Our minds are delicately balanced at the best of times. We have a tendency to move through life in zones we know well, not really challenging ourselves that often. Routines rule most of our existence and we find a certain comfort in that. Life seems much more certain when you know what you will be doing for a while. Imagine turning that on its head. Imagine a world where every small change that occurs throws you off balance or into a highly anxious state where your mind struggles to know how to respond. It is a place where decision making and self-belief fall away to one side and certainty no longer exists.
If you are planning to do something different from your routine, your mind starts playing games with you. This is the what-if game. Everybody who goes away somewhere on any kind of adventure will know the what-if game. It doesn’t matter what you do, the what-ifs will follow you around for a while. What-if my bike breaks down? What if the plane falls out of the sky? What if I can’t find a shop. What-if I get stuck somewhere and I’m not well? What-if?
The list goes on and on and it is all perfectly normal. In the case of those with mental health conditions what-ifs can become overwhelming and lead to absolute panic should you let them (read my reports from my aborted trip last summer). It’s like an adult version of the monster under the bed that many will remember from childhood. It’s all about the unseen and the unknown. Knowing how you can and have dealt with these issues on past adventures makes a big difference but even with that knowledge your mind can gnaw away at your confidence.. I know I can fix a bike and I can find out where shops are based before leaving. That doesn’t stop my mind from playing games and acting as though I don’t know those things. We all have experience of doing things that are less than comfortable: that interview or presentation, that climb when we only just stayed in control, or a long challenging ride where all we wanted to do was quit.
The irrational side of our mind is what help us to be rational. What I’m actually being told is: IS this okay? Are you ready for this? What things are likely to happen that you have the experience to deal with? The what-ifs show us often ridiculous scenarios so that we can sift through them and come to a realisation that this is fear of the unknown. It’s in those challenges and moments that I believe we find out who we are, deep down. And that is the reason I have always challenged myself in whatever field it is that I’m currently exploring. I like to get under my own skin and take a peak inside. I like to understand myself better and that has become a lifelong task.
I’m about to leave on another journey. Not a hugely long one, but one that is not without its challenges. When I was younger, I would work-out to make my body how I wanted it to be. My mind kind of followed suit, but even back then it was never quite got in synch with the rest of me. Today there are always question marks over the things I try to do. Nothing feels simple any more, even the physical things I have always taken for granted.
I’ve done enough cycling since last autumn to be confident that it will come together, but since December I’ve struggled with asthma and other well-documented health problems. Those things leave me uncertain what I am capable of which makes planning and committing to a given route tougher than it could be. They are also other reasons I’m staying in the UK this year. It just feels less challenging, and sometimes that is a good thing. As humans we cannot always be pushing the envelope. What about just having fun and enjoying the ride? What about time to absorb new landscapes and experiences? What about time just to be you and not be making huge demands on yourself?
I try not to fall in the category labelled paralysis from analysis. That is, I try not to over think things. But leaving my house and routines these days feels hard at times, such is the impact that uncertainty seems to have now. What about all that experience, my mind shouts. What about it? The other part shouts back. The past is just that, gone, and my current mind feels like it is balanced on a knife-edge, despite the fact it knows Scotland and cycling well. Not having the support of a therapist and saying goodbye to my doctor has had a noticeable impact. I’ve always known they were there when I travel and to feel apart is new to me. And that is part of the challenge.
This is just an exaggerated reaction to any changes that have occurred in my mind due to the damage of those breakdowns. It isn’t new and that is the saving grace. Deep down I know that. That is why I begin the process of getting ready for a ride some time before the event. Gone are the days when I would throw a few things in a rucksack along and head off with hardy a thought. I also recognise that is the case for many people as they age. We begin to see ourselves as less solid and dependable, because that is the truth of it.
The trick is to keep going regardless of all these things, to note the changes and move on. New goals and new limits mean travelling by bike will never be boring. I know that when I get deposited on the ground in Inverness, all will be well. I have a few things to do that will help me settle, like sorting out Kermit, my luggage, shopping for fuel and food, and heading to a campsite for the first night. After that I will be in the journey and whatever it brings, which, let’s face it, is exciting.
Communication these days is so good, even in many parts of the Highlands, that it’s often harder to be on your own than it is being in contact with the world. I can find this distressing, especially when I’m riding. So, guess what? Yes, I turn my phone off, or at least put in on silent mode. I will often only have it switched on first thing in the morning and for a couple of hours in the evening. That way it doesn’t get in the way of what I’m doing, which is mostly enjoying the peace and scenery of one of the world’s most beautiful places. It’s your choice to decide what works for you, but I don’t need much input from the world wide web to enjoy my riding. Your phone is only ever a click away from being switched on again, and there is comfort in that too.
If you are a long-term sufferer, try to remember how far you have come and remind yourself of how things used to be. I rode my folding bike for many months so that, should I need to, I could abandon my ride and use public transport. I should add that I was just as frightened of catching a bus as going away and perhaps that helped me to cycle more. On getting home from those early rides I would shut the door behind me as though I had escaped from Alcatraz and needed to hide, such was the difficulty I felt from being away from home and my safe place. Progress has been slow, but it is still progress. I was riding lanes in Devon, but that was pushing my limit at the time.
Flying doesn’t get any easier, but I am able to do that sometimes with aid from my old friend Diazepam. Cycling gets physically harder every year. But those things won’t ever stop me from enjoying wild places. I have routines to deal with flying, pedalling and camping and I can lean on those when I feel wobbly. Regarding the physical effort, I’m certain that there will be a point where my trike gains electric assist. Think of it what you will, but I see it as an amazing aid to combat ageing and keep touring.
For me there is now no need to fulfil that desire to see how far I can travel in a day or to accumulate data on how many metres I have climbed. My cycling aims are simple: end up somewhere different most nights and enjoy each and every kilometre of that journey. Discovering new things along the way will always be entertaining, and that is enough to make the effort and the mental challenges of doing enough worthwhile. See you out there?
Until next time…………………….