Admission is more than half the battle

Dealing with the inner gremlins first requires self recognition, though preferably before the problems get too big.

On firing up the computer this morning I noticed this tweet from Adrian Timmis

Every athlete should read this, male as well as female RT @Hollie_Avil: I’ve decided to end my career as a triathlete.. http://t.co/OpFpzCdf

Out of curiosity I took a look. Although Adrian’s tweets are always informative and interesting I had my suspicions it would be about training, coaching or worst still saddle positions. So I was even more pleasantly surprised to read Hollie Avil’s story of how the pursuit of her sporting dreams led to misery. As she says herself

Don’t get me wrong. I have had some amazing experiences in triathlon. I leave the sport as an Olympian, a double world champion, a national champion and also someone who was once ranked world No 1.

But those great times do not outweigh the miserable times. I don’t want to risk my health again, not just my mental health, but my physical health.

I want to be happy.

For me this article is important for three reasons. The first is that, again, it highlights the role that expectations – and especially the expectations of others – play in shaping who were are and what we become. The second is the feelings of isolation that are brought on by both the cause of the problems (in this case the expectations of coaches as well as the feelings of lack of control) and . But the third, and for me the most poignant, is the role that self admission plays in finding a way out. Whatever the problem, without owning up to it yourself there are few ways to let others in who can help, especially when the problems are often locked inside your own head. But with alarming familiarity Avil admits that her cry for help cam, if not too late then at a point which made dealing with it harder.

In February 2011, I finally made a cry for help, admitting everything to Joce[Brooks]and my parents. This time I was too far gone and we had to work so hard to get me better.

Admission is much more than half the battle. By the time you’ve reached that point the problems feel ten, maybe a hundred times worse and the way out seems so hard. It can feel like you’re being attacked from all sides. But in admitting to these problems yourself you open up a world of possibilities even if they don’t seem so clear at the time. I know, I’ve been there and some of you have been with me on all or part of the journey. So here are some words of encouragement:

I believe life has chapters and this is the end of one of mine.

Although I am sad to be hanging up the race shoes, I’m proud of what I’ve overcome.

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May the road rise with you

So my previous posts over the last week or so have been a bit negative, a bit flat which of course is strange given the nature of the Tour de France over the same period.  Once again I can’t quite put my finger on the reasons but whilst the rest o the world is wowed by the continued exploits of some of the best, committed and, some might say, insane sportsmen in the world I’ve been uninspired, fidgety and, dare I say it, bored.  How I’d love to be on the edge of my seat gripped by the action. Instead I just feel exhausted and flat, an underlying nervous tension eating away.  Perhaps this is to do with a lot of other things going on in life – the ongoing tensions over work, the feeling that I’m drifting and perhaps most of all the inability to switch off.  These were things that I thought I’d conquered but it just goes to show how life isn’t that straightforward. It’s a bit like Alberto Contador – he’s won 3 (possibly 2) Tours, 2 Giros and 1 Vuelta but yesterday showed his fallibility and weaknesses and of course the need to fight back.  So it is for everyone in different parts of their lives. The cynical amongst you might even point to the similarity in the absence of drugs in this comparison but let’s not entertain that for long.  So firstly a brief apology that I’ve been brining the mood down, secondly that there’s some work to do and don’t forget it, and finally that I still need that help and support both a pat on the back and a kick up the bum. Your help in the latter is very much appreciated.

It all adds up

I thought I’d pick up one of the metaphors I used yesterday as there have been a few ideas that I’ve mulled over during the past few weeks.  In my mind they are becoming very closely linked. Realising this has been a difficult journey but I’m now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

For a long time in life I’ve been one of those high achievers. From early on in school I was at or near the top of the class. Though this had its benefits, some less obvious than you might at first think, it was where the seeds of the rat race were sown. From this point on there has been an almost constant “need” to perform driving me. I hasten to add that this need is something which I now recognise had taken over my mind with unhealthy abandon.  I felt I was expected to achieve to and by not achieving I was letting people down.  To some extent setting your sights on a level of achievement is helpful. Throughout education it helped me get the most out of my studies.  But heading into adult life the constant gnawing away began to take up precious energy. And without clear targets I set myself overly ambitious and possibly unrealistic targets.  It’s no wonder I got to where I did and it’s with little surprise that I had a huge fall waiting around the corner. You just can’t go on like that.

Which brings me back to yesterday’s post and the link I made to the margins. Those of you familiar with cycling and in particular the coaching philosophy of GB and Team Sky supremo David Brailsford will be familiar with the idea of “the aggregation of marginal gains”. If not, here is what he said about it to the Team Sky website:

“It means taking the 1% from everything you do; finding a 1% margin for improvement in everything you do. That’s what we try to do from the mechanics upwards. If a mechanic sticks a tyre on, and someone comes along and says it could be done better, it’s not an insult – it’s because we are always striving for improvement, for those 1% gains, in absolutely every single thing we do.”

What has this got to do with me, my problems and my outlook on life? At first glance not a lot as I’m never going to be a professional cyclist or Olympic medalist (I gave up pretensions of being Mario Cipollini in the mountains and Marco Pantani in the sprints). But even so life is for god or bad a challenge and its better to face it in a realistic way.  If we take the Brailsford way then we all have room for improvement, we all have something extra to give.  Yet in acknowledging this it is equally important to recognise that that extra bit has to be realistic and measured.  Let’s look at it this way, in his autobiography, Bradley Wiggins explains how Brailsford and Shane Sutton told the GB pursuit team at the Olympics that there was little point in smashing world records in qualifiers when they had to do enough to qualify yet qualify as the fastest team.  This is all about knowing your capacity and realising what the margin is.  In my case it has been realising that changing the world isn’t about a stellar academic input, a groundbreaking social enterprise or political recognition, it is about looking around me and realising what I can do.  In this respect I suppose I am the mechanic in Brailsford’s interview, but where would Tour champions be without these important yet unsung team members.  Whilst I am growing to recognise this importance (and subtle) difference in viewing my contribution, I have to keep reminding myself when things don’t go as well or reach the heights I’d at first anticipated. It gives a new perspective on doing enough rather than giving you’re all – it’s not laziness rather it is knowing what to give to which tasks so there is enough energy to go around in life.

All of which brings me to the bigger picture.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t embark on my original career choice thinking I could change the world.  Each opportunity to climb the pole was a chance to make a bigger name for myself in the belief I could make a difference.  The fact this didn’t materialise in the way I had envisaged was a major contributory factor for my breakdown.  Therefore I feel quite uneasy at the moment.  Without getting overtly political, there are a lot of issues that get me angry, make me (much to MrsAB’s chagrin) shout at the radio and initially feel I should do something about.  But at the same time I’ve recognised the fact that there are things you can change and things you can’t.  Much as I admire those who are taking the fight to the rulers of the accepted norms, I’m increasingly recognising this is high on energy but low on outcome.  And again this is where the aggregation of marginal gains comes in.  Politically yes I could try and take a stand though how often does that work. Alternatively I could do one thing to make a difference, for example ride my bike to the station rather than getting a lift, refusing to buy the products of certain companies instead of blockading their shops.  I’m not saying people should or shouldn’t do the alternative but for me it is where to place the energy.  Equally for the architects and proponents of some of the alternatives, there is to often a pre-occupation with purity and singularity of form of their chosen alternative rather than how best to make it work.  They seem to want to take over the world in the way the existing order did previously: two wrongs and all that. But here it is at the margins where change can take place.  You will never please all of the people all of the time, but there are those wavering at the edges who can be convinced of your approach who might be able to convince some of the others further along the line.  Sounds like you need a bit less energy doesn’t it?  And whilst it might not change things over night, its a step in the right direction. We know where great leaps forward left people in the past.

So these have been my preoccupying thoughts for the last few weeks.  Some might see it as giving in, others might view it as idleness, laziness or apathy.  But hopefully some of you will see, as I have, the importance of knowing when and what to give and how to avoid the next burn out.  At the end of the day, it all adds up and you might even achieve more than you first thought.

 

Then we could be heroes for more than a day

A fantastically insightful and enlightening book about a true champion. Steve was to the 1980s what Mark Cavendish is to today's cycling scene - and hence his nickname! But not only is the book interesting in its recollection of a golden age of British cycling, it is also a real story of human frailty and strength in recounting a warts and all journey of tackling addiction. Though Steve openly talks about his alcoholism, the story is one that is familiar to anyone who has suffered their own addictions and doubts. It shows that with hard work you can come out the other side. Click on picture to order a copy.

One of the most frequent things I’ve heard said about heroes is that you should never meet yours. Apparently, they are only a disappointment when you meet them. Well last week I had the privilege of meeting someone who I watched in the sport I love beating some of the world’s best. His name is Steve Joughin.

For those of you who are cyclists you will probably know Steve as the 2-time British professional road champion, 1-time criterium champion and winner of most of the classic races on the British calendar.  For those who aren’t cyclists and read this blog for the mental health side of things, Steve is a recovering alcoholic, something which he openly talks about in his autobiography and which we spent a long while talking about last week.  Although on the face of it the two might seem to some incompatible, it’s interesting talking to Steve about the need for a buzz in life.  Some of you will have read my piece in November about Bradley Wiggins. My conversations with Steve last week seemed to reinforce some of that thinking for me.

He described how cycling is an all-encompassing career, it can be lonely but that the rush of excitement and satisfaction from it is immense – especially when you keep winning things as Steve did.  The only problem is that this doesn’t last forever. Every rider has their last race and what happens after that to replace that buzz can be very hard.  In Steve’s case it led to alcoholism.  In others it leads to other obsessions. And you don’t have to be a professional cyclist to suffer from that.  So whilst I interviewed Steve for a book project that I have ongoing we developed a genuine bond over our own addictions and mutual recoveries.  At no time did I feel I was teasing a story out of or being spun a yarn by Steve and equally I never felt that I was putting a burden on him explaining what I had been through. There was a mutual understanding, his generosity and kindness the first thing I have told people about our meeting.

So in a way this is a lesson for us all that we can need to watch our obsessions, that we can with hard work and determination get through the bad times and that we can offer something to others in those situations beyond platitudes.  But it’s also my way of saying thanks to Steve – as a cyclist he was a role model, but after last week he is definitely a hero of mine. Maybe you can become one too.

If only it was so easy.

I’m trying really hard not to be so negative. It’s something MrsAB would love to see happen and when I’m not I really do feel the benefits. But ever once in a while something comes along to break that effort and I relapse, sometimes for trivial reasons, sometimes quite rightly. And so it was the latter that stirred my ire last week when I spotted this article in the Daily Mail tweeted by Rethink: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1348114/Want-beat-depression-Do-I-did–just-grip.html. Now I don’t want to get political in this blog as it’s not the place nor does it do me much good, but I loathe the Daily Mail. Ever since I was young I remember my Nana having it delivered and slowly becoming aware of the particularly myopic view of the world that it choses to portray. I read the article and it has to be said that it was quite fair in its description of the lows of depression, that finding an inner calm does help. What fails to help in any way, shape or form is the Mail’s decision to run the article as seen below.

Telling people to “get a grip” is far from constructive and is the thing I feared the most when I first admitting to having a problem. Deep inside, getting a grip is what you want to do but you want others to help you find the way of doing that. In fact, when I explained this to a good friend he told me that was precisely what I was doing – being signed off work, seeking the help of professionals and, yes, taking medication was getting a grip, it was pulling myself together. I wasn’t wallowing in self pity, I was trying to work out why I was in this state and what path(s) I might take to get out because, when you are in there, the exit is hard to find. Even now, 18 months on I can’t look back and identify any one exit or moment of “getting a grip”, they are probably many. And so for the Daily Mail to deliver a sneering panacea of a headline is not only disappointing it is insulting.

Given the Daily Mail’s editorial tendencies to blame everybody else for the problems they see –  be that asylum seekers, people of a non-Anglican religion, Labour politicians, Lib-Dem politicians (even Tory politicians), homosexuals, students, the BBC, ITV, Sky, the Guardian/Times/Independent reading middle classes, the Sun/Mirror/Star reading working classes, the EU, the French, the Germans, the Welsh/Scottish/Irish…….you get the picture – telling those of us who have complex health problems merely to “get a grip” seems to me a little hypocritical. So next time you see a Daily Mail headline which blames others in a fit of hysteria why not spend a few seconds dropping a quick line to Paul Dacre: here’s his email address – paul.dacre@dailymail.co.uk – and just put “get a grip”. If only it was so easy.