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.

The Wall

Hit a wall today. Literally. Had a choice between a stopped team car’s back window on a steep and blind corner or a wall, chose the latter. Apparently I bounce like a rubber ball. Not that it felt that way but I’ll take that rather than how a French guy smashed into the same wall. I’ll live to fight another day. Not so sure about the wall or the hedge though.

Dan Craven (@DanFromNam), Team IG-Sigma Sport, Stage 7 Tour of Britain 2012

There was something strangely familiar in reading Dan’s tweet, a feeling of knowing how he felt. I feel for Dan, he’s a nice guy and a great cyclist, but as he says he’ll bounce back. Me on the other hand…Whilst not having the pleasure of familiarising myself with a Devonian field boundary, for some time I’ve felt like I’ve been bouncing off a barrier or two. In that feeling known by many an endurance athlete, I’ve hit the wall.

Those who know me and those who have followed this blog for the last 2 years might be forgiven for thinking things were progressing well. In many ways so was I. Yet in the last few months I’ve felt things slowing down, that there’s something holding me back and I’m really starting to get annoyed with life once more. I’ve been told many times that I am on a journey, I’ve repeated it to myself over and over but at this very moment I feel my journey has reached some kind of barrier and it’s both frustrating and depressing.

In essence I’ve run out of ideas. As a positive step I have recently I started seeing a life coach to help me through this barrier and here’s why I need that help. And this is why.

When I returned to work two and half years ago I promised myself I wouldn’t be there long. Three months after returning I sat in a meeting about the future of my department and told myself I wouldn’t be there in 12 months. Another 27 months later and I’m still there. I’m stagnating and it don’t feel good.

Why do today what you can put off inevitably?

By stagnating I’m not only standing still but I’m now not doing – even avoiding – things that might move me forward. Worse than the frustration of not moving on I’m now feel bored and as a result feel numb. I can’t even be bothered. Work (yes, it’s easier to type this than admit it out loud), play (cycling has become even more of a chore), rest (need I say more) – it all feels like too much, a decision too far, an action that won’t lead to much. I’ll fritter time away on “anything but”, my attention elsewhere though I’m never entirely sure where.

“I tend to drink too much. I don’t know. I think it’s a symptom of boredom really. And my mind can drift off.”

Peter Cook

But here’s the irony: Ask me what I want to do and my usual answer is “I don’t know”. Whilst saying that feels like a cop out for me and what I assume the other person is thinking, it is a genuine feeling and implictly encapsulates that remoteness I feel from life. Life carries on but it doesn’t matter what I do nothing really changes. In fact, give me a shell and I’ll crawl into it, it’s easier that way. In the words of Pink Floyd, I’ve become comfortably numb. And so, in this frame of mind, I was asked by my coach what options I had for the future. I told her I didn’t know. I told here that it felt like a blank. Okay, it wasn’t totally blank. There are a few things I do want. But the overwhelming feeling is like facing a brilliant white wall in front of me. From afar it looked like the blank canvas, a future with unwritten potential but get nearer and it’s a hulking great barrier in disguise spread infinitely either side and far too high to see the top. The only thing to do, I worked through in a coaching session,  is fight it.

Energy breaks me down

My problem is I’m tired from fighting what’s behind me. It’s like the marathon runner who hits the wall – 21 miles seemingly “under the belt’ but those miles are the undoing of you at that moment. I know what I don’t want, though when I say that there are things I hang on to “just in case” and that saps energy. There are expectations and commitments that I can’t – or don’t know how to – extricate myself from or change. Moving forward isn’t about a blank canvas rather it is a negotiation with release clauses yet to be agreed.

Where this leaves me is hard to say and that is why I’m seeing a life coach. I want some answers. I need a map to move me forward. And whilst I’ve tried some things to do this they aren’t, in my present state of mind, the answers.  My current task is focussing on the feeling of kicking down the wall. The problem is getting that feeling. A lot of the time it just sin’t there.

Whilst none of this is designed to be an excuse for my lack of attention – to you, to those I know, to my work – it is an explanation. I don’t feel great about it and in fact it worries me. But I need to find another way forward, to break down that wall, to find some ideas and take the next steps on what is at the moment feeling like an everlasting and tiring journey. And as much as this is a confession and a reflection it’s also a plea for ideas. So, anyone got any bright ideas?

Boys don’t cry?

Felix Sanchez (Dominican Republic – Olympic 400m Hurdles Champion) – He’s not afraid to cry

It started on Monday night. Felix Sanchez, Olympic Champion in 2004 ran the race of his life and regained his crown 8 years on.  Come the medal ceremony, he stood behind the podium, his eyes welling up, his lips a quiver, the commentator struggling to remember the last time an Olympic champion sobbed his way to receiving his medal.

The Tuesday came. Chris Hoy stepped up to the track for the Keirin. A race of strength and lottery in equal measure. His mum could barely watch. We thought he’d lost it as Max Levy briefly took the lead on the last lap. And then in the favoured words of the commentators he “put on the afterburners” and took the race. Now the most successful British Olympian, the pressure was on as much as it was off. This gentle giant couldn’t contain himself either as he stood up to reveive his medal his eyes welling up and by the anthem the tears had fallen.

Chris Hoy – Tears of Joy and the Stuff of Champions

So why comment on this? As men crying is far too often seen as a sign of weakness. Yet these two men are not weak. Winning an Olympic champion takes strength, physical and mental, to prepare and hold it together whilst pursuing their target. So this outpouring of emotion is a natural thing, a healthy process and a much needed release.

Boys don’t cry? Don’t believe the hype. It is fine for us men to cry, it’s actually the stuff of champions.

The importance of individual psychology

I watched this short film on the BBC’s Olympic coverage last night and once again it struck a chord. Psychology is a critical component of sporting success just as it is in life itself. And what this short film highlights is the personal approach we all take in preparing ourselves psychologically for the trials ahead. Whilst the focus on the changing room and the preparations for sporting contest might seem alien to some, there is a useful message in the film and, if we look carefully, many similarities with how we live our everyday lives.

As Jonathan Edwards says in the clip:

Maybe that’s the key here: You need to find something that works for you.

Having tired the ready made solutions with limited success I can’t think of a more useful reminder for most of us.

If the video above does not play it is available to UK residents at http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/olympics/19145914