Having sent the second draft of my new book to Michele for editing, I’m in a moment of limbo. It will only be a moment as I have some major undertakings to begin in the next week or two. This is possibly the most important few weeks in the next twelve months, as it could lead to my next journeys success or failure. Whatever the outcome, there is always another way, so please don’t think that I will be giving up the cause.At the end of a summer where Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de france, and Britain showed the world that we can also organise, and excel, in a brilliant Olympic games, it’s time to take stock and see what’s been achieved. It’s nearly time for me to plan my next adventure and so much has changed in the last three years that I thought it would be a good idea to look at some of those changes, and how my life has altered as a result.
Just over three years ago, I picked up a cycle again for the first time in twenty years. There was no plan, or idea of great adventures, just a thought that it may help in the fight against my own seriously poor mental health. The stakes were high, I was overweight, had high cholesterol, and worse, I was almost completely disconnected from society. At the time I began riding again, I also bought my first ever laptop. I had never explored the internet, written a word using word, or chatted to others via social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. Computers were part of life that I both avoided and missed out on, being as they say, a certain age.
The best documented aspect of this journey is my riding. You know what I have done, but not necessarily how it has benefitted me, other than through weight loss and physical health gains. Perhaps the biggest benefit from my riding is that it enabled me to re-engage with people. I soon found that I could turn up at a cafe and just be a cyclist, although I didn’t feel like one for a good while. I could leave my house behind on any day, escaping into the world, where I could become absorbed in the beauty of nature, or lost in the effort of trying to ride up a particular hill.
As I gained fitness, I also gained confidence. I have always been blessed with a high level of physical ability, but I thought it was gone, lost in my mind along with everything else from the past. Cycling began to open doors that had long since been closed tightly, and it also helped me to process whatever was bothering me at any point in time. I could leave my house feeling grim, and return feeling more in balance. I could cry out loud or laugh out loud and nobody could hear. Most importantly, I could start to be myself again, a physical man who loves a challenge.
Remembering those things led to me telling people who I wanted to ride around Britain. Those who had known me for many years knew that I would give it my all. Those who didn’t might have wondered if I was bull-shitting them, and until I returned from that journey, so did I. At the time I had no idea whether I could or not, just that I wanted to try. That drove me along in a more organised way than ever before. Being a graduate in sports science has helped a great deal, and remembering the dissertation from my third year, where I worked with people to overcome long-term chronic illness, I began some serious goal setting that I hoped would lead me to the start of the ride.
Goal setting starts with simple pattern identity. I rated my energy levels hourly on a scale of one to ten, where one is no energy, and ten is fully charged. By simply considering this at the same times each day, for a week or so, I could establish when I felt better and worse. People I have used this with have found it helpful. Once you know any patterns, and things that throw them out of kilter, you can make a plan. I only work when my energy levels are at least a five, and more importantly, I then limit the work I do to an hour or so, so as not to over work myself. After a break I may choose to do more, but I never pass three consequetive hours, especially when I’m working hard mentally, like when I’m writing. If I do, it leaves me extremely tired the following day. Try it, you might be surprised what you can do.
My laptop my seem a strange choice as an important stepping stone towards better health, but it was. Joining social media sites allowed me to show people who I was without revealing the whole story. At a time when I seriously thought I would be judged negatively, I could take part in society again, as and when I chose. On days when I felt ill I could simply avoid it and nobody would be any wiser. Mostly I could find out about other sufferers, gaining a perspective on my illness, and reducing the feelings of aloneness.
As I began to prepare for life on the road, my laptop allowed me easy access to mapping, campsites, forums, eBay, shops, people, and websites. I could engage in the preparation process without leaving my home. Being easier, and feeling safer, than face to face conversation, I could use it as a building block. As a consequence, home became less of a prison and I began to enjoy the time I spent there, perhaps for the first time in my entire life.
Becoming a Sustrans volunteer helped my battered self-esteem. I would ride out and do something useful, like trimming bushes or replacing missing signage. It became meaningful occupation, as it’s called in therapeutic circles. I had complete control over when I chose to do that, so it created a non-threatening and flexible routine that I could simply enjoy when I was able. That led me towards other Sustrans volunteers, people who I now consider to be good friends. I became less afraid to share my experiences about living with poor mental health. This was then slowly expanded to become a positive reason to ride, sharing experiences, and listening to the stories of others.
My main cycle was a Dahon folding bike with eighteen gears. I purchased it in order to be able to retreat quickly from situations that were too threatening, by throwing it into a taxi, or onto a bus. The folding trailer was bought for the same reason, and without them I would never have had the nerve to begin to tour. Three years on I’ve completed two huge rides with a standard sized bike and trailer. There were never any thoughts about needing to retreat, in any way, manner, or form. I still enjoy the little bike, its big fun with its small wheels and easy portability. I keep it in order to be able to take a bike to places without the hassle you entail with a full size one, like train journeys. It’s a role that may well expand again in a few years time as I travel more, exploring by bike in a range of situations.
My cycling confidence is sky-high these days. I’ve ridden enough to know my body and mind and their reactions to different, and sometimes frightening, situations. I know how cycling fits into my week, or how my week fits around cycling, whichever it is. Many people think I ride mega-miles and get out all the time. I don’t. I ride three times a week, and that is all I can do if I want to benefit from the loose training that I do and recover. My riding is always about enjoyment first, not about wattage, maximizing endurance, or anything else. I believe this is what keeps it fresh and allows me to embed it into my lifestyle. Noticing the beauty of nature is a bigger lift than any personal best could ever be.
At the start of this journey I would sleep for three to four hours in the daytime. This has reduced to around an hour, two if I’ve overdone it. I used to find interacting with people, or the internet, completely exhausting. Short conversation, or sessions on the laptop, would leave me feeling shattered and in need of retreat. Now I have a greater tolerance, better concentration, and much more desire to interact. I still find it exhausting, but it takes longer to reach the point where I need to bail out. I’m also more able to remember what it is we discussed at a later date. I let myself bail out of work when I need to, not when it’s dictated by pressure. I’m lucky to be able to do this, but it’s an important part of my learning and re-building my life.
At the beginning, waves of emotion crashed on my shore every few hours. I would try to time a ride to fit in between them. Now, the waves are less frequent, and riding seems to soften them. I know I will soon be out again when they do strike, and that it’s just a matter of time until peace returns. Trying to achieve some sort of routine and structure has brought me a long way. My shopping trip, using the same trailer that I bought in 2009, is now part of everyday life. I don’t need to prepare for it, or think about whether I have the energy to do it. I can just do it in the same manner that you get up and go to work, as long as I’m flexible about when I leave. Things like that didn’t exist in my life in 2009, so it’s good to recognise the changes.
I used to avoid any social situations, unsure I could cope, and therefore choosing to not take part rather than display my emotions in public. That doesn’t happen anywhere near as much now. I can be seen in cinemas, pubs, and social gatherings, like the Xmas dinner with the Sustrans volunteer crew that I avoided just last year. I don’t attend anything like the number of events that I used to, but I find that as long as I have the time to adjust to the idea of going somewhere I have the ability to manage it once there. it marks another step forwards.
My bubble has expanded and I’m writing this in the hope that somebody will be able to gain a little confidence from my experience. Don’t be afraid of failing, it allows us to succeed. It’s taken me decades to achieve this, and it isn’t always present. Recognising that it isn’t always good to make yourself take part is a positive thing, as is giving yourself permission to stay away. The balance that works for you is individual, taking time and effort to explore. It will vary from situation to situation, along with your self-confidence in being there. You may find that even within a situation your ability to deal with it varies. This is perfectly normal and knowing that can help to dissipate rising panic, discomfort, and uncertainty, when you face something that’s a little different from what you expected.
Once you begin to build a little confidence in dealing with situations, you can expand your bubble accordingly. You may have to retreat sometimes, but that happens when you are making big changes, even when other people might see them as small things. To you they are big, so expect it to be a battle when you begin to move forwards. My own experience of this is perhaps typical. The well I fall into appears to be the same as it was six years ago. It’s a deep, black, and empty hole, full of fear and pain. When I’m in it, there appears no way out again. My fear of falling into it means I cling on, trying not to plummet downwards. I hate it, and all that it holds. I don’t want to be there, and yet I know it holds the secrets to escaping. My therapist knows this as well, encouraging me to remember that she holds me when I fall, and that she won’t let go.
The only difference to date is that I now know, at a deeply subliminal level, that I will return to normal at some point. There are other people who hold me, helping me stay level, and many experiences of not being in that deep well of despair. Memories of wonderful things, people, and places, help my mind to re-adjust, rebalancing itself, and eventually returning to what we all call normal.
This is often the most difficult time of the year. Low levels of light and sunshine don’t help, nor do the lower temperatures. My own energy levels are low at the moment, both physically and mentally, but I have all those memories of days on the bike, stored like a collection of DVD’s. I can replay those anytime I wish, and I still have the maps of Scotland and Ireland on the wall to remind me of better times if I should forget. Even with this going on, I can still find an hour or two when I can work, write, and think, as long as I take the time to rest up in between. I may work from eight in the morning until nine, or eight in the evening until ten. I’ve learned to be happy with this and that is paying dividends in terms of the bigger picture.