Elizabeth Day: The healing power of living alone

I have two recurring stress dreams. One is about sitting my history A-level and realising just before the exam that I misread the timetable at the beginning of term and have missed all the relevant lessons. The other is about having to pack up a room filled with so much paraphernalia that I have no way of doing it in the allotted time. Never let it be said that I don’t dream big.

Jenny Brough

Anyway, I believe the first of these dreams is a pretty standard anxiety response. But it’s the second I’ve been thinking about lately, as I prepare to move house. For years I identified myself as a creature of habit. In my late 20s, I had a strong nesting instinct and longed to build a home for the family that I believed would inevitably follow. I got married. We moved into a terraced house in a sensible part of London, surrounded by buggies and coffee shops and soft play areas. But the family never happened. I tried and failed to have children. The soft play areas started to make me sad when I walked past them. The coffee shops were too noisy to work in because all the antenatal groups went there.

My marriage ended. When I left, I also left my home and any shared possessions. I walked out with two bags of clothes. For a year, I lived in other people’s houses – either with generous friends or in Airbnbs booked for stints abroad. I was liberated by the discovery that I did not, after all, need the attachment of physical objects. In fact, I found that I could make myself feel at home almost anywhere, as long as I had my laptop to write, my phone to call my friends and a dressing gown (this latter item, I have learned, is absolutely essential).

After 12 months of a nomadic existence, I rented a flat. I moved to a different part of London, one I’d never properly explored before and which came with no sad memories. The flat was small and filled with light. There was a bay window where I put my desk. As I typed out columns and novels, I watched neighbourhood cats gambol along the pavement. I thought that this flat would be another transitional space. I kept all my suitcases stacked on top of the cupboards, within easy reach. ‘I won’t be here for long,’ I thought. ‘The next phase of my life will start soon.’

But my flat became its own phase. I put up pictures where I wanted, without having to accommodate another person’s taste. I filled the shelves with books and mementos. I have now been here for three years. My flat has been an extraordinary refuge, a place that is mine and a space that is safe.

I look around and I see the ghosts of memories, both happy and sad. Here is the table I laid a cloth over the first time my parents came to visit. This sofa is where an ex-boyfriend was sitting when we broke up. There is the window out of which I then smoked a cigarette, even though I don’t smoke. Here is the bed in which I recovered from pneumonia (it was probably the cigarette). This bedroom, overlooking my neighbour’s garden, is where I watched with envy as they stretched out on deckchairs during the heatwave. Here is the living room, where last week I hosted a leaving party for my friends. We drank champagne, ate crisps and toasted all that had gone before.

I’m moving out in a couple of days. It is for the happiest of reasons (to buy a place with the man I love) but I feel an appropriate degree of sadness, too. In saying goodbye to my flat, I’m bidding farewell to a part of my past. It was a great privilege to have a room of my own at a time when I needed shelter. But now, having been put back together, it’s time to move on – and, yes, I’ll be taking my dressing gown with me.

This week I’m…

Watching

Years and Years – the Russell T Davies drama detailing a dystopian future that is simultaneously gripping and terrifying in its believability.

Wearing

Asceno’s classic white silk blazer – the perfect transitional piece to take you from daytime to evening.

Listening

To the Root of Evil podcast, presented by the great-granddaughters of the prime suspect in the unsolved Black Dahlia murder case.