I need to be nice whilst telling the world to sod off
July 12, 2013 10:01 AM   Subscribe

I have occasional depressive, anxiety, self-loathing filled episodes. I know them well enough now to know that I can ride them out. When they happen, I need to shut the world out. I can be on transmit - telling people what's happening but that I'm aware of it and in control - but I can't cope with inputs, and I usually need to sleep a lot. My current girlfriend says she can deal with anything except me "cutting her off". How do I walk this line?

I've been suffering from these episodes for several years, and I've been working with a psychotherapist for the last couple of years to be able to identify the triggers, to mitigate those triggers, and to learn how to deal with the episodes when they happen. They're much fewer and further between than they were, and I cope with them much better than I used to (I no longer suffer from suicidal thoughts during them, for example).

The overwhelming need that I have when the thoughts happen is to shut myself off from the world and sleep - usually just overnight. My therapist and I have arrived at the following system when I feel an episode coming on:

- Email or text particular people (including my GF) to say "hey, this is happening; if I don't answer you, this is why" (these people know about the problem and know that I'll turn off my phone overnight and stop checking email; they'll check on me in the morning if I haven't contacted them first).
- Turn off my phone, email, anything like that. My therapist calls it "going into the cave."
- Have food and drink that I find comforting (I keep speciality teas around the house just for this purpose)
- Go to bed early and sleep through until the morning (usually I sleep for 12-14 hours during these episodes).

8 times out of 10 I feel a new man by the time the morning comes around.

I've explained this system to my girlfriend (of about 9 months), and she's seen me go through episodes a few times. The first time, she found really scary - she likes to remain in almost constant contact with me and found it hard to be disconnected from me for so long. The second time she was quite upset with me the next day for not answering her phone calls, though she accepted that I'd warned her that that's what that would happen.

During the most recent episode, which happened in the last week, she left four voicemails, sent me several texts (I didn't see them because the phone was in airplane mode and I was asleep) and repeated "please answer me" emails. In the morning I called her to tell her I was okay and to apologise for disappearing (though I'd emailed her the night before to give her the heads up) and she was clearly very upset. She's told me that she can't cope with being cut off from me, and that I need to find a way to respond to her because otherwise she'll worry too much.

How could I adapt my system to make sure that she's feeling safe and secure? I've done very well so far and I'll be speaking to my therapist about this next week, but I'd like to be able to go to my girlfriend with some ideas before then, because I promised her I would think about it.

I'll admit, a part of me feels a little annoyed that I'm having to adjust something that's helped me get healthier, mentally, but I know that relationships require compromise, and since I'm doing better these days, perhaps this is the ideal time to make tweaks. I am concerned, though, that it might make me worse again (one of the things that made it hard in the bad times was thinking that I was letting people down).

Suggestions welcome.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (44 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Would it be okay for her to stop by and just be in the room with you while you chill out or sleep? I've found that when I'm very inclined to close off, if someone I love is okay with just being there while we watch TV or even just reading while I'm asleep, it allows for us to not be entirely cut off, but I don't have to interact in any meaningful way.
posted by xingcat at 10:07 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't think your girlfriend has done a very good job of respecting your boundaries. You know more than anyone what is necessary for your mental health. I wouldn't compromise on those things that you have described because they sound completely reasonable.

Any reasonable person should be able and willing to accept 24 hours of radio silence, especially when they're given advance notice and an explanation of why it is necessary.

I would not compromise on this. She needs to respect your boundaries.
posted by DWRoelands at 10:09 AM on July 12, 2013 [51 favorites]

She's told me that she can't cope with being cut off from me, and that I need to find a way to respond to her because otherwise she'll worry too much.

You are taking care of your mental health in a responsible way that considers the needs of others. You are not also in charge of your girlfriend's mental health. If she feels anxiety because you are out of touch for short periods of time to take care of your mental health, then that anxiety is hers to own and handle. She needs to respect you and your clearly stated boundaries (which again, are responsible and respectful of others).

a part of me feels a little annoyed that I'm having to adjust something that's helped me get healthier, mentally, but I know that relationships require compromise,

Your instincts are correct on both counts. Maybe your adjustment should be in how you reconnect with your girlfriend after an episode, some special time together perhaps. But don't change what you're doing before or during.
posted by headnsouth at 10:09 AM on July 12, 2013 [17 favorites]

She can't handle a day of no contact? When you told her ahead of time? And it's to stabilize your mental health? Which will in turn lead you to being a better partner to her?

You've told her what you need. She can't accept that. That seems like a major incompatibility issue.
posted by too bad you're not me at 10:14 AM on July 12, 2013 [10 favorites]

Girlfriend Keeper app sends texts for you. I think that one might be more humorous than serious but there are probably other apps that will periodically text someone for you.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:15 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree that your boundaries here sound perfectly reasonable and self-protective.

How would she handle it if you had migraines that required you to be in a dark room with no electronics? (Or cyclic vomiting syndrome, or any one of the other many chronic illnesses that require a short period of no-contact with the outside world?)

How well have you explained what this is to her? I assume you have explained this in advance, but if not, that's a place to start. I know someone with one of the above-named illnesses, and it was EXTREMELY alarming before her roommates knew what it was, and completely routine once she had explained what it was and why it wasn't something to worry about (and also when she would need help).

If you've already explained the background to her in detail, do you know why she is stressed and anxious? Is she very high-contact all the time, or only during these episodes? Does she have any family/friends who may have struggled with depression, and could she be reacting to past experiences?
posted by pie ninja at 10:18 AM on July 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

Yeah, from my perspective your boundary is totally reasonable especially as you are being clear about it in advance. Even if this weren't a mental health thing that you are working through, it is totally normal for a person to occasionally want a little time away even from people that they love very much. A little time away might include an evening or a night, it might include 24 hours, it might even include a weekend of radio silence.

What you are doing is well within the bounds of normal taking-care-of-yourself stuff, and it sounds like you do this about once every couple of months, which doesn't strike me as an incredibly frequent occurrence for this sort of thing.

It's for you and her to decide what to do about this, but to my mind your own mental health is more important than a relationship in which you can't do a totally normal thing to get your mind at ease, because I think that such a relationship has a timer on it by definition.

So, I'd ask her what the both of you could do to help her feel less anxious without you having to be in contact all the time and if there's nothing either or both of you can do and are willing to do about that, then I suspect that you have a fundamental incompatibility.
posted by gauche at 10:20 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

The only thing that comes to mind, and this with plenty of caveats: If living situations permit, would you consider an open invitation for her to come over for the night or part of an evening, with the understanding that this is still "your" time? Maybe she can brew you a cup, something of the sort, but allow you space and absolute quiet. (If you were living with someone—which I realize is not your situation here—I imagine this is something like what you would ask from them, and it would be unreasonable for them not to give it to you.) I have chronic health problems that are categorically different from yours, but I have a similar "treatment" for when they crop up, usually of an evening: I have to sleep them off, and I have tremendous difficulty dealing with social and other stimuli until I have done so. In my case, I'm able to say, "Please, come over if you don't want to feel helpless or worried, but know that I won't want to talk or particularly do anything." If, however, you feel unable to say this, or feel like it is a compromise that could compromise your well-being, tell her that. Hers is a sympathetic position to be in—and do offer her that at least—but it is absolutely not a sympathetic reaction for her to demand not to be cut off for just one night, if she knows that her intrusions may affect you badly and exacerbate a problem that causes her anxiety.
posted by mcoo at 10:20 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

The fact that she can't handle 24 hours of no-contact -- especially when it's a perfectly reasonable boundary that you have set for the sake of your mental health -- is highly problematic. She's the one who needs to compromise on this, not you.

She's told me that she can't cope with being cut off from me, and that I need to find a way to respond to her because otherwise she'll worry too much.

This is her attempt to make her feelings, anxieties, etc. your responsibility. This is not healthy, and it's not something you should take on. Which is certainly not to say you can't be understanding and compassionate of her feelings and anxieties; of course you can. But they are hers to manage, not yours.
posted by scody at 10:22 AM on July 12, 2013 [22 favorites]

Nada I'm not buying it. If you like to cut off, and she is not able to handle this, it will be painful to her in the long term. It bothers her, it makes her feel insecure, and that won't change for her. You need to agree on something that works for both of you or this will be a thorn in your side over the long term. Maybe you can call her and just say to her: "honey I love you, this has nothing to do with the level of commitment I feel for you, I'm just feeling bad and I will call you in the morning." She needs that reassurance. Communicate it kindly, maintaining your connection with her. Don't just cut out. Then she needs to learn to say "ok, love you, I hope you're ok, talk to you tomorrow" and let you go. Otherwise.... I predict pain.

To be honest, your mode of coping sounds very selfish, and will be disturbing to people in committed relationships, especially children if you plan to have any. I've known people like this and it is disruptive. Not only do they pull away "for some space" which every normal person needs but they pull away emotionally, which feels like they have cut off their bond with you, and it is super confusing, like a push-pull based on your terms alone.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:22 AM on July 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

24 hours alone is not that much to ask.

However, do these episodes coincide with anxiety-inducing arguments/disagreements with your girlfriend? I can see how if you leave in the middle of an argument and then cut her off for 24 hours, she could feel like you're escalating things or being punitive even if you're not feeling those things at all.
posted by steinwald at 10:23 AM on July 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

Would it be okay for her to stop by and just be in the room with you while you chill out or sleep?

If living situations permit, would you consider an open invitation for her to come over for the night or part of an evening, with the understanding that this is still "your" time?

I'm an introvert and need an occasional day to recharge and the above would absolutely NOT be okay with me. Alone = alone!

Your girlfriend needs to manage her own anxiety and not make it your problem, though she likely won't see it that way. Anyway to suggest she spend the day with another friend? Go hiking? Kayaking? Anything?
posted by small_ruminant at 10:23 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

You sound extremely mature and sensible. Your Girlfriend might have some insecurity issues and you going "Into your Cave" is threatening to her for some reason.

I would suggest you keep doing exactly what you're doing because this seems to be working for you.

In terms of helping your girlfriend come to terms with this, maybe you could think about doing the following:

- Rather than just texting her that you will be going incommunicado and see you in the morning, can you pepper this with some more reassuring phrases?
- Spend some extra quality time with her following one of these episodes and continue to reassure and reconfirm how much you love her but how much you need this alone time too.

Ultimately though, she needs to learn that she can't control you, this is a beneficial thing for you and it doesn't mean you don't love her. She may have to look inside herself to work on a few of her own insecurities if this is going to work out.
posted by JenThePro at 10:25 AM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

She's all out of proportion on this.

I suppose you could put up an text/email automated reply "I'll be out of touch for 24 hours", but even then, if she's not able to deal with what is a very valid and understandible need for you, perhaps it's time to disengage.

She needs to be self-soothing, not relying on you for this.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:25 AM on July 12, 2013

She's told me that she can't cope with being cut off from me, and that I need to find a way to respond to her because otherwise she'll worry too much.

This is her own issue to manage and perhaps you can help her with that but she's really got to not make her mental state dependent on something that you may not be able to provide (for good reason and with good notice). I've definitely been the anxious girlfriend of a guy who vanished from time to time for mental health issues. The big differences were

- He'd do it randomly with no warning and I was supposed to guess "Oh maybe he's depressed now"
- One of the things he was often sometimes unhappy about was the nebulous "our relationship" so I'd know that and then he would vanish and I couldn't tell if he was breaking up with me or not
- He wasn't getting professional help and insisted that I was the one with the problem

So, unlike that situation, yours seems reasonable. You are taking care of yourself, you're being proactively communicative and you're getting professional help. Go you! The two of you need to work out a way that you can get your mental health needs met, which are reasonable, and she can get hers met, which may be reasonable but need to be able to align with yours.

That said, it should be clear between you if this is an "I'm always going to be this way" thing for you, or if not, or if you don't know. The difference between a sometimes or temporary thing and a lifetime thing is important. I agree that it's useful to make sure you're communicating "Hey it's not you, it's me" but if that's happened and there's not anything else screwy going on (i.e that you pull away from her but not others) it's time to ask her if this is a dealbreaker and ask yourself the same question.
posted by jessamyn at 10:25 AM on July 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

I do not believe your girlfriend's expectations are at all reasonable. A night of no contact is not only healthy for you, it needs to be part of a balanced and healthy relationship. She should investigate therapy herself to determine why not being in touch for less than a day is panicking her so. Can you two brainstorm decompressing strategies that will help her remain calm and not angry at you in these circumstances (i.e. seeing a movie, hanging out with a friend, drinking tea and having an early night herself)?

That said. Can you maybe record a few greetings/affectionate videos for her to watch while you're out of touch? Write her notes in a notebook you give her for this purpose? Maybe if they include both affection and a description of how you're safe and just need some space, it'll help her feel connected.
posted by c'mon sea legs at 10:26 AM on July 12, 2013

To be honest, your mode of coping sounds very selfish,

And, needless to say, I think this is utterly untrue. If she went away every couple of months to go run a marathon with her girlfriends or whatever, would it be selfish? In my experience, being joined at the hip is a BAD thing, even for the kids. Modelling good self care is a GOOD thing, and the way the OP is doing it seems great to me. Lots of notice. Frame it as self care, which means "it's not you, it's me and this is my tune-up, so that I'm a better partner."

Absent any weirdness such as steinwald mentions, if she is depending on your for 100% of her emotional support, that's a hell of a burden to bear. Hopefully that's not the case.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:28 AM on July 12, 2013 [19 favorites]

To be honest, your mode of coping sounds very selfish,

I disagree strongly. The OP's mode of coping sounds insightful and healthy. Sometimes people need total downtime. This doesn't make them selfish; it simply makes them different from the people who don't have this need.
posted by scody at 10:28 AM on July 12, 2013 [22 favorites]

She's told me that she can't cope with being cut off from me, and that I need to find a way to respond to her because otherwise she'll worry too much.

No, she needs a way to manage her need - which is not paramount to anyone but her - to be in constant contact when being in constant contact just isn't a thing that can happen. Compromise, in this instance, would mean that she gets what she wants and you can't get what you need. That is not compromise.

Your method of managing your symptoms seems responsible and non-disruptive to your life and the lives of the other people who are in the know about it. Except for her. Her need for "constant contact" is her responsibility to manage and find coping methods for. Encourage her to find them.
posted by rtha at 10:32 AM on July 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

If you were, I don't know, bleeding internally, would you also be required to pet and stroke her the whole time? What if you were at a family member's funeral? House on fire? Taking a professional certification exam? What, exactly, is good enough for her to listen to the words coming out of your face and respect them?

The problem here is not you. You need to prioritize your own mental health...and she needs to look after her own. Her anxiety disorder cannot be treated by the rest of the world acting to her specifications.

But IF you want to offer her something, set up a secret tumblr or blog or whatever the kids are using today. Turn off comments. Post things like "going to bed now, probably for 14-16 hours" and "awake now, contemplating shower, plan to check back in at 3pm" or whatever. There's your one-way communication. But unless she has reason to believe you are self-harming or suicidal - and if you are, please reach out to someone with some training in your location who can help you - she would be better served letting you do what you believe you need to do to take care of yourself.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:34 AM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think there's a lot of assumptions about the girlfriend's motives that may not be entirely correct.

My husband operates similarly to you in needing a rest and reset. But if he wanted to spend 24 hours completely no-contact, I would be violently offended. Our compromise is that if he is having a bad time and needs to rest/reset, I can be around, but it's just not a talky time. Maybe I read a book, or lie own in touching distance but not actually interacting.

When you keep her out when you keep out the rest of the stressful world, you are telling her that instead of her being a comfort to you, she is a stressor. That is..not exactly awesome - though possibly true.
posted by corb at 10:54 AM on July 12, 2013 [11 favorites]

To add to / clarify my answer above:

My condition is "abdominal," and it sounds like what your girlfriend is insisting on would be comparable to a situation in which a roommate or partner of mine, after being told that I'm sick tonight, proceeded to take a half-hour-long shower in the only bathroom. That is, my shutting myself off is a non-essential help, but part of a regimen that stops from me from saying anything unpleasant to people I'd rather be pleasant to. This does not seem to be the case with you.

Her quiet presence should only be allowed if you are able to feel alone when she is there (and knows to leave you be). It sounds like this is not true. For some people, it would not be true in regards to any person in their life, even the closest, and that's fine. A good partner or friend of any sort would not take that as a slight or would learn not to, as long as it was made clear to them—which, again, you seem to have done.

Aside from notifying her before you shut yourself off—by text or e-mail, without waiting for a reply—I'm not sure what else she could want that would not hurt you, which is not something either of you want to do.
posted by mcoo at 10:54 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Your girlfriend is unreasonable if she expects to be in constant contact with you. That is panic-inducing in and of itself.

However. If you have in the past had suicidal thoughts during these episodes and you have either verbalized said thoughts or acted in a way that would make your loved ones concerned for your physical safety, you going no-contact (no answering phone, no checking in, no companionship) would make me worry too. And you refusing contact would make me worry even more.

It might be that you need some sort of information system that allows you to let someone know, once in a while, that you are still okay and just resting/re-centering your chi.
posted by lydhre at 10:55 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

During the most recent episode, which happened in the last week, she left four voicemails, sent me several texts (I didn't see them because the phone was in airplane mode and I was asleep) and repeated "please answer me" emails.

This screams high-octane abandonment issues to me.

I don't mean that as a pejorative, mind you - everyone's got issues about something, and your girlfriend's are about abandonment. What's happening is that the experience of having you be completely unreachable - as though you're not there at all - is a huge flashing button for her and it's sending her into a panic state. This is why she's not only calling when she knows you'll be unavailable, she's calling several times, leaving four voicemails, and also texting and emailing, trying to reach you.

This is happening because, in her panic state, she's not thinking rationally; she's not thinking, "Well, I left him the one voicemail and he's gotten that and he'll call when he can." She's not even really thinking at all. She's reacting emotionally. There's a spiral. The fact that you'll be unreachable makes her anxious and she steps slightly out of the bounds of reasonable behavior (calling once in this case) and then the lack of response from you, even when she knows that's going to happen. makes her freak out more, and it goes from there.

The other thing is that these are episodes of unreachability which coincide with times when you're feeling depressed and anxious and full of self-loathing. I think it's understandable that she'd be a little worried, even if it's not a logical conclusion for her to reach.

Here's a story. A couple years ago I was biking to work and got hit by a car. It was a dumb accident, no one was really at fault, and no one got hurt. I was absolutely fine. Completely unharmed. I then went to work (this time, I drove). I used to email back and forth all day with my partner at the time, so when they emailed to ask how my day was, I told them that the accident had happened, but the first line of the email I said that I was fine, I was absolutely fine and not hurt in any way at all, and I repeated that fact throughout the email. I hit "send," and then in the next thirty seconds I received three consecutive messages in which they were freaking out and, in fact, asking if I was okay.

We aren't at our best when we worry about the people we love. Less so when we're panicking. That is the state your girlfriend is in and it's why she's acting this way. No matter how much she factually knows your plans, emotionally she's freaking out.

First things first, you need to establish (as best you can) with her that this is something you do as a response to your own issues, it is entirely therapeutic in nature, and if you're doing it for a night, you're necessarily getting better in a short span of time. Acknowledge that it's unfortunate that this therapeutic measure involves being out of touch, but restate that it's necessary. Hug her a lot. Et cetera.

Ultimately, the issue here is in that space between contacts, when she cannot get in touch with you at all. A lot can grow in that space, when someone is panicking. It's incredibly stressful to her and the lack of positive feedback from you is a factor. In other words, I don't think it would really help much to set schedules and tell her you'll check in at a certain time, because by design that certain time will be in 24 hours or so, and that 24 hours will be hell for her. She'll be constantly worrying about you, and in the panic spiral.

So I'm going to offer a compromise that is maybe a little unorthodox, but please hear me out. Feel free to ignore this if it's not financially feasible or whatever. Here it is:

Get a Fitbit flex, the one you can wear around your wrist. Have her help pick the color, so it's a thing that represents the two of you - something she can feel invested in.

I've never used one, but I understand that it's unintrusive and that - here is the important part - it allows you to log into a website and see your heart rate and stuff like that. Set up a password on the site that you'll both know. Maybe there's a mobile app, so she can see it just by looking at her phone.

Mostly (unless you want to use it for fitness), just keep it on the charger. But when you know you've got to go into the cave, tell her ahead of time, and then put the thing on. Be clear that you have to turn off your phone and email and whatnot, and that you can't be reached by text or phone and that this is an important thing to you.

But then, at any time she wants, she can take out her phone or look at her laptop and she can see that your heart's still beating and that you're okay. And she is the only person who can see this. Of all the people in the world, she is closest to being there with you. I can't promise it'll make the panic go away entirely, but I think it'll help.

Of course, keep the damn thing charged beforehand, because if it goes out on her...well, you can imagine.

This isn't a perfect solution and it will need a lot of communication to work, but it may help avoid previous outcomes. I do think she should probably be talking to someone about the panicked reaction she's having, and that's not something you can make her do, but there it is. Anyway, that's the only real solution I can think of. If that's not going to work for her then there may be a fundamental incompatibility here, but float the idea her way and see what she thinks.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:56 AM on July 12, 2013 [12 favorites]

How could I adapt my system to make sure that she's feeling safe and secure?

I agree with everyone else. In this particular situation, it sounds like you should change nothing, and she needs to go to her own therapist and find another way to deal with her feelings when this comes up.

Until she's able to do that and find better ways of coping, my one suggestion is that during these episodes maybe she could call and talk to one of your parents, if you're close to them and they know what's going on with you? Talking to someone's mom is like the opposite direction from feeling cut off from him, in my experience... sometimes to a degree that's even more than what you wanted....
posted by cairdeas at 10:59 AM on July 12, 2013

She's not even really thinking at all. She's reacting emotionally. There's a spiral.

This. I will confess to having been her, and when I stepped back it was me being controlling and yet able to chalk it up to "concern." There WAS concern in there, but I amped it up to justify my trying to make the person behave in a way that made ME happy. It was completely selfish but cloaked as selflessness. That totally works because society is okay with it, but it destroys relationships, as I can attest..
posted by small_ruminant at 11:01 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

The only thing you can do here is communicate with her clearly about what you need. And you are doing that. She is going to have to learn to live with it.

I think a lot of the posts here are a bit harsh toward your girlfriend - and understandably so, because she is being quite insistent on her own way of doing things to the exclusion of your needs. However, this is not something she is necessarily doing because there is something irretrievably broken about her. For some people it is hard to understand when you're in a relationship with someone who has feelings and needs you do not have. I say this as someone who is married to an anxiety and depression-prone husband, but has no experience with going through those things myself. It took a long, long time for me to get that we are fundamentally different in a lot of ways, and that it is okay if we are different, and that we don't have to be the same in order to coexist and be happy. In short, I had to learn that my idea of what a healthy person needs to be happy is not the same as everyone else's. This took a long time. And a lot of fighting.

So the thing is: your girlfriend is clearly wrong here, but if you want to be with her for the long haul I would suggest some type of couple's therapy - even just one or two sessions - to help her along to the realization that you still love her even if you need a night alone. It's possible that she will get there eventually on her own, but an outside perspective would be really useful in speeding her along.
posted by something something at 11:03 AM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I agree with other folks that needing 14-16 hours of uninterrupted time once per quarter sounds like a totally reasonable thing that should work fine for a healthy relationship. I wonder if it's the fact that these episodes were once associated with suicidal thoughts that is resulting in your girlfriend fearing for your safety. You don't say how you phrase these emails, but perhaps you could lean away from phrasing that says "having an episode and will be going no-contact for a while" and towards a phrasing like "exhausted and going to sleep early, text you in the morning" emphasizing both that you will not be contacting her because you are sleeping, and that you will initiate contact soon. It's not an untruth, but it does de-emphasize the sorts of things that would panic me, if the person I loved did this.

Another thing that might help would be to give her some time frame after which she has permission to come to your place and check on you--say, 24 hours from the first contact, or however long it would be before you'd want someone to come check in.
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:08 AM on July 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

This is something you need for your health, and it's non-negotiable. It's absolutely reasonable and normal to need a day to yourself now and then, even if there's no medical reason behind it. It's your girlfriend's responsibility figure out how to be okay with this (or to decide if it's a dealbreaker).

However, I'm sympathetic towards your girlfriend. It can be jarring and upsetting to suddenly be cut off from regular contact, even if it's announced and explained beforehand. Especially if you've never felt the need for alone time to that extent, or if it's not something you're used to experiencing in a relationship. I wouldn't jump to any sort of abandonment issue or self-esteem conclusions; it might be that she just hasn't yet developed the ability to feel secure in a relationship while being apart from her partner. It's something a lot of people have to learn.

What is she worrying about, precisely? Is she worrying about your mental health? The state of the relationship? You've explained yourself to her, but is there anything about this situation that she's never encountered before? If she hasn't experienced depression firsthand or secondhand, or if she's never felt overstimulated or gotten that urge for quiet, she might not get it as easily as someone who has.

When you talk to her about this, ask her to clarify what she's worried about, and encourage questions from her. That will give you a starting point. And ask her what would make her feel more secure about your need for cave time, while making it clear that anything that requires interrupting cave time is completely off the table. It could be something like sending an "I'm back and I'm ok" text when you emerge, or personalize your going-away message a little bit ("I'm going quiet for the next 24 hours and I love you."). Only agree to things you're comfortable with and that seem reasonable - buying her gifts or rushing to see her the moment you're available would be excessive - but if there's something small you can do without disrupting your routine, it might help.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:13 AM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm 43 years old. When I was a kid, everyone got answering machines and this was a Big Deal.

Your cell phone, email, smartphone, and the like, are not electronic leashes. Stop treating them that way!

Why the motherfuckety fuck FUCK do your friends and girlfriend need constant connectivity from you??????

The way you are living your life is unnatural, and emotionally stifling.

Turn off your phone every day after 8pm. Reclaim your life and your privacy.

No one needs to be notified if your turn off your phone. Or WHY you are turning it off (why is this anyone's business? How do you get sleep with your phone/email constantly going off??)

Geezus. Unplug your shit on a regular basis and reclaim your life. Re-train EVERYONE in your life (including YOURSELF) that you will are not tied to the phone and internet. You can survive without the cell phone and the Internet. In fact, you'll be happier once you set some boundaries for everyone to follow.

Trust me.
posted by jbenben at 11:19 AM on July 12, 2013 [15 favorites]

My husband operates similarly to you in needing a rest and reset. But if he wanted to spend 24 hours completely no-contact, I would be violently offended.

Well, presumably you and your husband actually live together, and have been a couple for more than 9 months. The OP doesn't live with his (or her) girlfriend and they are not married.
posted by scody at 11:26 AM on July 12, 2013 [7 favorites]

My boyfriend and I are both like you (how convenient!) but to be perfectly honest, it does create some stress on each of us when the other goes into hibernation. Each of us wants to be supportive of the other and wants to be sure that the other feels safe enough with us that they can let their scary side show. On the other hand, when we feel the need to back out of the world for a minute, it's not that we don't want the other one to see our dark side, it's that we really do simply need alone time.

What both of us have found is that the clearest possible communication is necessary, even between two people who are just alike in this respect. It sounds like you're already being really clear, but it's worth revisiting, just to be sure she hears what you're saying.

So, each time, one of us will say to the other, "Hey, we're okay, but I need to be alone for a while, probably just a couple of days. It would really support and help me if you were able to comfortably let me go non-contact until X date."

It's funny that we have to be so clear every time, especially given that we both do it. But I think neither of us have been in a relationship with someone else who had that attribute before, so it continues to be a learning experience.

Sometimes it works to say "there is no reason, it's just time" and sometimes we have to come up with a reason to make the other really get it -- I periodically have to be on prednisone, which completely whacks out your mental state, so I can sometimes blame it on the meds. Sometimes, to be honest, if he catches a cold or something and we can't get together without risking my health (prednisone also lowers your immunities so I have to be pretty careful), rather than go out and do things on my own that I would otherwise want to do, I "bank" some alone time. It takes some pressure off and it gives me a little more time before a real hibernation period sets in.

So, I guess my point is that it's probably still just really foreign to her, and if her concern is that you won't let her help you, it might work to emphasize how much she does help you by letting you deal with your issues in the way that works best for you, and how generous and kind it is of her to step back from her natural reactions to let you do so.
posted by janey47 at 11:27 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I came in here prepared to be siding with your girlfriend here because it can be hard for me when my partner has times like this. (Even though I kind of do, too.) But after reading your details - you are being very responsible and considerate already about what you are doing. I think you are doing just fine.

I wonder if it might be useful to invite her to one of your therapy sessions where the two of you and your therapist could explore this together? Maybe it would help her chill if she really understood, facilitated by your therapist, that this is an actual need that you have. And maybe you guys together could brainstorm something additional you could do, although I'm coming up blank because you are doing this Just Right as far as I can tell.
posted by Stacey at 11:30 AM on July 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Unlike a lot of people in this thread, I am sympathetic to both sides.

The thing is that I used to have periods of intense anxiety and depression where I had cut myself off from the world in order to deal -- I don't anymore, but I understand the emotions and the need for the "cave."

However, a few years ago I was dating someone who would do the same. I didn't find this triggering, and I don't require constant contact with my SO, but I realised that it was not a dynamic I would ever be comfortable with. It didn't suit my emotional needs.

What I'm saying is that I don't think it's a selfish thing to be not okay with this any more than I think it's a selfish thing to need to do it.

The fact that you gave her a heads-up but that she still needed that contact and was upset that you didn't reciprocate makes me think that it would be difficult to adapt your system in a way that would give you the space/comfort you require AND the closeness/contact she craves. I personally just wouldn't know where to go with this.
posted by sm1tten at 11:45 AM on July 12, 2013

So, presumably, you sleep 8-9 hours a night on a regular night when you're not having an episode. Which means that, at maximum, we're talking about 5-6 hours that you're out of contact when you'd normally be reachable. And your girlfriend is saying that you need to be reachable within that 6 hour period, after you've told her that you'd be unreachable for that amount of time? Would she have the same reaction if you told her you were going to see a double feature at the movies, and so you were turning your ringer off to avoid bothering anyone? How about if you were going to a fancy dinner party and weren't going to answer your phone at dinner for a few hours because it's rude? A funeral? A wedding? A hospital? Where is the point where your girlfriend acknowledges that her desire for constant contact does not trump everything else in your life?

She's not being reasonable. Not at all. She can feel however she feels, and there's nothing wrong with her feelings. But her behavior is unreasonable. Not only is she trying to make her feelings your problem to solve, but she's doing so in a way that harms you. And she's trying to make you feel guilty for not putting her feelings above yours in a situation where what you want and need is a completely normal thing to want that is really not a big deal at all. The fact that she wants your relationship to be a certain way--a way that is outside of the norm for short-term, adult relationships between people who do not live together--does not obligate you to do exactly as she wants you to do. She is not more important than you are, and being "nice" does not entail doing what other people want all the time, to your own detriment.

I'd put this back on her. Tell her that when you're sick (and that's what this is), having half a day to yourself is non-negotiable. Then, ask her whether there's a particular way, other than interrupting the time you need to get better, that she would like for you to communicate that need to her or to deal with it. Make her articulate what she wants. She can't simply say, "you need to fix this" without articulating how she wants you to fix it. Then, once she's made a concrete suggestion, you can determine whether that's something you're willing or able to do.
posted by decathecting at 12:03 PM on July 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

Like Stacey, I immediately wondered if it would be helpful to bring your girlfriend into one (or part of one) of your therapy sessions. The therapist might be able to reassure her that you're unlikely to harm yourself during your cave time, that the therapist is actively monitoring your depression and suicide risk and would change the plan if they thought you were actively suicidal, and that the cave time is a necessary part of your staying mentally on-balance. Maybe y'all could come up with a safety plan (along the lines of, "If anonymous begins to feel suicidal, he will call 1. girlfriend, 2. therapist, 3. emergency number until he reaches one of them, etc."), or share an existing one, so that she sees there's an actual plan in place if there is a problem.

I suspect this will help if the main reason your girlfriend is freaking out is due to her worry about you because of your past suicidality, which can be a reasonable worry. If she's actually freaking out because she has separate anxiety or abandonment issues of her own, then I very much second that those are entirely her problems to deal with and she needs to find ways (therapy, exercise, journaling, whatever) to cope with them that don't interfere with your positive coping mechanisms.
posted by jaguar at 12:08 PM on July 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

decathecting: Tell her that when you're sick (and that's what this is), having half a day to yourself is non-negotiable.

This x1,000. In his magnificent survey of depression, Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon recounts his own experience with it and how important it is to eliminate as many stresses in your life as possible during a depressive/anxiety/self-loathing episode. (Oh God, have I been there.)
"I called my agent as soon as I could," Solomon writes, "and said that I was doing badly and that I was suspending work on this book. I said I had no idea what the course of the disaster would be. 'Pretend I was hit by a car yesterday,' I said, 'and that I'm in the hospital in traction waiting for the results of the X rays. Who knows when I'll be typing again?' "
You've found a way to take care of yourself that works. Don't mess with it. The rest of decathecting's advice -- "She can't simply say, 'you need to fix this' without articulating how she wants you to fix it. Then, once she's made a concrete suggestion, you can determine whether that's something you're willing or able to do" -- is the way to go in this situation.
posted by virago at 1:15 PM on July 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

How could I adapt my system to make sure that she's feeling safe and secure?

I would think that there are technical solutions along the lines of security cams/babysitter cams/baby monitors.

It is up to you if you find that level of surveillance okay but it would allow you to not change your system and your girlfriend to check in on you when you don't respond.
posted by travelwithcats at 1:22 PM on July 12, 2013

I've been on both sides and think people here are being too harsh towards your girlfriend. I'm someone who needs a lot of alone time. I've also been the person who has been shut out in a relationship. Sometimes the need for alone time is incompatible for a relationship and is something I often think about. In your girlfriend's place, I would be wondering if we could ever live together. How would your need for alone time work if you lived together? Would you lock yourself in another room? What if you had kids, would you ignore them? I would also be concerned that if I was in an accident, there would be no way to reach you. I would wonder when the next time you were going to feel the need to cut me off. Would it be on vacation or on when we had something fantastic planned?

I'm not sure if you and your girlfriend are compatible. There's nothing wrong with your girlfriend and there's nothing wrong with you for needing alone time.

Your need for alone time has implications for the future of your relationship more than the present and I wonder if your girlfriend is looking at the future and feeling anxious about it.
posted by parakeetdog at 2:08 PM on July 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

I do think that your girlfriend's needing to be in contact with you constantly is unreasonable.

On the other hand, I think that pretty much any partner you find is going to be hurt and distressed when you cut them off on a regular basis, especially since it sounds like these episodes have the potential to last much longer than half a day. While other girlfriends may react less dramatically to your hibernating, it will still likely put a strain on your relationship. It's painful to know that someone you love is suffering but insists on pushing you away, and there's the fear that something bad could happen to you in these periods and they would have no way of doing anything until it was too late. While it's great that you've found a method of coping that's working well for you right now, but if I were you I'd be open of finding additional/alternative methods of coping with these episodes and experimenting with finding a way to work through an episode without cutting your girlfriend entirely out of the picture until you're feeling better.
posted by fox problems at 2:23 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

You girlfriend seems to think that isolating yourself when overwhelmed is your choice, and that you're being inconsiderate. Tell her that your becoming overwhelmed is part of an illness, and solitude helps you to recover. She has a huge amount of anxiety herself; can you call upon her empathy? Maybe if she things that not contacting you is actually a kind thing she can do for you, she'll tolerate it better. You've fortunately found a way to protect yourself and to gradually feel better, and she needs to honor your need to do that.

I'm guessing that feeling responsible for her well-being all the time makes things more difficult for you, too. Your therapist can help you learn to value your own needs as highly as hers, and to feel confident that you're being reasonable when you draw boundaries. It takes time and it's not easy, but it'll help you in many kinds of relationships throughout your life.
posted by wryly at 2:47 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

i wonder if you are not getting enough alone time (both emotionally & physically) regularly and so things build up to where you start feeling depressed, anxious, etc. and then you feel compelled to retreat physically into your cave to decompress. i know for me it is a combination of poor boundary setting and not respecting my introversion. when i am better about setting boundaries with people then i can be around them more because i have more emotional space and don't feel so intruded upon. i.e. when i take care of my emotional boundaries i don't need to set such strong physically boundaries. being an introvert though i still need some alone time to process things so i also have to carve out physical space for myself. hopefully all that made some sense.
posted by wildflower at 4:22 PM on July 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

My boyfriend and I both have anxiety issues and sometimes need to "take space" for a day or so. It's really helpful to us to relax in this way and not feel like you have to take a partner's desires into account. I think your girlfriend may have some serious issues (or just immaturity) if she can't let you have one night to yourself.

Also, I really appreciate what you've done to take care of yourself here. It's helping me frame my own "cave time" for others when I need to. Good job handling your own health needs so well!
posted by 3491again at 6:31 PM on July 12, 2013

I think you are handling your self-care in a very healthy way. My partner (of 3 years) and I have probably one or two days per month where one of us will text the other and say: "Had a rough day. I'm exhausted and need some down time [and/or a 12-hour nap]. I'll call you tomorrow night. Love you." The answer is usually something like: "Sorry to hear that! Feel better, [term of endearment]. Have a good sleep! Miss you. xoxox." On rare occasions, one of has needed 36-48 hours of "cave time." This is good!

The worst thing is to put pressure on someone who already doesn't feel well. Because we both need this cave time, there are no hurt feelings and nothing to worry about, although it took us both one or two rounds to feel 100% comfortable being on both ends of those texts in the beginning. Perhaps it just takes time to get to know one another's needs. But I would feel resentful if someone were demanding constant checking in when I didn't feel well. It comes across as controlling and a bit obsessive -- when unchecked, such behaviors can sometimes seep into other situations and then everyday life. Eeks! I feel uneasy thinking about having her come over and hang out during cave time, unless the apartment is large and quiet enough for both. I think boyfriend would feel split between trying to rest and worrying about her feelings, especially if she wants to check in a lot while he's resting. That can be a difficult negotiation when one is ill.

If girlfriend feels abandoned or threatened, I agree with other posters that she should deal with this herself. I am not sure I would even take her to therapy. It should be her responsibility to develop her own self awareness and self care, but she might appreciate a bit of help. Perhaps you could say to her, "Let's brainstorm some strategies that YOU can use to make yourself feel better during my down times so that we will both feel good afterward and ready for some awesome couple time again." Encourage her to come up with the strategies herself based on what she likes to do. Otherwise, she could end up losing herself in this relationship and relying on you for all of her needs, which can lead to all sorts of resentment. She could even keep a list handy so that her emotions don't take over before she is able to put the strategies into place. Her list of "Self Care Strategies for Boyfriend's Cave Time" could include:

-go on a hike/walk/bike ride
-get a mani/pedi (or whatever she likes to do to feel pampered)
-call a friend
-watch a movie that she wants to see -- but that boyfriend might not like so much
-make art
-take a yoga class
-put on loud music and dance around apartment
-go out with friends
-read a book
-take an overnight trip to see a friend or family member

And then he could ask her what types of things SHE likes when she isn't feeling well. Does she like to be left alone, or would she like company, magazines, and some soup? I think it comes down to asking for what one wants and needs, and then discussing the other's needs as well.

(Forgive the inconsistencies in pronouns. I'm about to go into cave time myself.)
posted by quixotictic at 7:13 PM on July 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

« Older Bears... not those ones.   |   What to expect from laparoscopic gallbladder... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.