At last the weather seems to be picking up slowly. The drenching storms that have bombarded the UK since Christmas are, at least for the time being, backing away. We can begin to anticipate warmer and longer days as the flowers poke their heads up above ground level in a display of colour that always lifts my heart and soul. Winter is slowly leaving us.
It’s the time of year when people begin to plan and anticipate what the summer might be and more importantly what they might do during those warm months with long, soft, evenings. In a time when we are told to live in the moment and enjoy whatever we can from every day it’s still one of life’s great pleasure to anticipate something we desire that’s still some way off.
My own illness means that I have been forced to live day-to-day. I never know what tomorrow will bring and don’t have any expectation that it will be much the same as today because it never is. Some days start bright and go downhill from there. Others do the opposite getting brighter as the day progresses. The only constant is the variability and mental distress and this can lead to surprises both positive and negative. It doesn’t stop me dreaming or looking forward to possibilities, even if they don’t come to fruition.
The past week has been a prime example of this kind of pattern, my wellbeing being polarised at different times throughout its course. Last Saturday proved a bright and sunny day with moderate winds. It fell between two wet patches thrown our way by the Atlantic Ocean and the jet stream. It seemed too good an opportunity to miss so I carefully prepared myself for a longer ride in the Devon hills by quietly perusing my maps on the kitchen table whilst enjoying a coffee.
Lunch was made and panniers packed in readiness and eager anticipation of something I had all but forgotten: several hours spent riding for the sake of riding. There was a tinge of nerves about the prospect. I hadn’t ridden far at all in the past few months due to inclement weather and poor health. Heading out into the wilds of Devon and the steep, long, hills it holds takes confidence and that part of my psyche had wained over the long, difficult, winter months.
The simple act of changing my clothes for my cycling uniform triggers something I remember as positive. Once I’m dressed and ready I become a cyclist. Add to this the pre-packed lunch, mapped out route, and a routine of stretches, and every part of me knows in that moment what is about to happen. The last part of the jigsaw of readiness is to place newly filled drink bottles onto Irene, add the panniers, and wheel her out onto the pavement from which point there feels as though there is no return. Hopping aboard we pedal away trying not to anticipate the steep climb out from Hatherleigh to Hatherleigh moor via Park Road. It’s never an easy start but it does wake you up and rarely feels so difficult that I want to quit and return to the warmth of my house.
Quiet contemplation is quickly replaced by whirring senses as the outside world lets itself be known. The wind rush, the coolness of the outside air, the lumps and bumps in the road, and the gentle warmth of the sun, all bombard me as I move slowly away from home and its cosseting comfort. Once clear of the wonderfully named Monkokehampton my body warms and I begin to get lost in the rhythm of being out on my bike. Nothing interrupts the effort of the climbs and from time to time I pop out of my concentrated world in recognition of the surrounding beauty.
As time progresses I become more a part of the outside world and a much lesser part of the inside of my mind. There’s an equilibrium out there that I struggle to find at home outside of writing. Only the elements and physical effort invade my space letting me know how I’m doing and how hard I’m working. My mind subconsciously records this and I adjust accordingly without ever thinking about doing so. My bike isn’t a machine any longer, it’s an extension of me. It seems like these moments absorb me completely without any anticipation of what might come along in a few minutes time. I’m in the now, not the past, or somewhere painful in my mind.
For three hours I rode over hill and dale absorbed in my surroundings. The longer I was out the more I seemed to see as I attuned myself to everything going on all around. I smiled a million smiles stopping only to view the world, take photographs, or eat. The peace that I built up during the ride lasted well into the evening. A long, hot, soak in the bath was followed by an equally long sleep as the tiredness of my effort swept over me. Aside from cooking all I had to do was relax and watch a film with Michele who arrived later in the evening, just in time to eat.
Overnight my sleep was interrupted by nightmares, something that occurs each and every night. The joy of cycling was replaced by the drama of my mind trying it’s best to unravel past events and traumas, todays events seemingly lost in the void. I woke with a shock on several occasions feeling as though something terrible had occurred before returning to sleep only to repeat the process with a different nightmare.
The following days were difficult from start to finish, crescendo’s of emotional distress that I try so hard not to fight but are still so afraid of due to their severity and impact. I chose to ride again on the following Wednesday afternoon. The climb up Park Road felt so tough I almost quit. Muscle and sinew stretched and hurt and I felt like a beginner with no sign of the cyclist who cruised this way a few days previously. Worse than that my mind was also being stretched and it didn’t want to be. To say I felt weak mentally would be to understate it. Instead of quitting I scrambled down through the granny gears and hung on, knowing that all would change once I reached Hatherleigh Moor where it would level out.
The ride to Okehampton isn’t a difficult one but hills at the beginning middle and end mean it’s a good workout even when you take it easy. By halfway I felt better and began to pop out of my head. The mental distresses began to dissolve, at least for the time being, and I relaxed into the ride. Arriving at the jumble of cars in the car park, all trying to park or manoeuvre around, I felt pleased as punch to simply step off of Irene, unhitch the trailer, lock the bike up, and wander into the shop with my trailer in its new mode as a shopping trolley.
A surfeit of fruit and vegetables along with some tins and other fresh produce meant the trailer was bursting at the seams quite literally. As I hadn’t been feeling well lately I left Okehampton avoiding the steep climb up to Abbeyford Woods (route 27: Devon Coast to Coast) in favour of the more gentle climb to rejoin the ridge a couple of miles down the valley. This is one of my favourite places to ride being a flat and open valley and feeling like it should go on forever. It seems to take no effort to ride this way until the inevitable hill is reached. Even then it’s soon over and the backwards glances to Dartmoor make my heart sing as I head for Jacobstowe and my route home.
There was none of the distress I had suffered initially on the ride out this morning. It was replaced by joy and a feeling of freedom and escape from the constant jingle-jangling within my head. I reached home, tired and happy, taking the trailer in and emptying out all the enclosed goodies before packing them away for later consumption. Food taken and a hard-earned shower enjoyed I began to sink. Physically and mentally tired the demons decided to play games with me for the rest of the day and the following night. I didn’t have the strength to fight their persistent nagging and as afternoon progressed to evening I tried to hang on to the fact that there had been some joy in the day.
The following morning was grim. My mind warped and twisted in horrible ways, something that has been a constant this winter. Energy levels were noted by their absence and I wallowed around wanting to give up everything and just slump. If only you could, wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing? “I’ve had enough now so bugger off,” and they would, the demons that is. A little voice told be that I may not be able to give up, but I could give in, relinquish the fight, let them play and try to take no notice. A three-hour sleep complete with daymares, if there’s any such thing, helped pass the time. Eventually I gave in, not to the demons but to the drugs that live in my cabinet for occasions such as these. Bedtime was accompanied by my usual medication and an additional tab of Temazepam. Within a few minutes I was out for the count, relieved to escape and free until tomorrow, nightmares aside.
Friday dawned a little grimly with drizzle and rain and a wind that would only strengthen for a while. Why on earth I decided to cycle to Barnstaple I will never know. I think I thought it would help things along. Fresh air and gentle miles seemed attractive when I prepared to leave. There were nagging doubts that this was the right thing to do after the previous day’s experience and as it turned out it possibly wasn’t, but how would I know if I didn’t try? For thirty-five miles I felt awful, never picking up, rarely noticing anything other than the cold, wind, and rain that occasionally fell. I was out of joy or that’s how it felt. Only the last few miles felt comfortable as irony would have it.
Had I given this more thought I may have taken the bus instead. The Tarka Trail was sodden and sticky, grabbing at tyres and covering everything in mud. I cursed and swore and shed a few tears along the way. I think I rode because I was thoroughly fed up with feeling ill. I didn’t allow for the fact that whilst this might be the case being ill is an exhausting process and I need to allow for how tired it makes me mentally and physically. It’s had me in its grips all winter and now I want some time for me. Is that so selfish? I remembered the man who cycled over hill and dale a week ago and wondered where he was because he wasn’t here today. The power of emotional disturbance was making itself felt by switching off my physical abilities.
I say switching off my physical abilities because that’s how it feels. My legs work at about a third of their usual output. I slowed down, pushed small gears, and didn’t turn back. It never crossed my mind to go home, I just kept plodding along until I reached Michele’s house where I slumped in a heap, ate, bathed, and slumped again.
A friend came to dinner as we were all going to the cinema. I was so tired I was even struggling to look at the maps of Brittany that our friend Leslie had kindly brought for us to view and discuss. I decided to stay in and slump some more leaving Michele and Leslie to enjoy their evening. My mind went wild at around nine o’clock in the evening triggered by something innocuous on the TV and I had no choice but to give in to a huge emotional outpouring of wailing tears.
Monday is therapy day and I was glad of it this week. I expressed how I had been feeling and that I was now as flat as a pancake which would only be appropriate should I maintain it until tomorrow which would be Shrove Tuesday. During our discussion my therapist asked me if I thought I was resisting another breakdown? I thought about the feelings of slow decline since last year and energy that is always low. I remembered how I felt when I stood in my classroom hanging on grimly and trying to resist the onslaught of the last event. I also remembered how anxious I had been leading up to the breakdown in 2005, how my sleep was constantly disturbed by nightmares,, and the persistently aching muscles and joints. All of these are present right now.
Eventually I replied that I was frightened of a repeat, of giving in to such powerful and all-pervading sensations, and yes I felt as though I was resisting another onslaught of my mind. Since then I’ve had several more eruptions. I’ve tried to let them run their course. At the time it’s scary and feels as though I’m out of control doomed to slide into the abyss once more. Once passed I feel refreshed and much less tired. My therapist assures me that it’s better to have minor eruptions that one big one. Who am I to disagree? On Tuesday I felt grim all day long, foggy and unable to think or do anything. It ended in another breakdown of my emotional defenses, Temazepam settling me into sleep once again when it was over.
It’s Wednesday now and I’ve been out on my bike. Another storm has passed, at least for the time being. It would have been my shopping run today but a few miles down the road there was a loud TWANG from the back wheel as a spoke broke and wrapped itself around the rear hub. It’s a shame really as I felt good, or was it serendipitous by saving me from myself? The man who rode over the hills and dales was back with me again and that memory will see me out again just as soon as I’m able to fix Irene.
Managing a long-term mental health condition is like walking on eggshells. What works today may not work tomorrow or even this afternoon. You have to try when you feel able or you miss out on those precious hours when you might roll over the countryside freely and without distress. These are the hours that make it all bearable, and hours that create special moments that nothing can strip away.
“Don’t fight your enemies, see them as your friends and invite them in for tea.” I’m not there yet, but I’m learning not to fight.
See you next time……………….