Flamme Rouge

And so we reach the end of this particular journey. In cycling parlence I am under the red kite and in the final kilometre of this stage of the reclaim. For some a while now I have been contemplating how to keep this blog going. After much thought, various ideas and endless procrastination I reached the decision before Christmas that Reclaiming the AbandonedBicycle had reached a natural conclusion. Since then I have been waiting for the last few moves to be reeled back in, for certain pieces of this jigsaw to fall into place before writing this final piece.

Over the last 3 years I have tried to be honest with you all about the journey I have been on. Looking back the journey has been an interesting adventure. It’s been traumatic and painful at times but I also have to admit that it has been fun.

I started this blog in the build up to my first sportive but overtime it became something more than that, a place for me to put my own feelings down on paper and to share my experiences. I’ve explored lots of thoughts and concerns, reflecting on the world around me and commenting on issues which have made me think. Cycling has never been far away from the topic of conversation and it has proved a useful focus and apt metaphor.

Some of you have been along for the duration of the ride (which must be like watching the entirety of a rather long and mundane Tour de France stage on Eurosport) and I thank you for your kinds words of support and encouragement here and through other communication channels. Others have dipped in and out or caught the occasional post because of the subject matter. I have never ceased to be humbled by the support you have all provided. I never wanted to become nor do I want to be now a standard bearer for mental health or depression. But one thing has become clear, this blog has been a help to others in similar circumstances. I hope that this blog remains here to be a resource for others in the future to know they are not alone and to speak up to themselves and to those around them. And to think that 3 years ago I thought it would be cyclists who would find it an interesting read.

And so we near the end. Today I can say with more confidence than when I started that I am a happier person. I am a different person.  know myself better though not perfectly. I am aware of what I don’t want and am taking more pleasure in finding out what I do want. I know how to handle stress and anxiety better, I can deal with more of what life throws at me and accept that this sometimes – often! – means avoiding certain situations and dodging some of balls that life throws in my direction. That no longer feels like failure, in a peverse way for some this is success. As I read in an interesting blog yesterday, this is me.

What now? As ever cyclist and cycling fan knows the end of the stage is but a respite before the next action begins, be that the next stage the following day or the next race in the weeks to come. For me this means some new challenges. In December I became Dr AbandonedBicycle as I passed my PhD – a small milestone which tops off a 13 year research career. And with this under my belt I am moving to a new job in April which builds on the expertise of this but takes me in a new and challenging direction. I continue to take photos, finding a new enthusiasm and a re-emerging creative streak now I feel less pressure to “make it work” (keep an eye on www.abandonedbicyclephotography.co.uk for new blogging adventures). I now bake bread once a week, it is my attempt at mindfulness. And though the bike has been abandoned for the last few months in favour of Shanks’ pony I’m sure the spring will see me hit the roads once again. I think that’s plenty to be getting on with.

And so this is not the end but another beginning. Hopefully we will all meet at some point during the next stage. Now where’s that start village coffee and newspaper?

Left Waiting at Crisis Point

The Schizophrenia Commission published its report this week. Entitled The Abandoned Illness, it looked into the care provided to patients with schizophrenia, concluding that provision is falling “catastrophically short” of what is needed. It found that care tends to follow a prescribed, narrow focus which treats many suffers as likely to have the same, often assumed to be violent, symptoms. It claims that too many patients are inappropriately admitted to secure units at a high cost to both the tax payer and themselves. Overall it suggest more appropriate care can be given which meets the individual needs of patients. The chair of the Commission commented that:

“If you have psychosis and your mind is disturbed, you need a period of respite and calm…But especially in inner cities, you get admitted to something like a madhouse. The nurses are often overwhelmed.”

The need for ‘a period of respite and calm’ is familiar to many of us with our busy lives.  Yet these findings should not be surprising to many people who have sought mental health help through the national health service. From personal experience I know how it can leave you waiting at crisis point only for the prescription to fall short of what is needed for the best outcome.  This is my story.

In September 2009 I went to the doctors. For some time things hadn’t been right: I’d lost interest in the things I liked and loved, I couldn’t take a photograph and I was having arguments with people (often work colleagues) in my head well after the event. I felt stressed, anxious and trapped.  I didn’t look forward to the appointment but when I entered the doctors surgery I told him in a round a bout way what was going on. I was more honest than I had been and confronted with a questionnaire answered the questions in a painfully honest way. I spent 45 minutes in the doctors office, we talked openly, I thought that for once someone was taking this seriously. He offered me anti-depressants – a sign of things to come. I told him the week’s holiday I was about to take might do the trick. I left having been diagnosed with depression.

Things didn’t get better. The week away was a blur now and then. I took far too many pictures but rejected them all. And I remember sitting on a Northumbrian beach in tears not understanding why. This pattern got stronger. Back at work I was frantic, trying to do everything, never admitting I felt vulnerable and slowly sinking. By mid-October things were getting worse. I came home and MrsAB told me to phone the doctor, things couldn’t carry on like this.  The following day I stood on the platform and waited for a train to take me to a meeting that I hadn’t a clue what I was contributing or doing attending. I decided I needed time out – a period of respite and calm. At that appointment I was signed off for 2 weeks and again offered the drugs. I took the former and decided to mull over the latter. It seemed like a release. But there was still a gap. I had previously spoken to a CBT counsellor at the health centre. I wanted to try it again. But the service had been cut and I was being referred to the community mental health team – and there was a waiting list.

Two weeks later I returned to be signed off for another two weeks. This time I took the prescription. Now the disinterest grew from the GP. I enquired about the referral for counseling and was told it might take some time. I felt like I was now part of the system, I’d ticked all the boxes, said yes to the right things and now I just had to sit on the conveyor belt and wait. Further trips to the GP followed, more prescriptions written yet no movement with the referral.

Then, the week before Christmas, I received a phone call. It was a mental health nurse from the community mental health team. He was phoning about my referral and wanted to know if it was good time to speak. Of course it was, this is what I had been waiting for. Only this was a triage interview. I felt crushed again, he sounded apologetic and throughout the interview it was clear we both hoped for something else. He listened, he noted but we both knew this was leading into another machine. We ended the conversation and he said a colleague would be in touch. I put the phone down and waited. In early January I received a letter, it informed me that I was being offered a computer based CBT course and that a member of the Community Mental Health Team would help me through it. The following week someone phoned and told me more about the programme and what it would do. I’ll be honest, I didn’t hold out much hope but I was willing to give anything a try by this stage. And so I tried it. The package was module based, not unlike an Open University course. You watched some videos and then responded to various questions about how you felt.  It didn’t work for me. The scenarios didn’t connect with me and I didn’t have the motivation to sit typing answers to the questions.  But importantly the feedback from the whole process just didn’t add anything constructive. The computer package offered generic but to me meaningless outputs. The counsellor phoned – irregularly and without warning, wanting to discuss things without giving me time to prepare my thoughts first. It was entirely unproductive and after a few months I decided to stop wasting all of our time and stop.

I was lucky, throughout all of this I had the means and support to find and see a counsellor privately who could offer me a service which met my needs in a way which made sense. Throughout it all my GPs seemed disinterested in how this was going, prepared to sign prescriptions and sick notes and grudgingly make the odd phone call early on to see where I was on their conveyor belt. Having begun with a positive consultation the process provided by the health service became formulaic, impersonal and increasingly frustrating.  I went to the most obvious point of contact at a moment of crisis only to be told to wait for a treatment which ameliorated the symptoms but didn’t deal with the cause. So where physical complaints like heart attacks are treated immediately and with urgency and their causes addressed in the aftercare, the unseen illnesses of mental health are assumed to be something that can be wait to be possibly treated.

As the incidence of mental health problems grow in a society which is increasingly under an expanding range of challenges, stresses and anxieties this is something we need to address now.

A visit to an American Zero

Today’s post is a tale of two parts.

Last Wednesday night, with MrsAB arriving home late from London and reminding me that I should do more to please myself (code I think for “get off your arse!”), I took myself off to the cinema. I’m lucky, I have a great independent cinema near where I live and like all independents it shows some great and lesser screened films – and you get to take your drinks in with you. With all that going for it there is only one snag: I hate going on my own. It’s quite irrational when you think about it: you go to a cinema to sit in the dark, in silence and watch a film – what other activity is better suited to solitude?  So on Wednesday, for the second time, I pushed through that wall and it felt good.

Andy why? Because, in the second part of this tale, I saw an inspirational and touching story, Searching for Sugar Man. The film tells the story of Rodriguez, a Mexican-American folk musician, born in Detroit and described as being better than Bob Dylan. With these things stacked in his favour you’d be forgiven for wondering how his success had somehow passed you by. That’s the twist: it hasn’t. He released 2 albums, neither did well. In an ironic nod to one of the last song recorded for his second album he was dropped by his record label two weeks before Christmas. The story finishes with his apparent suicide – some say he doused himself in petrol and burnt himself on stage, others that he shot himself after his “final” gig. That seemed to be the end of Rodrigeuz.

I wonder…

That is unless you are South African. Whilst the rest of the world paid scant interest, South Africans started to take an interest in his music. The lyrics spoke for young people growing up in an expressionless society. Under apartheid social control was everywhere, as one person in the film alludes to, it was a military state. A song that includes the line “I wonder how many times you had sex” was taboo for a government which thought television was communist and became an unlikely source of rebellion for South Africa’s youth. His records were censored on radio and were passed around on bootlegged tapes. Rodriguez had become a (seemingly) posthumous anti-apartheid icon.

Met a girl from Dearborn, early six o’clock this morn

But that’s not the end of the tale. The film charts the musicological search by two South African’s to find out what happened to Rodrigeuz. Were those stories of a public suicide true? It won’t spoil the film if I tell you that he is alive and well – any internet search will reveal that for you. And whilst the search is interesting but it is the end that moves. Here is a man who for three decades has been living a normal Detroit existence, an American zero, but who for millions of people on another continent is a hero. Ultimately it is these feelings which come through in the film. The awe with which Rodriguez and the two thousand in the crowd in his South African “comeback” is mutual, both surprised yet excited to see each other. Yet there’s a more moving side to this story. Rodriguez remains an unassuming character, living life in a Detroit suburb in an ordinary house. Despite his records sales in South Africa he has never had much money. He has few possessions but he has his family and friends, he has his self spirit and a concern for others and he has his love on music.

The film struck a chord for me. I find it strange the way in which many of us (by which I mean me in particular) search for elusive success and assume that if we don’t see that success then we’ve failed. Here is a moving and inspirational story of someone who tried and failed in those conventional terms. Yet he succeeded in so many other ways and in taking that trip to the cinema, so did I.

And you can keep your symbols of success
Then I’ll pursue my own happiness
And you can keep your clocks and routines
Then I’ll go mend all my shattered dreams

Living through the dark – a reflection on David Millar’s Autobiography

“The man is greater than his victories and defeats, the man is worth more than the cyclist…In the champion beats the heart of a boy…a heart that needs normality and cannot be sacrificed to exploitation.”

Bishop Antonio Lanfranchi’s eulogy at Marco Pantani’s funeral.

Like Marmite, David Millar splits opinion. Unlike Marmite the categories of opinion don’t split neatly into a neat like/hate split. I know, I’ve got various shades running through the other 3 members of my family. So his biography – Racing Through the Dark - was always bound to please and annoy people to varying degrees. For me, this book made a lasting impact as much for its lessons in life as its revelations about cycling culture. Long awaited by some, bound to be dismissed by others, I was interested to read what was rightly or wrongly billed as the confessions of a poacher turned gamekeeper. What I didn’t expect was the honesty with which the book is written (though I appreciate some of you will immediately question that) and the insight into the life of someone under immense pressure. Nor did I expect any of this to relate to my life in such a strong way.

Millar’s choice of preface for his book is quite apt and shouldn’t be dismissed as trite. It is the euology from Marco Pantani’s funeral, the sentiments of which show that whilst a man is culpable we should not ignore the context in which he makes his mistakes. I can see why some would object to this. For some it smacks of a cop out, the dopers’ club feeling absolved through divine intervention.  But read those lines again and they make a lot of sense. The pressure of modern life in general and in particular a job which shapes them into something they hadn’t necessarily wanted to be is not just the stuff of professional cycling. It is something that touches many of us and is most definitely something that I have strongly felt in recent years. And whilst some will point out that if we feel like this we should go and do something else, this course of action is not so easy to do. And when you feel that what you are doing is in some way your calling, a devotion if you like, breaking the chain might almost be seen as a failure.

Racing through the Dark is not only an open account of the dark side of professional cycling but an honest account of how it affects the athlete psychologically, the pressure placed on the athlete to succeed (by themselves, by team management and sponsors and by team mates to name a few) and their abandonment by those who pushed them into their moment(s) of madness (see previous list). It is an honest account of the frailty of being human and our abilities to act irrationally – even if our action at the time seem to us rational in the context.

The drive for success has been all consuming for many professional cyclists.The physical consequences of a professional career can be seen in many an ex-rider. Yet despite the repeated patterns of depression, drug and alcohol abuse and even suicide amongst ex-pros, the psychological impact is somewhat ignored.  This is true of most professional/elite sport as exemplified recent events in football. And it is equally true in everyday life.  Pushing ourselves to the limit to do “our best” (working long hours, taking work home (literally and mentally), constantly networking) often takes it toll in all to readily unforeseen ways besides the physical symptoms. In this book, Millar makes a a clear recognition of the hitherto unstated link between the two.  Millar was lucky to realise before it was too late, others have not been so lucky. Take the case of Frank Vandenbroucke:

“That experience [taking EPO] had an impact on me. I began to think of myself as two separate entities: mind and body. My body was a tool that was capable of things that I previously hadn’t thought possible. Now I know why Frank Vandenbroucke was always pushing the envelope and seeing how far he could go. It was a game, in which he played God with his own body. And in the process, Frank lost his mind.”

No excuse is offered for what Vandenbroucke did – Millar reflects on the implications of VDBs actions for him as a teammate – but it tries to place what happened to him in an objective context. It is quite easy to see how and why professional athletes cheat and dope. It is part of the drive where the conscious and unconscious become blurred and a fight or flight response develops to the environment.  Many have put this down to selfishness but whilst cyclists are self-driven to succeed many have self-doubts and are surrounded by others who want to assist in this success. Although many of these helpers do so by fair means there are some who adopt the foul.  Millar quotes Matt White (ex-pro and one time Garmin directeur sportif whose employment was terminated after questionable use of a non-team doctor) on his coaching of non-cyclists:

“It’s easy. Athletes are all the same…They’re all insecure. You just gotta make ‘em feel good.”

The insecurity is the key. Build up confidence and make the athlete believe in themselves. And if certain products are needed then so be it. So what insecurity do we mean? Insecurity that you are not as good as others think is one, insecurity that you can’t win is another. But what about job insecurity? Professional sport is not reknowned for its stability of employment and to keep your job there is pressure to do what you are told.  For Millar there was pressure to win to keep a sponsor for a team and employer for his teammates, a team within which there was an established culture of doping and in a sport where at that time drug taking was seemingly not only tolerated but expected. When faced with the need to win, with support provided by those who already cheat and with an employer prepared to turn a blind eye until things are found out, the reasons why a rider might dope no longer come down simply to ego. Whilst this is no excuse how many of you can say you have not been put under pressure at work to do things which bend if not break the rules? Recently I was told by someone working as an electrician for a large “solutions provider” that although there are set safety procedures which include turning off the power before doing work, electricians are regularly told to carry on on live circuits to save time and inconvenience. There are few qualms about the safety of the worker in the face of competition. Yes the worker can do the job by the book but what happens when they don’t hit the targets they are set? For me this is a similar situation that faces professional athletes. It is not an excuse for doping per se but begins to explain the pressure leading to that decision. There is a context to every action yet so often we fail to see the whole picture.

For me Millar is a good guy who did a bad thing. To that end he is human. And whilst some will question if Millar is telling the whole truth in this book, Racing Through the Dark goes a long way to providing an insight into the wider context of doping in professional sport and cycling in particular. It exposes the psychology of the athlete, the pressures from those around him and the continued lack of focus by the authorities on the systems which enable this to persist.  Millar doped, he confessed and he did his time. He apologised, returned to the sport and is now working to make a positive difference. There will remain those for whom his past misdemanour is enough for some to write him off for good but hold your hands up if you’ve never made a mistake and been given a second chance. His sometimes messianic words rankle with others but this is equally his passion. And though Bradley Wiggins and other British riders can be upheld as clean and commendable examples for young people, for me Millar is equally a positive example and one we need to learn from. In making a mistake he learnt a lesson and in working hard to make amends he is exposing the realities of why athletes dope and exposing many of the unanswered questions which have to be addressed if cycling is to win it’s battle against drugs.

But Racing Through the Dark is more than a sporting autobiography, it is an enlightening tale of the competing pressures made on us by everyday life. And though it provides few answers, in exposing the wider context in which we make our decisions and our mistakes, it is a useful set of lights when riding through the dark of life.

Racing Through the Dark: The Fall and Rise of David Millar by David Millar is published by Orion (ISBN 9781409120384)

On days like this

On days like this I’d rather be outdoors, soaking up the sun and generally feeling better about most things in life. Instead, I’m sat at the desk, finishing a PhD for which I have minimal motivation and only a modicum of devotion. Add to this a dash of feeling physically rotten and we have ourselves a recipe for frustration. As you will have gathered I don’t rest easily on the decisions I’ve made. Therefore turning down a time on the bike in order to recuperate, though the logical decision, leaves me mulling over the what-ifs. One day I will learn. Until then I will sit wondering about the time I could have had in the sun.