I Spent 8,000 Hours Alone in a 200 Square-Foot Apartment — And I Realized I Actually Like Who I Am

updated Mar 27, 2021
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Credit: Photo: Shutterstock, Getty Images, Photo: Apartment Therapy

When I first moved into my very small studio apartment in Manhattan’s Upper West Side two years ago, I knew it was small. No, think smaller than that: It can fit a queen-sized bed, a desk, and… well, not much else. 

But I was OK with this: The idea was that I’d be spending the majority of my time out and about in New York City, frequenting Riverside or Central Park, or entertaining on the adjacent roof deck that’s easily twice the size of my space. I thought that my new apartment, a converted attic in a brownstone, would mean I could live out some delusional Nora Ephron Upper West-style fantasy, and the aesthetic helped offset the realities of the square footage. I wasn’t envisioning spending months alone in there, debating whether I wanted to sit on my bed, at my desk, or sprawled on the floor to really shake things up each day. 

For so many people, the first few weeks of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020 were terrifying and filled with plenty of “new normals” to navigate, like the hours-long line to get into Trader Joe’s. I mostly spent my days in a parka and several sweaters out on my deck or in the fetal position in bed, hearing nothing but sirens. The days became months, piling on top of one another with the crushing weight of what seemed to be an endless barrage of bad news that scrolled across Twitter in real-time. Aside from going home to Massachusetts for a few weeks in the summer, I barely left my apartment.

But the more time I spent there, in a room that was suddenly everything, the more I could put a name to what had affected me in the “Before Times,” too: I was burnt out from commuting to my full-time job, freelancing, and maintaining an active social life. Suddenly I had the free time I had desperately craved, with none of the benefits. I spent so much time using screens that I started to refuse FaceTime calls. Even so, any self-pity I felt was appropriately offset by immense guilt — after all, I had my health, employment, and loved ones I could reach out for support and vice versa. Knowing how much better I had it than those our government abandoned left me feeling enraged, and simultaneously pretty powerless.

Credit: Sarah Solomon

In short, I spent a lot of time blankly staring at my walls and the possessions I kept there. Suddenly, everything that could be tangibly tied to the life I had before felt as empty and useless as the makeup or pants I had already given up on. The furnishings and books I used as a form of escapism — like the hamster canvas I painted in art school, or the decorative flask collection I sourced from thrift shops — now seemed out-of-touch and ridiculous. What good were the clothes I had amassed, which almost uniformly could be called “New England preppy” and were now an afterthought to my pajamas and sweatpants? Who needs a staggering amount of curated barware if I couldn’t share sunset cocktails with my friends? Why had I insisted on decorating with ducks everywhere the eye could see? Past boyfriends had affectionately described my apartment decor as a “red flag,” and I became paranoid that they were right. 

However, in the course of not leaving my apartment for days at a time, I inadvertently started to live only for myself, not some idea of who I was or needed to be — for those ex-boyfriends or anyone else. Why should I be ashamed of how I lived, if this was how I liked it? I began using my barware tools for my own nightly rituals, glamming up dinner and making sure they weren’t gathering dust. I began treating linen napkins as something for the everyday, instead of leaving them stacked and waiting for a better day. The shame I had felt about how I decorated in the past deteriorated, because, as I realized, we all had bigger problems than someone’s gratuitous opinions. 

As the news started to feel like less of a bleak spiral, my mind finally quieted down enough to read for pleasure again, or watch a movie in full without immediately forgetting the plot. I allowed myself to get back into nu metal, and revisited bands I hadn’t embraced since high school. By leaning into exactly what I wanted to do without fear of judgment — after all, no one was coming over to see me do it — I learned that I hadn’t changed at all. I’m still the same weird kid who struggled with acceptance, and it was gratifying to realize that I like myself enough as an adult to not be at the mercy of trends. The ducks everywhere don’t hold any greater symbolism than the fact that I like them, just as I love the anecdotes that surround each piece of laboriously-thrifted furniture. 

Credit: Sarah Solomon

It can be so easy to look at Instagram and see perfectly staged apartments filled with mid-century modern styles and judge yourself accordingly, or provide pre-emptive apologies for those who don’t appreciate your style. Both are an epic waste of time. The irony is that the more we were forced to see each other and our lives through photos and livestreams, the less the decor mattered to anyone who wasn’t the person that picked it. Unless I were to explain in a caption, no one would know that the novels lining my shelves remind me of book signings I once attended, of accomplishments by friends and acquaintances that we had celebrated together in-person, of events I couldn’t wait to attend sometime in the near future. 

As I prepare for the world to open up again, I’m both excited and simultaneously nervous about becoming quickly burnt out once again. However, now that I’ve spent so much time among the objects of what seems to be a museum dedicated to a past life, I’m realizing the spaces we intentionally create for ourselves aren’t just places to come back to at the end of the night after we tire from the lives we lived outside. They are places to exist in which we feel truly comfortable. 

My apartment is a center that holds the rest of my life together, and the place where I make sense of the mementos and details I hold dear. I don’t know what the coming months will bring, but I know wherever I end up, those damn ducks are coming with me.