Living with Myself: On Learning to Embrace Solitude in the Middle of a PandemicHow I overcame my fear of being alone while quarantining in Japan
by Sophia Savva
It’s spring in Tokyo and I’ve been quarantining alone in my small apartment (a mere 8.6 tatami mats) for two months with only my stack of toilet paper and stash of uniquely flavoured Horoyoi for company. The unnameable sweet-yet-savoury aroma of the kabocha no nimono gently stewing on my single-burner stove mixes with the smell of fresh laundry and afternoon spring air. “Nobody” by Mitski blares from the tinny speakers of my cellphone, rattles the counter, probably annoys the neighbours I’ve never seen.
I moved from Toronto to Tokyo a few weeks before the coronavirus became a pandemic with neither a grasp of the language nor a single friend. I’ve spent most of my time in Japan teleworking and staying in on the weekends, and I am the opposite of lonely.
If you knew me before I moved to Japan, this is not the reaction you would expect.
I moved away for university and cried into the pages of my paperback anthologies for two years straight. I took the train to visit my family and friends as often as possible, dramatically staring out the window as if I were returning from war. I needed plans: a party, a night out, a day at the beach, a brunch, an expensive vacation. I procured a gaggle of mediocre suitors and less-than-mediocre boyfriends. I didn’t know it at the time, but I could not stand being alone with myself.
I was not alone in my aversion to solitude (no pun intended): a University of Virginia study found that most people would rather hurt themselves than spend time alone with their thoughts. For many people, knowing themselves is terrifying.
But quarantine forced me to abandon addictive chaos and embrace functional peace. I was alone with my thoughts for the first time in a very long time. I cooked twice a day, I went for long walks every night, I journaled every day. I conducted a mental autopsy on myself: I split myself open and waded through everything I had been running from—my shame, my desires, my anxieties, my discomfort—and discovered my capacity for self-love and truly reveling in solitude. Now, I love spending time with myself.
A New York Times article cites many benefits to spending time alone, such as becoming more confident, learning more about yourself, and forging more meaningful relationships. An article in The Cut says alone time can also boost creativity, improve problem solving, and produce a calming effect. Writers, artists, psychologists, and even religious texts celebrate solitude. In medieval times, “alone” was defined as the “completeness in one's singular being.”
So, how do you learn to be alone with yourself without wanting to subject yourself to electric shocks?
I first tried to cut out as many distractions as I could—that included social media, books, Netflix, Houseparty video calls, and even music—for at least an hour every day. I used this time for journaling, creating something, or simply sitting alone with my thoughts.
Spending so much time alone with myself forced me to become my own best friend—to forgive myself, be gentle with myself, love myself, and find productive coping mechanisms for the need to constantly ruminate about my past mistakes, anxieties, or short-comings. I learned to regulate my emotions, self-soothe, and ultimately enjoy spending time with myself.
I imagined I was six years old, all curly hair and chubby cheeks. I cooked myself healthy meals, bathed myself, cleaned my space, and took care of myself. I did fun things, like dancing alone in my room, buying a bunch of Japanese snacks on my weekly supermarket run, and treating myself to at-home picnics.
By spending time alone, I became more self-aware and focused on self-improvement. Once I sharpened my understanding of myself—what I really liked and disliked, what my desires and goals are—I found myself moving through life more authentically. I don’t need other people or societal expectations to regulate my self-esteem or validate me, and I choose to occupy my time with activities and people that enrich my life.
Learning to enjoy spending time alone and building a good relationship with myself wasn’t and isn’t linear. There are days I feel lonely and discouraged and would rather be anywhere than in my head. But most days, my alone time rejuvenates me. Some days, my emotions are not so neat or black-and-white, and they shift by the hour, by the minute.
Now, it’s summer in Tokyo and life has seemingly returned to normal (save for the flimsy plastic partitions and footprint-shaped stickers on the floors of the conbini, the Don Quijotes), which has thrown me into a new type of isolation. I’ve taken the role of spectator: I watch friends and family chattering away on neon-lit streets, in bustling izakayas, at the beach. I am still alone—only now, I am alone with 37,393,129 people.
But my two months in quarantine have prepared me for the adversity of starting over in a new country. I know myself better, root for myself, and value my independence. I am alone, but I’m not lonely. And as life moves on and new people eventually come into my life, I will still make time for myself.
Sophia recently graduated from the University of Toronto with High Distinction and a double major in Book and Media Studies & English. She is an emerging writer with works in CBC Canada Writes, carte blanche, Points in Case, and many more. When she's not busy writing or reading, she likes painting, cooking, playing the piano, and crafting the perfect Spotify playlist. She currently lives in Tokyo, Japan.
Follow her on Instagram @spooktacularextravaganza and on Twitter @sophiafansite.