a pub for an afternoon pint of cider just because I could! I spent 10 minutes staring at my favorite painting in The National Gallery because I had nowhere else to be but in the present moment. Unashamed, I looked forward to these weekends of silence and peace every single week.
Most study abroad students spend every single weekend traveling to new countries, justifying their decisions with the sentiment, “I will never be 20 and in Europe again!” While I would have liked to see more countries, I also feel proud that I studied abroad on my own terms. I had a few goals going into the semester: I had to see Paris to make my childhood self who had a France-themed bedroom proud, I was determined to do the Harry Potter studio tour and I was fascinated with the idea of leaving in December knowing the city of London very well. I sleep easily knowing I did all three of these things and more. If I could go back, I probably wouldn’t do much differently.
At first, it felt odd to spend so much time by myself. I thought people would judge me for being all by myself and wandering aimlessly. There were moments when I craved conversation with another person, but I was also delighted to send my various thoughts and opinions to my parents on WhatsApp. Overtime, being independent became easier. I would listen to albums all the way through and my favorite podcasts while visiting a new district. I would sit on benches in pretty parks to read my book or journal my never ending thoughts. Hours would go by and I would barely even notice! I took pictures of everything and felt like the entire world was at my fingertips. On my own, I didn’t have to settle for other people, which sounds selfish, but in reality, it was freeing. I lived my life in London entirely for myself and for the most part alone, something I never thought I could comfortably do.
Ever since I was a teenager I have struggled with the fear of missing out. When people would get together on Friday nights while I was stuck inside with my mom and yet another romantic-comedy to watch, I was convinced there was something wrong with me. Why couldn’t I be more outgoing? Why wasn’t my social calendar bursting with plans? This feeling continued in college, when I watched the girls around me get fake IDs and spend their weekends out at bars. I made a few attempts to change my life actively. I reached out to more people who went out and were doing what I thought was “the normal college experience.” I tried to be a social butterfly and someone could let her homework pile up while telling herself, “You can sleep when you are dead!” Someone who, in short, was entirely unlike myself.
I wasted years of my life molding myself into what I thought I should be. I desperately wanted to be the girl who had weekends full of plans and who could talk to everyone with ease and without anxiety. I wanted to be the girl who fit into the classic college narrative of going out, getting drunk and making dumb silly mistakes with romantic prospects. But at the end of the day, that isn’t me, and I wish it hadn’t taken me this long in life to accept this. I am quiet. I prefer reading a book to most activities that involve other people. I love to people-watch and think about the little magical lives that the people around me lead. I love to fill my days with the hobbies and activities that I enjoy, not the things that I think I should.
All it took was a brief stint in London to fully understand and appreciate this fact about how and who I am. I half convinced myself it was just the abroad fever: I was riding on a foreign high of freedom. Once I returned to my small private college, I would go back to feeling lonely and hyper-focused on what people around me were doing. As I eased back into the Midwestern mundane, I waited for the anxiety of not doing enough and not living up to my college potential to return. It didn’t. As my junior year concluded, I didn’t feel weaker from feelings of anxiety, sadness and awareness of being perceived. Instead, I surrounded myself with people who unapologetically loved and supported me. And when I wasn’t with those people, I savored hours on my own. I treasured quiet hours in the library cramming in last minute readings, early mornings by myself watching the world wake up, afternoon walks learning about something new from a podcast and nights curled up in bed with a book. I felt stronger in my identity than I’d had in my entire 21 years of life.
London taught me the independent sense of peace that I have always craved and felt deep inside of me. A part of me knew that I was always meant to be a quiet observer, but I could never fully accept this and tried endlessly to be what I thought people wanted. After London, I began to mourn the energy I wasted and the hours I spent overthinking rather than pursuing what I love.
Alone time is my safe place. Alone time is when I feel most like myself. Alone time is where I am the strongest, and I have no intention of changing.