The first time I had a panic attack, aged 24, I was watching The Affair. Dominic West’s face sets me on edge even now. I had not that long before traded my bedroom at my mother’s house for my first flat in central London, started a job at a national newspaper, and thrown myself into the frenetic consumption that, we’re told, is “living” in the capital – until I landed one weekend, alone and directionless in front of Showtime’s finest, and realised that I could no longer stand to be inside my own head.
I was reminded of this period of my life recently by a friend as I recounted how busy my diary is, how frantic my efforts to avoid myself. When I attended my first GP-mandated CBT appointment back in 2016, I was asked to set a goal for our time together – because simply “getting better” was too much to ask of my allotted six sessions. I replied that I wanted to be able to spend an evening on my own without that now-familiar cold, crawling feeling of fizzing unsettledness.
I became, eventually, someone who could not only spend time on my own without being overwhelmed by existential emptiness, but someone who actively enjoyed – even craved – it. I walked into restaurants and asked for a table for one, please, and grew quite adept at eating with a fork in one hand and a paperback in the other. I went to the cinema on my own and afterwards walked home purposefully slowly, suspended in a floaty state of semi-reality unbroken by someone else’s views on whether Darren Aronofsky had really lost it this time. I travelled alone, and felt superior in my independence. On one trip to Norway I met two Australian men, both good-looking in their different ways, on a boat across the Oslo Fjord, and spent an uproarious evening with them, unable to decide which I fancied more.
That person is gone now. I have spent, since that fateful night in June, just one evening in my flat “alone”, and I filled it with a series of FaceTime calls followed by an at-home massage courtesy of the Urban app, so I’m not sure it really counts. I am constantly in motion, my life a never-ending rotation of breakfasts and coffees and dinners and drinks, with friend after friend after friend. I have become a super-spreader event.
Conventional wisdom is that the best revenge after a break-up is simply to be happy, to “live your best life”. And though I know how hollow this is, I throw myself into the attempt all the same. To spend time on my own feels, in a way, like accepting that I have lost; that I am, against my will, no longer one half of a pair, but just me. I am afraid, too, of the empty, open spaces of solitude; of the thoughts and questions that come, unbidden, in the silence. Why was I not enough for him? And why is life without him not enough for me?
Of course, there is also the simple reality that I need the comfort of friendship: the people who drop round for emergency hugs; who answer the phone at 3am. The people who remind me that there is life beyond what feels like a death; even that, after the long, quiet hours of working from home, I am real. And there is nothing wrong with that.
But still, I feel something has been taken from me – a calm, quiet confidence that allowed me to choose solitude without self-consciousness or dread – and I want it back. And so I have chosen to face it in the most middle-class, Instagram-friendly way possible, and am marking three months of survival by staying at a hotel for the weekend, alone. The trendy Hertfordshire hotel I have picked bills itself as an “escape from urban living”, and will, I expect, be overrun by people who live in Hackney. I will swim in the lido, spend too much on spa treatments and dress up to take my book out for dinner.
No doubt that feeling of fizzing unsettledness will close in; no doubt I will reach out for a friend at 3am. But perhaps, in between those moments, I will find a little more of myself again. Perhaps I will realise that I have been asking the wrong questions – that really it was him who was not enough for me.
This article appears in the 15 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Fateful Chancellor