Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

LIFE HONESTLY

I just left the flat I really grew up in

Most people think they do their growing in their childhood home but, for Polly Dunbar, her formative years started aged 26 in her first flat. Ten years – and a lot of lessons – later, she’s leaving it behind 

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By Polly Dunbar on

I woke up this morning in a strange apartment. My belongings – those that aren't crammed into a storage unit somewhere off the North Circular – spill randomly out of the boxes strewn across the floor, my shameful attempts at packing ensuring I can't find anything I need.

A couple of weeks ago, I sold the one-bedroom flat in north London where I'd lived for a decade. While the paperwork goes through on the new flat I'm buying, I'm taking an expensive sort of staycation in an Airbnb nearby. It feels unsettlingly nomadic, although I know how lucky I am to be taking my next step on the property ladder. But moving has also sparked other, more bittersweet emotions that go deeper than the inevitable shock of leaving somewhere as familiar as the sound of my own breathing.

It’s only now I've left that I realise what that flat, with its dodgy shower and rowing neighbours, meant to me. That it was the place where I had 10 years of brilliant, hilarious times with people I love, celebrating achievements and milestones. But it was also the safe haven where I learnt to navigate the tougher parts of life – where I learnt, eventually, to be comfortable in my own skin. That flat was the place where I grew up.

Mostly, we think about coming of age as a process that happens during our teenage years. Some of my favourite films, from Pretty In Pink to Clueless, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower to Easy A, portray its young protagonists as grappling with who they’re going to become. It’s hard, and they stumble and fall along the way, but, generally, the film ends when they’ve learnt the valuable lessons that will form the bedrock of their adult lives.

If only it were that simple. Actually, isn’t the real task of growing up something that takes place when we’re taking tentative steps along the often-treacherous path of adulthood? When we’re living independently, coping with the clash between the future we’d envisaged – finding the (less irritating) Ross to our Rachel, while enjoying the glamour and seemingly effortless career success of the Sex And The City gang – and the reality? When plans start going a little awry?

For me, as for most people, it happened in a scattered series of moments, only some of which felt meaningful at the time.

When I bought that first flat with my then-boyfriend, aged 26, it looked from the outside like I was already there – settled, with the future all mapped out. A couple of years later, the first of my friends got married. My boyfriend and I split up instead and, for the first time in my life, I found myself living alone.

I remember one friend asking me if I was going to move out after he did. “You can’t live by yourself,” she said, her eyes widening in concern. And I remember thinking, “Why not?” I didn’t know if I’d like it, or if I’d be horribly lonely. I did know instinctively that I needed to try it. I didn’t want to be afraid – not of myself, anyway. 

I knew instinctively that I needed to try living alone. I didn’t want to be afraid – not of myself, anyway

At first, it was more difficult than I would admit to. I didn’t know how to fill the space now there was just me; everything felt too big, too quiet. I’d fill evenings and weekends with so many plans I was exhausted, but at least they meant I didn’t have to be there on my own.

Gradually, though, without me really noticing, my feelings changed. I started to enjoy the liberty of being able to do whatever I wanted – to sleep until noon, watch Scandal in my pyjamas, invite friends for drunken, carelessly cooked dinners and dance around the living room to 80s indie bands.

My home became a sanctuary, a place I could retreat to when life got hard or crazy or just plain tiring, where I didn’t have to be anything but myself and where my own company was enough. Occasionally, it felt lonely, but, more often, when I sat alone in my living room, a sense of calm spread through me. And, when I went freelance five years ago, it became my workplace, too – a quiet, peaceful space where I could read, write and let my mind wander.

During turbulent, stressful times – other break-ups, in particular – my flat was a constant. I’d look around at the books on the shelves and the prints I chose for the walls and feel comforted, not so much by the objects themselves as what they represented – a physical reminder of the life I built, which isn’t dependent on anyone else.

I’m excited to begin the next chapter in my new home. I don’t know who will enter my life in the future, but I know I’m no longer scared to be alone. That’s what I’ve taken with me.

@Polly_Dunbar

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