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Collective Independents Illustration by Suharu Ogawa.

Collective Independents

For the first time in Canadian history, homes with a single occupant outnumber those with nuclear families. On the new domestic frontier.

GROWING UP IN TORONTO, I shared a room with my younger sister—a turquoise-painted loft with a long IKEA bookshelf in the middle to give the illusion of privacy. Both of us trampled on that border regularly: I would sleepwalk onto her side, she would peek around the bookshelf and laugh at me as I practiced Tai Chi before school.

In my first year at university in Halifax I shared a residency room small enough that my bunkmate and I could have held hands lying in our separate beds. In second year I moved into a house with four guys and taught one of them how to fry an egg and wash his laundry.

I graduated. I moved to Europe. I shared a Scottish tenement with my boyfriend and my best friend. I returned to Canada and spent a feckless twelve months living in my mother’s basement. I moved to a house in west-end Toronto where four roommates cycled in and out over my years there. One was an in-denial alcoholic who would pass out on the toilet with her pants around her ankles.

I moved to Alberta and lived in a mountain town full of transient ski bums and artists. In exchange for the cheapest rent I’m ever likely to pay, I shared an apartment with roommates who could vacate with less than a week’s notice, replaced within twenty-four hours by complete strangers. People appeared in the night and didn’t leave their rooms until they moved out.

Through all of this, I developed a habit of working, sleeping, eating and keeping all of my possessions in my bedroom. It felt normal to dig through a closet full of boxes when I needed a thimble or my passport. I kept a teakettle plugged into the wall, a week’s worth of dishes scattered across the floor and all my books hidden under the bed. By this point, I was practically a professional roommate. I could adapt to the hygiene levels of any household. (Golden rule: be neither the sloppiest nor the cleanest roommate, but the one invisibly in the middle.) I knew when to make small talk and when to disappear. I knew which issues to raise and which to let die. I only lost my cool once, when a roommate’s brother’s dog pissed in my bed.

One day, in my twenty-eighth year, I was scrubbing a mug someone had left in the sink and feeling nothing in particular, when I thought: “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Since moving out on my own eleven years earlier, I had lived with exactly twenty-five different people. It did not matter how nice or clean my roommates were. I was ready to pay the premium for living alone, and that makes me less of a domestic outlier than it once did. For the first time in Canadian history, homes with a single occupant outnumber those with nuclear families. To wit: 3,673,305 Canadians live alone—that’s more than the population of Vancouver. StatsCan’s 2006 survey showed a mammoth 10 percent growth in the singleton population, while its 2011 survey showed another 2 percent uptick. Living alone has become normal. 

NOT SO LONG AGO, solitary habitation was seen as odd, or at least unorthodox. Humans have traditionally survived by combining forces. Hunter-gatherer tribes were based on the collective model: each member of the group performed certain roles for the greater good. When we stopped roaming and started farming, we settled into larger communities in which the majority of people, especially women, lived in shared homes; first with their families and then with their partners. Those who didn’t were eccentrics: hermits, witches, wanderers, recluses, spinsters and old maids. Thoreau excised himself from society to live by Walden Pond—that was revolutionary!

Picture the quintessential caveman, dragging his club in search of food, spontaneously deciding to plant a garden instead. In evolutionary terms, that is about how quickly our transition from group to individual living has occurred. “Our species has about 200,000 years of experience with collective living, and only about fifty or sixty years with our experiment in going solo on a massive scale,” writes the American sociologist Eric Klinenberg in Going Solo: The Extraordi- nary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. “Living alone is one of the least discussed and, consequently, most poorly understood issues of our time.”

The modern desire to live alone is a worldwide one. The United Kingdom and United States show numbers similar to Canada. In Scandinavian countries, where modernity hits a beat ahead, the trend is even more pervasive. Over 40 percent of Finland’s population lives alone; Norway and the Netherlands are close behind at 39.7 percent and 36.9 percent respectively. Developing countries like India and China show some of the fastest growing rates of living alone. In Japan, where once there was a tradition of multi-generational families sharing one roof, 30 percent of the population now lives alone. That statistic gets steeper in the country’s densely packed cities.

IN THE 1950s, living alone became a status symbol for men. An early issue of Playboy encouraged men to leave behind “your suburban home, your station wagon, your controlling wife. Return to the great city. Get a place of your own ... ” It’s all very Pete Campbell. Living alone meant more than unshackling one’s ankle from the old ball-and-chain; the bachelor pad became, again in Playboy’s words, an “outward reflection of his [the bachelor’s] inner self—a comfortable, livable, and yet exciting expression of the person he is and the life he leads.”

It took a little longer for women to reach parity and I’d say that many of us are still not quite there. A 2008 article in the Atlantic, “Marry Him!: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” by Lori Gottlieb, speaks exclusively to the young straight woman panicky about her singleton status. “All I can say is, if you say you’re not worried, either you’re in denial or you’re lying. In fact, take a good look in the mirror and try to convince yourself that you’re not worried, because you’ll see how silly your face looks when you’re being disingenuous.”

Roommate number eighteen and I shared a house in Toronto for one year. Anna is a few years older than me and an incredibly accomplished beer brewer. When our lease came up, she announced she was going to live by herself. Her career was on a roll; she didn’t need to pay $650 a month to share an apartment anymore. I congratulated her, but thought, “live alone and then what?” It sounded like a drum roll without a finish.

A few months later, I visited Anna’s new place in a redbrick building with wide windows and walls decorated with pictures of friends, family and her new baby niece. Anna pulled out rare bottles of beer and set out tasting platters of fine local cheeses and pickled vegetables. Everywhere I looked there were the signs of a good life lived alone—so why did I still doubt her commitment to living by herself? Why did I think she was secretly hiding some hope for a partner with whom to share her home?

The truth is that not only do more women live alone than men—some seventeen million American women compared to fourteen million men—they’re better at it, too. Women are more skilled than men at maintaining strong social networks of friends and family. They’ll take the time to organize a brunch date or movie night that fills up the social calendar. This might explain why unmarried women also report lower levels of loneliness than unmarried men.

When I was six-years-old, my parents separated and my nuclear family divided into Single Mom and Bachelor Dad. My sisters and I kept our schoolwork, our toys, our toothbrushes at Mom’s, and visited Dad’s. Twenty years later, Mom has a partner and my sisters and I have all boomeranged back to live in her basement at various debt-ridden phases of our lives. But Dad—for the most part—has lived alone. I know him better as “Bachelor Dad” than “Family-Man Dad.”

Whenever I stay at my dad’s house in Toronto for a few days, he always seems eager for the company—at first. We barbeque salmon in the backyard; we watch movies in his plush and surround-sound-installed living room. But then the accusations begin: Who put this knife in the dishwasher? Who left the back porch light on? Did I change the volume on the speakers?

His house has become so much more than “an outward reflection of his inner self.” It is an inviolable sanctuary where he can tell in an instant if anything is out of place. The station wagon must be parked on the grooved lines in the driveway and the shoe polish must live in the cupboard above the refrigerator and didn’t he tell me where it’s kept the last time I stayed over? His cleaning lady has become a scapegoat for anything that goes wrong. Except, of course, when I visit. In those moments, when he’s explaining to me how I’ve twisted the shower faucet just a touch too tightly, Anna’s beautiful home disappears from memory and I see a flash of a scary future: will this be me if I live alone? 

THE DICTIONARY DEFINITION of an introvert is a shy, reticent and typically self-centred person. That never sounded like me. I like people. I seek out their company. I’m outgoing and try my best to make others comfortable. But an extended period of time with a crowd has the effect of short-circuiting my brain.

Once, on vacation in New York City, I felt so suffocated that I backed out of a line for a dance club just as my friends and I were about to get waved past the velvet rope. I spent the night alone in the hotel room. I considered myself a sort of failed extrovert until I learned another, better definition of an introvert: someone who recharges her energy by spending time alone. That sounded more familar.

Some people feel lonely in a crowd; others are lonely at home alone. Introverts can’t always tell when company is going to make them feel better or worse. When I shared a house, my roommates regularly rescued me from foul moods without my anticipating it. I would arrive home, dreading their small talk and wanting to escape to my room, but then one of them would ask how my day went and my bad mood would evaporate.

Introverts can socialize too much, which leaves us drained and yearning for solitude, or we give in to solitude and socialize too little, which leaves us overcome with lassitude and penned up at home. Introverts who live with others walk a fine line; introverts who live alone walk an even finer one. A night home alone can turn into a whole weekend can turn into routine. There is no silver bullet answer for how aloneness develops into loneliness. In Notes on a Scandal, the chronically-lonely Barbara Covett described hers like so: “People like Sheba think they know what it is to be lonely. But of the drip, drip of the long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude, they know nothing. What it’s like to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the launderette.”

A FEW MONTHS AGO I moved into a one-bedroom basement apartment. The landlord penciled the stipulation “one person only” into the lease. I superimposed memories of Anna’s perfectly appointed home over the windowless, lineoleum-floored, beige-walled reality that is my new place. But how exciting to live without anonymous hair clogging the drain! I imagined little designer flourishes that would soon fill my space—an Edison lightbulb for the stucco ceiling perhaps, or a hanging plant that will likely die from the lack of light.

It took weeks for me to stop hoarding my possessions in the bedroom and claim the terrain of the new kitchen, bathroom, living room. Here, on top of the microwave, I will put my laundry money, important receipts, my wallet and cell phone. Here, on my bedside table, I will keep my passport, diary and what I’m reading. This floating shelf above my bed will house my most presentable books. Not only will the electric kettle, with its crusty metal coil, be thrown away, but I will purchase a shiny new whistling model that will sit proudly on the gas stove.

The inside of my new refrigerator appears mammoth; sometimes there’s only one item to a shelf. So much time I’ve wasted digging through shared fridges, only to discover diseased-looking tubs of yogurt and yellowing broccoli inside that cold jungle. What a pleasure to buy food that needs preserving. 

How I love these little groupings of objects, all in their appropriate places where I might need them most. Playboy’s description of the bachelor pad is an understatement—this space feels as intimate as the compartments of my brain. I delight in the quirks of my domain—the way the gas element clicks three times, with a little stutter on the third beat, before bursting into blue flames. The silence around me has deepened to such an extent that I startle at the sound of water moving through the pipes or, when I’m lying in the bath, the sound of footsteps which turn out to be my own heartbeat. 

But, a month and a half into living alone, I woke feeling wretched. Overnight, a throat tickle had morphed into full-on infection; my lymph nodes had hardened into painful, pronounced gills. I could barely swallow. I was nauseated and weak. Dirty dishes accumulated in the sink. My hair exploded into a greasy rat’s nest. I rotated sleeping shifts on the couch and the bed, never changing out of my sick-person uniform of the same sweat pants and flannel shirt.

By the third day, the novelty had worn off. Who cared that I could watch and re-watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes for days on end? I missed the outside world and, worse, I was nowhere near coming out of quarantine. That night, my throat as raw as a ragged tailpipe, I tossed and turned until dawn. When I woke the next afternoon, the sun was already low in the sky. My apartment was dark and silent. The fridge and cupboards were bare. No one had called or emailed or texted or tweeted or Facebooked.

As I lay in bed spinning dark thoughts, like how long it would take someone to find my body if I died right then and there, grunts and groans and sighs came through the ceiling. The couple upstairs was having sex. Now? Of all times? I took a deep breath and dived into a downward spiral of self pity. In my mind, beloved friends and family acquired dark shadows. If they were sick and lonely, I certainly would have taken care of them—so where were they now? As soon as I got better, I resolved to look out for myself and only myself. Why stick your neck out for people if they only leave you in the end? These thoughts, at the time, felt all-consuming and true. That is the self-reinforcing power of loneliness.

John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago who studies how loneliness affects health, explains that “people who feel lonely view the social world as more threatening. They may not be aware they are doing it, but lonely individuals think negatively about other people.” Instead of forcing us out into the world, loneliness draws us deeper into ourselves.

Klinenberg, the American sociologist who wrote Living Alone, was first drawn to his topic while researching an earlier book. In 1995, a week of scorching temperatures in Chicago killed over seven hundred people and, in Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, Klinenberg noted a disturbing pattern characterizing the dead. The majority were elderly, poor men who lived alone and had few social connections. Their bodies weren’t discovered until days or weeks later by police breaking down the front door after the stench seeped through the walls.

In Japan, these deaths have become so common there’s a word for it: kodokushi, which translates to “lonely death.” An Osaka moving company that cleans out the homes of the deceased reported that kodokushi is responsible for a fifth of its jobs. How do they know this? A dark stain on the floor in the shape of a person, left from the fluids of a decomposing body. The shadow of a life lived alone.

The elderly and sick are more at risk of such a fate, but no one is immune. In Dreams of a Life, documentary filmmaker Carol Morley interviewed the former boyfriends, colleagues and roommates of an English woman named Joyce Carol Vincent. All of them expressed disbelief that Vincent, a beautiful, confident, smart, thirty-eight-year-old, had died in her London flat and gone undiscovered for nearly three years.

The fates of Vincent, the heat wave victims of Chicago and the kodokushi are disturbing not because they died alone, but because no one noticed. They died from natural causes—heat exhaustion, asthma, strokes and heart attacks—but loneliness must have played a part. Studies of elderly people have shown that those without regular social interaction are twice as likely to die prematurely. The health risks of loneliness have been compared to those of smoking and are reported to be twice as dangerous as obesity.

It took nine days for me to recover from my throat infection. Afterward, I reread the text messages and emails I sent during that long week. They sounded sad, desperate, a little accusatory. My mother, who calls every Sunday night, had been away. She phoned as soon as she got home and, still blissed out from a vacation in Grenada, was confronted with a grumbling, depressive daughter. After my fourth day of imposed solitude, friends began to reach out and ask how I was or invite me for dinner. But I just resented them for not realizing sooner that I had gone AWOL and couldn’t go out for dinner ’cause I was sick, damnit! Even if they had banged down the door with chicken soup in hand, I likely would have told myself the same story: I was all alone in my apartment and no one cared about me.

In Heat Wave, Klinenberg writes about an elderly woman, Pauline Jankowitz, who lives alone and narrowly survived the rising temperatures that week in Chicago. After arriving back to her third-floor apartment, parched and nauseous from a trip to the grocery store, she telephoned a friend of hers. As they spoke, Pauline felt her hands go numb and begin to swell. She asked her friend to stay on the line, then soaked her head in water, pointed a fan at her face and lay down. A few minutes later, she recovered and picked up the phone to tell her friend she was okay. It seems like such a small incident, but that friend was Pauline’s lifeline to the world.

The loneliness I’ve experienced could never be compared to the crushing isolation that many others must feel, but I believe I got a bitter taste. These days I handle my life alone with a little more caution. I step into the shower with great care. I try to get out of the house for walks even when I have nothing to do. If I haven’t seen anyone all day, I call up a far-away friend who also lives alone. There are many of us out there now. Around the world, we are a 277 million person club and growing: young, old, strong, sick, male, female, introvert, extrovert. We have started down this path without knowing exactly what will happen to us. We must watch out for each other.