Being alone

The weird things we do when we’re completely alone

From going on massive cleaning purges to watching weird videos and having a big old cry, 14 writers confess their alone-time rituals.

Don’t get us wrong, being with people is great, but there’s something about being alone that allows us to fully breathe out. Moving through the world requires a certain amount of self-awareness and restraint – fighting the urge to stroke a woman’s fluffy jacket on the bus, for example – but when we’re safely behind our own front door, all our strangest quirks and whims can run free.

Until recently, Brits spent an average of 29% of their leisure time alone (about 100 minutes a day), with men bagging an extra 40 minutes of leisure time per day than women. Read into that what you will. And while not everyone is a fan of solitude – and social interaction is, of course, critical for our wellbeing – it’s worth remembering that studies also show that spending time alone can increase empathy and productivity, spark creativity and improve our memory.

As we all continue to navigate social distancing and spend an unprecedented amount of time at home to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, our lifestyles and what we do with our leisure time is bound to be (temporarily) impacted. Vodafone’s internet usage has already surged by up to 50% in some European countries. But being alone doesn’t just mean more screen time. Here, 14 women reveal the weird and wonderful ways they choose to spend time by themselves… 

“I sing show tunes. Entire musicals. From start to finish” 

By Kaleigh Dray

“In the heart of little old New York, you’ll find a thoroughfare. In the heart of sleepy Surrey, though, you’ll find a musical superstar – one who’s performed thousands of innovative one-woman West End shows. You won’t have heard of her: her shows are kept secret, audiences tiny. As in, yeah, there’s no one. It’s just me, my voice and the endless supply of lyrics rattling around my brain.

My fans (if I had any) would tell you that I performed my role as all six of Henry VIII’s wives with gusto in my staging of Six. That my recreation of The Book Of Mormon’s Hasa Diga Eebowai was enthusiastic, albeit frightening for our neighbour listening through the wall. That my Climb Every Mountain is even better than Mother Superior’s from The Sound Of Music. And that my shower-soaked Les Misérables rendition of On My Own brought tears to their eyes and mine… even if it was due to a shampoo mishap.

Sometimes, I’ll attempt light choreography – although this hasn’t always served me well (see the great Cats-astrophe of 2019). Mostly, though, I stick to the vocal stuff. I’ll select a musical, stick it on, and work my way through from beginning to end. Why? Because I’ve done it ever since I was tiny, warbling out show tunes in the car on family road trips. And sure, I may have zero talent (I don’t want to face the truth, which is why I sing alone, always), but it makes me feel good, damn it. All I need to do is belt out a few bars of Hello, Dolly! et voilà: I’m energised, focused and ready to face my public. Except when the public is my housemate unexpectedly crashing my musical party – with a DATE in tow.

But to paraphrase the Phantom: alone time sharpens, heightens each sensation and makes one believe they’re an award-winning singer. I can’t explain it. All I can do is succumb to it – and enjoy every bloody moment.”

“I indulge my inner slob”

By Megan Murray

“When my boyfriend isn’t home, I take a weird delight in deliberately making everything as messy as humanly possible. I’ll walk though the door and shrug my coat immediately onto the floor with a devil-may-care attitude to where it lands. Before I know it, I’m hacking into a loaf of bread straight onto the work surface, crumbs are everywhere. With my bare hands I’m clawing peanut butter out of the jar, wiping my sticky fingers onto cupboard doors. Within minutes, the place looks overrun. I love living with him but there’s something deliciously satisfying about rebelling against my boyfriend’s tidy nature. I get a sadistic pleasure from indulging my inner slob, if only for an hour before I’m running around hiding the evidence. It’s literally my dirty little secret. Well, until he reads this.”

“I get my moan on”

By Anne Lord

“When I watch porn, the woman on my screen will be screaming out ‘Yes, yes, yes’ like a crazed banshee. I, on the other hand, am usually silent when I masturbate, biting my lip so that no one else in my four-person flatshare can hear me. When you’re in bed, with headphones in and joggers around your ankles, it can be a struggle to get in the mood – especially when my vibrator buzzes through the walls louder than a drum ’n’ bass track.

That’s why, whenever I have a free house, I match my self-pleasure sounds to a porn star’s moaning. Granted, I don’t sound as sexy – more like someone repeatedly stubbing their toe, perhaps. But it doesn’t matter because hearing myself helps settle me into the rhythm of my desire. People make noises during sex to help guide the other person into doing things that feel good. That shouldn’t stop when the person feeling things is you.”

“The Oscar speech comes out”

By Marie-Claire Chappe

“‘I would like to thank the Academy for this great honour,’ I say, blubbing – just the right side of Gwyneth – while keeping my composure. ‘I just… didn’t expect this.’ I clutch my heart, look humble. I mean, Meryl was in my category! ‘Honestly, there are so many people I need to thank…’ I go on, listing my fantastic director and cast, my agent, and then I steel myself for the pay-off. It’s either a loving message for my husband or a political statement. Yes, maybe something about feminism, or cheese. And then I put down my Oscar, which is actually my reusable water bottle, and get back to my inbox.

Welcome to my secret WFH behaviour. I usually cherish this time as I am most productive when left to my own devices. But clearly, as my Oscar speech proves, I am also at my most ridiculous. When I have writer’s block, I’m bored or procrastinating, this is when my nutty side comes out – and when The Speech comes out. The frustrated almost-actor in me clearly regrets the path not taken. I have practised The Speech since my drama school days. Back then it was a legitimate goal, but now it’s pure escapism. To an imagined moment where I’ve reached the zenith of success, where I don’t have 52,871 unread emails and where I get to say, ‘I beat Meryl.’” 

“Dressing up in my old clothes is self-indulgent and bittersweet”

By Daisy Buchanan

“I’m currently getting over a problematic shopping habit. I used to buy obscene amounts of occasionwear. I know I should resell or donate these clothes, but when my husband isn’t home, I drag a suitcase out from under the bed, put them all on and study my reflection in the mirror.

I do it in private because I can’t bring myself to openly acknowledge the waste – that I have all of these clothes I really don’t need – or the fact that the changes in my body have brought up some complicated emotions. After 18 months of deliberate, steady weight loss, I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact that my collection of sparkling armour is no longer fit for purpose. So I use my alone time to figure out my feelings and confront my own vulnerability. The urge to dress up in my old clothes comes from a craving to get used to my new self. I want to move forward, and I’m frustrated because I’m not quite ready yet.

I also tell myself it’s part of an effort to ‘organise’ my stuff when I unzip the case – but it’s actually a weird compulsion. I cannot bring myself to get rid of these frocks, but they definitely do not spark joy. Previously when I stared at myself in these dresses, my curves were bulging. Now, everything is just a couple of inches lower and looser. But it’s still my body looking back at me.

On a personal level, I’ve stopped self-medicating with food, and that has been life-changing. Yet I’m irrationally fearful of forgetting how far I have come, as well as where I have been. Trying on my old dresses is self-indulgent and bittersweet. It reminds me that my smaller body isn’t better – it’s just different. It’s also a sharp reminder that I could have seized the day, or the night, in my sequins. Instead, I waited for my body to signal how I should feel about myself, when I should have just loved it all along.”

“I dive into reality TV drama”

By Hannah Keegan

“Nothing calms me like watching Bethenny Frankel, a former Real Housewife of New York City turned liquor millionaire, scream ‘GO TO SLEEP!’ on the balcony of a remote villa in the Virgin Islands. In the clip from 2010, Frankel is wild-eyed and indignant. Her co-star is shovelling jellybeans into her mouth mutely. The atmosphere is deranged. But I, alone in my bedroom, feel oddly at peace. When no one is around and I need soothing, clips from The Real Housewives are where I look. Tinsley Mortimer crying on FaceTime while her doctor shows her a fuzzy photograph of her unfertilised eggs (‘They’re, like, my babies,’ she says breathlessly) will do it. So will Lisa Rinna smashing a glass across a table. At the root of it, it’s about escaping into someone else’s dramatised problems. But it also allows me to reflect: would my upset even make a subplot storyline?”

Pie image

“I stuff my face with pies”  

By Claire Cheung

“Recently at Morrisons, some luminous yellow ‘reduced’ labels down my favourite aisle drew me over like a magnet: two steak and ale pies for 20p. My pulse quickened and saliva started to fill my mouth as I hastened my pace to the checkout. I couldn’t wait to get home to devour one, and prayed that my housemate would be out.

Because there’s something so gratifyingly naughty about stuffing my face with a lardy, ready-made pie. What can I say, I’m northern – they make up part of my DNA. Once home, I’ll throw myself into my kitchen armchair and destroy a pie in a few mouthfuls, gorging quickly in fear of my housemate returning and catching me in the act with gooey sauce dribbling down my chin. Two minutes later, I sit there legs akimbo, feeling dirty but satisfied; hands resting on my fulfilled belly.

As a keen cook, I make most things from scratch and I think my friends would be horrified if they knew I inhaled pies in secret. But it’s times like these that I cherish: when I can be carefree and not give a damn what anyone else thinks. My foodie behaviour is completely different when I’m socialising: I take my time, savour flavours and insist on splitting the last sliver of a sharing plate. On my own, I’ll lick the pie flakes off my plate – and it’s pure bliss.”

“Sasha Fierce is unleashed”

By Meena Alexander

“Sometimes my solo behaviour leans towards the eccentric (saying every line of a Sex And The City episode out loud) and sometimes it’s just plain gross (examining my blackheads). However, there’s one thing that takes up a lot of my alone time – and that is studying Beyoncé’s dance routines.

There is a reason no one tries to dance like Beyoncé in public – the same reason no one will blithely queue up an Adele ballad at a karaoke bar. You don’t want people thinking that you think you actually look like Beyoncé. But between the four walls of home, my inner diva can live her best life without judgment.

I’m currently working my way through that iconic Coachella set (a real workout, I recommend) and nothing is more freeing and fun than prancing around to those uplifting songs. Beyoncé only deals in power moves, so it’s hard not to feel strong and sexy emulating her – even if you feel totally ridiculous at first.

Obviously, I would die of shame if anyone ever walked in on me whipping my hair to Survivor and waving regally to my imaginary fans. That is unless they were willing to join me as Kelly and Michelle, of course.”

Old photos

“Crying through my memory box is cathartic”

By Nicole Rixon

“I’m a very sentimental person. Does anyone want to keep these gig tickets? Yes, me. Every single time. They’ll go straight in my memory box, thanks. That title makes it sounds kitsch, but it’s literally a cardboard box that I’ve used to hoard various keepsakes over the years.

I’ve always lived in busy houses so being home alone is rare for me. But whenever it does happen, I’ll head straight to the box – stored in a corner of my wardrobe – for a dose of emotional nostalgia. It’s a real mixed bag in there: I’ve got old school planners and photos, memorabilia from ex-boyfriends and cards written by loved ones that aren’t here any more.

Reading my Grandpa’s shaky handwriting as he wishes me ‘happiness today and always’ on my 16th birthday takes me back to that time and makes me feel connected to him again. I can picture him at his dining room table writing it; I can hear his voice as I’m reading it. Objects like this are really powerful. Sometimes it’s sad, and there are tears (which explains why I wait to be alone), but other times it can be uplifting. Especially after a few wines, when I end up laughing at the mix CD of ‘cool tracks’ that my teenage crush made me.

Life is busy and I’m definitely guilty of always looking ahead to the next thing, but taking a moment alone to reflect on the past can be pretty therapeutic. It reminds you of how far you’ve come, and all the people that have made your life interesting along the way.”

“I watch really fast car chases”

By Alex Walker

“I’m a 37-year-old mother of three who edits a magazine which has feminism running through its veins. A magazine that champions challenging, well-written cultural offerings that stretch the minds of our brilliant audience. And for the most part, I live the brand. Except for when I’m alone and rewatching The Fast And The Furious franchise. Yes, the one with Paul Walker (sob) and Vin Diesel and fast cars and ridiculous stunts. Bizarre it may be, but I’m not ashamed. By the end of the day, my brain cells are depleted and I crave things that deliver exactly what they say they will. I get great comfort from being sat on my sofa and diving into a world where people say, ‘We ride together, we die together’, in a totally non-ironic way. Judge all you like.”

“Nowhere is safe for germs when I’m on one”

By Felicity Thislethwaite

“I change into tracksuit bottoms, pile my hair into a bun, throw all the windows open and get down to some hardcore cleaning. There’s nothing more satisfying than throwing around some bleach in a pair of marigolds. I get my Mrs Hinch-esque cleaning kit out and get stuck in. Skirting boards, bin lids, inside the fridge: nowhere is safe for germs when I’m on one. I’m not sure if it’s the pre-clean decluttering or the results from deep scrubbing that I enjoy the most, but the exhilaration is unparalleled. Why do I do this alone? Well, dear reader, the idea of cleaning while my husband sits around not cleaning makes my blood boil. So I wait until he’s not there. I also enjoy getting the power drill out, but that’s a whole other confession…”

“I break bathroom and dressing etiquette”

By Lucy Partington

“I shower with the door not just unlocked, but wide open, with music on full blast (usually Magic FM because I am the epitome of cool). I don’t know why, when or how it began, but I just know it makes me feel unruly and instills some sort of blasé attitude in my brain. It’s the same reason why I usually end up walking around in my underwear, too. I feel fearless and completely unstoppable, like a half-dressed superwoman. Well, until the doorbell rings or one of my housemates comes home unexpectedly.”

“Strange YouTube videos are my vice”

By Chloe Gray

“We all have guilty viewing pleasures, but what I watch can’t be found on Netflix. It was only last month that I fell down my latest YouTube hole. Slightly hungover with everyone else out of the house, I sat on the sofa, opened my laptop and delved into the world of Matt Does Fitness, a YouTuber who intros all of his bodybuilding videos with skits featuring his three-year-old son, Luca. Those clips of Luca pretending to be a banker or pushing his dad into the pool on holiday kept me entertained for four hours.

And that’s the real joy of YouTube videos: they can be utterly mindless and ridiculous. While I am analytical of messaging in TV shows and books, there aren’t really any questions to ask of videos titled ‘Trying to blow bubbles with my hair’. That’s also the reason I watch them alone: I like to think that I present myself as someone who spends their alone time reading Margaret Atwood’s back catalogue, and I’m not ready to ruin the illusion.

I fantasise about owning my own place with ‘I ate like The Rock for 24 hours’ videos playing as I please – especially since the time I was caught. Recently, I left a video by Grackle running while I ran to the loo, only to find my housemate had returned, asking why I was watching a girl make a vest out of cereal packets? I didn’t really have an answer.”

“I cook elaborate, lengthy meals”

By Moya Crockett

“I live in a tiny flat with two friends. Neither of them are into cooking and we don’t have a living room, so I usually try to repress my culinary exuberance when they’re home: it doesn’t seem fair to take over our only shared space with hours of sprawling, chaotic meal prep. But once they’re out, I let rip. I use every pan, open every Kilner jar and spread my mess across every counter. I leave cupboard doors open and clear nothing away as I go. By the time I’m finished, it looks like a hurricane has whirled through our tiny kitchen, leaving a delicious meal for one in its wake. It is bizarre and unnecessary – and it makes me very happy.”

Images: Getty Images