The Doldrums

Photo: sickan85

Idle periods are an inevitability. Be it due to weather, injury, lack of money, or even just the inability to really motivate, there will be downtime in our lives. As I type this I’m in the middle of one myself, recovering from surgery to repair a torn tendon in my left shoulder from snowboarding in Canada. Given my shoulders seem to have a certain gravitational attraction to the ground, this was not my first time putting my arm out of commission; the moment I rolled over on my back, my shoulder spiking pain, I knew I was in for a long period of sitting around. And I was not looking forward to it.

I’m not about to try and say there’s a bright side; no matter how you try and frame it, downtime is a drag. Your mind paces, walled in by circumstance, you start picking up bad habits, or re-establishing old ones, and focusing on anything other than the things you could be doing becomes a major task. Often the best you can hope for is to keep yourself from going insane and, worse yet, doing anything that will prolong it. You’re down to the count, and your best hope is to accept it.

Mountaineers are no strangers to downtime. If there’s one thing mountains are good at, it’s being difficult. They generate their own storms out of nowhere for days, even weeks at a time, occasionally hurl those presumptuous enough to challenge them back down in broken heaps, or simply wear them out from the sheer exertion and altitude. A mountain doesn’t care how far you come or how hard you’ve prepared for it, if it doesn’t want to let you climb it, you have no say in the matter. When this happens, there’s often little choice but to either retreat and lick your wounds or to hole up in a tiny tent and wait. And wait. And wait. Because of this, you will find mountaineers are often extremely well read, if only out of necessity. But it’s this necessity of possibly spending hours, days, or even weeks sitting around that breeds certain habits, otherwise there would be no mountaineers, only people who climbed a mountain once.

Don’t Just Sit There

If you exercise with any regularity this is kind of a natural, but getting any kind of exercise instead of just sitting around resenting your luck, poor judgement, bad depth perception, the cat you tripped over, whatever has landed you where you are, does wonders. And not just to keep you from getting out of shape, but neurochemicals released in the brain during physical exertion have actually been found to act as a natural anti-depressant.

Obviously if you’re injured, certain if not most exercises will be off limits to you while you heal, but a little bit goes a long way to maintain your sanity as well as help your recovery. While my shoulder has been healing, upper-body exercise has been impossible, so prior to surgery I first made sure I walked regularly, then bumped that up to running once my injury could take the additional stress. My body quickly craved every bit of activity I could afford it and I felt that much better, and that much saner, for it. Even right now, my shoulder still aching from surgical prodding, just focusing on my physiotherapy stretches gives me something to push myself with, and gives me a routine to follow and track my progress.

Time enough at last

The worst trap to fall into is dwelling on all the things you can’t do. Without fail, this is where my mind always goes first when I’m forced to back off due to injury or circumstance. Generally after about a week of this miserable self-pity I have to re-task and remind myself that all those things I had gotten used to are not the only things I can do. Often there’s things I keep meaning to do that I simply didn’t sit still for long enough, so what better time than when, say, your legs are broken.

In the classic Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough At Last”, the protagonist is a man plagued by no time of his own, with a reading list a lifetime long that he can never make a dent in until disaster clears his schedule. These days even when I have plenty of free time, I’m still so bombarded by distractions that I still seem to come up short on doing all those things I mean to do. In this case, I’m focusing on doing all the writing I’ve been saying I’d get to “eventually”, and making a dent in my bookshelf. A disaster can have its benefits if you don’t dwell on what you’ve lost.

When all else fails

Keep your sense of humor handy. Nothing keeps the boredom at bay like being a little strange.


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