At those times when my mind plays games with me, as it has for most of this year, I sometimes sit and wonder if it will ever open up again into that free-flowing state that is so creative and rewarding. I knew from early on this year that I needed to rest for a while and replenish my energy. It wasn’t something I chose but a situation I had respond as positively as I felt able. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the a long, month after month, fight with depressive symptoms that has transpired. A gentle and wonderful trip through Brittany with Michele is the sum total of my touring in 2014 to date, although I still have a few desires to fulfill before winter settles on us once more.
Over the last five years I’ve come to rely on my bike rides for peace of mind. They provide a few hours away from home when nothing presses on my thoughts other than the scenery, flora, and fauna, along my chosen route. Removing the possibility of riding long-distance has been a major challenge. I look and listen to photographs and stories that fellow cyclists and friends post online. I enjoy reading about their adventures however big or small their expeditions are. I love the fact that they are out there discovering and uncovering the secrets held within these small islands and beyond but I miss being out there myself, exploring the world, creating my own set of special memories.
I turned my thoughts to solo touring a few times throughout 2014 but my mind always said no in the most emphatic way. Each and every time I began to dream of campsites and sunsets a state of panic would rise inside, my mind yelling loudly at me not to do it. This has remained unchanged from the end of last year to date. I have no idea why this has occurred now, other perhaps than the result of fatigue and a decrease in my emotional stability, a chicken and egg situation. On numerous occasions I have decided that discretion is the better part of valour, putting away the equipment I had gathered for a weekend, and shuffling disconsolately back to my lounge where I try not to overly question what is happening.
I have spoken at length about this process to my doctor and to my therapist during my weekly sessions with her. It felt odd that having come so far along the road to recovery that I felt I was slipping inexorably backwards without any brakes. All year I’ve been frightened that another breakdown was imminent, another island forming in an emotional seascape, and another uncontrollable downward spiral into something akin to oblivion.
Acting on their advice I have tried to be more accepting of this fluctuating state of mind. It’s proven to be a difficult task with no two days being the same. For a while I had the sense of deja vu. While I have experienced these upheavals throughout my life I haven’t dealt with them well historically. Perhaps this was another chance to learn a different way of doing things?
The thing I miss the most is the creativity that cycling seemed to release. All the ideas I have had to date, and my subsequent adventures, have come to me when I’ve been cycling. Cycling is the feeder for my creativity. It seems to open neural pathways that hold deep and colourful memories and conveys those thoughts and feelings to my consciousness.
The notion of riding around Britain’s coast popped into my head as I rode along the Tarka Trail in late 2009 when I had just started to cycle. I’d had no intentions in that direction when it just landed on my mind as I enjoyed a short winter break from sitting at home feeling grim. In the winter of 2011 I was riding along a country lane near my home wondering about riding the UK’s extremities when the name ‘All around the ragged edges’ popped into my head. Even my 2013 ride through France, the major part of which was suggested by a friend, changed in my mind as I rode out from home one day. As Dartmoor filled my vision I saw the Pyrenees in my mind’s eye, rising majestically skywards, and immediately felt the pull of the mountains. I knew in that moment that I couldn’t finish a ride at the Spanish border and that I would have to traverse this backbone of a mountain range between two countries. Where would it leave me creatively if I didn’t ride? I could only wonder.
My therapist often sees things differently from me. She always has a view from another angle, one I wouldn’t necessarily think of. Her view was that I might try to keep the creativity alive through writing about experiences already gained and by maintaining my cycling in a more gentle fashion. These two things are inexorably linked. The routine of working through writing and escaping to feed my creativity cannot be separated. She suggested I could use my vast experience of the outdoors to rekindle memories until I felt able to re-engage more fully. Her ideas are always so clear and simple.
I finished writing my third book in December 2013 and put it to one side. I told Michele I was in no hurry to publish it and to date we are slowly working through it, editing and changing it as we go. I felt was that 2014 marked a change in my project: Riding2Recovery. Riding, fundraising, and writing about it, was no longer enough. My finances were stretched to the limit and I would have to look elsewhere in order to ride again. The trilogy of Riding2Recovery books are now all but complete and I’m sure they will stand alone to mark that period of my life.
That isn’t to say that I don’t want to ride long-distances any longer. I just feel that in writing terms that genre is a limited one and I need to expand to meet a wider audience. Before doing that there would be a period of adjustment, a period of change, and a time where reflection was more important than actually doing something else. The downturn in my mental health marked the start of this period, forcing me to take stock. To move forwards I would have to remain relatively still.
Initially this state of quiet felt forced, as though somebody else had put the brakes on whilst I was enjoying the ride. I fought the sensations that bombarded me and cursed the long and painful periods of depression and physical exhaustion that have governed my whole year. Cutting my riding dramatically, sometimes shopping by using the car , talking to my doctor and therapist, and managing by returning to the basic routines that have helped me since the beginning of my recovery, has more or less maintained the status quo.
At the start of 2014 I cut down the time I was spending writing this blog and posting on social media. It felt awkward, like I was abandoning my friends and responsibilities. There were times when I returned to the absolute basics by simply shopping, cooking, and looking after my personal needs each day. When I ride I have to sleep afterwards in order to recover from the effort, however short a ride it might have been. The same has been true when I write. Somewhere inside I knew I needed follow the instructions I was hearing in my mind rather than fighting them. Subsequently I have placed myself back in a mental first aid recovery position hoping to effect a change.
I wasn’t happy with this scenario. I saw my life as unchanging and difficult. There appeared no future other than the continuing struggle with my mind. I wondered what would become of me, fearing that I might slowly drown in the emotional turmoil. But there were brief spikes of joy provided by the short rides I took to try to alleviate the downward spiral. Anyone who suffers depression will understand this statement. During depressive episodes there is no future, no present, and no past. Depression hurls you into a mental abyss where you feel there is nothing but absolute pain and despair and a sense of being no way out. The outside world no longer exists in any way, shape, or form, so how can you be part of it?
Exercise, while it can help, is not a magical elixir for health change in terms of depressive illnesses. When I give talks about my riding it can appear that I was ill, began to cycle, and all was well in the world again. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I battle everyday and this has been unchanging since my breakdown. Cycling is one tool in a large toolbox and as such it needs to be used when it’s appropriate to do so. There are many other tools: routines, diet, correct medication, talking and sharing your thoughts through social contact, sleep patterns, resting, support of others (friends and professional), writing and being creative, and exercise. All of these, when used well, can help build a more stable foundation from where you can start to rebuild.
Learning the skill to use these tools is akin to an apprenticeship, you start with little idea of how to manage and you try, often randomly, until you have enough knowledge to assess a given situation. You can then act accordingly by implementing the right tools for the job in a way that’s not destructive. You learn to balance and juggle your life so you are more in charge of your illness than it is of you. The Expert Patient course I attended (http://www.nhs.uk/NHSEngland/AboutNHSservices/doctors/Pages/expert-patients-programme.aspx) is there to help people gain these tools and the knowledge of when its time to act in certain ways so as not to exacerbate symptoms. Little else in support terms exists at present, a sad indictment of how mental health is seen at governmental levels.
Subconsciously there has to be continual assessment: Can I do this? What will the cost be physically and emotionally? Is any gain worth it? What is the benefit right now? What is my mind/body telling me? How will it affect the rest of the day, week, month? For example: I have a meeting on Saturday at Michele’s in Barnstaple. Do I ride there as I would like? If I do what are the knock-on effects? How will I feel if I don’t have a longer ride this week? Sunday is the only day Michele and I have to ride and Monday is busy with dental and therapy appointments. Will I be able to do all this and how much of the next week will I lose recovering from it? These constant thought processes are necessary and appropriate for me to stay as level as I can. Assessing in this way helps me to side-step bigger dips in my mood-state that may lead to more depressive symptoms. It allows me to adjust the rest of the week to provide the necessary balance. I still have to shop, cook, and take care of myself from day-to-day. More importantly I have to work: writing, planning, and organising my life in a way that helps me to move forward. Cycling is a small but very important part of this complex lifestyle and has to fit into everything else.
Several weeks ago, after multiple bouts of seemingly uncontrollable emotion, I began to recover again. I wanted to ride, even though when I did my body felt as though it had never cycled before. I know this well from experience so by limiting the distances I rode I progressed to a point where I felt able to undertake a couple of my favourite rides that lead from where I live out to Dartmoor and back. They are tough rides that I have ridden regularly for several years now. I always enjoy them and the magnificence of the scenery they hold. For me they show I’m on the upside of life and they never fail to bring a smile to my face.
To keep within the boundaries I spoke of I should add that they are around half the distance of rides I typically do at this time of the year. They have many opt-out clauses along the way should I feel the need to back out. Setting off there were a few tears as my senses quickly filled to capacity overload from the passing scenery. I felt released from the capture my mind had held me in, alive in a way that always surprises me. I backed off on the hills by pushing my lowest gears and careered down the far side with a maniacal grin. Life felt good again during those miles, even though I knew there would be a payback afterwards. Sometimes you just have to go with it and see how you respond. I could always rest later.
I didn’t use my get-out-of-jail free options as my legs described perfect circles propelling me towards the higher ground of Dartmoor. Relaxed and unencumbered I enjoyed every minute of the ride that led me up to Belstone, high on the northern flanks of the moor. As I sat and ate my lunch at a convenient picnic table the Royal Marine Commando’s pretended to shoot one another high above me on the military ranges. How different their day was to my own, fraught with stress and the demands of their trade.
The ride home was an orgy of pretty Devonshire villages: Sticklepath, South Tawton, Samford Courtenay and the wonderfully named Honeychurch and Monkokehampton. As I rode the quiet lanes an idea pricked my thoughts, rather than my ears. An idea that felt full of promise. A new plan began to emerge from the depths of my mind as though it had lived there all of my life. Perhaps it had, waiting for the right moment to put in an appearance? Clear as day it bounded around my brain, growing and branching in my mind where it was now fully planted. It made me smile as these moments are fleeting, unexpected, and always full of surprise.
I chewed the idea around all the way home between taking in the scenery and saying hi to the buzzards that I always see close-up on these roads. Everything felt brighter in those precious moments and it seemed that there might be a way forwards once the waiting’s over. The idea now sits on a piece of paper by my side as I write. Every so often I add something else to the notes on the page. I’ve mooted it to a couple of other people who think it’s great idea with lots of potential. Whatever sparked this single, simple, thought, at the moment it landed in my mind I won’t ever know but like a magnet I can feel its pull drawing and encouraging me to venture out again in 2015.
Whether my mind will agree is another matter but it feels good to be hopeful.
Until next time…………………………