At 34 years old, no one can argue with the fact that I, a single woman over the age of 30, am a grown-up who has already learned more than her fair share of life lessons and cold truths about relationships (even though my mother tries to avoid any knowledge of this basic information).
As millennials so often do, despite what the news portrays, I’ve been paying my own bills and keeping my own house since I moved out of my parent’s home at the age of 21. I’ve lived on my own longer than I lived with my family growing up. I am a working professional with pets and plants and plenty more of the trappings that come with being an adult.
But I never really felt like one until I bought my new bed.
I’m not a rich person. I’m a writer, after all. The few pieces of furniture I’ve purchased for myself have all come from IKEA, but most of my lot of things — my bed, for example — are either hand-me-downs or items I purchased from friends or picked up from curbs.
(New York City is expensive, y’all. I’m not above a moderate amount of dumpster diving if it means I get a new-to-me desk for the cost of lugging the thing back to my apartment.)
I’ve been sleeping on the same bed since I moved to New York in 2006. It’s a full-size number I acquired from some roommate’s boyfriend’s third cousin. You know that guy, the one who seems like he’s always giving perfectly good stuff away.
It was already old when I got it, and it hasn’t improved with age. Never mind the fact that the average mattress collects up to eight ounces of human sweat A NIGHT (swear!), but recently the springs in the darn thing started popping through the surface, like a cartoon example of poverty.
I’d developed a strategic way of sleeping on it so as not to be gauged in the side, but ultimately, I knew the time had come when I needed to buy a new mattress.
I did my homework and ponied up the cash — $2,000!
It was the most money I’d ever spent on anything, including computers, and I didn’t feel an ounce of regret. It felt like an adult thing to do, to invest in my sleep! I ordered it online, and the day it arrived was like Christmas for boring adults. I scuttled around the delivery guys doing everything possible to refrain from actively clapping my hands in their presence.
But then, it happened.
“Ma’am, this is a queen-size mattress.”
“Your bed frame is full.”
I could have sent the mattress back and re-ordered a full one, I did not do that. It was too important to me to have that new mattress and to have it NOW.
I asked the delivery men to take away my old mattress, jumped into a taxi, and headed straight to IKEA. In under 40 minutes, I found the frame I wanted, bought it, and was waiting on the curb for a taxi home where I would put the entire thing together by myself.
As I stood on that curb, I noticed another woman about my age, juggling bags and nearly stumbling over her massive pile of just-purchased boxes. It looked like she was about to redecorate her entire home, and it seemed strange to see her standing there with so much stuff while simultaneously looking so lost and confused.
A security guard who must have thought the same thing asked her if she needed help, at which point she immediately broke down and, through tears, started telling him her life story.
She had never lived on her own, as she’d gotten married right out of high school, and her husband had just left her. She needed to buy new furniture, but she didn’t know Ikea meant putting it all together herself, and she thought someone would deliver the furniture later. By the time she was done telling him her woes, two other folks were at her side, comforting her, advising her, and offering to help.
My cab arrived just about then. I heard the driver pop open the trunk for my haul.
“Don’t scratch anything,” he said as I heaved the pieces of the queen size bed into the trunk. (No, reader, I did not do that either, but I really wanted to.)
When I got home, it didn’t take me long to put the bed frame together.
Was there a brief moment where I screamed and cursed? Absolutely.
But I’ve put beds together before. I’ve unclogged toilets. I’ve fixed the leaking radiators. I called the police when someone tried to break into my apartment.
These aren’t things I’ve given much thought to before, but the newly single woman crying on the curb at Ikea had gotten me thinking about every single thing that being single — that living on my own — has taught me.
It never occurred to me in all my years as a single woman that every day I was learning how to be self-sufficient.
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I focused on the negative stuff, like my inability to connect with a romantic partner, the fact that I couldn’t lose weight the way I wanted to, and the loneliness I felt, but I never realized that in the process of making it through those trying times, I was learning how to be independent and fully able to manage life on my own.
It’s all of the mistakes I’ve made along the way (please see the queen-size bed I now own) that have helped me grow into a whole person who knows her own capabilities and is proud of them to boot.
I think back to myself at 21, brand new to the city, and how an ordeal like having the wrong mattress delivered once would have left me in tears, feeling desperate, stupid, embarrassed, and clueless.
I’ve come a tremendous way since then, far enough that this day, in particular, turned out to be nothing more than a story to tell later.
We grow up when we aren’t paying attention and when we’re struggling. We become stronger through those struggles and through that loneliness.
And while the woman on the curb might have felt lost and hurt and damaged and panicked and clueless, adventures like the one she was having that day are ultimately the ones that will shape her into the best possible version of herself, too.
Rebecca Jane Stokes is a writer and the former Senior Editor of Pop Culture at Newsweek with a passion for lifestyle, geek news, and true crime.