We had breakfast at a local diner Saturday morning. Deer with huge antlers mounted on the walls. A life-size John Wayne cutout greets you at the door. Chicken fried steak and chocolate gravy the specialities.
I noticed a woman eating by herself. She mostly looked at her iPhone. I concentrated on my eggs and short stack.
A lot of people tell me they could never eat alone.
I remember one of my first efforts. I had just gotten divorced. Wanted to go to my (had been our...) favorite Italian place in Dallas. I knew it would be dark. Convinced myself I would be okay.
I ordered Fettuccine Alfredo, my absolute favorite. It came piping hot. Smelling divine. I reached for the Parmesan cheese and liberally shook it all over the pasta. Dove in for that first rich, mouth-watering bite.
It wasn't Parmesan. It was sugar.
Tears filled my eyes. Just how stupid was I. I was mortified. "Had anybody seen?".
I couldn't bring myself to tell the waitress so I quietly tried to scrape the stuff off the perfectly-cooked noodles. Unfortunately I had already mixed it together.
I ate sickly sweet pasta that night. Just because I was by myself.
Had I been in the company of others, I would have laughed it off. Ordered another bowl.
My being alone paralyzed me. Yes... It also had to do with the incredible sense of failure I was already experiencing. But I think I could have handled it with laughter if someone -- anyone -- had been sitting next to me.
What is it about being alone that is so difficult?
1. Fear of non-acceptance.
Widows tell me of their fear of how they will be accepted if arriving somewhere alone. They feel that they might not be welcome. Not only are they dealing with their grief, but somehow tell themselves that appearing solo is not okay. Feels uncomfortable to be the single woman with married couples. It changes the dynamic.
Or even asking to go with someone. "Judy and John don't want me tagging along". (I usually challenge this though. Judy and John would likely love the company...)
2. Issues of security.
There is a simple security in having someone. I remember a widow I saw as a patient. Her husband had been dead for quite some time. But it was early winter. She slipped and fell on the front steps. Broke her arm. Without thinking, she automatically called out for him.
She told me it was at that moment an immense loneliness gripped her. Much more painful than her broken arm.
3. Being alone in a partnered world.
I hear about fatigue. You just get tired of it. Being alone in a partnered world. No one to talk with about the game or the party. After everyone has said goodnight.
4. Dealing with self-worth.
What does it mean to not have a partner? Especially if you want a relationship? It's difficult to come to terms with not necessarily being in control of that. Not letting it affect how you feel about yourself.
My paralysis at the dinner table was due to this. I thought it "said something about me" that I was alone. I was "less" than someone with a dinner companion.
The holidays can make it harder.
There are some folks that it doesn't seem to affect. They appear to do it easily. Maybe those people are more comfortable in their own skins. Maybe they have a "loner" streak. They would not say they are lonely. They have achieved a good balance of being with others and living their own life.
I have long thought that loneliness should be a diagnosis. Like depression. When you experience it, it has an ache that is like no other. Some people avoid it like the plague. Have people around them constantly. Others bear it who want a relationship, but life just hasn't led to that. Maybe have tried -- maybe given up. Maybe just taking a rest.
You can be very lonely within a relationship as well. But it's different than not having a partner at all.
It is important to be able to value your own company. To be able to watch a sunset, read a book or cook a meal. And enjoy it for what it is just for you.
Please remember those who are living life on their own. Divorced. Widowed. Perhaps have never chosen to be partnered. Or are choosing to live life alone now.
Reassure them they are wanted. Even treasured.
And if it's you. Know that you are.
Especially now. During the holiday season.
You may appreciate that gift yourself one day.
You can read more of Dr. Margaret at http://drmargaretrutherford.com. Please comment or send her private questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.