Jennifer O’Connell: I’m going to spend time on my own. It’s terrifying
I once scored 95% on the extrovert scale, which basically means I’m terribly needy
By the time you read this, unless I’ve had another wobble, I’ll be up a mountain. Photograph: Getty Images
I once did a questionnaire that tests your personality with the aim of assessing whether your leadership style is more Margaret Thatcher or Kim Jong-un. I scored 95 per cent on the extrovert scale.
“Don’t worry,” the woman doing the psychometric testing said optimistically. “You’ll probably grow out of it. Most people end up somewhere closer to the middle.”
But that was before social media came along, and turned us all into showy exhibitionists. These days, I doubt she’d say the same.
I left the meeting room with the sheet of paper folded tightly under my arm, mortified to have been outed as irretrievably shallow. Because extroverts are louder than introverts, we’ve manipulated the narrative, in that shouty, insistent way of ours, so that it’s generally assumed that being an extrovert is the more desirable state.
It’s not, of course. All extroverts know that “extrovert” is basically a nice word for “exceptionally needy”, while introverts are coolly self-contained.
As a very young child, I would fall passionately in love with best friend after best friend, so that I never had to be alone. When I got older I tried to never be without a boyfriend for long, though my terrifying neediness meant there was quite a high turnover. I’ve never lived alone, not even for a week. Some of my happiest memories involve the kind of circumstances that agricultural labourers in famine times might have considered a tight squeeze: seven of us in one double bedroom in Nantucket; three of us in what was effectively a one bedroom apartment in Paris (albeit a very nice one bedroom with floor-to-ceiling gilt mirrors, parquet floors, a missing bathroom door and the occasional visiting cockroach.)
Quality time alone
But even as it makes me restless and uncomfortable, I’ve always understood the value of time alone. I must have, at some instinctive level, when I chose a job that requires it, like the shy person with chronic stage fright who wants to be an actor. After writing a long article, I emerge in search of human company, a swimmer who has stayed underwater slightly too long, and surfaces gulping for air. But those temporary periods of uncomfortable solitude are essential: without them, I wouldn’t get anything done.
Then, a bit over a decade ago, social media was born -- and with it, the promise that no-one need ever feel lonely any more, that solitude itself would become obsolete. Shirley Valentine wouldn’t have to talk to the microwave any more, not now she could shout into Twitter, or murmur nothings into her Instagram stories. If she’d got enough likes and retweets, she probably wouldn’t have ever gone to Greece.
It is a Faustian pact, of course. Social media promises us a heady dopamine-fuelled shot of validation and visibility – all we have to give up in exchange is our entire inner lives, our capacity for being alone. We used to sit and daydream and allow boredom to wash over us; now we like and swipe and tweet and post selfies into the abyss. We blame technology for doing this to us, but we’re doing it to ourselves.
I was complaining recently about how it’s getting harder to find the solitude I need to get meaningful work done, when my husband suggested I go away by myself for a few days. Think about it, he said. You can write. Turn off all your devices. Empty your mind. Walk. Sleep. Everyone should spend some time on their own, he said, this man for whom happiness is a pair of a runners and a long, deserted road.
Intimacy of strangers
When I established that he wasn’t just rebelling against our co-dependency/having an affair/planning to sell the house and take the kids when I was gone, I did think about it. I counted up all the nights I have spent alone in my life – probably no more than two handfuls. It’s usually in an anonymous mid-price hotel, surrounded by the hum of the air-conditioning and the peculiar intimacy of strangers just beyond the chipboard walls, as I pass the time Whatsapping my husband about the quality of the house band or the sad demise of the minibar. That’s not being alone. What he was talking about was total immersion in me. I couldn’t think of anything more terrifying.
But there was something alluring, too, about the prospect of unbroken space and time, a week free of urgent deadlines and notes from school and after-school activities. It seemed impossible, and then glorious, and then – when I woke with a start in the middle of the night, after the flights had been booked – dangerous. The worst kind of self-indulgence. Horribly lonely. I decided, at around 3am, that I would cancel the flights. At 4am, I imagined which I’d regret more on my deathbed, and decided to go.
So I’m going away. By myself. Alone. Unaccompanied. Even typing those words scares me. By the time you read this, unless I’ve had another wobble, I’ll be up a mountain, sleeping, thinking, walking, writing and engaging the microwave in long discussions about the end of solitude. Or the death of the minibar. But I promise I won’t be tweeting about it.