I have tried on so many occasions to give an idea of what it’s like to live in a circle of poor mental health and particularly of how depression and anxiety can wreak havoc in your life. A few weeks ago I felt relatively level and happy that my fitness was improving. I felt positive and had begun planning a ride for the summer with some enthusiasm. In general, there has been an ongoing trend of slow recovery for me but more recently things seems to have plateaued.
Over the last few weeks I inexorably slipped down a greasy slope, feeling as though my legs had weights on them. My fingers scrabbled wildly in an attempt to halt the inexorable downward slide. My nights have been wretched with nightmares and high levels of agitation seeing me thrash around like a mad thing until exhaustion eventually takes me for a few hours. The following days have been spent in recovery.
The sun has shone brightly at times but it will come as no surprise that I have struggled to find the desire to leave my house, cycle anywhere, or talk to anybody at all. Today (Wednesday) I decided to buck the trend and go out anyway. Right from the start, my legs ached and my mind felt numb, leaving me wondering what I thought I was doing? It was as though I’d been set adrift in a vast sea, clueless as to where I was and why I was there? For the entire duration of the ride I wanted to go home and hide, sell my bikes and forget the whole thing. There were few signs of the cyclist I know who lives somewhere deep within this shell, the one who, maybe even tomorrow, could feel as strong and resolute.
Arriving home, I sat down with an overwhelming sense of being slowly crushed by destructive and negative thoughts, fearing there was no way out. I took a bath, thrashed around angrily in the water for a while and then fell fast asleep in my bed for several hours. This is all a perfectly normal response to the numbness I create. I do it without thought to shield myself from the underlying pain of long-past events and traumas. Eventually, the wall broke and tears flooded out. Once finished crying, I felt liberated by finally letting go of the sensations I had been holding on to for several days.
In these moments it seems obvious that riding my bike shouldn’t be an option. There just isn’t any spare energy, desire, or any sense of there being benefit to getting out. Making myself go, even though it feels negative, may well have some benefit. I knew before I left today that it would probably make me feel worse but I decided to give it a go anyway. I felt it was creating a change and stirring some neurological chemicals, and those things are important. Sitting around all day long isn’t a healthy option.
Quite often I get lost in the day and the simple routines that help me feel good, like: taking a bath, doing housework, washing clothes or creating a good meal. I know that the storm will pass because that is the pattern of it over many years. I haven’t escaped yet, but I do get remission for good behaviour, sometimes. Like the giant red spot on Mars, the storm will keep circulating until some unknown point at which the underlying baggage is laid to rest. Until then I have to shelter from it and try to maintain my life as best I can.
This evening it’s moving away, partially quelled. It’s enough for me to take a sharp intake of breath and take stock. Perhaps it was helped by a gentle stroll through the town with a view to Dartmoor, or the home-made soup I created to nourish me? I will never know exactly what does and doesn’t work because it changes so much from episode to episode as well as within them. I have these basic things that I try when life feels hard: eating, sleeping, walking, cycling, writing, cleaning, piano, relaxing and bathing. When it’s a powerful episode I just have to grin and bear it, with more of a grimace than a grin, until it blows-out. At its strongest, none of those things listed help. I become completely shut-down and numb to the outside world, but lost in the pain and sensations of historic events that’s etched in my mind.
Sitting here now I feel as though the tide has definitely receded. I’m no longer drowning, but can feel. It’s as though I’m lying on a soft beach with the sun’s rays warming me. I’m washed up but glad to be alive. The noise in my head has also given way to a more settled and solid sense that I’ve survived the onslaught. Unlike our reliable ocean tides I cannot predict the next time the tide of my mind will try to wash me away in a rip of emotion. I just have to wait. There are some warning signs, and I know them well now, but I still get caught unawares.
I had noticed recently that during my cycle rides I was getting less and less able to connect with the real world, feeling stuck in my head, unable to escape or reach out. Later on I rode along with tears in my eyes, wondering if it would ever be any different. Conversely, this is a good sign. It shows that I’m letting down my invisibility cloak, the one that hides my ill health from the sight of others, the one that protects me when I don’t want to discuss or display how I feel. I’m being honest when I allow the tears to run down my face. In those moments I feel everything in one great rush that can be almost overwhelming, like a dam bursting and having two hands to stop the flow of water that escapes it confines.
By Thursday, things had shifted enough that I decided to head out for a well-tested circuit to feel how I was doing. I knew from the way my legs had recovered from yesterday that I would be fine. It doesn’t help having a steep hill, more-or-less straight out of the door, a hill where I either succeed, or feel as though my head can’t stand riding while my legs scream: “let me out.” Down through the gears I go, probing my mind, wondering how it will react. When it doesn’t shout STOP, I take it as a green light and rise on aching legs and gasping breath to the moor and the view beyond. I mention it most weeks, the view across to the huge and awe inspiring bulk of Dartmoor. Seeing it makes me smile again.
Not only does it make me smile but it makes me want to go and see what’s there. Even though I know the answer it encourages me to go and explore beyond the horizon. This mind looks outwards where the other one cowers. Up on Hatherleigh Moor the air blows strongly in my face, cold air shocks my gulping lungs into action, my mind rudely aware of how hard they are working as my body plays catch-up with the oxygen debt that has to be met before I proceed. The road flattens and everything calms, aside from the wind which blasts into my face feeling cold and spiteful. Now fully warmed up I settle. Today is a good day and I know that. I’ve been given the all clear to carry on around the lanes I know so well, avoiding all the short-cuts that felt so appealing last time out.
At the Deer farm, doe’s huddled around the door of the barn in which they are still living. Just at the moment they caught my eye a huge buzzard flew out of the hedge a few feet away, making me start. It was heading for home with something in its talons. Continuing, primroses and bluebells cover the grass verges and banks and I suddenly realised that I was noticing everything, just as it should be. In that moment I feel a great sense of relief. I’m feeling alive again. I’m swimming strongly and not desperately trying to stop myself drowning like I was just twenty-four hours ago. The pendulum has swung and it’s now impossible to remember the negative side as joy floods my mind and body.
I eased off the pedals, slowing down, determined to savour every moment of this new freedom, for that is how it felt. The opening of my emotions may last hour, a day, or a month, I just don’t know. I sucked in everything I could see as though I had previously been blind to it all, locked in by my mind’s games. I never lose the world like those poor souls depicted as suffering catatonic states in the film Awakenings, but I lose my emotional connection to it. I’m one step removed, disassociated from the pain of reality. To suddenly realise I’m free of that is a moment that needs celebrating every time because it marks a return to normality.
There is nothing worse than feeling numb to the world, seeing everything as opaque, a murky black and white backdrop of a film that has no story or emotional penetration. As the colour filters back in and life returns it becomes almost impossible to feel anything but joy. Is it any wonder that I chase these moments, wanting more?
Somewhere along the way on Thursday I lost my safety-flag. I think it was stolen while I shopped, so on Friday morning I decided that I really ought to go and look just in case it was lying injured in the road. Having dragged a trailer load of food home from the supermarket yesterday, Park Road felt just dandy. I was riding Irene for a change, as they tell me it’s as good as a rest and there was no time for one of those. I retraced my route and found nothing, not a trace of my orange safety-flag with proudly attached Bretagne flag from a tour taken in 2014 with Michele. I guess if something is going to be stolen, it’s better to find a trike and no flag, than a flag and no trike.
My legs did as I asked without complaint and my mind just whirred excitedly at all the things that seemed to suddenly appear, even though I know they are always there. And that is how it is. Day on day, week on week, I perform a magical juggling act where I disappear for a while only to reappear when least expected to a round of applause from my mind. I celebrated today in the knowledge that it felt like a gift, and gifts should always be welcomed with open arms.
Until next time………