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Tammy Swift, Published October 05 2013

Swift: Being alone and being lonely two different things

Sometime back in the mid-’90s, Jodie Foster directed a movie called “Home for the Holidays.” It starred Holly Hunter, whose character travels home to spend Thanksgiving with her dysfunctional family of origin. The most dysfunctional of the lot is dotty Aunt Glady, an old-maid aunt who drinks too much wine at dinner and confesses to the entire table that she always had a crush on her sister’s husband.

I chuckled as loudly as anyone when I first saw this, even as I thought, somewhere deep inside, “Please don’t let me ever be the maiden aunt who owns 17 cats and smells like mothballs and gets invited to family functions out of obligation.”

Fast forward 18 years. I am 48 and newly single. When my mother announces that my sister wants her to travel to Florida for Thanksgiving, I panic. “You can’t leave the state,” I fret. “Where will I spend Thanksgiving?” I envision myself sitting alone while eating a turkey pot pie (for one, of course) in front of the television.

“Oh god, it’s happened,” I think. “I’ve become Aunt Glady.”

Yes, folks, the worst thing – the thing I’ve always dreaded – has happened. It’s the very thing I feared so intensely that it kept me living in denial and clinging onto the remains of a dying relationship long past its expiration date.

And you know what? I’m OK.

In fact, the longer I am alone, the better I feel. It’s as if I find myself rising out of a dense, sad fog. Not to get all Hallmark-y about it, but I’m learning the difference between being lonely and simply being alone.

While in the thick of the breakup, I did feel scared and lonesome. These are never easy emotions to own, but that’s exactly how I felt. I spent a lot of time watching TV and cocooning. I ate junk food for dinner, if I ate at all. I slept poorly at night, and sleepwalked through my days. I can remember staring up the stairs of my new townhome and thinking, “I really don’t have the energy to walk all the way up there. Think I’ll just crash on the couch.”

Those uncomfortable, early feelings of loss, sadness and fear still crop up at unexpected times – like when I find old photos from my “former life” on my iPhone or find myself absent-mindedly driving “home” to a place where I no longer live.

But, I can also feel glimmers of my old, pre-married self re-emerging. Last Friday, I was attending a meeting at the Fargo Theatre when I caught a glimpse of a movie poster for Woody Allen’s latest film. My first thought was, “Wow, I’d like to see that, but Irwin would never want to go to it because there are no chase scenes.” And then the realization hit: There is no Irwin. I could not only go to a Woody Allen movie, I could go to 3 1/2-hour extended director’s cut with subtitles and bonus footage of a faucet dripping.

I went to the movie that night with a co-worker, and I loved it. Before the show, I saw several previews to indie films that looked equally interesting. I plan to go to those as well.

And that’s just the tip of the split-berg. Tomorrow’s potential is so wide open that it’s almost overwhelming. I can fill up the DVR with French films that I will probably never watch but revel in collecting. I can return to activities that I once loved, like hosting game nights or dinner parties. I can travel to New Zealand or Ireland or live out my own personal “Eat Pray Love” if I feel like it.

The key is balance. I have to find a way to enjoy being alone – “A Solitary Tam,” if you will – without isolating to an unhealthy extreme. I can take responsibility for my own happiness, without expecting someone else to make me feel loved or OK. I can reject society’s belief that everyone needs to be paired up as if they are about to board an ark.

I can even be the cool, older, single aunt, who has gone interesting places, done interesting things and taken the road less traveled.

Take that, Aunt Glady.

Tammy Swift writes a lifestyle column every Sunday in Variety. Readers can reach her at tswiftsletten@gmail.com.