Being an introvert, I’ve never been opposed to being alone. In fact, I’ve always looked forward to it, carving out alone time for the sake of regathering my thoughts and reenergizing my body before plunging back into socialization. I’m a pro at filling silences with books, TV, podcasts or music. I loved being alone.

That is, until I got to college.

In college I quickly discovered a new distinction between being alone and being lonely. Of course I’d been lonely before, but it was in all sorts of circumstances. In fact some of the times I remember feeling lonely most poignantly were while I was surrounded by people. Loneliness was an emotion, not a physical state. But in college it was both. Every moment I wasn’t actively talking to someone I was alone again, adrift and the loneliness would hit me like a wall. I watched everyone else laughing and chattering as they madly rushed to make best friends and assert themselves during the first few days and weeks of college. I tried to do the same, pushing myself outside my comfort zone, but all that did was briefly land me in a friend group I had nothing in common with and which I quickly extracted myself from. Being introverted and naturally shy, I was often standing on the sidelines, fingering my phone as I waited for my mom to text me back.

For the first time, I was alone and I was lonely.

Being alone in college was different from being alone at home. At home, I was alone in my room, the sounds of my mom washing the dishes and my dad fixing the plumbing and my brother playing video games were all audible if I simply slipped my headphones off. At home, I was alone in my school hallways, my friends talking just a couple feet away if I looked up from my homework. Before, I always had the option of whether or not to be alone. It was a choice, one I made for my own self-care and comfort.

It wasn’t a choice in college. My sense of autonomy in aloneness was stolen from me and I was alone whether I liked it or not. There was no family downstairs, no lifelong friends a few feet away. Even though I was only an hour’s train ride from home, I felt as if I was alone in a foreign land.

At first I tried to fight this feeling. Being alone had never been a bad thing to me before, so why should it be now? I took advantage of this time alone to write more, finish homework early and watch a new show on Netflix. But these activities were nothing more than a band-aid over my loneliness and every time I peeled it back the wound was still there, as deep as before. Every time I took out my earbuds and paused my TV show, every time I witnessed other freshman giggling together as they came back to the dorms late at night, the loneliness was still there. It couldn’t be covered up.

Of course, I eventually made friends and finding others with compatible personalities eased some of the strain. But we didn’t all have the same schedules or workloads and I was lucky if we got to see each other once a day. For the other 23 hours, it was back to being alone. Back to the loneliness I’d become so acquainted with in a few short weeks.

It wasn’t until I poured out to my mother the extent of my loneliness that I found a way of coming to terms with it. “It’s just a part of life,” she said. “You’re not all alone in the world.”

And I wasn’t. I still had my family and old friends right at my fingertips on my phone. I had new friends and classmates walking all over campus, countless clubs and recreational classes to join. But more than that, I wasn’t alone in being alone. Surveying the dining halls, more people were eating by themselves than in groups. The vast majority of people walked to classes by themselves. I may have been alone but I was far from being the only one.

The truth is, you will feel lonely at some point in your life. For me it was disconcerting being both alone and lonely, but I learned that instead of trying to ignore this feeling I needed to accept it. I needed to recognize it as an experience that was necessary for me as a person and an independent young adult. So the next time you’re alone or feel lonely or both, embrace it. Learn from it. And take this opportunity to grow.

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