I’ve been thinking it’s time to give you folks a cave update. I am currently in my introvert’s cave, where I have been hibernating (or hiding?) since the first of January 2016. This time it crept up slowly, and I willingly allowed it to happen. Another word for retreating to the introvert’s cave for days that turn into weeks that turn into months is agoraphobia. One of the underlying reasons agoraphobia develops is that you avoid going out or doing things because you’re afraid of having a panic attack in public. However, people with agoraphobia often find it hard to admit this. Instead, their minds provide plenty of rational excuses for their not going out in public, such as being ‘too busy with work’.
Some Background: Going in and out of what I call ‘The Introvert’s Cave’ has been a lifelong pattern for me. The first time I remember it happening was when I was supposed to be studying for my A-level exams. I told myself I was ‘revising’ and that therefore it was ‘okay’ not to leave the house for long periods of time. However, to be honest, I was watching television and sleeping and actually avoided doing any studying for as long as my cave hibernation lasted. I think at that time I was going for ten-day stretches without going out in public. Then, after going out for a day or a couple of hours, I would return home for another stretch of hibernation. During this time, I was pretty much always alone at home, because at the time I was living with my grandma, and most of the time she wasn’t there. So nobody noticed what was going on with me; nobody knew that I was not going outside and that my mind was in an unhealthy state. In those days, it used to be a lot worse than it is now–to the extent that I felt I couldn’t possibly go out, even if I wanted to, because I was in some kind of depressed fog.
Over the years, I have learned how to stay one step ahead of my cave tendencies–or so I thought. I spent fewer periods of time in the cave, and I learned how to force my way out as soon as I observed the signs of cave-dwelling starting to take hold. I even reached a point when I thought I had completely grown through, or healed, or overcome my cave-retreating ways. I believed this so strongly that I even made a course telling other people how they, too, could do it. That course is called Smash Your Shell.
What I know now, however, is that the cave-dwelling response was only sleeping in me during that happy time. I had not completely healed it. I know this because since then I have dropped down from the peak of confidence I had reached when I made the Smash Your Shell course. I thought I had reached a permanent state of openness and energy and freedom from the cave by making certain changes in my life, and that I was even able to teach other people how to do the same. But I now see that, when I made that course, I was completing a cycle in my life and just about to begin a new one. Going back to the beginning of a cycle means starting again at the beginning; the old enemies you thought you had defeated return to fight another day.
My excuses: The winter of 2016 is the first cold winter I have experienced in four years. It might not sound like much to you, but as someone who hates, hates, hates the cold, surviving a winter is a big deal to me. I avoided the four previous winters by going to Dubai or Thailand. Winter is not good for my mental health because it gets psychologically much harder for me to leave the house. I hate the cold and dark so much that, during winter, it requires a lot of mental preparation and a strong force of will EVERY SINGLE TIME I leave the house. In contrast, when I am in a temperate climate, I am much more spontaneous and happy to go out at all hours and even stay out until the sun rises.
Another excuse is that, here in Turkey, I don’t have anywhere I really NEED to go, because I work from home. This means that nothing forces me to go outside and break my cave habit. Plus, there is no nice place around here where I might want to go out for a walk, such as a park.
One more excuse is that I don’t have any ‘full connections’ with people here in Turkey. So I don’t have any friends or family to draw me out of my cave. The only connections that gave me a reason to leave my cave this winter were half-people connections. Although in general I think it is worth the effort to cultivate relationships with the half-people in one’s life, in the middle of the cold dark winter, I lose the motivation to do it. I can’t really be bothered with them. Also, when I am firmly in my cave and feeling a bit foggy in my mind, I fall into thinking that the half-people don’t care about me, either; and this provides another reason why I can’t be bothered with them.
Oh wait, I have one more excuse. This excuse is that I have been working on a new course. It was been a lot of work. I have told myself that, because for the last two months I haven’t had time to go out or be social, there is no reason to try. All invitations can be refused, especially if the invitation involves getting on public transport or being cold outside for more than ten minutes.
How much did I go out this winter?: This winter, the longest stretch I spent in my cave without going out lasted for five days. When my cave-dwelling was at its peak back at the beginning of February, I knew that I had to force myself to go outside and walk around the block outside my apartment for at least five minutes each day. I knew that if I didn’t do this by extreme force of will, my brain would turn depressed and foggy. My cave-dwelling has also caused me to stop doing all the healthy things I usually do, such as exercising, going to dance class, and going to the local coffee shop to be around people during the daytime. I felt it was too much ‘effort’ and too cold. Instead, I was in full cave mode and making excuses for not going out on a daily basis.
When did I go out? This winter I went out socially if my boyfriend was driving and we were going to do something that was not going to be cold. If the plan was at a friend’s house that might be cold, then I decided not to go. I sometimes left the house to go to the supermarket or to the local coffee shop, but went on no big expeditions by myself. Occasionally, we went out on the motorbike if the weather was not too cold and I didn’t have to sleep somewhere I imagined would be uncomfortable.
What I have learnt from the cave winter 2016: I wish I could conclude otherwise, but it seems to me that you must constantly push your comfort zone if you are inclined to bouts of agoraphobia, or retreating to the introvert’s cave. If we don’t push ourselves constantly,the gains we make towards openness, strength and spontaneity by going outside are easily lost. We must maintain the momentum of leaving our caves EVERY SINGLE DAY. For me personally, the couple of months I have spent in the cave this time are no big deal, because my mind has not descended into the depressed fog, which used to happen when I was younger. I have also been using this time to work in a focused way on the course I am creating. This is okay for me, since I tend to work in concentrated bursts when engaged in big projects. However, at the same time, I know that for my mental well-being it is (soon) time to push my energy in the opposite direction. This will mean constantly pushing the limits of my comfort zone: even saying yes to things I don’t want to do, and even if I’m likely to have a panic attack. It has to be done, because life outside the cave is better and brighter–as long as it’s not too cold!