When my younger daughter graduated from high school, she used the money she had earned working at Ken’s Market on Queen Anne to buy a 1973, bright orange VW Bus. After setting it up with her Dad’s help (for both comfort and safety), instead of heading off to college as most of her friends were doing, my daughter drove away from home and began a solo journey down the coast.

Last night at a small gathering at my older daughter’s home, both daughters and several of their now adult friends reminisced about that trip. “My sister is so cool,” said my older daughter. “So brave to have done that.” 

Yes. She was. 

Remembering my trepidation as her departure day drew near, one of the friends said, “Oh, Irene, you were so nervous when she left.” 

Yes. I was.

At times was terrified. I knew that camping alone at night could be dangerous. And roadside breakdowns can leave a woman vulnerable. And that highway driving is far more treacherous than we acknowledge in our fast and furious world. And I am her mother. Period.

I laughed along with them. And I admitted to another fear. One I had not expressed aloud before. I had been equally, if not more so, worried about her loneliness. About the long stretches of driving. About quiet nights alone in her bus. About facing new situations and decisions by herself. The thought of my daughter experiencing any of this was going to be transformative. But only if she was able to grab on and run with it. If not, it could be a miserable time.

I needn’t have worried. Because it was those very moments that, in hindsight, were the most valuable to her. She solved problems, fended off guys at campgrounds, wrote songs and even nursed herself back from a terrible flu. Her time alone allowed her to learn about herself in a way that is not possible when surrounded and influenced by others.

Spending time alone – truly alone – can reset your brain. Calm you. I experience this during the winters on a small island in Panama where there is minimal technological stimulation. Our many trips up the Pacific Northwest Coast during the girls’ childhood summers, devoid of television, computers, and phones allowed us to travel as deeply into ourselves as we did into the rainforest. 

There is a distinct difference between “being alone” and “loneliness.”  “Being alone” is something one can choose. It’s physical. “Loneliness” is a psychic experience. A feeling of abandonment. Of shunning.  We feel it when mean girls in school turn against us. Or when people in the workplace do the same. 

Just after graduating from college, I traveled alone on the west coast, having come from New York. There was a point on my trip where I became paralyzed by loneliness. Staying in a YWCA in Vancouver, Canada, I could barely get myself to leave the room. I called my parents – collect – and sobbed when I heard my Dad’s voice. I’m a little embarrassed admitting how homesick I was. But the point is, I was not lonely. I was merely alone. I could call my parents, or a sibling, or a friend whenever I wanted. If I had been a little cooler, I could have wandered around trying to meet someone. I eventually shored myself up and did just that and ended up liking the west coast so much that I eventually moved here. But that moment stands out as one that I pushed through (with a little help from my Dad) and got to the other side. And I grew up and learned more about myself - because I was alone.  

My daughter called me almost every day from the road (probably more for me than for her), and I noticed her voice and attitude becoming more confident with each passing week. She let me know when she’d be driving through a no-reception zone so I wouldn’t worry if a few days went by without a call. And soon I stopped worrying at all because it was clear that she was okay. More than okay. She was having the time of her life. All by herself.

Time alone, unfettered by the constant communication we are subjected to today, is an important part of one’s inner growth no matter what our age. I find that as I grow older, I crave such time. Because, I know now that is critical to our deepest being, our inner life, that we find time to just be. And to push through feelings of loneliness, which can affect us even in the midst of a crowded room, and see what is on the other side. As my daughter learned very early in her life, doing so can reap very sweet rewards.

Irene Panke Hopkins (irenehopkins.com) is a freelance writer and essayist. She lived on Queen Anne for 20 years and now lives on a sailboat in Ballard.