It is now, in GMT, I think, the final day of Mental Health Awareness Week. I wish I had written something on this topic sooner but life – or rather, circumstance – has gotten in the way: I am abroad, in Cuba, which has an undesirable internet connection; and I have had so many thoughts and ideas for writing whirring around my head that I haven’t quite known where to start. But I have just now been welcomed into my email inbox by a new post by Laura Cloughley, which always brightens my day (granted, at the time of writing, the sun is still shining in Havana at 7:30pm) and, having begun to read it, I felt that it may make me emotional and so decided to simply pen a post myself.
In light of Mental Health Awareness Week, I will here discuss a challenge I have faced in spite of sunny circumstance.
Those who have read Matt Haig’s immeasurably important and invaluable book on his own MH struggles, Reasons to Stay Alive, will recall that when the camel’s back broke during his mid-twenties, he was, of all places, in Ibiza. Thus, the predicament of misery in paradise is hardly (for want of a better word) original, and shouldn’t be ignored.
In my case, I am travelling alone in Cuba. I do not speak Spanish. (I have always wanted to learn, but didn’t find the time to before I arrived here in the Caribbean.) These facts seemed inconsequential to me. I have two dozen books on Cuba and four shelves of books on Latin America. I am fascinated by the region’s history, politics, revolutions and revolutionaries. And I felt that I would be too busy soaking up Cuban culture (and booze) to notice my being alone, or to be inhibited by my lack of language.
I was profoundly mistaken.
Friends and fellow bloggers will know that I am an avid reader; a proud bookworm and obsessive accumulator of books. I am therefore, to a degree, a solitary person. But people who know me in person will, I think – and, I suppose, hope, because I believe it to be true – will also know that I am quite a sociable person. Shy around girls, I may be; but I would have no problem being parachuted into a room full of strangers. I’m supremely fortunate in this, I believe.
However, time by onself in a foreign country (in which one doesn’t speak the language) has turned out to be a wholly different type of solitude. In hindsight, I suppose solitude for want of reading is self-imposed, but truthfully I’m not sure if this is a crucial factor in the distinction. The fact remains, though, that this holiday hasn’t been one of endless joys. It has at times been hideously – and unexpectedly – lonely.
I’m sure that this will come as no surprise to onlookers; but, as I hope to have demonstrated above, I had in my own mind enough reasons to have been caught completely off-guard by this.
Marvellous as such times can be; there is, it turns out, only so many times one can walk around beautiful cobbled streets filled with bright, beautiful multi-coloured 17th century architecture in relentlessly hot sunshine before the sense of isolation starts to seep in.
Inadequate access to the internet seemed an exhilarating prospect, and in some ways it undoubtedly is – I for one often wish I lived in simpler times. (Can we have more vinyls and letter-writing and sleepy, shopless Sundays of earlier decades without racism, sexism and homophobia?) Yet when you’re feeling closer and closer to the edge and haven’t made contact with home for four days, you truly long for what you have, through no fault of your own, grown up with and become accustomed to.
I know I have written about loneliness at length in the past, be it in the context of romantic love, or a sense of isolation and feeling of outcastedness related to either depression, personal life, or both. But this is something I want to highlight again during this post for Mental Health Awareness Week; because it is, I’ve realised, something I will likely always suffer with in some form or another. This will doubtless have an effect on the relationships I form – whatever their basis – and that is a bridge I will have to cross whenever I arrive at it.
But in a cruelly ironic way, loneliness is, I think, universal in its scope. Absolutely anyone can feel lonely at absolutely any time for absolutely any reason. Yet maliciously, acknowledgement of this truth scarcely serves to mitigate its malignancy.
I am reminded, as ever, of a Less Than Jake lyric:
As people come and go
Do they know they’re really not alone?
I think that probably we do know deep down that we’re not alone in feeling a particular feeling – but that feeling is by definition one of insidiously inherent isolation.
We can but try and remember.
There is no shame in succumbing to negative feelings in times of apparent paradise and pleasure.
We are enough.
Before re-reading this post whist sat in the bar of the plush Grand Caribe international hotel, the Havana Libre, I did read the entirety of the beautiful and amazing Laura Cloughley’s new post (her second on Mental Health Awareness Week). I didn’t quite realise until I was at the end that I was, indeed, subtlety crying, with little tears making their slow way not-entirely-inconspicuously my cheeks.
I love that girl.