JEN SHELBO: When I moved into my place by myself, I probably spent the first few weeks in a tank top and underwear. [LAUGHS] Until it got a little bit colder, and then I’d put socks on.
This is Death, Sex & Money. The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot, and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
Back in 2014, I asked for your stories about living alone. For Jen Shelbo in Brooklyn, who was 36 at the time, living by herself…meant not always wearing pants.
JS: It is really awesome to sit around your own apartment in as little clothes as you like to wear.
That’s just one of the perks that you told me about.
Cooking the things I want to eat, playing the music that only I enjoy listening to.
Dancing around my living room to R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Countless minutes of no interruptions.
Books stacked in a certain way on my shelf.
It is definitely a freedom that I have not had ever.
More and more Americans are living alone. The number has tripled since 1970. More than quarter of American households are home to just one person. So there are a lot of people having this experience.
Right now, many of us are feeling isolated, due to the pandemic. If you live by yourself, that might be hitting you even harder. And from what you told us back in 2014, it’s clear that the way we feel about living alone... can be complicated.
Everyone always said how important it was and how it’ll be a great time in my life. But I just haven't figured out why that is just yet.
So we thought this would be a good time to revisit this episode about living alone. I hope you enjoy listening.
ASHLEY WARD: You know whenever you’re little and you’re wearing your mom’s shoes? It felt like that.
Ashley Ward moved to LA last year, and got a place on her own. She’s 30, and it’s the first time she’s lived by herself.
AW: You don’t fill out the shoe or the apartment at all, but here you are pretending like you do.
AS: Clomping around in shoes that are too big for you.
AW: Yea, exactly. And it feels a little bit better now. I think I’ll feel a lot better once I get a couch.
AS: You wrote in, and a line that really stuck out to me was you said, no one thinks it’s normal for a 30-year-old professional woman to be able to live alone.
AW: Yeah, that’s been the most bizarre thing.
AS: What do you mean?
AW: There’s just a weird sort of, "whoa, really?" Instead of like a, "yeah, cool."
AS: Is that because it means you have a certain amount of money?
AW: I think so. It is very expensive to live in LA, it says how much you make without saying how much you make. And I think that that’s definitely something that makes people feel inadequate, I guess?
AS: How has it changed—you’re single?
AS: Has it changed your dating life, living alone? One of the drawbacks of having roommates is your dating life is on display to other people in your apartment. That’s not the case when you live alone.
AW: No, no. I can sort of come and go and bring whomever I like. Which is—I mean I’ve only been there for a month, so it hasn’t happened. But.
AS: Do you like that idea?
AW: Yeah, I like that I can have guests and I don’t have to worry that someone else will come in and like sort of take charge of the conversation, and take charge of my guest. The guy that I lived with in Chicago would do that all the time, when I had someone over, he would come in and make the conversation all about him and his life.
AS: Like, including dates?
AW: Yeah. It was super awkward. It was really, really awkward.
That helped Ashley make the decision to live alone. But for a lot of you, living alone wasn’t a choice. It was a consequence of a bigger change, often a loss. Like a death, or the end of a relationship.
WALID SHANTUR: My name is Walid Shantur and I live alone.
Walid is 59 and has lived alone for the last seven years. He sent in this message from Ithaca, New York.
WS: I left home when I was 17 and joined the Navy and lived with 350 men on a ship for four years. And then I got married. And I was married for a little over 20 years. And after my wife came out to me, I was quite devastated, because my daughter left for college the same day that my wife moved out of the house. So all of a sudden, after all those years, I was alone. I would have to say I was in a funk for a good part of six months to a year. Then I started realizing how satisfying it was living alone. I told one friend that was considering becoming single that I personally found it intoxicating, being by myself. But I never thought that the case after all the years of being with someone and being happy being with people, I just found out that I was quite happy to be by myself.
Glen Uhlig and his wife separated two years ago. Now he lives by himself, part of the time. He sent me an email from Elko, Nevada.
GLEN UHLIG: So this house is quiet. Cricket quiet. For seven days, and then bam—a six- and eight-year-old boy back in my life. School, homework, cooking, laundry, cleaning, eating, brushing teeth...
Glen splits custody of his boys with their mom --- one week with her, one week with him.
GU: Monday at school when I drop them off, and I’m driving away from school, I know—I guarantee there’s this great big sigh of, phew, it’s like -- I survived. I really feel like I survived, they’re no emergency visits, they went to school, they’re safe.
AS: You also describe in your email the sound of the quiet when the boys aren’t there. Are there parts of that that you've been surprised that you enjoy?
GU: For sure. In the past two years, it’s like the only time that I've felt like I had time to, you know, it sounds horrible but to maybe read a book again, you know? Or sit down, and I get about one week’s worth of newspaper and that's when the boys are gone. Because there’s so much hustle and bustle when they’re there. Having that quietness, that solitude to totally re-boot yourself. It’s something that I know that I needed to be complete. The real reason I can give 100 percent to my kids for that seven days is because I have seven days off where I can make sure and set up and prepare and have a list of everything I need to do for the next seven days.
Lisa Wagner is also a single parent. She’s fantasized about living alone since she was a teenager.
LW: I remember imagining a small cottage by the ocean.
AS: And when did you first live alone?
LW: I haven’t.
AS: Why not?
LW: First I was too young, then I was too poor. And then I was a mother.
AS: How old were you when you had your first child?
LW: Barely 22.
Now, Lisa is 42. She lives in Portland, and a few years ago, she got divorced. Tensions around their shared space were a major factor.
LW: I felt like I worked really hard and earned a lot of money, and came home to a house that wasn’t really pleasant, and I was frustrated with that. The night after we had that final fight and we decided to separate, I couldn’t sleep, and I lay in bed. I started imagining how I was going to fix up the bedroom once it was just mine. And it got me through. I got rid of almost everything in it. I sanded every inch of woodwork. I caulked, I painted, I scrubbed the floor on my hands and knees and polished it. I put in a special rack just to hang scarves on -- I wear a lot of scarves. And it’s just a sweet, sweet room now. And I can keep it so tidy. And I love going in there in the evening and laying down.
AS: So when will you live by yourself?
LW: Well, right now, I live with my daughter. She's not going to stay with me much longer. She’s almost seventeen. Once she’s out on her own, it will just be me for the first time.
AS: How does that feel?
LW: Quiet. Almost too quiet. Like that feeling when you get up earlier than you usually do in the morning and the world feels like it hasn’t woken up yet. It feels like that’s what my house will be like.
Lisa told me, if I ever fall in love again, I’ll just have to build a guest house.
A luxurious bedroom of her own was also a dream for Arlene Pickett.
LW: I had always wanted a feather bed duvet. And I thought it was very interesting that when I did get something for myself, that it involved something that provided physical pleasure.
Coming up, what it was like for Arlene to live alone, for the first time, after her husband died.
Earlier this year, we asked you to tell us about the ways you were experiencing new money worries because of the pandemic, and then we got some of you on the phone with financial therapist Amanda Clayman. She's here with me now. Hello Amanda!
AMANDA CLAYMAN: Hi Anna! I loved talking with Death, Sex & Money listeners in the spring, and now we’ve got some exciting news-- I’ll be back soon hosting another financial therapy mini series for DSM. And this time, I want to hear from you about how money is working in your relationships...or maybe not working so great. I want to hear from couples, but I’m also really curious about other kinds of connections...with your parents, with a roommate...basically, we’re looking for pairs of people who are interested in talking to me together. There are such important issues that come up around money when there are two people involved, like fairness, control, or power or care-taking. And this happens in pretty much every kind of relationship you can imagine.
So if you could use some financial therapy—with someone else!—record a voice memo or send an email and tell us a little bit about what’s going on. Get in touch at email@example.com. And if you missed our original series with Amanda back in the spring, you can find all the episodes at deathsexmoney.org/financialtherapy.
On the next episode: a story about falling in love, during the pandemic, over the phone.
MARCY: You know, I hate to say romantic but in a way it's so romantic that we mail things to each other and email and we both kind of feel like we want to be able to, if we actually see each other, we want to see each other's faces, we want to hug each other. We want to not have to be cautious.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
Arlene Pickett is 72 years old, and living on her own for the first time.
Her husband died four years ago, after a long decline. Arlene took care of him, so it was an abrupt change to be all on her own.
ARLENE PICKETT: I wasn’t particularly lonely, but I did feel a strong sense of just being by myself. Anything that I needed to do, or anything that needed to be done, it was up to me to decide when and how much to spend. And even to do it or not to do it. And of course, my husband didn’t choose to be ill, and I did not choose to have him ill, but the demands of that really took a lot of the element of choice of what I wanted to do away from me. So it was, as the months have gone by, it’s been a good feeling to have that sense of control back. Not control, exactly, but that sense of being in charge. Have that back.
AS: And it also sounds a little more complicated at this point in your life, because you also need people.
AP: Yes, exactly, yes.
Arlene was diagnosed with cancer in January. With that came chemo.
AP: During those days, everything was an effort. So I was pretty good at anticipating, you know I need three days of stuff I can just walk into the kitchen and within 90 seconds be sitting down and eating. Because cooking was really, would’ve been very very difficult. And then little things—I have a couple of cats, so, somebody had to scoop out the litter boxes during those three days, and that was really more than I felt like doing.
AS: So it made you feel vulnerable in a way that you hadn't felt before, in your home.
AP: Right, yes. And I debated, I never did, but I debated when I went to bed at night, leaving the front door off the latch. So that if I did need to call 911, I wouldn’t need to get to the door to unlock it. Part of me kind of wonders, you know, is this what it’s gonna be like? Am I going to be one of these elderly people you read about, that's all by himself or all by herself, and nobody checks in, nobody calls, and then something happens? That kind of weighs on my mind.
Arlene’s latest cancer screening was all clear. As for the future, she says she doesn’t see herself sharing her household again, but she would like what she called a reciprocal caring relationship, which is a term I love. She’s been doing some online dating…
AP: I didn’t meet anybody that I absolutely did not like at all.
But no one special just yet.
A lot of you echoed Arlene’s quiet fears about safety when you’re alone at home.
I still lock all three locks on the door every night.
Sometimes you do miss having somebody else in the house with you. When, like, a scary noise happens in the middle of the night.
In fact, I lock them at every point in time I’m in the apartment.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to go to bed, because I think about how easy it would be for someone to crawl up the fire escape and then kidnap me.
I think about the scene in Frankie and Johnny, when Michelle Pfeiffer is eating alone in her apartment, and she starts choking and she gives herself the Heimlich over a chair.
I realized that had I fainted and hit my head on the tub, I could’ve been dead and found naked in the tub, alone.
ERNIE MAJOR: I usually leave the door open.
AS: Why do you leave the door open?
EM: Well, what if I call for help and they can’t get in?
Ernie Major is 70 and has lived alone since he and his wife split and his kids left the house.
EM: I live in a single-wide trailer in Vallejo, California, and I do have a few guns, so I have a gun safe right next to where I sleep. I just leave the door to that open.
AS: How long have you lived alone?
EM: Absolutely alone, I’d say, seven or eight years. Something like that. Has its upsides, I was up 'til 3 last night baking and watching TV and stuff. But, it gets very lonely, and that’s where the dogs come in.
AS: Do you talk to your dogs?
EM: Oh yeah. Not long conversations, and they in that, on my days off and stuff, they need and want to go places, and it gets me out of the house. They kind of lift you up.
AS: What were you baking last night 'til 3 in the morning?
EM :Bread and a pie. I just got frozen stuff, and baked up a loaf of bread and a blackberry pie. Which I’m looking forward to. Fact, that's gonna be—I haven’t eaten breakfast yet, so bacon and eggs and pie sounds like a balanced meal to me.
RICHIE MORIARTY: A lot of it is just the lack of judgement...
When you live by yourself, you get to eat whatever and however you want. Richie Moriarty is 34. About three years ago, he was living in Massachusetts and married. And then his wife told him she was leaving.
RM: This was two weeks after the bomb was dropped, and all this in my life was changing.
AS: Two weeks after you found out your marriage was gonna be over?
RM: I went back to work, I was feeling intense financial pressure being faced with divorce. Like, ah I gotta get back to work. So I had—I wasn’t eating, wasn’t sleeping well, and there was this one day at work where before work I went to Dunkin' Donuts and got a couple of donuts. I got home at like 5 pm and realized, not only have I not eaten anything all day, but I didn’t even eat the donuts. So, I think at this point I got a call from my ex that triggered something, so I’m having this terrible moment and I was like, I just need to get in the shower and like, start this day clean. And at the same time, I’m starving. I’m so hungry. So I grabbed a glazed donut, and I ate it in the shower. I ate a glazed donut in the shower. And I don’t know if that’s rock bottom, or rock top. It was bliss.
Now Richie lives in New York. He moved after the divorce to try to do some more acting… and eventually moved in with his new girlfriend.
That’s another story I heard again and again. About what happens when you no longer live alone. It’s something I felt as my husband Arthur and I went from long-distance to living in the same space. When you live alone, time to yourself is automatic. It’s not something you have to carve out.
MELISSA SORRELLS: It’s a pretty huge deal that it’s coming to an end.
Melissa Sorrells has lived alone for the last year. Before that, she lived with her now ex-husband, whom she’d lived with since college.
Now she’s engaged to be married again. When we spoke, it was three weeks before her fiance Dan was scheduled to move in.
MS: I’ve always been afraid to be alone, like I would have some anxiety about what I would do to fill my time. But it turns out, that’s not such a problem. I manage to fill the time pretty well.
AS: On a night when you’re by yourself, in your place, what do you do?
MS: I do a lot of yoga. I’ll push all the furniture to the side, and I’ll stretch, which is very helpful, very calming. Actually, I’m wondering how that’s going to work once I’m living with someone else. Because I’m not going to be able to shove everything against the walls.
AS: Have you started—since this is three weeks away that he’s moving in—have you started noticing the small details that might change, and feeling a little wistful?
MS: Um, wistful isn’t the right word. I don't think I'm going to miss it too much. Because he’s a good sleeper. He’ll sleep in on a Saturday morning, and that’ll give me like enough of my own space. Yeah, a little nervous, like, how’s this going to work? If I just drop my purse on the middle of the floor, I’m not going to be able to do that anymore. I need to find a place to actually keep it.
AS: But it’s neat how, when you describe his sleeping in, like how you’re aware that you’re going to have this time, that you get to do the things that you have realized make you feel good. By yourself.
MS: Yeah, definitely. And even just spending a couple hours with a book, uninterrupted, where he’s not going to be like, hey, let’s make popcorn! Hey, pay attention to me, I’m here, I’m a human. It’ll be good, like I know that I’ll have a couple of hours. That makes me sound horrible, doesn’t it?
MS: It’s definitely something I value. A lot. And I don’t know if I realized how much I valued it because my ex-husband, he worked nights a lot of the time, and he worked long weekends, so it was always something that made me so anxious, I never realized how important it was to have my own quiet time, my own space.
AS: Yeah, instead of an absence, now it feels like a gift.
MS: Yes, exactly!
Melissa and Dan moved in together not long after we talked. But when we reached out to Melissa to let her know we were re-airing this episode, she told us that Dan moved out about five months ago. “I am back to living alone,” she wrote us. “Becoming suddenly single during a global pandemic has definitely been strange, but it’s forced me to sink into living alone—experience it fully and without flinching. And I find that I’m happier and more hopeful every day.”
Melissa, this song goes out to you.
[Liza Minelli's "Live Alone and Like It"]
You can find updates from several of the people we talked with in this episode in this week’s Death, Sex & Money newsletter. Find it and sign up at deathsexmoney.org/newsletter.
Death, Sex & Money is a production of WNYC. This epis es ode was produced by Katie Bishop. The rest of the team includes Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein and Andrew Dunn. Thanks to Chris Bannon and Bill Moss for their work on this episode.
And a big thank you to Greg Young at Sony and Sean Patrick Flahaven at Warner/Chappell Music for the use of this song. And to Trystan Angel Reese for recommending it! It’s a Sondheim song from Liza Minnelli’s Live From Radio City Music Hall album, and it’s made for blasting when you’re home alone.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on twitter @annasale, and the show is on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook at @deathsexmoney! Find us and follow us there.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.