Down or Out

Q. How do you pull yourself out of a hole?

A. You’ve fallen down a hole so deep, you’re standing at rock bottom. That’s assuming of course, that you are still standing. You tried to climb out, but scaling the sides seems impossible from such a low standpoint, and each superhuman effort barely makes a foothold before sliding back again. You continue trying to scale the walls, getting more frustrated and more demoralised until you give up trying and instead, find diversions that stop you noticing where you are. Each time the walls come into peripheral vision you think about ‘something nice’. Then you cry, because the nice somethings are just thoughts; they aren’t tangible and they don’t last.

Doing the same thing repeatedly is comforting. You don’t have to face a new set of problems because you’re stuck in the ones you already have, but Rational You knows it’s pointless; you never get a different answer. If you cared to think (which at this moment you cannot) you would realise doing the same thing repeatedly is what tripped you up. Nothing used to faze you. You were so busy being strong for your family, strong for your animals, and strong for the entire human race, because strong women are strong and busy. So busy, you never noticed the straw that broke the camel’s back until it broke yours too. Did the hole open up and swallow you both, in one massive gulp, belching out the camel as you tumbled free-fall down its steep sides? Has the weight of the camel landed on top of you? He’s a heavy beast to shift, and an unwilling participant in anything that involves action. But you’ve probably already discovered that.

Perhaps the slippery slope got so slippery your footing simply disappeared; you didn’t have a chance to stay upright did you? Down you went like a luge in a speed competition, and yes, you won! Congratulations, you beat the camel by a mile.

Or was your downfall the one that gets us all eventually; the stealth of years quietly tugging at your ankles, until every step rolled into a ball and chain. And one day the ball and chain said no. No more. Not. One. Step.”

When I’ve been on chemotherapy my world sits in two dimensions; cognitive thought and complete arse-about-face mental mayhem where my brain can’t function and things don’t make sense. It took my horse to point this out by politely, but completely, ignoring the miasma of confusion that is ‘chemo me’, and retreating into a safer world of his own. Luckily, my husband has learnt to manage chemo-brain-on-steroids, although I’m sure his safer world also provides a welcome respite.

During a chemo break, Stacey asked me if I wrote down my coping strategies. When Stacey drops something into the conversation, I’ve learnt to sit up and take notice, and writing how I got out of various predicaments proved invaluable. When my whereabouts on the mental map were obscure, or finding the way home was difficult, someone just like me had written an exit route in plain English. So yes, I’ve been in a hole; not like yours because holes are tailor-made, but I know what its like down there. I know what its like to focus on how strong you are, and say a little mantra to reinforce superhuman powers, but discover superhuman powers are distant memories, and strength no longer belongs in the present tense.

So, if you don’t like where you are, what is there to lose? At least a change of scenery would distract you for a moment, which your current thoughts do not. But how do you do it? Well, we (because you’re not alone in this) do it one frigging step at a time and the first step is to recognise where you are. In a hole. Yes, actually LOOK at those walls, FEEL that oppression, and breathe in the stale air. Wallow. Stop trying not to think about it because it needs such complete saturation that even with your eyes firmly shut, you know you are down a hole. Miserable isn’t it? You would not even want your dog to live there would you? (Your cat would have left long ago) and yet you’ve been dwelling in this hole for so long, you’ve ceased to notice how inhospitable it’s become. It is uncomfortable, cold, the layout no longer works for your needs, and the décor is so eighties it looks positively retro.

Decide today if you want to stay there and if the answer is Yes, that’s absolutely fine. You need your hole, you need to hide a little longer and recover in peace. Décor and damp do not bother you right now, you have a snugly blanket, and your dog will be forever loyal. When you’re ready, you’ll know. However, if you want a change, then decide its time to re-decorate, and you hate the smell of new paint so maybe consider moving out for a while? If life on the outside gets too hectic you can use the space as a holiday hole, so choose the colours carefully and leave the snugly blanket behind for another day. You never know . . .

Stand up tall on tippy toe, step on the large rock that forms rock bottom and open your eyes; you can just see some light at the top of the hole. They call it ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ and I promise you it’s not the light of another train hurtling down the track. It’s real honest clean light, and that’s where we’re heading. The next step is to take your notebook, and write everything you achieve in one day. Even if it’s something you wouldn’t previously have countenanced as achievement, it deserves noting. Even if it you don’t consider it worth the pencil lead, WRITE IT DOWN. You can’t be trusted to judge accurately what is and what isn’t, so trust me when I say everything you do is an achievement, and you can find plenty to achieve even when you’re in a hole; cleaning your fingernails, being nice to spiders and laughing at yourself. Three achievements for free before you’ve even started.

Your notebook is filling quickly, you didn’t realise you achieved so much in one day did you? You were so busy distracting yourself from your predicament, you didn’t notice anything except the predicament. The next step is to focus on now. We’re going to consign the past to where it belongs, in the past (the clue is in the name). No more penance because you can’t change it. Like everyone else, you’re far from perfect and things probably never happened how you remember they did. Nor can you control the future because you are not omnipotent, so stop trying because like worrying, it’s a waste of energy. Instead, use that energy making the present interesting; happiness is not a given, but interesting is something you can create from scraps. Now is a probably good time to mention the voices in your head, the ones that keep shouting at you. Did you know that if you stop listening, they stop talking?

Notice things; notice your breathing. I am breathing in, I am breathing out. I am doing it all over again. In and out. Nothing fancy schmancy, nothing structured or yogic, just plain old breathing which you’ve been doing ever since you were born, but might not have noticed. Breathing is your new go-to tool. Every time you need a moment to process something, relief from a rising panic attack, fluttering thoughts, just breathe. It’s simple it’s free and you already know how to do it. No brainer huh? Oh, and did I mention you’ll climb out of the hole on your breath?

Now you’re recognising achievements and breathing, you’ve stood up and stretched, you’ve seen the light, you’re part of today instead of somewhere else, the voices have stopped chattering so loudly, and you’ve made a decision that you don’t like your current surroundings (don’t forget to write down these achievements). You’ll leave this day. I don’t advocate packing a bag, everything you have down there can stay there. Just like Vegas, what happens in the hole stays in the hole. So, you breathe in. Just in, that’s all, and on the out breath you take a step forward, a normal everyday step. Breathe in again, and on the next out breath, you take a step upward. Forward, upward, in and out. It has its own rhythm doesn’t it? You might feel a bit lightheaded with all the breathing, so any time you want to rest you rest, and if you feel a bit emotional and want to cry you cry, and don’t forget that anytime you want to laugh and smile, you do that too. Forward, upward, in and out, until gradually the light gets brighter. Forward, upward, in and out until your steps get lighter. Forward, upward, in and out, don’t look back. Forward, upward, in and out and you’re at the top.

And what you do now is up to you, but remember, today you accepted help to get out of the hole, and accepting help is the biggest achievement of your life so far. Write it down before you forget.

10 thoughts on “Down or Out

  1. Coincidentally,
    all day yesterday I was barraged with the old adage “ pull yourself up by the boot straps” , and “ dig your self outta the hole”. I know using a shovel will just be the wrong tool. I love your image of breathing being a much better tool. Thankful for the reminder that strong women are always perplexed by finding themselves in a hole in the first place and that yes hiddy holes are sometimes a good place to breath and pull a blanket up over your ears.
    Introspections also happen at bedrock and an opportunity to rid your self of clutter. I know I recognize beauty and have ideas to creat it too…just little steps? And redecorate the holiday hole?


  2. Best description of that black hole of clinical depression that I’ve ever seen! Been there; it’s much nicer to be out! You created a wonderful “ladder” out with your words. 💜👏Thanks, Elaine!


  3. Oh Elaine. I have read this three times and I’m likely to read it three more times. How many of us needed to see this today? Thank you for this.


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