Way back I was asked to give a talk in Bristol. I agreed readily and looked forward to another chance to speak passionately about something I believe in that has helped to change my life. That talk took place last thursday evening at the Roll for the Soul Cafe close to Bristol city centre.
It wasn’t just a talk. I had been invited to take part in an afternoon ride organised by the charity LifeCycle. Their role is to help those suffering from long-term mental health conditions to learn to manage their lives and begin to enjoy themselves by getting out as a group and pedalling gently. The rides provide exercise, a chance to escape from home, and an opportunity to talk to others and make normal social contact, something I believe can help a great deal when illness governes your days and life.
I took the early train from Barnstaple and arrived at Temple Meads at around eleven o’clock giving me plenty of time to find my hotel. I should have had plenty of time before the ride started at 1pm but I picked the wrong hotel from the choices on Google Maps and ended up in completely the wrong place. I had to laugh, especially given the amount of travelling I have done recently.
Back in the right place I changed eagerly before walking to Temple Meads where we would be meeting. Heather, who works for Life Cycle had brought along a second bike so I didn’t need to bother bringing one. We were also joined by Jacqui another employee of LifeCycle, and eight clients.
We had been blessed with the weather which, despite being a little cold and blustery, was bright and sunny. Over the next few hours we explored Sustrans now famous Bristol-Bath cycle way, took in a sensory park, and invaded a cafe where huge chunks of cake were consumed. The ride was gentle and I spoke to every single participant about their involvement. Most started from the beginning of the ride but some rode of their own accord to various meeting points along the route where we met them. Without exception they felt that cycling was helping their own conditions and improving their lives.
Whilst some had more obviously recognisable conditions, others showed no sign of illness much the same as me. One person told me that they had been institutionalised early in their lives and that they were fighting to be independent as they had never had the chance to do that. It was the opposite experience to my own where I’ve fought to get support and help from day one but equally as destructive.
Another told of their ability to hide within themselves, projecting an image of well-being in order to remain undiscovered. They were afraid of the judgment of others and of falling into the grasp of those who perhaps want to normalise people by dumbing down any symptoms that might otherwise be displayed. This was so similar to my own experience. If you appear as though you can manage you won’t end up in a psychiatric hospital where you will be at the mercy of people who have carte blanche to do what they feel is best for you. This is a very real fear for many people I have met, including myself, and not without good reason when you look back at the treatments that have been historically inflicted upon sufferers who have no choice in the matter.
By the end of the ride I could see the real value of what LifeCycle are involved in. Some of their staff have also suffered episodes of poor mental health and now work for the organisation that helped them to regain a foothold in life. LifeCycle encourages people to look further than their ill-health and provides a platform where people can begin to take responsibility for themselves. Like so many charities their work is under threat at a time when it is needed most due to government cuts. I find this abhorrent as mental health provision has always been poor and at this time of huge need it is being ignored while the politicians all pretend to be interested in it.
The ride came to and end far too quickly and I turned my attention to preparing for the evenings event at Roll for the Soul cafe. I arrived early having walked from the hotel and ordered some food which I have to say was excellent. I met old friends from Sustrans in the form of Kate, the events organiser and Carole, the volunteer coordinator for the south-west region. We chatted as Rob, the cafe owner, and Heather from LifeCycle prepared the upstairs room for my talk. I felt a little nervous but this was more a sign of being ready than anything debilitating. As an ex-teacher I still have those communication skills so there really is nothing to fear.
Having set up my laptop and linked it all through to the larger flat-screen TV I sat and watched as people arrived. I was introduced to a couple who were visually impaired and had met through LifeCycle’s Two-Company challenge, a great project that uses tandems to allow those with visual impairment to get out and cycle. Others sat and chatted to me while I waited to perform and the room got more and more full as the start time came and went.
By the time I began the room was jam-packed. For the next hour and a half I talked about the whole four years of my project from inception to the present moment. It was received exceptionally well with lots of questions and incredibly positive feedback afterwards. Due to the late start we finished late. Once done a few of us went to the pub for a well-earned pint, the result of which saw me wobbling home through the attractive parts of the city centre under the stars. No harm was done as all I had to do the next day was to visit Sustrans to pay in the rest of the cash I raised from my last ride and then to catch a train home.
I returned home shattered from my effort and that is the real point of this article. This trip to Bristol had been my first solo venture. The first time I stepped out alone into the world of other people who were contributing to charity in order to listen to me speak about my adventures. The quality of the presentation would reflect not just on me, but on the Cafe, and LifeCycle themselves. I have to say that I was pleased with the end result and from the feedback I got so were the audience. The cost for me of doing this talk was quite high as I will explain below.
For the previous three weeks my trip to Bristol had grown and grown in my mind. I had perused thousands of photographs and battled to reduce them to a level where I could represent all three rides to date and do them justice. Being a new presentation there had been hours and hours of thought and practise of what I might say. I had to learn the visual triggers in the pictures that would help me to remember my train of thought. This is a difficult thing to do and many would struggle with it but it’s a process that I know well, enjoy, and have practised enough to know it works for me.
On top of that I was battling severe anxiety in my daily life. Each day seems to begin with a feeling of dread upon waking. I had begun to feel worthless again for some undefined reason and my body was giving me hell. My neck has been in spasm for weeks and my hips were hurting like hell resulting in me living on painkillers day upon day. I had tried to remove myself from any thoughts about next year and where my project might or might not go. Worse than that I felt flat when I thought about what I have already achieved and my practise attempts at presenting my rides reflected that.
It’s a well-known fact that those suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder, of which I have strong elements, live with a feeling of emptiness and worthlessness. I have written openly about the fact that I find it difficult to own anything I have achieved and that my achievements seem like those of somebody else. I can’t explain this but as I prepared for this talk I felt as though I had nothing to say, nothing of interest to tell, and no sense having any direction or meaning in my life.
For the two weeks preceding the event the presentation was all I thought about and all I worked on. It took all of my energy to organise and deliver it and once I had finished I was hugely tired. I’m not complaining. I gained a deal of satisfaction from this event but it made me realise that I still have a way to go before I’m anything like ready to lead a more normal life again. My day-to-day energy is still quite low and since the talk I’ve needed a lot of sleep in order to redress the balance.
This is the major problem with any living with or assessing any mental health condition. People seeing me on Thursday night last week could easily draw the conclusion that I’m a fit and person with high energy and little in the way of health problems. If they had also seen me from Monday through to Wednesday this week they wouldn’t have recognised the person in front of them as being the same one who gave the talk.
The tiredness isn’t entirely down to the talk and building up to it. My therapist and I are now employing a therapy called EMDR (Eye movement, desensitization, and Reprogramming) in order to access the deep-seated trauma that underlies my condition. It’s a difficult process to undergo as it brings deep-seated memories and sensations to the fore as though they are happening now. This is both painful and emotionally challenging but is the only way we can see to try to redress the events that I have long since buried in my psyche.
A tough session using this therapy on the Monday after the talk exacerbated the tiredness I was already feeling and has given me a lot to think about throughout this week. I found myself thrown back into the various accidents I have suffered over many years as though they had just happened. It is a strange experience because you know that isn’t the case but you feel like it is from the sensations and emotions it releases.
That is the point of the therapy. You release the trapped memories and your brain cleverly programmes them as past events and not as current ones leaving you in a more balanced place, or so we hope.
In order to redress some of the above I’ve been taking it easy. I’ve allowed myself to sleep as and when I’ve needed to and have only ridden gently on one occasion. I’ve also returned to my writing, something that always aids recovery and helps me to see more clearly what I’m doing and what I’ve achieved to date. As the week wears on I’m recovering, just in time for a gentle ride over the weekend which promises to be a bright and sunny one.
I have already made several new and important contacts from the talk in Bristol, people with whom I hope to work at some future point. Sometimes you have to put yourself out there whatever the consequences. It doesn’t matter that it’s exhausting because what you can gain from it is much greater than what you give up by doing it. As long as you remember to give yourself time to recover afterwards it can be a richly rewarding experience.
Until next time, take care, and keep riding. You never know where it might lead you.