Regular followers of Riding2Recovery will know that there are three main people who help me balance my world and make sense of it. They are my partner Michele, my therapist and my doctor. They all play different but equally important roles and they have all been in my life for some years now. They can be likened to the three legs of a wobbly stool. Take one leg away and the stool becomes less stable. Take two away and the stool is no longer a stool as such, more of a shooting stick. You can still balance but it is more difficult and less comfortable.
In the next few months I will have to stop seeing the therapist with whom I have spent the best part of a decade exploring my poor mental health and the causes behind it. On top of that, early next spring, my doctor will be retiring. None of us can avoid change. I feel I’ve done well in finding these two excellent practitioners to help me through some very difficult times. On top of that they have helped me make tough choices in a variety of situations. The result is that I have always felt well supported making those decisions.
I’m left fearing that somebody might kick the remaining leg of the stool away and I will have nobody to turn to. What will happen at those times when I feel I am unable to cope? Now I know my doctor will find somebody appropriate to take over her role, and my therapist will still be there after a time if I can fund the sessions. But this is a massive change for me and not one I would instigate now if I had any choice. And there’s the rub. If I was physically unwell I would have more choice.
But what will happen to the voices in my head that tell me how rubbish I am? The ones that put me down and attack me verbally when I fall or stumble? Who will I talk to about the nagging doubts telling me my life is worthless and that the world would be better off without me? I should make it clear that I have no intention of listening to or acting upon those horrible voices, but they are there, constantly. What happens to the trauma that lies behind it all, the extreme anxiety and deep depressions? It isn’t going to disappear.
There is no doubt that progress has been made. My current medication has helped me stay more level, more of the time. I am exploring the difficult places in my mind with my therapist, but that will all end at Christmas and not at a time of my choosing. How can that be right? Am I angry? Of course, I am. I’ve put a huge amount of time, money and energy into trying my best to move forward. Just as I seem to understand more it has to end.
From what I heard at my last session, I have two main states of mind: catatonic depressive and high as a kite mania with little in between. It is like bi-polar disorder but is based in childhood trauma. Imagine there is suddenly a moment in my mind when I get close to the layers and sensations of trauma and pain that reside there. What happens then is that I go one of two ways.
I get extremely anxious, aware that I am close to facing past pain and trauma, if only the top layers. As a result, my mind tries to protect me by shutting down my emotions and my ability to feel things. This has the opposite effect from the one it is supposed to have. It leaves me in a deeply depressive state unable to access those fears. I stay there until the threat is removed, which can be weeks later. It is an awful place to be and when in it I feel I am trapped, unable to do anything or escape it.
Alternatively, and in the same scenario as above, I subliminally decide I cannot face the trauma that is looming over me. I create something into which I can pour my energies and hide from the past. In this state I get as high as a kite, adrenalin flowing, able to avoid the pain and trauma by distracting myself. Endless running, climbing, paragliding and other extreme sports are examples of how I have done this over the years. The demands of the sport mean little space for any negative emotions. This is the opposite of first state, giving me high, but equally unhealthy levels of energy. I maintain this until it is no longer possible and then all that pent-up emotion bursts through and I crash.
These two processes can last for months or even years, but eventually, whatever I created collapses like a house of cards. Again, this is a protective mechanism but at the opposite extreme from the first one. It is now the pattern of forty years and I cannot afford another trip around the merry go round. I have great fear that it could happen and of the perceived consequences, regardless of whether they are real or not.
What happens on those days when I cannot supress the emotions and feelings from the past using these tactics? This often happens prior to falling into one of the two described states. In this situation I cannot do anything. I’m overrun with anxiety that if I try anything at all it will be catastrophic. Ask those who climbed with me how I used to be. I think they are likely to say that I either climbed fluently, smoothly and well or I couldn’t get off the ground. This was due to the emotional struggle I was fighting internally. I would suddenly feel completely overwhelmed by my emotions. I had no energy to meet the demands that the situation was demanding. There was nothing left for climbing, running, university or anything else. I was so emotionally empty that I felt completely numb. All I wanted to do was to run away.
This might produce a third state, one where I disassociate from what is happening. Here I separate my mind from my actions completely, feeling as though I am watching everything from another position as a third party. It’s the strangest feeling to sense that you are listening to somebody who looks and sounds like you but isn’t. A fly on the wall to your own conversations and actions and separated from the reality of a threatening situation.
While we understand some of the underlying causes, it is unlikely that we will ever find the root cause as it is probably way back somewhere in early childhood. It may also be many small things, rather than one single traumatic event (although there have been plenty of those). This is the reason that early years trauma can be so difficult to overcome and why people like me need access to therapies for long periods of time. Early years trauma and the consequences of it fly in the face of what our National Health Service provides as mental health treatments. Anything more than a few weeks talking therapy or cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) just isn’t normally available. This can, in my opinion, lead to disastrous consequences in the lives of those affected who need long-term support.
Is my cycling a good thing to do? Cycling and many other forms of exercise still provide all the usual health benefits, especially if we don’t do them it in a maniacal kind of way. I now understand those times when what I’m doing is unnatural, whereas previously I thought this heightened state was normal and that I was feeling good. It’s as unreal as those days when I cycle and feel as though I’m a beginner with aching legs with no desire or energy to spin the pedals. Forcing myself to ride day after day may be counter-productive to my recovery, especially if I do it (or any other form of exercise) too often. Lifted by the feel-good chemicals that my brain produces leaves me so positive, but I cannot live there all the time. That is a form of exercise addiction and quite unhealthy.
These notions are quite new to my understanding and that’s why I want to share them. If I only stay level when I exercise too much, I am perpetuating the unhealthy sequence that occurs in my mind allowing no progress to be made in dealing with underlying problem. If I slide into a catatonic depression, it’s hard to achieve anything at all. Even the smallest of tasks can seem monumental. If you look back across my lifetime, that is how it has been, peaks and troughs and little in-between.
Even though it’s fashionable to be taking part in more and more demanding endurance events, I am now going the opposite direction. When I was younger, I was the one pushing boundaries of my own endurance, something for which my peers often held me in esteem. For me it was just exploring my body and mind, finding out what it would do. Living on the buzz I got from draining my body and mind of all its energy is addictive and I fell foul of that. Now I understand that manic part of my behaviour well enough to try and take control of it in a healthy way.
With the changes I have outlined staring me in the face, my physiological response is one where I am currently adrenalized from the moment I wake up to the moment I sleep. This state of being is exhausting, and I am sleeping like a log for long periods of time day and night. That sleep is disturbed by regular nightmares as I try and untangle what has happened in my life. It feels like I’m about to start an Olympic track final when I get up in the morning, and I stay at that level all day. I can use Diazepam to help this and Temazepam to help me sleep. I use yoga breathing too to help control it. And I can also cycle, if I keep it gentle and within reasonable bounds.
So often the temptation is to go out and ride miles and miles, or walk great distances over the moors. That over-reaction just feeds the condition by which I avoid the internalised pain from my young life. It’s a complete sod, but I’m trying to learn more about it and to respect it.
Until next time…………………