As an only child, I grew up comfortably seated in my routines. I never had to sleep on someone else’s schedule, I never had to share my toys, and I never had to prioritize anyone else’s emotional needs before my own. My life lacked the external turgor pressure that comes with the sibling rivalry to compete for Mom and Dad’s attention. In many ways, this led me to become a very independent and self-reliant person. I made up my own games and made actors out of my pets to set up shows in my backyard. But in another way, I was unchallenged. I did not have to coexist with others in a shared room; I lived by my own rules and never had to follow another’s code of conduct — with the exception of that of my parents, of course.
It was not until college that I was presented with a new form of living, one that integrated a regular and periodic social clock. My freshman year, I had two roommates: one who was also very independent and spent a majority of her time hitching her legs up over her desk chair and pulling at the pages of a postmodern Russian or French book, and one who was also an only child and would shamelessly hold to her daily practices, no matter how disruptive or disrespectful they were. I have always identified as a deep sleeper; however, that year, I discovered how untrue this really was. Not only would my roommate play her shower playlist at full volume at two in the morning while she washed up, but she would also turn on her desk lamp and apply three layers of different face masks before she went to bed. In the morning, she would hit her alarm several times before finally succumbing to the persistence of her alarm and getting out of bed. As she transcended stages of sleep, from REM to wake, she would increasingly smack her lips. I found this an amazingly agitating and uneconomical practice. It was wasteful of the precious hours of morning and nighttime silence. In consequence, she had converted me into an avid protester of noise pollution.
We endeavored to find a way to meld our very polar sleep patterns, but the conversation became more of a tug of war than a treaty, with neither of us coming to a middle ground of compromise or mild satisfaction. Adjusting to other people being in my bedroom and occupying it in ways (that I found unnatural) made new faces of my personality surface, some of which I am not proud of. Gradually over the course of the year, I found myself becoming more passive-aggressive. My internal frustration materialized into short-tempered snarky comments and biting sarcasm. Rather than being a sympathetic mediator to conflict, as I had often been as a child, I now had become an agent of belligerence.
Despite all of the angst she caused me within the confines of my dorm, I am also deeply grateful for the experience of sharing a room with her. Had she not unintentionally pushed me out of the nest of our dorm, I do not think that I would have maintained my friendships as actively as I did. Never in my entire existence had I been so social. Almost every day I spent with new people I friends. We ate brunch at Café 3, played in the grass, drank tea, went on night hikes and ate Top Dog at midnight.
Without realizing it, my roommate had forced me to find peace and comfort outside of myself. As an only child, I had always relied on myself to be my own source of entertainment at home, but now, for the first time, I had friends to relax and recenter myself with after a long day at school. Soon, I became accustomed to people accompanying me in all parts of my day, and so I became much smoother at navigating social avenues than I had been in high school. Despite this, I still treasured the moments when I was able to be by myself. Where I had previously taken my isolation to be somewhat of a daily pleasure, it now became an occasional luxury.
In those sparse moments of solitude, I would say “hi” to myself again. I loved being around my friends all the time, but I learned that while I was in conversation with them, I was thinking about and listening to the person I was joined by rather than tuning in to my own thoughts. Every time I found time to be alone, it was like being on a date with myself or having a phone call with an old friend.
As I learned to live around people and simultaneously account for my own needs, I became more acutely aware of my own thoughts and more capable of maintaining a social homeostasis. Three roommates later, I am still wrestling with many of these same feelings and learning to grow alongside my peers rather than resist their inevitable influence on my lifestyle. Every day is a school day in a dorm room.
Layla Chamberlain writes the Monday column on how routines create character and delineate personal politics