Cave-dwelling: depression, ‘wobbles’ and seeing the light

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O nce, as an outdoorsy, devil-may-care teenager, I went caving. Wading through the black, up to my nose in chilly water, I found it thrilling…until I had to shimmy my way along a horizontal passageway just inches wider than my body and I thought I was going to be stuck in the cave forever.

I got out, of course, but I’ve avoided caves ever since, which is why it’s kind of ironic that I’m speaking to you from one right now. I’ve been here for the past week or so, not that you’d notice. (“But I saw you down the High Road this morning!” you say.) That’s partly because, of course, this cave isn’t an actual rock and mineral variety (certainly not to be found in London W4). It’s more of an intangible space, invisible to the naked eye.

Like the one from my teens, this cave turns out to be a place where it isn’t much fun to be. It’s where I’ve traditionally gone when I’m not feeling well – or, more accurately, it’s where I’m propelled towards, sucked into, like an unforgiving, greasy black vortex, when I’m feeling mentally below par.

And even though I’m in remission for mixed affective state (a type of bipolar) and have been for 18 months, when the thumb-screws are on and I have a rare ‘wobble’ (caused by too many life pressures, ghosts from the past and not enough rest – bipolar is, I feel, like a faulty thermostat hampering ability to cope) the cave can start to appear again.

In the past, if I was depressed I’d end up in the cave where I’d be all but cut off from the world. In fact, there were times when I was in the cave so much I should have sent out change of address cards. At those times, the cave was the only place I felt safe, a place where I could take my leave of normal, high-functioning society until I felt better again. (Hugh Grant’s character in ‘Four Weddings And A Funeral’ saying ‘I think I had better be where other people are not’ often sprang to mind).

US psychologist Brad Peters recalls once hearing someone talk about deep depression using a cave analogy, where they get separated from friends in the woods and find a cave offering refuge and safety.

“The further they go inside the cave, the more they feel the relative warmth, protection, and safety it provides. However, the longer they linger, the more isolated they become from the outside world and the more difficult it is to face it again. They separate themselves from the dangers, but also the potential for hope and a life worth living.”

Like these people he describes, my cave of old was my refuge but also my great undoing. In my previous cave-dwelling days, I would turn down work I’d been thrilled to get and cancel social arrangements with friends whose company I love – during my well moments (the bright, dazzling sunlight outside the cave) I’d say ‘Yes! Bring it on!’ only for my depression to drag my confidence into the darkness.

In her book ‘Shoot The Damn Dog’, Sally Brampton talks about ‘duvet diving’, a form of social withdrawal where people with depression pull the covers over their heads and draw the curtains against the day. Like duvet diving, cave-dwelling offered a retreat when I was mentally spinning. However, it also served to cut me off from things and people that might help me.

Dr Ian Drever, consultant psychiatrist at The Priory Hospital in Woking, says: ‘Social withdrawal is a hugely common aspect of depression; facing the world when feeling bleak is tough to do.’ In the Mental Health Foundation’s ‘The Lonely Society?’ report, Jacqueline Olds, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, describes how a ‘stepping back’ occurs when people feel lonely (the same report showed that more than half of us who have experienced depression or anxiety isolated ourselves from friends and family):

“They start to send out signals, often non-verbal ones, telling other people to ‘leave me by myself, I don’t need you, go away’. They feel shame that they are different from everyone else and they get stuck in this ‘stepped back’ position…Being in this entrenched position makes it harder and harder to interact with others.”

I ‘stepped back’ by going into a cave. But even though I was a regular visitor (if cave-dwellers were given air miles, I’d have been to Neptune and back by now) it was still a scary place to be. A social void where I couldn’t see how to help myself nor accept the help of others. Prescience, it would seem, didn’t lighten the load.

As Brad Peters says of cave-dwellers like me:

“From inside their cave and through the passage of time, they become less likely to distinguish between the various sounds of the outside world; sounds that might imply either friend or foe, they cannot know which. This is how it often is with deep depression – that even when one’s friends and family may be trying to mobilize the one they love, it becomes hard to hear them calling or to risk hope for change.”

However, in the past few years, I’m glad to say my cave-dwelling episodes have altered. Happily, a combination of meds and therapy (and moving further on from cataclysmic life events) means my condition is now under control to such an extent that my cave visits are less frequent.

Also, the way my life is organised means I simply can’t afford to go deep into my cave any more – being a single mother and a cave-dweller at the same time are, for me, incompatible. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the cave has gone, it’s just changed, by necessity. Instead of physically retreating from the outside world, as I used to, to cave-dwell or duvet dive, I now carry my cave around with me.

My cave is now strangely portable (which is why I can be ‘here’, with you, and yet ‘there’, all at the same time). I imagine it to be like one of those hairdryers that old ladies sit under to set their demi-wave, but in my case it’s not so much for a hair-do but a head-do; where my thoughts are being primped and pummelled but from where I’ll hopefully emerge feeling better than before.

Because of my multifarious life commitments – motherhood, work, friendship, to name but a few – it also has to be a cave that only surrounds me. I can’t afford for it to consume anyone else. And so far, with my new porta-cave, I like to think it hasn’t. Not only that but whilst having to go out is at times difficult, it also increases my social connections, further galvanising me against those lonely moments.

So what helps me to manage the cave? The following seem to help me:

  • Reaching out but not too far:
    I push myself to see just a handful of friends who I know ‘get it’. I’ll generally send an ‘Are you around? I’m having a wobble’ text in the hope that someone is around so I can just ‘be’ in their presence. It’s as if sitting in their kitchen as they potter around helps me feel that the world keeps turning and I’m being pulled along with it, even though I might be feeling otherwise. Harley Street clinical psychotherapist Terri Bodell tells me, ‘The worst thing you can do with depression is to hide yourself away. It’s important to do something that’s counter-intuitive which is to get out there and talk to people, meet up with friends, rather than retreating.’ It’s taken me a long time to get into this habit, but I think I’m getting there.
  • Saying ‘yes’ with a bit of elasticity:
    I try not to go around assassinating projects and opportunities when I’m in my porta-cave, turning down social engagements and work because I feel it’s too much (as I regularly used to do). In the past I’ve said an unequivocal ‘No’, only to feel I’d isolated myself further from people. The anxiety levels from saying ‘No’ when unwell just transferred the anxiety to when I felt well. Now I say ‘Yes’ in the knowledge that I may need to reschedule meet-ups (or scale them down – parties can be too much but one-to-ones are great) or, in a work capacity, ask for some occasional deadline help. If I find myself in the eye of the storm and buckling under the strain, I ask if deadlines can be extended a fraction to give me breathing space whilst the ‘wobble’ comes to rest. I’ve lost some contacts, for sure, but on the whole I’ve found people to be incredibly understanding.
  • Understanding the difference between solitude and loneliness
    I used to think that whenever I was on my own I was lonely. I’m now learning to see that there are times when being on my own can be a good thing. In its section on overcoming loneliness, MIND says that ‘periods of time spent alone can be rewarding…(and that) being on your own gives you a chance to do something that you enjoy or really interests you.’ For me it’s a case of assessing the moment and asking, ‘Do I want to be on my own or am I cave-dwelling?’ If I am enjoying being on my own, I don’t force the issue or seek company. Besides, those moments of solitude rather than loneliness are not only relaxing and comfortable, they are also when I am often at my most creative. In ‘The Eternal Now’, theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich says: ‘Language has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone, and the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.’ There’s a fine line between the two but learning to make the distinction is helping me to know if I need company or not and whether my aloneness is life-giving or soul-sapping.
  • Plenty of sleep and rest
    OK, this may sound like white noise – how many times have you heard people say, ‘Sleep is vital for good health.’ But for mental health issues, it is super-essential.  MIND says that lack of sleep ‘contributes significantly to the development of serious mental health problems.’ At times I can feel like I’m running a life relay race where I’m handing the baton from myself, to myself, and exhaustion starts to creep in. If I don’t get proper, quality rest and sleep (at least nine hours with a full dose of meds), I find myself in the porta-cave, inordinately tired, unable to think straight, prone to forgetfulness and blowing things out of all proportion. It’s when I also ruminate over the past (Frederick Nietzsche once said, ‘When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago’) and I head towards depression. ‘Plenty’ will vary from one person to the next, but I think it’s vital to submit to the need to sleep and not push on through

This weekend I was lucky enough to have the space to put these into practice – temporarily child-free (not everyone has that luxury, I know), I’ve slept, snoozed and lounged, been to the theatre with a friend and to a small but perfectly formed party, as well as happily spending time on my own to write and to be (reframed and therefore enjoyed as solitude rather than loneliness). I’ve packed away my porta-cave for the time being, though doubtless not for the last time. I like to think this ‘recovery package’ heralds progress in my fight against cave-dwelling. Only a repeat visit will tell. I shall report back, as and when that next time arises.

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Freelance journalist and mental health blogger, based in London UK

2 Responses to “Cave-dwelling: depression, ‘wobbles’ and seeing the light” Subscribe

  1. Ally // Digital Diva February 2, 2014 at 5:59 pm #

    Great blog post xx

    • Martha Roberts February 2, 2014 at 6:27 pm #

      Thanks so much, Ally. Really appreciate your comment xx

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