How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Living Alone

belinda

Original art by Lisa Cai

I had gotten used to the droning of the LAPD chopper helicopters. They circled above my apartment almost every night and became soothing in their familiarity. I was always awake to hear them, whether it was 1 a.m. or 4 a.m., because I lost the ability to sleep. It wasn’t insomnia. It was anxiety at its zenith. I’ve suffered from all kinds of anxiety and neuroticism all my life, but this was something new. It was unadulterated fear for my safety. And it was fucking awful.

I was afraid to drift into unconsciousness because that would mean that I would lose awareness of my surroundings. I was hyper-alert even when my brain was so foggy that I couldn’t remember what day of the week it was or what I had for dinner. I’d hear the slightest unfamiliar sound — hushed voices, thumping, footsteps, drunks being drunks — and go into fight or flight mode while lying in bed, my heart racing, tortured by my lack of agency… my inability to relax.

I didn’t own a gun or any kind of actual weapon. I had my pepper spray, but that was barely reassuring. There were knives in the kitchen, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to stab someone even if I was in danger. But this was all nonsense, because I was probably fine. I was on the second floor of a gated (although tenants usually forgot to close that gate) apartment building that had a gated door and four locks, for god’s sake. “You’re fine,” I would tell myself over and over again, “Seriously.” Yet I couldn’t shake this feeling of vulnerability.

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I lived alone on the northern cusp of South L.A. near the University of Southern California, where I attended graduate school. This is a notoriously “bad” part of town, said the cop who showed up at my apartment one night. He said he could see why I was nervous. I was a young woman by myself, and he understood my concerns. It wasn’t crazy to him that I had called 911 in the early hours of the morning because I heard a “suspicious noise.” That noise, it turned out, was a washing machine. I felt irrevocably stupid as the cop explained this to me. I was standing in my PJs and sweating, my glasses slipping down my nose. But really. Who the fuck does laundry at 3 in the morning?

Loud washers aside, there’s a lot I love about South L.A. There is so much culture and community there, despite its bad rep. As a journalism student, my peers and I had done a lot of valuable reporting on the many positive changes in the area. My first multimedia package was on health initiatives and wellness trends in Crenshaw/Baldwin Hills of South L.A. When I did a radio piece on Proposition 47, I loved standing outside of Community Coalition on Vermont and 81st and speaking to passerby who had an opinion about it. None of these surroundings bothered me by day.

However, once nighttime fell, I went into insanity mode. I felt frenetic; I wanted to tear my hair out piece by piece and scream until my throat bled. But that wouldn’t even help soothe the trepidation bubbling inside. This discomfort began with what I suspect was an attempted break-in one evening. This was before I lived alone, but it happened at the same apartment. My ex-boyfriend lived with me at the time, but was out, when two men banged on my door and yelled, “LET US IN. OPEN YOUR DOOR.” I ignored it, assuming it would stop. Ten minutes later, it didn’t. I was too afraid to even look in the peephole to see who it was, so I went into my bedroom and locked the door, hoping they would leave.

The knocking only got louder and much more aggressive. “OPEN YOUR DOOR! OPEN YOUR DOOR! OPEN YOUR DOOR!” I called the police. By the time the officers had arrived, the men were gone. That incident left me with mild PTSD. That violent knocking stuck with me, and I found myself on edge whenever I’d hear a tap on a door or footsteps coming up the stairs, weeks later.

When my ex lived with me, I somehow felt much safer. He wouldn’t have been able to do too much in the case of a, say, armed break-in, but knowing that I had someone else there with me was comforting. Plus, he was a person I had known for years and trusted. We moved across the country together and eventually broke up, in what was a completely mutual and respectful development, two months after moving into our South L.A. apartment. He lived there another five months, us alternating sleeping on the couch, before moving out.

I had never intended on living alone, and especially not in an area that is crime-ridden. A dark tone was set for me when, last summer, a Chinese international grad student was murdered blocks away from my apartment. Since then, there has been a stabbing at the burnt-down church across the street, a gunman on the loose and a series of sexual batteries. I couldn’t count the number of times I’d been catcalled even walking across the street to the grocery store in the daytime. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy that area — I did. I liked the businesses and the people. The crimes just made me paranoid, leaving me with this subconscious, constant dread.

This urban environment was new to me. Prior to living in South L.A., I lived in Oakley, Cincinnati with the same ex who moved out to L.A. with me. It was residential and largely safe, filled with white joggers and yuppie dog-walkers. There was maybe a pot dealer around the corner every now and then, but nothing more menacing. Prior to that, I lived near campus at The Ohio State University, always living with roommates, always surrounded by friends. Before that? My parents’ wealthy, conservative neighborhood in West Chester, Ohio.

I am privileged and always have been. This is something I recognize and something I am constantly aware of. It is something I don’t take for granted. But for someone as privileged as me, living alone in South L.A. — even for just a few months — was very testing. On top of all of this was 1. the stress and heavy workload of being a graduate student in my last semester, including my thesis 2. the inescapable loneliness of, well, living alone in a new city thousands of miles away from home 3. the fucking roaches that infested my apartment and wouldn’t die despite an exterminator coming in, me using roach poison and me yelling at them to go away. I was really hoping the last one would work, as a last resort, but nope. I took me two whole days to gather the courage to sweep up a dead roach that was at least two inches length-wise and had wings. Fucking wings.

Again, this is my privilege speaking. There are plenty of people who have had to deal with what I went through and much worse, and I sympathize with them and admire them for their tenacity. But for me, this was all new and difficult nevertheless. Because I was thousands of miles away from home and far from anyone I was truly close with, besides my ex, I had to force myself to accept my reality and make the most of it. I had to appreciate the positive aspects — that I was going to a top-rate university, that I would soon have my master’s degree, that I was living in Los Angeles, where I got to experience many luxuries, that I had the financial and emotional support of my family and friends across the country. I had to really let these positive factors seep in to begin to heal.

The author at her graduation.
The author at her graduation.

And I just had to deal with shit eventually. Even something as insignificant as trapping a roach in a cup and flushing it down the toilet became a small feat for me. When I had lived with my ex, roommates or parents, I could barely have brought myself to do that. More importantly, being able to take out the trash at night, coming home to my apartment and feeling calm walking up the stairs to my unit, staying up late working on my thesis without freaking out and then getting some much-needed sleep; those things were all progress to me.

Eventually, the sound of drunks wouldn’t startle me anymore. Eventually, I learned to love my own company and appreciate the privacy, not resent it. By the end of my stay there, I felt somewhat… empowered. I could see my mental fortitude strengthening over the four months I lived on my own. Eventually, I could sleep again. The finish line got nearer and nearer. Not only would I soon leave my apartment — a place I both despised and finally called home — but I would soon be done with a stressful grad program that consumed all of my time.

I left L.A. with more than a grad degree. I truly have a clearer understanding of myself. This doesn’t just apply to my career path, which, for the first time, I am wholly confident about. I went through an emotional renewal that proved to me that I could be independent in a new way; that I can overcome adversities, even if they’re mostly mental. There were times when I thought I wouldn’t be able to make it — that I couldn’t handle the fear, loneliness, stress and bullshit of my current situation. But now I realize, that was life at its realest, and while things may get easier for me, I’m prepared to handle much worse.

Originally written for Acro Collective: CLICK HERE FOR THE STORY.

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