Growing Up in Foster Care Meant I Was Never Alone… Until I Moved to Germany

published Aug 17, 2021
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I was around people nearly all the time when I was growing up. As someone who was in foster care in high school, I lived in five different homes and shelters by the time I was 18 — and with each move came a new cast of characters in the story of my life. I was constantly meeting new people who I then had to live with. All of those intros and ice breakers often contributed to exhausting situations in which I always felt like I had to be “on” — and ready to talk, listen, and socialize at all times.

Though the backdrop always changed, I became accustomed to being surrounded by people, noise and change. Routine was foreign to me. 

At the time, being surrounded by people felt normal, or at least like something I should accept because I had no control over it. I was one of many people in similar situations: according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, there were around 424,000 children and young people in foster care in 2019 and the system served around 673,000 youth in total that year. Being “on” all of the time was incredibly taxing, but I brushed the exhaustion off as a necessary course of my life — to the point where I often imagined my life might always be as loud as I had known it. I imagined a life where I was surrounded by my friends 24/7, a life where we could spend all of our time together making unforgettable memories.

When I arrived at my college freshman year, I craved this busyness in my life. I moved into the biggest, most crowded dorm and attended every event they offered; later, I moved into houses with five or more roommates. There was always something going on, and, as an extrovert, I thought this was how I was meant to live. I loved being around people and had clung to this as a defining part of my identity.

What I didn’t realize is that I was running myself into the ground, and giving myself no time to rest or recharge. I was under the impression that time alone would take away from my time with others, even though spending time alone can also boost a person’s social interactions. Being around people all of the time with no breaks was mentally taxing, and I struggled living with housemates with whom I didn’t see eye-to-eye. My coping mechanism wasn’t much better: Instead of carving out time for myself, I would retreat to my partner’s house and spend time with him, a tactic that only exacerbated my exhaustion further. 

This was something I saw happening all around me: people would start seeing someone and spend all of their “alone time” with them. I thought it was normal to enter a relationship and then be around them as much as possible, allowing “I” to become “we” as the relationship flourished. 

It wasn’t until I uprooted my life altogether that I realized something would have to change. A few months before I graduated from my Master’s program, I accepted a Fulbright offer in Germany, and specifically noted that I would like to be in a small town in order to better develop my burgeoning German language skills. Living in a small town meant I would need to find a place on my own. 

The idea of living on my own in a country where I didn’t know anyone overwhelmed me. I’m not alone in this: In a world of social media and the dreaded “fear of missing out,” general feelings of loneliness have become remarkably common. Up until that moment, I had assumed that I couldn’t be lonely if I was never alone. Could I still have the same life-changing experiences without the roommates to share memories with? I had been working toward this experience my whole life, but as soon as the initial excitement wore off, I was lost. 

I was used to having someone to talk to while I cooked, as well as people coming in and out of the front door all day long. The big-happy-family narrative from shows like “The Big Bang Theory,” “New Girl,” and “How I Met Your Mother,” had only cemented my unshakeable belief that living with and close to as many people as possible was the key to happiness. Yet for the first time in my life, I had only silence — and the fact that the town of 6,000 people began shutting down at 6 p.m. each evening made it infinitely more challenging to meet anyone.

The difficulties of adjusting to life after foster care go well beyond the myriad hurdles foisted upon people who, like me, aged out of the system. Fewer than three percent of people from the foster-care system graduate from a four-year college, particularly because navigating the world is so challenging when your childhood was so limited. This time, I was tasked with adjusting to a privilege I had never previously been afforded: Having my own space. I was now free to do what I pleased, when I pleased, and with whom I pleased. I was frozen by my newfound freedom.

Over time, I adjusted. I became more intentional with my meditation practice, made cooking into an evening activity rather than a task on my to-do list, and focused on my food while I was eating so that I could go back and perfect the dishes later. After dinner, I started going for regular walks and sought out any and all events going on in the community. 

This opened doors for me. For so long, I had viewed venturing out solo as taboo, and while doing things alone was incredibly intimidating at first, I soon grew used to it. In fact, I thrived. I no longer had to feel ashamed that someone cancelled — I could continue on with the same plans by myself.

Eventually, I realized I loved living alone and the time to decompress that it afforded me. It was and still is a privilege — according to the Pew Research Center, 31.9 percent of American adults lived in a shared household in 2017, whether due to financial need or preference — but the conditions of my youth had made aloneness all the more foreign to me. I never had the opportunity to read uninterrupted for an hour, to meditate or do yoga on my own, or even to learn to enjoy my own company. 

My newfound love of living alone quickly developed into a love of doing other things solo, including traveling, trying new restaurants, and attending festivals — and alone time is no longer something I run away from, but rather something I schedule into every week (something I never imagined myself doing in the past). In the past, I might have waited for someone to join me or risked letting the opportunity pass me by. Now I prefer doing certain things alone so that I can do them the way I want. I still enjoy being surrounded by people, but I am also so grateful to have a home that is just mine, too.