The Pragmatism and Bravery of Retreating Into Emotional Bunkers
Each year, as May gives way to June, the snow to the grass, the ice to the lake, and the 5:00 p.m. darkness to the sunlight, there’s a little haven in Lanark County that becomes my constant retreat. It’s where I go to be with family, and with myself; it’s where I go to celebrate my birthday, and to write songs; It’s where I feel most at peace with myself, and my surroundings; it’s a lifeline that I’ve had access to my entire life that this particular winter has shown me I really struggle without. Without the possibility of touching down at my physical escape, I’ve come to know the experience of assembling and synthesizing an emotional bunker in order to persevere and survive a period of acute anxiety and depression. A fight or flight response to physical and mental exhaustion, it’s a process that brought me shame, frustration, resilience, and rest. It’s a process that confused me, and it’s a process I’d like to talk about.
I’ve been physically unwell for some time now. For the better part of three years, I’ve experienced a decline in my physical stamina to go along with full-body weakness, a collection of headaches, myriad bouts of stiffness, and shakiness from head to toe. I’m in the midst of battling an unknown chronic illness, and while I seem to be nearing the point of understanding what I’m up against, I’ve been getting beat up by a foe in the shadows for years.
Outside of my very closest relationships, I don’t often talk about how I’ve been feeling, and that’s very intentional. I figure it’s partly because I feel incredibly privileged in almost every way (and thus like I am scared of ever presenting myself as a victim), and partly because I find it incredibly arduous to explain a health situation to someone else that I myself don’t fully understand. People care about me and are going to ask what’s been going on, if I’m any closer to answers, and how I’m coping. I don’t want to shut down the compassion and empathy I love about those people, but I also didn’t feel able to answer those questions. As my illness has become increasingly debilitating, the feeling of anxiety and stress surrounding any discussion of my health has increased alongside it. And thus, over time, I saw myself retreat away from places and people who were core parts of my daily life, and into myself.
My very unique experience of chronic physical illness leading to an acute bout of anxiety and depression is very much my own, but the end result is a familiar story for so many. Regardless of your particular battles and ordeals, we often seem to find ourselves seeking refuge in our various emotional bunkers as a means of survival.
That retreat can feel cowardly, shameful, or even pathetic. Our internal voices often refuse to hold back and instead provide hyper-critical internal commentary about how we are failing to meet our responsibilities as social animals. In my head, this narrative was quite loud, challenging me to stop letting internal struggles lead to my absence for the people around me. And yet, as the time passed and I became securely deep inside of my bunker, the prospect of connecting with people became increasingly more intimidating. In my case, the intimidation and isolation were not the result of any expectation that the people in my life would pry for information, or lack empathy, or do anything other than support me in exactly the way I needed, but was the result of an unreasonable internal fear of having to talk about the illness that was beginning to dictate so much of my life.
After a few difficult conversations with some incredibly patient friends, I now seem to be out on the other side of the impending social disaster I’d created for myself. Looking back now, I have a competing and more compelling narrative to the one that was repeating in my head throughout that time. What I had conceived of as being cowardice and weakness, I am now able to more clearly appreciate as resilience and survival.
As pragmatism at its most useful. As bravery at its most covert.
The shame and inferiority I felt is something a lot of folks feel when they are forced to retreat and sustain themselves when things become overwhelming. For me, I took cover in activities that allowed me to put my brain on “Standby” and attempt to replenish from depleted stores. It meant a staunch avoidance of using my phone for anything other than work, and staying within my safest zone inside of my apartment, unless I needed to walk the dog or go to a meeting. It meant a hurtful disappearance and negligence felt by my closest friends, and it meant going to bed super early and sleeping 10 hours a night.
Our bunkers are as diverse as we are. Some people retreat by submitting to a huge cry; others to never-ending Netflix; some to writing, or drawing, or creating; others to their friends; some to themselves.
And, make no mistake: these truly are bunkers, for we are truly fighting to survive wars.
Aside from all of the things we should be doing to alleviate the causes of the mental burdens we face as individuals (that often result from collective societal cancers), we mustn’t look at this act of survival as anything other than practical courage at work.
Understanding where your mental bunker is and seeking out its shelter when your darkest storm arrives is resilience.
For me, it’s the reason I got through the past two months and have started to get my feet back under me. The shame and guilt I felt so deeply forced me to apologize constantly to myself, and to my people, for an act that I now am able to validate and recognize as boldly radical kindness. It was an act I desperately needed.
By no means am I advocating for anyone to isolate themselves from their support networks when things get dire, nor am I suggesting that we stop checking in on our friends who seem to be less present. Your bunker is not complete without a safe-zone and a comfortable outlet. I am so incredibly lucky to have a warm apartment, clean bed, and radically compassionate partner that serve snugly as my safety net, and which ensured my emotional bunker was a beacon of healing rather than a cavern of destruction.
I knew, deep down, that my retreat would come with consequences. I knew deep down that it was difficult and painful for people I love, and I knew that this in turn would mean pain for me as well. I did it anyways, and that was brave. As I write that down and repeat it in my head, I hope it becomes easier and easier to fully believe. It’s tough to recognize and celebrate your own bravery, but there are few more noble causes.
So please, be patient with yourself and do what you need to do to survive. Have faith that your friends will be excited to see you when you’re able to emerge, and unreservedly celebrate your ongoing resilience and strength to keep chugging along in this god-forsaken world.