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EVERYONE HAS A STORY TO TELL

ADVENTURES IN THE ART OF BEING ALONE: ERIKA BURHO

Samantha Wills

Head pounding, body stiff, an insistent afternoon light demanded entry into the mascara-caked eyes I hadn’t bothered to wash the night before. As an intense pain began to radiate from my fingers to my toes, makeup-stained terry cloth came into focus, dangling above my head. Dotted with glitter and streaked with tears, I recognized the once-white fabric as a hand towel and slowly unclenched my body from the fetal position it had tightly held on my unforgiving bathroom floor. With perfectly manicured fingers, I gripped the vanity and felt a fresh rush of tears return as I took in my sad reflection. Shame swelled within my heart as I understood how broken a person had to be to find more comfort in falling asleep on cold, hard tiles than in waking in their bed alone.

Only months before, the bottom had given out on my seemingly perfect life, once free of heartache, hangovers, reality checks and regret. Realizing that my fifteen-year relationship was no longer feeding the soul that my corporate job was aggressively crushing, I had walked away from both, naïve to the challenges of standing on my own two feet in a city where I had no family and few friends. After the thrill of my bold decision wore off, confronted by the gravity of being truly alone for the first time in my life, I panicked. In the months that followed, I lost fifteen pounds, fifty thousand dollars and, for a time, my self-worth. It was the messiest, most beautiful, transformative summer of my life.

Only months before, the bottom had given out on my seemingly perfect life, once free of heartache, hangovers, reality checks and regret.

But first, I landed my dream job, the type of opportunity I had been working toward my entire career. Somehow, I found myself surrounded by a circle of hilarious, loving, successful new friends. Together we traveled to beautiful places, laughed joyous, stomachache-inducing laughs, covered ourselves in glitter and danced until dawn.  I had never looked better, or had more fun. From the outside looking in, I was reclaiming my playful spirit, enjoying the spoils of New York City as a newly single woman, socializing at every opportunity, plastering my social media feeds with photo after perfect photo of a dazzling, shining, smiling new me, draped with gorgeous friends who clearly enjoyed her company. I was doing just fine, and I had proof! And yet, beneath the pretty surface, I had never been in more pain.

I went to extraordinary lengths that summer to avoid being alone. When nights out with my new friends would end, the temporary euphoria I’d felt under the shimmer of the disco ball would come to a screeching halt. My world would go black and, with a rush, every emotion that had been bottled up, drowned out or completely numbed would come racing back with searing, dizzying, suffocating pain. Suddenly and uncontrollably, I would become hysterical as my reality came back into focus. I tested every limit of my friends’ patience, as I pouted and wept until I was nothing but a soggy mess on various street corners of New York City. “Didn’t you have fun tonight?” they would ask. “Didn’t we just have the time of our lives?” They didn’t, couldn’t understand that that was precisely the reason it hurt so much to emerge back into the darkness of only my own company. I was terrified of being alone with myself and wanted the music to play forever. The loneliness, even if only for a matter of hours, was unbearable. Down to my core, I knew how pathetic this was, and my shame led to a viscous cycle of nights I couldn’t remember and days I longed to forget. Repeat.

And so, I cried. I cried, and I cried, and I cried. I learned that with a large enough pair of sunglasses, I could walk, sit, shop or dine anywhere I wanted in New York and let the tears freely fall, undetected. At times, so overcome with emotion, I cared less about blending in and would walk from Chelsea to Tribeca sobbing, sans sunglasses, my emotions on full display. As it turned out, barely a soul batted an eyelash, such is the anonymity we’re rewarded and punished with in this city. I found this complete disregard for my heartbreak equal parts comforting and infuriating. It was only later that it occurred to me that my pain didn’t make me special; it made me human.

And so, I cried. I cried, and I cried, and I cried.

I spent a small fortune showing up to classes at a certain fitness studio, sometimes three or more times a day, paying an extraordinary sum (I still cringe at the calculation) for the pleasure of sweating, crying, singing and dancing in a dark room full of strangers. I convinced myself for a long time that this made me strong, that I was conquering fears, doing something positive for myself, showing up again and again for a grueling workout because I was a brave, tough, powerful person. I was weak. Each class gave me a place to be so that I didn’t have to be somewhere, anywhere else alone. In the process, I shed pounds, found a community of wonderful people, met the person who is now my best friend, and worked my body into the best physical shape it’s ever been in, but if I’m being honest, my new hobby was far from healthy. I was paying for a distraction from my real problems, and they weren’t getting better or going away. I had an addiction. And I liked it.

Speaking of small fortunes, I spent another on an endless list of celebrations, dinner tabs and getaways, all in the hope that these things would endear me permanently to those invited, that I would be rewarded with their everlasting affection. My generosity gave me a fleeting sense of control, which I became obsessed with chasing. In that summer alone, I made an embarrassingly large dent in the savings I had worked for years to accumulate, convinced that I was investing in the type of companionship that would save me from myself, that this was the price one had to pay to play catch-up on friendship-forming in their thirties. I wish I had realized that those friends, although newcomers in my life, loved me for the person I was, or rather in spite of the person I was, not for my purchasing power. Although my credit card played host to some pretty spectacular outings, some of my most treasured memories during that period were the ones that were the least expensive, together in my apartment, drinking wine on a rooftop, unplanned sleepovers, laughing on the sidewalk over a joke that only we found funny, swapping stories around a dinner table, watching the sun rise, cherishing a sunset.

Looking back, it’s clear that the special souls who found their way into my heart that summer are some of the best human beings to ever cross my path and surely the greatest friends I’ve ever known, not because they showed up when the champagne was flowing, but because they remained by my side as the tears fell, after the music stopped. They took my hand in theirs on those 4am journeys home, held me as I heaved ugly, snot-filled sobs into the chests of their leather jackets, continued to take my calls, and offered me second, third, fourth, fortieth chances, even when I’d been on my worst behavior the night before. I tested the limits of their love for me in an extreme kind of way and consider myself exceptionally lucky that I did not push them away permanently in the process. In my mind, their continued presence in my life today now gives purpose to some of the hurt that brought us together in the first place.

Since peeling myself off those tiles, I’ve learned, often the hard way, that being truly happy does not mean being completely devoid of sadness, and that embracing moments of loneliness, rather than running from them, makes them a lot less scary.

Waking up on that bathroom floor illustrated in sharp, agonizing detail, the true terror I felt over being alone, and the lack of self-love that had made that fear possible. Since peeling myself off those tiles, I’ve learned, often the hard way, that being truly happy does not mean being completely devoid of sadness, and that embracing moments of loneliness, rather than running from them, makes them a lot less scary. I have recognized that before I could learn to really love myself, I had to get to know myself, and that has meant committing to and valuing time spent with no one else but me. In accepting the love of those around me, I’ve grown to become less dependent on it, and I’ve come to appreciate that prioritizing my own care makes me a better friend to them. And while I have forgiven myself for acting otherwise, I know that there are far worse things in life than broken hearts and loneliness. For me, mastering the art of being alone remains a work in progress. But it’s working.

If I could write a letter to my younger self, I’d want her to read every single one of these words. I’d tell her not to avoid the mistakes that I’ve made, but to trust that she would learn from them, survive them. I’d tell her to let go of her shame and ask her to be proud of her ability to rise, to find beauty in her pain. I’d want her to look forward to, rather than fear, the sins she would one day commit (they were fun). I’d tell her how worthy she is, that the love she gives others is a precious gift, and that a collection of extraordinary friends was waiting to become the family she’s always wanted, ready to celebrate and support her for life. I’d ask her to be kind to herself and to believe that if, one day, the pain she went through on her journey helped someone else to pick up the pieces of their own, it would all have been worth it.

“Why is this happening? What was all this for?” She was silent for a minute and then said, “Perhaps there are people that will need you one day. Maybe you’re going through this to eventually help someone else. Perhaps you’re setting an example.”


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