It isn’t simple being human. The complexity of our emotions and our responses to events around us are often clouded by past experiences, expectations, and more immediate needs. We have the ability to create and destroy, both within our own lives and as a collective entity. It’s all part of our lives on this fragile, beautiful, spinning world. It’s easy being human when our world revolves at the same speed as our minds, but when the two get out of synch it becomes an even more complex place to reside.
I learned to play the piano from the age of eight years. My teacher was a Miss Marple type character, resourceful and kind, who had seen an awful lot of life and much of its uglier side two. Her husband was lost in the war, and her daughter passed away from kidney failure. This petite Welsh lady was a genius when she touched the keys, but I knew little of her past musical career, only what I heard through our shared playing and her patient teaching.
She considered me to be gifted and got as much joy from teaching me complex and beautiful pieces of music as I got from learning them. Hours were spent at the piano as I grew. Our house looked across a lane with a field opposite. I would sit and play, and the cows would always come and listen, leaving whenever I stopped. I kept returning to my tutor until I was seventeen. By then she decided that, at the age of eighty, she could no longer teach me. I did search for another teacher, I felt there was something inside that was bigger than the pieces I had learned to date, a yearning to improve further and master some of the classic concertos, sonatas, preludes, and much more. I never found that tutor, turning to climbing in order to escape my emotional disturbance, something that was both joyful and disturbing at the same time.
Just after my eighteenth birthday I imploded, falling into a black hole of emotional disturbance. Events in both my home and personal life catapulted my young mind into something close to utter disarray, the like of which I’d never seen or felt before. This breakdown saw me give up any effort at scholastic success. Life became about survival, or at least that’s how it felt. I needed to express my emotions, turning to both my own piano and those at school. I played for hours, day and night, and at the time it seemed to have the desired effect, releasing my tortured minds emotions, allowing me to cry, and ultimately feel better again for a while. I would return to the keyboard as often as I needed and it became my sole form of therapy and my first choice of escape route.
Events during that period were eventually locked away, the piano being played less, and work/college taking precedent over my time. I still played, but from that day forwards, the pieces I loved held the memories of those dark days and nights and playing them seemed to return me to times I would rather forget. Slowly, the piano lessened in its significance in my life, but I never forgot and never stopped playing completely, especially when my emotions threatened to overwhelm me again.
When I broke down six years ago, the first thing I reached for was my piano. I had sold the upright grand, that I played as a child, some time previously, replacing it with a digital piano from Yamaha. With weighted keys, touch sensitivity, and a wonderful tone, it has pride of place in my lounge. During the early part of my illness I once again played for hours every day. I did it as a release from the trapped emotion and mental torment that I was suffering, and as I played I cried in equal proportion.
Last week I pulled a box from the cupboard, my music box. It’s full of books and sheet music from as far back as the nineteen twenties. I had been gifted many pieces by an old lady I knew. From her collection of music it was apparent that she had been quite a pianist herself, but the ravages of age stole her gift, and her joy now was limited to listening. I used to play for the old folk in a local home and that’s how I came to won this collection of music from all genres.
I haven’t played for a while, the reason being that whenever I open that box, I open a box of emotional baggage that seemingly overwhelms me. I’m transported straight back to the pain of the seventeen year old once again, and that pain still feels unbearable despite all the work I’ve done with my therapist. As soon as I begin to play, memories bounce around my head, fleeting, flickering memories, with sharp edges that poke at me, never lessing in their intensity. In those moments I cease to be 53 years old, regressing mentally to the hurt adolescent who played for his own survival.
The fact that I want to let that drawbridge down can only be positive. In real terms it represents the beginning of the end of the repressed memories that have haunted my adult life. I’m letting down another part of my carefully constructed guard next week, the part that hides some of the most painful traumas that both life and my own actions have bestowed upon me. I will be revisiting these major traumas in therapy in the hope that it will help me to cognitively reconstruct those traumas, and file them as past experiences, not submerged explosives that can pop up and torpedo my life whenever the wrong emotional buttons get pushed.
I played my piano last night, music from the box I told you about. My response was immediate as I was thrown into another emotional outpouring that felt beyond my control. I was held in that pain by Michele, continuing to play as the emotions slowly subsided, but for the rest of the night I felt as though I had been battered and wrung out, remaining emotionally upset, vulnerable, and feeling completely exhausted. That tiredness rolled into today, most of which I’ve spent sleeping. The foul weather helped me to give myself permission to just rest up and allow my mind to settle once more, which it now seems to be doing.
The reason I’m telling you about this is that it outlines the complexity of what me, and many other people, are trying to unravel. This is one simple string in my poor mental health, but it’s also a string in my positive creativity. They live side by side, and it seems that for many creative people they come together, inseparable unless you wish in an emotional void. If you begin to add in the countless other strands of life that have added to the trauma, then you begin to understand why therapy is a slow and painful process, one that is often seen by mental health professionals as a useless line of enquiry that leads nowhere. It’s also the reason that people don’t get the help they need, having to rely on their own methods, or being left to find the funding they need to persist with therapy.
Is it any surprise that some of these people end up seeing their plight as useless, with no end to the pain, making the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives in order to escape what can feel like a lifetime of mental torment. I don’t think so. Our government needs to know this, as do those professionals who say things like “some people just don’t want to help themselves,” a comment that shocked me to my core when I heard it from the horse’s mouth. Feeling trapped in a life of misery, which for many it is, is not conducive to recovery, especially when you are left alone and unsupported to fight as best you can.
Our current leaders are reducing our benefits, making it harder to recover from this kind of long-term illness. It feels to me as though we are seen as shirkers (as the government are encouraging people to call us). As one of the lucky ones I can challenge that. Therapy has helped me to achieve an awful lot in the last three years. It gets me through the dark days, knowing that there is help and support at the end of the phone. I can hang on, knowing it’s just seven days until I can return again. It helps me contextualize my feelings and the sensations that batter my lind, as well as helping me to see that they are historic and based in trauma. It’s given me the confidence to ride away from home twice, trying to expand my boundaries and develop a new life, and it’s allowed me to grieve, cry, express myself, and not feel ashamed of the illness I am unlucky enough to suffer from.
Therapy has also helped me to see that this illness is not all-encompassing, that I can still achieve things that anybody would be proud to achieve. It has shown me that many others are suffering and that I’m lucky in that I found the right therapist and have been able to afford to see her. It shouldn’t be the case that you can only gain access to long-term therapy if you have money. People suffering long-term health problems deserve to be supported. We have lost so much already that to lose more seems uncaring and unreasonable.
From a personal perspective I want to challenge all of this, but one persons voice is small and easily unheard. That is the motivating factor behind Riding2Recovery and my writing. It’s the one thing that will see me on the road again this year, and the following year, until such times as people begin to get heard. Talking is perhaps the most important thing that you and I can do. We can both gain greater understanding by sharing the problem, and accepting that not everybody can take part in society in the same way.
Since I last wrote here a few things have changed. I’ve dropped any idea of riding the Trans America trail this year. My current energy levels preclude me from the sort of effort I would need to make in order to raise the funding and ready myself. Alongside that, the time frame is too small for me to make the mental adjustment I would need to in order to give it a full-blown effort. I would need to start by the beginning of May and I simply have too much to get through to do that realistically.
The big news is that I’m going to ride in Europe. I have a map of France on my wall now and I’m hoping to attempt One Hundred Cols route that I mentioned last time. Described as “possibly the hardest and most beautiful route in the world” it will see me climbing many passes that have been made famous over the years by the Tour de France. The Devon charity Blurt it Out, who work with people suffering depression, will be helping my fundraising efforts. In return, I will be supporting them, fundraising as I go. We have some exciting ideas that should make this ride exciting for everybody. We will be discussing regular video footage on both of our websites, and you will certainly be able to follow the tour as I do it using iPhone/iPad apps like Track my Tour.
This represents another big step for me personally as I don’t speak any languages other than English. It’s a huge undertaking with full kit and will seroously challenge my physical abilities and my mental wellbeing. I’ll try to improve my limited phrasing before I leave, which I hope will be around the end of May. Before that I’ll be attempting a series of talks about my rides so far, and mental health/cycling, so if you have an interested group let me know and we will see what we can do.
I will be producing an article about the route as soon as I have the detail from the Dutch creators, something I hope will be in the next couple of weeks. Until then, stay warm, stay well, and keep fighting. Remember that “there is no health without mental health.”