A rambling reflection…

Caves, depression and arriving at 9AM lectures covered in mud 5 minutes late. This, for better or for worse, was how I spent much of my five years studying at university. I’d always been curious and exploratory minded so naturally joining the caving club while trying to study maths and physics was inevitable! These traits along with what I am now mature enough to admit, my determined and obsessive tendencies unfortunately make me very susceptible to that ‘monkey on your shoulder’ – depression. Fortunately, for my family, friends and me, I am now in a comfortable and happy position. Moreover, a position where I can begin to reflect and process how depression, that ugly, bad personal hygiene inducing horrible illness effected every aspect of my life. Today though, we will focus on how my underground pilgrims help me give the bastard the two fingers… The future is likely to hold more essays on the interconnectedness of the two subjects but today we will start with a ramble about how caving helped get me to here. 

My first trip was down Giant’s Hole in Derbyshire. Throughout the winding Crab Walk my leaders kept on warning me for the forthcoming part of the cave, forebodingly know as the Giant’s Windpipe. I wasn’t worried though, I was way too busy appreciating the water running over the wellies making my feet cold and running my hands over the scalloped, bumpy yet smooth cave wall! Sliding down Razorblade Cascade was as pleasant as it sounds in an ill fitted holey club oversuit. A few arm aching climbs later, I arrived at the Windpipe though. Hearing the odd scream from my fellow fresher whose legs just disappeared into the small ankle height hole, I was intrigued. I soon followed and my curiosity was satisfied. I was shuffling on my belly in 12-inch deep water and bloody hell I felt great. This, with hindsight was the welcome relief I need from that forced false friend making and missing my dog week that was fresher’s week. 

Soon enough I was back in lecture theatres and things started taking turns for the worse. Externally, just prior my final A Level exams, a big change occurred at home that I was only starting to comprehend and by the time the second semester began, my mother had some quite serious complication from an operation that I obviously couldn’t do anything about. I couldn’t even see her, as I had to be 200+ miles away… in England… This all naturally added to the homesickness. 

Internally, I felt isolated from my course. I think the classic example of this was when a lecture arrogantly claimed to the room of 200 people, “this is easy, you have all done this at GCSE”. Granted I had done it two years prior as 14 year old but up until this point all my knowledge of physics and maths was in Welsh and I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about – I didn’t know the English words! Finding the right support network on campus was difficult. I soon realised the average student wasn’t interested in going for long walks discussing Wittgenstein… I felt dumb and isolated… Time to go off with the cavers again…

Entrance to Porth yr Ogof. Largest cave entrance in Wales.

I think the moment for me that made realise I was going to spend most of my weekends as far away from civilisation was at a caving event in my 2nd year. By this point I was already hooked on exploring the subterranean world but I had start to dabble in the darkside that was rock climbing and was starting to contemplate focusing more on summiting mountains rather than plunging beneath them…

The weekend began in the now typical way – someone is late turning up and I’m in a ridiculous situation. The late someone being a friend who’d be providing the lift from Nottingham to the Yorkshire Dales and the ridiculous situation being it’s 1AM, I’m having a power nap in the foyer of the maths building waiting for the aforementioned friend who was somewhere on the M42. He was driving from Bristol in his defence… A few hours later, we arrive. The first conversation I can recall having is about the Radio 4 sitcom Cabin Pressure. I like these people. The following day caving occurs. I really like these people. While Sunday I win a prize and have a productive meeting on how to save my caving club. That’s nice of these people! Without digressing into details, this was probably the moment where I could call myself one of these people. That is a caver and that I won’t be going back often to the dirty dirty climbers… 

OK, I still quite enjoy rock climbing a lot but ssshhh…. Somewhere up a cliff at Les Calanque, Marseille, January 2020

From here on in, I would partake in weekly pilgrims to various parts of the British countryside. Be it a bitterly cold clear morning on a fell in Yorkshire or an dark October night with pounding rain in the Peak District, the damp dusty smell and the rough rustic feel of removing my caving garments from the bag just before putting them on always filled me with excitement! It was the start of brief period of time where I could forget about the stress question 3b of that weeks thermodynamics, the issues of being in a strained relationship and the homesickness of missing my family and dog! I was going caving so need to concentrate and be in the moment. To say I had no choice but to cave to deal with the demons is maybe a bit of stretch. In reality though, I need the sensations caving gives to get me out of the horror fantasy in my head and back into reality..! Very quickly my daily routine revolved around caving and related admin. Did this have a detrimental effect on my degree? Probably, though the experience I gained from reviving the club (with its the committee difficulty bells and being the one everyone knew difficulties that came) and the fact the depression was making do an already mentally draining degree virtually impossible exploring nature was essential for my wellbeing and caving helped me work out how to look after myself! 

To conclude this messy ramble, without caving I would not be where I am today. I dread to to think how I would be without the people or the places or the body awaken feeling I get when I put on some soggy clothes before going into a damp hole to listen to the quiet drips from a stalactite that lands on a gritty muddy floor, so thank you.

See ya next time..! Coming out of Wretchered Rabbit, March 2020

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