Things become clearer as your consciousness of a subject opens. But that left me with lots of questions. I emailed a few people who I knew that had an inkling of such things, amongst them the writer and long distance walker Keith Foskett, a school friend, who relaxed when he first heard about dromomania – the uncontrollable impulse to wander, often at the expense of all else. His forthcoming new book focuses on his battle with what he realised was depression, whilst hiking across Scotland.
I asked him whether he could give me “any descriptive words or simple imagery that might equate to when one is in that desperate hole, in the hope that it may help me in my artistic hole, so to speak”.
Keith replied: Interesting you refer to it as a ‘hole’ because that’s pretty much how I feel about it as I started to realise something was wrong; I was completely oblivious that I had depression at the time. This is what I wrote:
“Despite the high I experience when hiking long distances, both body and mind take a battering. The constant repetition, the continual pattern of placing one foot in front of the other has consequences. That area inside your shoe that seems slightly uncomfortable on a three-mile stroll, over the course of a long day, is amplified tenfold. The hip belt you don’t notice on a training hike suddenly becomes unbearable.
However, these were more than the usual niggles. My body was lethargic, drained and listless. My mind, once more, was playing games. I had started to score my mental state; a one for as bad as it could get, up to ten where I was elated just to be alive.
This was strange ground for me, unknown territory. I’d had mood swings in the past which were short-lived. I’d never been low for longer than a day or two before. Once there, in that deep pit, it seemed an absolute impossibility to climb out. It’s dim down there, cold, wet, and gloomy. Peering up I see daylight but it’s too far above me and I can’t reach it. I’m a prisoner in a vertical tunnel. The walls are moist, slippery rock offering no grip. I feel the moss, the green slime, but can only just make out its weak glint. I hear nothing except my breathing, and the occasional drop of water, echoing around my prison. As I exhale, my breath condenses and rises, the only part of me capable of liberation.
A pit, that’s where I am. One deep, unbearable pit.
My head, intent on inflicting more pain and confusion, appeared to be re-arming with stronger weapons. As if it knew that I was aware of this dangerous game, and that I was privy to its plans, it upped the stakes. Now I felt depressed, the low mood was lasting longer, and it was an immense battle to scale the pit walls to freedom.
Sometimes I never even attempted to escape, resigned to my fate. Other times the pit wasn’t so deep, the rim closer, and the walls drier. Depending on my inclination, I climbed out, or reached halfway before I fell again.
But the worst part was not knowing. Waking up every morning, I cracked open one eye and peered out into my world: a place where I didn’t know how my mood would be for that day. I had no control, I had to accept what was served. It was this fear I dreaded the most, and the pit was always primed to devour me”.
After reading his email I sketched a couple of images in the notebook (above), then later emailed and asked whether he could equate the pit walls to anything visually – i.e. were they dressed stone, castle like, ‘formal’ or like a stig of the dump-style rough stone/soil edged pit.. ?
I always visualised it as an old well. Perhaps 20 feet deep and 6 feet across, solid bottom of dark earth with just a little surface water. The walls I pictured as slate, stacked horizontally, perhaps just an inch or so high, but tightly packed with an even, smooth surface, few hand holds. The surface is wet, with moss or slime, so very hard to grip and climb out of. It’s damp and quiet. Strangely enough I suffered with claustrophobia as a kid (and still do in certain situations), but I never felt the pit made me uncomfortable in that way. It was more a resigned feeling of being stuck down there, but at some point I’d be able to climb out.
It was interesting to see that the proportions of his pit were the same as my innate scribbles.
Our exchange was hurried as Foskett was leaving for a trip to Greece, where he will be putting the final touches to High and Low for publication in 2018.
You can get a feeling for the world of the thru’-hiker on Keith’s YouTube channel here.