project of Kristina Chimbaraite
Portuguese expat living in Sofia, Bulgaria for more than a year. Trying to make sense out of stuff.
What do you feel or imagine when you hear the word ‘loneliness’?
Ok, so loneliness for me at this moment of my life is a double-edged word. I have a very convoluted relationship with loneliness. And when I talk about loneliness I separate now loneliness from solitude.
What I think about loneliness is mostly disconnection from yourself first and from other people around you. We live in a society, we are social human beings and when we think about loneliness I think the first image that we have is like not having friends, not having people around us. And sometimes it’s not really like that. Sometimes loneliness is when you have ‘friends’ or acquaintances but you still don’t connect with them, you know. You can also feel lonely with the wrong people.
For me, it's a double-edged word because when I think about loneliness, of course, I associate it with a sad situation but at the same time, I associate loneliness with some kind of empowerment.
I come from a very dysfunctional, very violent family. And, you know, the fucked up shit in your family whether you like it or not, will influence the way you’re going to relate with people around you. So in a kind of way, I was set up to have a lonely life: either you're lonely because the kids, they think you are crazy, weird, they reject you, mock and fight you and don't want to be your friends. And in another way – to defend and distance yourself against the bullies, toxic people. You have to learn how to be alone.
Now I would like you to be as personal as you want and to go to the first or the most memorable experience of loneliness. And was there a moment when you realised that you don't want to be in this state anymore? That you want to move on and start changing something in your life?
Oh well, that’s very complicated. I’m gonna be honest for me it’s still a place of confusion. I’m still trying to sort it out that’s why I might be a little bit nonsensical, I don’t have a fully fleshed-out story.
"we have this very strong bond and although we all suffered a lot, we were each other’s anchors and safety net"
So, the thing for me was like I had a very lonely childhood. I come from a very abusive household, I only had my siblings and we were struggling with abusive parents. My siblings are the people I most love in my life. We support each other and we love each other deeply. We have this very strong bond and although we all suffered a lot, we were each other’s anchors and safety net. Maybe that’s how we were able to endure these hellish years.
And you grow up thinking that being this lonely is normal. You know: ‘… maybe I’m weird, maybe I deserve to be treated like this’ and so on. I realized that something was not right with me when I was in 10th grade. It's hard to talk about this because I already put at some perspective this period, but at that point, I was super bullied by my classmates.
"it was the day I got into a car accident, me and my mother we were both in the car, we almost died. I was 15"
I had some ‘friends’ who didn’t really like me. Looking back, I think they were hanging out with me out of pity, or maybe they needed someone to make fun of, or whatever. And I recall the loneliest experience I ever had and I realized how lonely I actually was. It was the day I got into a car accident, me and my mother we were both in the car, we almost died. I was 15. I was studying in a school in a small town next to my city, in Braga. My mother and I were going to school, and I just remember that my mother lost control of the car, it crashed into the rail and it flipped. I think I fainted, I don't remember much. I just remember opening the eyes and seeing the car upside down. Somebody helped us to get out of the car, but this is not the main point.
My mother was a teacher in that town, a super popular person. And I was that bullied kid, people didn’t like me at all. You know, I was a weirdo. I remember that we came back home, my mother, she was super popular, she started getting calls from everybody. And I was in bed, super sad, none of my ‘friends called or texted me to ask if I was ok. The only people who texted me it was more because of my mother. That day I was so depressed and even my sister, she gave me something to calm down because… wow, you know, nobody called me, nobody asked me if I was alright. When I came back to school and told what happened they even made comments like: ‘C’mon the car just slipped a bit, don’t be dramatic’. Really? After getting these cruel and cold comments I realised that something was not ok. I couldn’t express it clearly at that time, but I felt it. If I died in this accident no one would give a shit. And that was the day I felt the loneliest. I realized that if I died there I would die completely alone. It reminds me of the quote from Donnie Darko: ‘Every living creature dies alone’.
"after getting these cruel and cold comments I realised that something was not ok. I couldn’t express it clearly at that time, but I felt it. If I died in this accident no one would give a shit. And that was the day I felt the loneliest"
That was the moment when I realised that I first tried to get out of this lonely state. And from that time my life was basically about trying to approach people. Sometimes I got the connection, most of the time – not. And I got hurt by some people. I kind of became a people pleaser due to my low self-esteem and lack of friends.
Fast forwarding, two years ago I went to Thessaloniki and I was able to finally be myself and have a clean table, not having people judging me or spreading rumors. And at that point, I've learned to embrace loneliness and create solitude out of it. Before loneliness was kind of a punishment for me and now I think that loneliness/solitude is just a way to build healthier relationships and also it’s about expecting something better for you. Just because you are thirsty doesn’t mean that you want to drink poison.
Can you go a little bit deeper and explain when you started to diversify loneliness and solitude? I've heard several times people saying that they enjoy being lonely but from what I've experienced it's not something you can enjoy. Solitude, on the other hand, is something we all need to establish this healthy relationship with ourselves
Ok, let me think a bit… I think the time when it started to be more aware of it and then it became a more developed idea was actually in Portugal when I started hanging out with Erasmus people. I was around 23 years old then. I remember that time, I was feeling super lonely.
"but I played a role… for me the role I was playing was a people pleaser, you know"
As the years passed, I started having better relationships and better friendships. I had closer friends. But I played a role… for me the role I was playing was a people pleaser, you know. I was that friend that others deep down would bully, would not respect my boundaries. Why? Because I came to a state that I’m so lonely because I deserve it, people don’t approach me because I’m weird, because I’m not normal. And the kind of relationships I had they were very toxic at times… I’m sorry, it’s still very confusing to me, I still can’t make a perfect sense out of this. But I thought that I had to fight for these friendships. It’s like… if somebody needed me to do something for them I would drop everything and go do what they wanted. I had the idea that I had to fight and to struggle, and to put myself last to build a relationship out of this fear of loneliness which I was still not consciously aware of.
And at some point, I got super disappointed with a group of friends I had at that time. I realised that they liked me but they didn't respect me. Why do I say this? Because since I didn’t have boundaries and I didn’t know what boundaries were and I never set them, they were basically educated by me that it was ok to disrespect me, to hurt me. Even when they hurt me I was thinking: ‘Ok, I’m being too sensitive, I have to learn’. You know, you have these toxic thoughts when you feel lonely.
And actually, I started to reinterpret loneliness. Loneliness before was seen as something bad that I have to make effort to break out of it, but, progressively, I started to accept loneliness as a state of mind that is actually natural and healthy. I started slowly accepting it when I started dealing with Erasmus people.
And it was a life-changing experience, it was what changed my perception. You meet people from all kinds of countries, with different cultural backgrounds. And they are so open and excited towards life and people, without a judgmental attitude. It was so exciting! You meet from party animals to shy, kind, interesting people. And all of them are on their own journey. At times, they also feel lonely. And with them, I felt completely free to be who I wanted to be.
"and this is the thing, sometimes to get out of loneliness you have to get out of your comfort zone. It’s cliché but your comfort zone is killing you and making you lonely"
In the beginning, I started hanging out with Erasmus people, going to an environment I wasn't really comfortable with at that time. And this is the thing, sometimes to get out of loneliness you have to get out of your comfort zone. It’s cliché but your comfort zone is killing you and making you lonely. But at the same time, I was doing a thing that was not really my thing, like going to parties with a lot of people.
I’m socially anxious, and in the beginning I was like: ‘Man, I don’t feel comfortable here, so many people'. But at the same time, it was nice because there are also people like you who actually don’t like parties that much, who are in the same situations as you are. They are there because they are afraid of missing out, they also want to be integrated. And then I started establishing normal friendships, you know, it was the first time when I started deconstructing this idea that in order to stop feeling lonely I had to abdicate my personality, boundaries or something.
Coming from an abusive household I finally felt free to open myself and express myself, and so I had a lot of first times over there. You call it: it was about drugs, parties, about having conversations, sexuality… Before that I was not able to get a girlfriend because I was very weird and very creepy. I was basically living in my computer, closed in myself, not seeing anybody.
This also helped me to get another perception that what was really dragging me down was this abusive household and an unsupportive social circle.
In the meantime, my parents divorced and I stopped living with my mother and was able to get to know myself. She had a very suffocating, smothering presence. So basically that was the time when I started separating myself from my parents' presence and started having all these experiences. The bad thing about making Erasmus friends is that after 6 months all the people are leaving. With some of them you connect more than with others. I actually still have friends all over the world from that time and we still keep in touch.
Basically, it was the first time that I learned that being alone is not really a bad thing. And this was when I started learning how to be alone and how to create connections in a healthy way.
And this idea matured when I went to Thessaloniki in 2017. Thessaloniki still for me was… wow (smiles), I don’t know the right words because Thessaloniki was the time when I genuinely felt the happiest in my life. Really. And over there I really was able to distinguish loneliness from solitude.
The thing is like… I have a kind of weird personality, I am a person who loves meeting people but also I’m very strong about my personal space and privacy. I’m a person who loves to go to parties but who loves to stay invisible in his corner. I’m a person who loves to go to networking events, to a festival, to conferences and so on, and I love getting inspired and meeting inspiring people but it’s very hard for me to approach people. I’m kind of a walking contradiction. But Thessaloniki taught me that it’s ok to be like that. There’s nothing wrong with that.
"I’m kind of a walking contradiction. But Thessaloniki taught me that it’s ok to be like that"
I came to Thessaloniki and at that time the family situation completely exploded. My mother reached a very toxic no turning back point, which led me to completely cut off contact with her and keep a lot of distance from my father. My most serious romantic relation at that time was cut off due to the distance issues. We met during her Erasmus, she even lived with me for one month. And having it end like this was painful. Some of my closest friends kind of betrayed me. I was completely drained and devastated, and I thought: ‘Ok, I’m not doing anything here. I have nobody. I have no reason to stay here’.
At this point, it was already 3 years dealing with Erasmus people but I wanted something more stable because every 6 months the people you made a connection with would leave.
And I saw this EVS project and I decided to try it.
To be honest, in the beginning I was super hesitant about that because the organization didn't seem that good but I thought that in the worst-case scenario I would just come back earlier. And it was way better to go there than to stay in Portugal.
And indeed I went there and for me it was an amazing experience. I met some of the most incredible, inspiring and funny people. People that were kind, inspiring, passionate and good-hearted. And they had such an influence and an inspiring effect on me. I really think I got some of my biggest life lessons from sharing this period of my life with them. I feel if Thessaloniki was a huge cornerstone for me growing up as a person, I own it in part to the people I've met in there, during my EVS.
But also sometimes it was complicated, for example, dealing with 23 people at the same time. I'm a shy person and I don't feel comfortable sharing rooms and being together all the time, like working, living. But at the same time, I realized that it is ok to be lonely. For me it was ok just to pick my stuff and go out in the city and just be myself.
Sometimes I would go to a café alone and read a book, and in my city people would judge me: ‘Oh, this guy alone. Oh, something is not right with him.’ Or if I would go to the movies: ‘Oh, this guy goes to movies alone, this guy is crazy.’ No, there I could be alone and enjoy it, you know. That was the first time that I was like: ‘Wow, man! Being alone is amazing!’ And like… I would be in the corner, and then, you know, Greek people are super energetic, super empathetic… I used to say about Greek people that you open your arms and they give you their hearts. And I started connecting to people like this, they would come to me and we would start to speak. And actually, if you are a foreigner people don’t judge you so much for being alone, you become even more interesting for them. Sometimes I would go to parties alone and meet people, and enjoy myself a lot there. Maybe one or two people would not like me but other people would enjoy spending time with me. And that’s how I discovered that being alone was not bad and also I realised that people actually liked me just for who I am. These people didn’t make up stories or spread rumors about me, they just accepted me. And I met other volunteers and I was amazed that I could deal so well with this.
"loneliness was in my life not because people didn’t want to get along with me or because I was a creep or something, it was because I didn’t have self-love, I didn’t have boundaries"
But coming back to your question, basically, that was the point when I realized the difference between loneliness and solitude. Loneliness was in my life not because people didn’t want to get along with me or because I was a creep or something, it was because I didn’t have self-love, I didn’t have boundaries. And I thought that if I didn't let people abuse me, if I didn't put myself out there, you know, that’s why I would always be lonely. But in Thessaloniki I found solitude, like: ‘Ok, I’m a guy who enjoys doing things mostly alone and it's ok'. I think that loneliness and solitude are a question of self-love, you know. I think also when you connect to people it’s a matter of self-love. I also learned this one thing: sometimes people try not to be alone because they are afraid of the image they are projecting, they are afraid to show weakness or be criticized, but no… I actually think it’s very important to know how to be alone because those who don’t know how to be alone, they are not in a good company.
I always feel so weird after a person shares his or her soul in such a pure way and I have to come back with a question. But one of the things I'm very curious about because I discovered it about myself that I actually have a pattern and every time this journey into loneliness starts in the same way. Have you noticed anything like that? Do you have a pattern?
Yeah, I realised that I have a pattern, especially in Thessaloniki.
I’m kinda in a learning process now to push these walls down and let people and love in. This was one of the most amazing lessons Thessaloniki taught me. I will never forget an advice one of my roommates gave me: if you want to create a better world, if you want to change people’s opinions you cannot say or show them what they have to do, what you can do is to share your experience and share your life with them. And it’s true.
"if you want to create a better world, if you want to change people’s opinions you cannot say or show them what they have to do, what you can do is to share your experience and share your life with them"
When I started reading more about human psychology and started the process of healing my traumas, it came up like a pattern. I’m a person who enjoys a lot of space, and when I am in a group of people I am a shy person, I tend to be in my corner and see how things go. I’m a typical introvert, it’s not easy for me to approach people, and sometimes I just let an extrovert adopt me. And also I’m a book worm, a comic book geek, video game enthusiast and I’m a huge cinema lover - and these are also very lonely activities, in a way they interconnected. And I need a lot of time for myself to breathe a bit and work on my projects; sometimes I take a walk alone in the city taking photos, filming.
You know, the hardest part to deal with is missing people. When I start feeling lonely it means that I miss people a lot, but most of my friends are scattered around the world and I’m here in Sofia. And sometimes it’s getting overwhelmed and then I try to connect with people.
Now I have a mentality that you don’t have to go to the world, let the world come to you. And when I get lonely I can finally break through these walls. I have a great group of friends now even if our conversations from time to time happens only through skype and it’s not the same, still it’s there. And here, in Sofia, I also met a lot of amazing people, it’s still a beginning. But it’s already amazing, when I feel lonely I can pick up a phone a call somebody and have an honest and meaningful conversation.
As you can see, I’m still super confused about this. I’m just putting dots and trying to connect them.
And that is your story. And I’m grateful you share it with me. Is there something else you would like other people to know about loneliness?
There’s a sentence of Frida Kahlo: ‘Where you cannot love, do not delay.’ And now I think I’m connecting the dots, I think that loneliness and solitude is a question of love, and it starts with self-love. It doesn’t matter how many people you have around or how many parties you are invited to, it’s a matter of feeling your own worth and letting love in, let people in your life. Let them share their life´s with you. Try to be open about it.
And getting out of this dark place that is loneliness and to evolve to solitude and learn to enjoy your own company is a process of finding yourself, doing what you love. And, as Bill Hicks says, you can see the world through the eyes of fear or through the eyes of love. The thing is that the eyes of fear will tell you that you should always be surrounded by people and be the best, have the best cars, looking good at their eyes, projecting a very positive social image even if it's not who you really are… and actually, it is something that is promoted in our society. We live in a very competitive society, you know.
"after all, there's nothing wrong with you being shy in your own corner and having your own friends"
But we don’t have to be like that. After all, there's nothing wrong with you being shy in your own corner and having your own friends. We are not in the competition so do things through the eyes of love. And when you do things out of love they will come back to you. Go to a concert alone and you might meet crazy like-minded people who share the same passion as you, go to a cinema alone and you might find people there talking about the movie and the conversation will happen. And if you are physically in a place where you are not happy, change your place. I believe that if you want to get out of loneliness you have to do things through the eyes of love.
When I decided to come to Sofia, I was feeling sad about returning to Portugal. It felt it was not where I belonged. People thought I was crazy to come here, alone. But I’ve done it through the eyes of love. Being here in Sofia hasn´t been easy sometimes, quite the opposite. But with time, it became a lovely experience. I meet here a lot of interesting, fascinating people. I feel well here.
I am now living with my girlfriend for some time. It has been an amazing experience. She is one of the most intelligent, sensitive and kindest persons I’ve ever met. Her support means so much to me. She inspires me and she has been teaching me a lot. Back when I was in a deep loneliness state, I always had this underlying thought that I wasn't worthy of love and never would have a relationship. And it's been an amazing journey with her. It has been also a learning experience, to share life like this.
And also it has allowed us – me and my three siblings – to look to the future with a brighter vision. We are engaged now in breaking a toxic cycle that ran through our lives for a long time. My younger brother just moved recently here to Sofia, with my father. I’ve been helping them settling themselves. And for once, the future seems promising and smiling for us. If I had followed the eyes of fear, I would have stayed in my place, depressed and with no perspectives, feeling lonely in my sadness. But I wanted to follow love. I wanted to see life through the eyes of love. And so, here we are.