Last week, on 1 February 2018, we saw Time To Talk Day take place in the UK, an annual initiative aimed at enabling people to start a conversation around mental health and by doing so to tackle the feelings of isolation, worthlessness and shame that prevent many people from speaking out or seeking help when they most need it. And even though I’ve missed the day itself, I hope to be doing my bit in keeping the conversation going: after all, the idea is to be able to address these matters at any time, and not just on a given day.
So I thought I’d just relate a few of my own experiences in this area and, naturally, how that slots in with bicycles – given that everything ultimately slots in with bicycles. I’m not looking for sympathy or anything of that type, but merely aiming at creating a little openness; just saying, it’s fine to talk about this stuff if you need to.
Like many – if not most – people, I’ve had my struggles around mental health, and still do, though am better at dealing with at least some of it by now, although that’s taken many, many years.
I’m not really sure about how much detail to go into here, so I’ll just sketch a few points out with the offer to discuss anything further should anyone feel so inclined.
So what’s my story? Raised by two emotionally very remote parents and spending my formative teenage years as an impecunious scholarship kid at an affluent grammar school, by the age of 18 I was suffering from a severe sense of dislocation, isolation and utter absence of self-worth. University gave me the chance to “reinvent” myself, or so they say, so I adopted the persona of a shy, bookish recluse, which got me through the course but did little to equip me with anything resembling life skills. After a brief stint attempting to teach English abroad, I embarked on a three-year postgraduate course, which did little more than facilitate a prolonged spell of isolation and reclusiveness: I ventured out less and less, underwent some kind of mental breakdown, and produced no more than ten pages of rambling nonsense by my allotted deadline. So I fled once more, this time to Berlin where I worked as a technical translator. This was a reasonably happy time, or at least comparatively carefree. I had enough to live on, made friends through work and – although I didn’t know it at the time – was living in a great cycling city. I cycled absolutely everywhere, simply as transport, without the slightest inkling that liking bikes was at all “a thing”. That came later. My commute home took me across Checkpoint Charlie, past Berlin Cathedral, Unter den Linden, the TV Tower, Alexanderplatz. It was like being on holiday every day. But something was missing: my sense of self, and to locate that, I felt I needed to come home. Around this time I’d met my ex-wife-to-be, who was a physician by training and was keen to come to the UK and work in the NHS. So back we came, and, having spent my 20s wracked by guilt at not completing my PhD, I spent my 30s trying to make amends by retraining as a lawyer – not only to get that elusive postgraduate certificate, but as part of an attempt at recasting myself in a role I thought was what “normal” meant. Though of course, shoehorning yourself into something that isn’t your fit will ultimately fail, and so it duly did.
The marriage failed, and some time later my career as a lawyer followed suit. However, I learnt some important lessons along the way. First, in around 2006 my then future ex-wife suggested I go to therapy as we were having problems connecting emotionally. At this point I was actually quite grateful for the suggestion – I knew something was wrong and was happy to explore ways of fixing it. At the time she told me I reminded her of victims of physical and/or emotional abuse, so fragile was my psyche, so I did some research of local therapists and settled on a practitioner of the transactional analysis approach, which I figured most suited my interactions with the world. The method essentially teaches that we react to people in one of three ego states: as a parent, adult or child, and our ingrained “scripts” determine how we behave in each of those scenarios. By “reparenting” the practitioner can reprogram how we respond to interactions and make our relations with others healthier. I still remember my first session. He asked me why I wanted therapy. My reply: “I want to feel comfortable in my own skin”. I still believe that’s ultimately what we need to aspire to, and identifying what makes us so is essential to maintain adequate levels of contentment.
Another revelation around this time was that my fondness for bicycles was indeed “a thing”, so I started doing a little more of it. For instance, with my customary foolhardy blitheness I set off on my first ever bike tour. No training, no real idea and certainly not all the gear (commuter bike and Argos/Aldi accessories) and off I went – around Northern Ireland.
My first long ride: 45 miles from Belfast to Cushendall – 45 whole miles. I couldn’t believe how hard it was! By the time I got to the B&B I could barely walk, I had a hunger like I’ve never felt and, once in bed, I thought I’d never get back out. But the best thing was: when I did wake up the next morning, I got to do it all over again. And I fucking loved it. The bike-touring bug had bitten.
As divorce loomed, the Ridgeback was stolen. A metaphor, one might suggest. In response, a Revolution Country Traveller touring bike was procured for bigger, bolder voyages. This, too, a metaphor. So, as she moved out, I cycled solo across 500+ miles of the Scottish Highlands, from the Shetlands down to Glasgow.
Slowly the penny was dropping: no matter what’s going on in life, getting on a bike was a ruddy good tonic, even if I did still have a way to go in learning that Aldi was not the non plus ultra in cycling fashion…
From cycle touring it’s but a short leap to cyclosportives, especially for men of a certain age, and lo, a sportier Trek joined the stable (at a time when N+1 was but a glint in the Velominati’s eye…) and Sundays were spent paying people to go on bike rides.
In my personal life at this time, several other relationships had failed, I was no longer a lawyer and was working from home as a translator. It was, friends, a very desolate, lonely time. Living alone and working at home, I was falling back into old patterns: reclusiveness, isolation, little contact with others, my mind plumbing some very dark places. Thankfully, this was the time that I was becoming more savvy with social media, and it was becoming easier to find out what was going on and, indeed, other people to cycle with. So for example I found myself riding with the cycling contingent in the Manchester Day Parade, finding out about the cycling campaign in Greater Manchester and – rather gratifyingly given my love of long rides, a new Facebook group called Manchester Social Cycling (MSC) – a loose group of others who liked riding reasonable distances but couldn’t be arsed with the rigours of a proper cycling club.
And gradually I began to combine these strands and form an identity. I substituted the sportives for the MSC rides, got involved in campaigning, and also supported more grass-roots, urban initiatives such as Critical Mass – and after a while, I had a social circle – and an evolving fleet of bikes. Never having been part of a scene before, it was something quite marvellous – to be able to turn up at an event where you are known and – hopefully – liked, to spend a few hours in the company with like-minded chums doing something you enjoy. Growing a beard helped, too: it became a brand, a trademark – Nick with the ginger beard who’s into bikes. Yup. That’s me. That’s who I am.
And so, over the last five years or so, cycling has turned my life around. From the reclusive, underconfident, anxiety-wracked weirdo to a somewhat more outgoing, actually a bit gobby, but better-at-hiding-anxiety weirdo, I appear to have found an identity, a niche, a place I’m comfortable existing. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that cycling has saved my life, but it has given it structure, content and filled it with all manner of wonderful characters. And that’s not to say that the dark times are banished for good, but when they do bubble back up, you know the next bike ride is just round the corner, and you hope that might just balance things out, at least for as long as you keep pedalling.