I was stood on the very top of Exmoor. The rain that fell heavily seemed to be seeping into my mind and body. The wind tore at my Waterproof jacket and over trousers and summer seemed an eternity away. “How can it be this cold when it’s almost August,” I found myself thinking. I was soaked, wearing full battle dress and chilled to the bone. A short while later the sun broke through, the clouds dissipating as quickly as they had built. The warmth spread through me rapidly but something had already taken place in my mind.
As I climbed the final hill to the crossroads at the top of the moor my mind had been building a slow, drum-like crescendo of panic. By the time I stopped and parked Kermit it was shouting with a volume and force known as fortissimo in the music world. ” Get out of here, get out of here, get out of here,” it yelled incessantly. I could nothing but listen. It wouldn’t go away, be dislodged, or fade at all, despite my efforts to breath calmly, take in the awe inspiring scenery and relax.
The tears that followed were a flood. My home seemed so far away that if I pedalled another metre it would be unattainable. There was no holding the tears back. I stood there crying, knowing that, for today at least, the game was up. I couldn’t deal with this and keep on riding. I would have to return home and wait patiently for it to pass in its own time.
I had an inkling what this was about. I’d been talking to my therapist about it for months. I suffer deeply layered trauma from times gone by and now it would seem it was sitting just below the surface, bubbling away like magma in a chamber below my skull and just waiting to burst out. When I ride long distance I bury the trauma, distract myself from its presence and perform. But the trauma is still there. This time I couldn’t bury it. The trauma was ruling the roost, for the present moment at least. I called Michele nine times in the ensuing panic attack. There was no reply as she was pedalling home still and reception was broken by the hills between us.
Stopping abruptly I turned Kermit around so it pointed homewards. I knew already that was the direction in which I would be travelling once I resumed. I could think of nothing but escape. I became fully absorbed in this as though my life depended upon getting back to my house and closing the world out by shutting my door. As the tears subsided slowly my phone rang. Michele was home and disturbed by the missed calls on her phone. “Would you like me to come and fetch you,” enquired the gentle voice on the other end of the line. “Yes please,” I answered, voice quivering with shock and pain at what had just occurred.
I set off down the long, steep, hill through Brayford and up the sharp rise beyond the village. My physical energy evaporated as though it had been stolen, replaced by exhausted lethargy. Finding a pull-in where Michele could stop. I parked Kermit, unhitched Trevor, my faithful trailer and folded the trike in readiness to go home.
I felt shocked and numb. Although my preparation had been far from perfect I hadn’t expected this. There was no sense of having overreacted. Both mind and body now felt totally exhausted from the onslaught that had just occurred in my head. Prior to that I had been singing out loud and feeling strong. How much can change in a simple moment? The most important thing now was to feel safe and to give myself time to recover. Analysis would be fruitless at the moment. I needed to switch off from the world of cycling and rebalance my troubled mind.
I don’t remember speaking much on the return journey. I sat shaking in the passenger seat, my thoughts diverted by the overriding desire to get back to my home and the tears streaking my face. This is not to slur Michele, or her home, both of which are dear to me. It was more the case that my own home has developed into a safe haven, full of the things I need to help me feel at one with the world, especially when, from time to time it still goes pear-shaped.
Sitting in Michele’s house with a large mug of warming tea I remembered the start of my day. I had got agitated and annoyed at the weather forecast that morning. The temperatures predicted for the next few nights were more akin to winter than the end of July. On top of that the day time looked less pleasant than the BBC had led me to believe in the days leading up to my departure. In that moment my body had felt worn, not at all desiring of being huddled in a tent of any size. The memory of decades of adventure echoed through me and the overriding feeling was one of being worn out.
The forecast left me feeling annoyed and agitated, as had so many things in the past few months. It was just another sign that I wasn’t hearing correctly. In all honesty I had thought that all of these seemingly petty notions would settle when I left home, as they usually did. I would cycle away taking one day at a time and all would be well, except this time it wasn’t. The fact that everything leading up to this ride had been so difficult was something to be listened to. I had recognised this to be fair to myself. I had spoken to my doctor and my therapist about it every week for some time. To them I was displaying the same anxieties and worries that I always displayed prior to going away on a long journey, even though I kept on saying that this felt different and I wasn’t sure I should go at all.
For two weeks I kept changing my mind about each and every item I would take with me. Depending on my mental state I wanted a bigger tent, more space, my trailer (Trevor) or the complete opposite, less space, less weight and two panniers. I wanted to leave from home, not to be dropped somewhere from where I would start. I knew that I couldn’t be wrenched away from my ordinary life into the world of cycle touring without a gentle lead in. Most of all I feared the aloneness. I had spent so much of my alone that I didn’t want it. I didn’t want to battle with the elements and solitude. Strangely and conversely solitude is exactly what I crave when I’m at home.
Ironically my physical well-being seemed good. I had become stronger and fitter on the trike and was enjoying my sorties out around the roads and trails surrounding my house. I was certainly a level above the place from where I had cycled the south coast of England at the end of May
The anguish was completely mental. It was my head that was playing games as I stood up on Exmoor. I had panicked at the thought of being alone, miles from home, with just a cycle to get back and this notion had grown completely out of proportion to anything that might happen on the road leading me by the head into a full-on panic attack.
Dropping Michele at work that evening I set off for my home. I drove slowly feeling empty and exhausted. Dartmoor stood out in the distance like a rose in a crown of thorns. The sun shone brightly on all the hills lighting them up, giving them shape and form. My tired eyes drank it all in, my mind desperate to just be at home where I could crash-out and recover. It seemed to take forever that drive. The rising and falling, twisting and turning of the sinuous road feeling tortuous.
The door closed with a solid and resounding clunk. Kermit sat under the work top and Trevor in the middle of the kitchen floor. Even in my state of tiredness I found myself taking bags from the trailer upstairs. It seemed as if emptying Trevor’s box heralded my return home proper and that it wouldn’t be complete until all the items it contained were back in the spare room where I had organised them the day before.
I knew from the state I was in that this had been a good decision and that took away any thoughts or feelings that I might have around failure. I was certainly disappointed but knew that this was just a moment and not the whole picture. What followed was a night of gentle TV, food and relaxation. At bedtime I plied myself with my usual medication plus a tab of Temazepam to help me to sleep. With that I pulled the covers over my head and drifted off instantly into a deep and hopefully reviving sleep.
I woke to sunshine streaming in my window. The combination of medication allied to exhaustion had knocked me out for the count. Other than getting up a couple of times briefly in the night I felt as though just a few seconds had passed since I went to bed.
My mind felt like pulp, as though it had been continuously pummelled the previous day. Nothing felt solid and I had a sense that I was adrift and not anchored to reality. Throughout the day I would spontaneously burst into tears for no reason, my emotions overriding everything. When I was up I would feel heavy and drawn to my bed. When I lay down I felt heavy as though I would crush the mattress. Whatever I did I felt unsettled and agitated as I waited for a return call from Noelle, my therapist.
A brief discussion with Noelle gave me some perspective and advice. I felt pleased that I wasn’t beating myself up over turning around and told her that I would give it some time before I made any decisions about going away or trying to tour. Noelle is a steadying hand, one that helps me to accept things as they are, to learn from and grow through my mistakes and illness, but most of all to be honest with myself.
Following our call I spent the morning making bread and the afternoon taking a sideways view of the previous twenty four hours. I could see mistakes that I could easily rectify and felt that there is probably a need for change in the way I go about touring. Punctuated by sleep and bouts of raw emotion I didn’t try to think too deeply but tried instead to let it all wash over me in the knowledge that it would pass.
I’m sure that after a few more days rest I will want to get back on the horse. Whether or not I attempt the tour I had planned is another thing entirely. I will have to wait and see what happens and take one day at a time as we all should in life. Sometimes things go a different direction from the way you expected or desired. Finding the strength to make the right decision at those times is a sign of strength, not of weakness or failure.
Until next time………………………