It’s Mental Health Awareness Week here in the UK, and this year the theme is loneliness.
I think we can all say that we’ve experienced feeling alone at one point over the last two years. Even with Zoom calls and social media at our fingertips to keep us connected, isolation has been challenging. There’s a distinct difference between waving at someone through a screen versus receiving a warm hug when you need it most.
With the torrent of media reports, toilet roll hoarding, canceled family visits, and trying to juggle a failing business, my anxiety was at an all-time high in 2020 and 2021.
To cope, I fell back into reading. I savoured getting lost in fantasy worlds in my spare time, far away from the daily horrors of what we were all facing. Escapism kept me sane. I was able to open up a book, take a journey to a faraway land with colourful characters, and find I was less alone.
Books have been the primary way I escaped loneliness my whole life. I’ve always been a shy, introverted person. I’ve grown in confidence over the years, as comes with age, but as a kid I was very reserved. I had a difficult time making friends.
Instead, characters became my companions. Matilda, Wilbur and Charlotte, Bilbo, and Winne-the-Pooh were some of my best friends growing up. When I transitioned to high school and experienced bullying for the first time, Hogwarts became my home. Books helped me feel less alone and gave me an avenue to open up to people. In university, I met my best friend through a shared love of books and literature.
And I’m not the only one who’s found comfort in books.
Many members of the Bookish Bakes community have told me about books that helped them get through particularly difficult times with their mental health.
Rachel, who was forced to remain in New Zealand after the borders closed in 2020, felt disconnected from her family. So she turned to one of her favourite authors to help her feel more connected to her home:
“It's never easy being away from home. I visited New Zealand on my honeymoon in February 2020, and before the month was out, the borders had closed, and repatriation flights were leaving for the UK. We made the decision to stay, with only our backpacks. My homesickness throughout the two years I spent there was hit and miss. Sometimes it was terrible, and the pandemic made me worry for my family and exaggerated the feeling of how far away I was. During this time, I turned to my favourite author: Kate Atkinson. Atkinson has a way of writing about England that moves me powerfully. Her stories are packed with British culture, history, and overall, a feeling. It's a feeling of being in the British countryside, of seeing the first bluebell of spring. Following Ursula and Ted's story in Life After Life and A God In Ruins helped me with my homesickness. At any time, I could drift back to the Todd family home and witness a summer of skylarks.”
Another Bookish Baker, Lauren, who battles with anxiety and depression, says that books helped her feel understood and gave her the courage to get better:
“The book that has helped me with my mental health journey is Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig. I first read it in 2016 when I was at my lowest point with anxiety and depression. It honestly changed my whole perspective on mental health and brought me so much comfort. It made me feel less alone and fully understood. It was the first time I really believed that I could get better and heal. I've reread it so many times since then when I feel at my lowest and every time it brings me the same relief.”
And Ruth, who lost herself after giving birth during the height of the pandemic, found confidence and purpose through a literary heroine:
“In January 2021, I was lost. I had no idea what I was doing, and my days revolved around keeping this tiny delicate thing alive. I’m not ashamed to say I was in a dark and low place emotionally. I couldn’t recognise myself in the mirror. It was a lonely, frightening place and I needed to find something or someone to help me out. Enter Jane Eyre. Jane swooped into my life during those sacred nap times where I was alone with my thoughts. We had met before, but this time I could resonate and take solace and confidence from Jane. In those moments while the baby slept, I could immerse myself in Gothic England. Jane was orphaned, cast out, bereaved, and heartbroken, but through it all, she knew exactly who she was. She was smart, witty. She could hold her nerve. She was a confident young woman. The prose of Charlotte Bronte created this powerhouse of a female character, and I found myself rooting for her. She was exactly what I needed. I was smart. I was confident. I just needed to remember that. Like Jane, I may be someone new or changing due to my circumstances, but that doesn’t mean I had to lose who I was before. It’s character development. Jane extended her hand and started me on a journey of development and recovery. Her tenacity and ability to adapt and respond to adversity showed how strong she was and why she is a literary heroine. Although my mental and emotional health still need some work, Jane gave me the confidence to take that step.”
Books have an uncanny ability to reflect our lives back to us. We can find hope, solace, peace, and companionship in their words. We can learn more about ourselves and take strength and courage through their characters. We can find a home between the covers of a book where we might have lost one in our real lives.
Matt Haig writes in Reasons to Stay Alive that “one cliché attached to bookish people is that they are lonely, but for me books were my way out of being lonely.”
In books, we can find community. We can find a world where we feel less alone.
Author’s note: I want to thank the members of the Bookish Bakes community – Rachel, Lauren, and Ruth – for being brave enough to share their stories with me so that I could write this piece for you. I hope their stories gave you some comfort in knowing that you aren’t walking this path alone.
Mental Health Resources:
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