My own private omertà

Yesterday’s post got me thinking some more and reflecting from personal experience about what it feels like to live with the black dogs on your shoulder.  Whilst this post is prompted by the events in the world of professional cycling I am hopeful that it will be of interest to the readers who have either been with me from the start and/or are interested in the psychological side of my postings.

There has been a lot of discussion in the cycling press and amongst cycling bloggers and the cycling twitterati about Tyler Hamilton’s confession.  In part of his repeated defence Lance Armstrong, via his ‘spokesman’, has suggested this is just a ploy by Hamilton to make some money via a book contract, a suggestion that has gained some currency amongst some of these commentators.  I admit, not long ago (and I mean, very recently) I would probably have thought similar.  But reflecting on my own experience there is a more important story to consider.

In speaking out, Hamilton, like Landis before him have broken the omertà.  For those unfamiliar with omertà, it is a popular attitude, a code of honour and a dominant discourse shared by a group of people. With a long history it has been most often associated with the criminal underworld of southern Europe, notably the mafioso.  For those breaking the code there are often dire consequences.  Its association with cycling, though dating back quite some time, has only really been a subject of discussion in the last 20 years. A lot of credit goes to Paul Kimmage for exposing the cycling omertà in his autobiography Rough Ride. In speaking out and breaking the omertà, Kimmage has been ostracised by former colleagues and riders yet at the same time gain a lot of respect from those on the ‘outside’.  What all of these riders from Kimmage to Hamilton highlight is that they have all cheated by doping, they have all lived with the psychology discomfort and they have al been discredited by the ‘gang’ for doing so on this basis.  Again there are some interesting issues which this exposes.

As I’ve tried to discuss through this blog and which most of you now know, I have had my own difficult journey over the last couple of years.  Whilst I haven’t been a professional cyclist indulging in some doping, I have had to live with my own, self-made and reinforced omertà. For quite sometime I was living life wearing a mask. The person people saw wasn’t necessarily the person I wanted to be.  If I was to say I was living a lie people jump to the conclusion that I had committed some dreadful wrong or that I, for example, was unhappy with my sexuality. Neither of these were the case and in that regard I am more lucky that the pro-cyclists. For me it was living up to the expectations and hopes of others, blindly following a career in which I had little or no control, a job where I felt manipulated and a social life where I felt beholden to others.  My omertà was feeling that ‘life as a trial’ was normal.  I’ve written about that experience, I’ve recounted the help I’ve received and I’ve hopefully highlighted just how long a journey it has been.  I’ve broken my omertà even if I still at times attack myself for it but feel so much better for it.

So what did I learn.  First, the weight of the mask, the pressure of that omertà was debilitating. It took more energy to live the lie, so to speak. I only realised that later and keep telling myself now yet feel a huge relief for that.  That was the easy bit. I learnt more which may be of interest to those who are quick to dismiss the authenticity of the cycling whistleblowers.  Therefore, second, nobody can tell you that you need help.  When you in what with hindsight is a complete mess, when life seems screwed up and hopeless, people telling you to seek help and open up is not a help, it’s a hinderance. You reluctantly find that help but it can take some doing.  I know people in whom I see the signs of needing help but know from personal experience that you can’t tell them to do so.  And so third, it takes some time during that period of talking, of unburdening to get to the heart of the matter.  It took me at least 12 months of counselling to recognise let alone address the elephants in the room. Doing something about them took additional courage and still does.

In all of these respects there is something positive to say for all of those who break cycling’s omertà. The prevailing norm is a huge pressure and when the chips are down revealing the truth is the last thing you want to do for fear of further repercussions.  It takes some time to get the courage to then open up and even more time to realise what you can do to change it. And finally you realise that anger is only helpful if it is channelled for the positive.  Bitterness is only corrosive.  I can understand to some extent what Hamilton and Landis have been under.  To come out has taken a long period of time which probably has involved both a lot of soul searching and the discovery of the courage to do so.  As I said on Twitter last night I genuinely wish them all well in their lives ahead and hope that they can live with less torment.  For the person against whom the latest revelations hit hardest I only hope he finds the courage to break his own omertà, to tell the truth and to channel his anger into something more positive. I suppose that may be too much to ask.  In the meantime, let’s not shoot the messengers, its taken them a lot to deliver their messages.

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