I used to play Kerplunk when I was a child. A hollow tube with holes in would have plastic sticks pushed through from one side to the other. Once all the sticks were in place, they were used to support around twenty marbles that were placed on top of them. The aim of the game was to remove the sticks without the marbles falling down. The person with the least marbles at the end wins the game.
It seems a good analogy for my mental health. My marbles fell down six years ago, and since then I’ve been replacing sticks and marbles, trying to keep them up. Every so often something happens that pulls out several sticks, and the marbles tumble once more. I’m writing about this because in the last few weeks I’ve been seriously challenged. Somebody I was relying on for many aspects of the ride, equipment, marketing and support, just vanished from view, leaving me to pick up the pieces. I don’t know why, and hope they are okay. My marbles thought about falling down, but they didn’t. There are too many sticks still in place, and this has shown me just how far I’ve come. I couldn’t have withstood this last year, and it’s another marker for me to take hold of and celebrate.
Several years ago I wrote a piece called ‘The elastic in my brain’s gone.’ It explored the idea that our ability to navigate the world relies on us being able to be elastic or even plastic, in our thinking. Changes stretch the elastic, which in turn creates stresses, but hopefully we adjust and then move forwards. Positive experiences strengthen the elastic whilst too many negative ones, or trauma weakens it. Once overstretched, the elastic will no longer go back to its original shape, and you are in serious trouble mentally.
My elastic had snapped on several other occasions, every ten years or so, culminating in the serious break down of six years ago. Riding2Recovery is my way of becoming elastic in my thinking again. When I began riding, small challenges appeared for me to overcome. A puncture miles from home. Running out of water, or simply taking the wrong route. They seemed like major challenges at the time, but started me along a road where I began problem solving whilst out in the world. More importantly, I began to stretch the elastic, ever so gently. It gave me occupation and a direction to head in. For a long while I’d had to remain stationary, but once moving again I seemed to gather momentum, ever so slowly.
From that point I began to solve problems before they occurred, laying the foundations that I would later build upon. The folding bike allowed me to move away from home because I could always catch a bus, train or taxi back again. Planning and preparing for last year’s ride allowed me to move forwards again.
Therapy has helped me learn to manage and explore what happens when I feel I’m in crisis, and how it relates to the past. I’ve slowly begun to trust in people too. Initially this was difficult. If I felt let down by somebody, I would hide myself away. My elastic felt as though it was stretched to breaking point, and I’d have to let it settle, something that could take weeks. Nowadays it settles much more quickly.
I’ve slowly made a plethora of connections with the world and people and my mind has learned that, whilst some things will go as planned, my world doesn’t collapse when they don’t. Other people step in and fill the gaps, and that is how it has proven to be regarding the missing parts from the ride preparation. Too much was out of my reach, and I beginning to feel like my world would collapse again if something didn’t change. The elastic was getting over-stretched, stresses were building and I had to react and force the issue for my own sanity.
These changes occurring in my mind are so slow that they are all but imperceptible, but they are taking place all the time. I’ve talked to the therapist about feeling like a pendulum recently. I swing from feeling emotionally solid to completely fluid, almost daily. In the past I’ve always seen these emotional outbursts as things to survive, overcome and then forget.
This week I had a panic attack whilst shopping. Yoga breathing got me through to the checkout, and once outside the tears began to flow like a river. I began to cycle home and must have looked in a terrible state to any outsider. I had tears streaming down my face. The whole ten miles was spent in tears as I let the emotion out. Surprisingly, I felt much stronger on the way home than I had when I cycled to the shops. All the way to the shops, I was aware that something wanted to get out. I felt physically weakened by that, and knew I was holding onto my emotions. The ride home was the first time I’ve been able to cycle and cry at the same time.
My therapist was thrilled to hear about this incident, not because she’s a sadist, but because it’s a sign of integration within my mind. Graeme the Man and Damaged Graeme, as I refer to them in my book, are coming together at last. By the time I got home I felt tired, but by taking a short sleep, I found I could later get on with my work as if nothing had happened.
This process was repeated on Wednesday. The drive to, and the first half of my therapy session, was spent in floods of tears. The second half was spent as if nothing had happened. The increase in frequency is occurring because I’m letting it, no longer using my mental strength to hold a barrier up. The intensity is just the same, and extremely painful, but the duration of the bouts is less. My mind is elastic enough to cope better now, hence the shorter recovery period. It’s an exhausting process and returning home I once again took to my bed.
It’s hard to understand that a person can seemingly be in so much pain, and an hour later they are sat at a laptop working, as if nothing has happened. During the episodes I feel as though my head will explode, but I know at some deep level, that I will come through these bouts and all will be well. That’s something I’ve learned, and it’s one of the strategies that allow me to cope and live so much more fully. I still lose whole days to this, but even then I find I can ride the day after or work later on. Being forced to change, as I explained last time, has proven for the better. I now feel I’m back on top of everything, and that it’s all ticking along nicely. I’ll be using the two-wheel trailer I used last year for this ride, and hope to mount an aluminium box on it permanently. I like this combination. It feels much easier to organise a box, and it’s certainly cleaner, as well as easier to use than panniers or a bag. Nick, who owns Carry Freedom, has overhauled the trailer completely. He rarely gets to see one after they sell, and was pleased to see how well it had stood up to four months abuse last year.
During my conversation with Nick, he asked if I had a storm kettle/stove. I was completely ignorant about these, but put the phone down wanting to find out more. I’ll write more about this next time, but as a result of an email enquiry, I’m being sent one free of charge. The company who are supplying it are based four miles from the village of Weedon, where I grew up, and I’m taking it to Ireland, from where they originated. It’s a small world isn’t it?
On Friday, I finished the corrections on my book. Both the proof reader and I were overjoyed at completing it. As a precaution, she is now reading it through to correct any silly grammatical errors and the like. Next weekend I’ll be preparing both e-book and paper version for release. I can’t wait to see it finished and from the feedback I’ve received I hope you will enjoy reading it. I also received an email that contained the logo that sits at the top of this post, and three separate book covers that have been designed for me. Jon did this in his own time and I’m thankful for his expertise. The result is fabulous, as I hope you will soon see.
My Harley will be saying goodbye this week. I think my motorcyclist days are done for now and I want to concentrate on this project for the next few years. That means making choices financially, and I’m not finding the time or desire to ride the motorcycle. When I wrote about the elastic snapping, motorcycling was the one thing I could still do to feel whole. It has played a big part in my life, and I’ve loved it for over thirty years. My mind doesn’t like the sensation of speed or the noise anymore. More importantly, it feels like the time to stop, so I’m letting go.
The cycling has been going well, seemingly unaffected by the emotions I’m experiencing. Time spent at home, doing Pilates and yoga, has had a real benefit through the winter. I’m more flexible, leaner and more efficient on the bike and I’m sure they play a big part in my recovering quickly from emotional distress. I can feel my core muscles engaging when I demand more power during training. I’ve kept working on pedalling technique and done many high energy workouts on hills and the flat. I try to limit the time I spend on workouts. They then become an integral part of the ride and not all of it. I love to go out with an open mind and pedal, and the training aspects are then built around that, as I said previously. I’m feeling stronger than last year and my mind is beginning to focus on the task that lies ahead. There appears to be an underlying strength from last year, a feeling of here we go again, with a big grin attached.
The pendulum might still be swinging, but it no longer cuts me in half as a result.