You don’t have to look far to find countless stories of how cycling has helped people take back their lives from depression. Discovering cycling has been a crucial tool in getting back on track, or a source of endorphins to brighten up an otherwise very dark space.
But what happens when it doesn’t help? Or rather appears to be the source of strife? I’ve been open in the past about how getting into cycling led to difficulties with my relationship with food, and now I’m back in deep waters, I’m back to share some more.
Just to be clear – I’m not here for sympathy or attention. When I wrote Four words that wrecked my life, I was overwhelmed by the number of messages both from friends and strangers that it resonated with (unfortunately) – so I’m sure that I’m not alone in this too. If this helps just one person, my time here will be worthwhile.
My big black dog
It’s big because I like big dogs, ok? And for those of you who haven’t heard the phrase before, the black dog is an easier way of saying depression. Which, I can tell you, is really fucking hard to say. I used to tear up every time I used to say it, but it really does get easier the more you talk about it.
This hasn’t been my first rodeo with the black doggy. Without going into too much detail, a series of events in my life led me to rock bottom, again. Only this time felt deeper and rockier, darker and more hopeless. I am extremely grateful to have my faith and family which have prevented me from taking my own life, although it’s still something I’ve thought about a lot. And just like the dark doggo, that’s a really traumatic thought too.
Sometimes it takes getting to rock bottom to really get desperate enough to take action to change things. It really doesn’t have to be this way – but having had treatment (a 6 week counselling course) a few years back, I was feeling guilty about approaching the NHS for more help (which is total nonsense, FYI).
What does my doggo look like?
My dog likes to come and stay at the weekends, and sometimes during the week. He makes it hard – sometimes impossible to get out of bed all day, and is constantly in my thoughts. He’s a jar half empty kinda dog, and likes to tell me how rubbish I am at my job, at looking after my friends, how I’m a fraud, terrible at riding bikes and just generally a let down. It’s a surprise I put up with him. He tells me I’m too fat maybe about 50 times a day.
I don’t like spending time with my dog but sometimes it feels like there’s no way to get rid of him. The dog makes everything suck – things that I love doing are now rubbish and the thought of even trying is too much. The dog sucks out my personality and turns me into a shell of my former self. Instead he insists that I stay with him and sleep, because then at least we don’t have to face anything.
Getting to know my dog
Over the last few months, since rock bottom, I’ve been getting to know my dog. And yes, it turns out that bastard black dog that’s been making my life a misery for months is actually me. Getting to know my dog has been a massive learning curve and I’d like to share some of the tools I’ve used with you.
It all starts with your thoughts. Your constant monologue in your head is what then creates your feelings. Those emotions then makes your behaviour. It really is as simple as that – and understanding this triad has been central to the start of my recovery. The podcasts from coach Kara Loewentheil (UnF*ck Your Brain) have been central in this self-coaching and I’d really recommend giving them a whirl.
Once I understood that you are the master of your own thoughts that determine your own feelings and behaviours – and that the thoughts of others are not your responsibility nor within your control, things started to change dramatically. You can simply choose to not have those negative, self-loathing thoughts and start to replace them with self-loving ones.
There are a few behaviours which I have found to be self-loving too which I’m working into my daily life. Cooking a nice meal, relaxing in a yoga class or taking time out to sit down and have a proper coffee somewhere nice are all examples of self-love that don’t involve the face-mask wearing, nail painting cliche that irks me.
Back to bikes
Where does cycling come back into all of this? And why isn’t it helping? As riding bikes is not only my number one hobby but also the topic of my job, central to my friendship circles and therefore a central part of my identity, of course it has been affected.
One of the best things to happen last year was riding the Dirty Kanza. Never before had I had such a clear and challenging goal to train for, so my first half of the year was focused and packed full of training rides and preparation. Finishing the DK200 was a huge achievement and gave me real confidence, however with no following goals or direction to aim for my mental state started to decline later in the year.
Looking back, I was fitter than I had ever been and more stoked on riding bikes than ever. Now I was struggling to even get out for 20 miles on a Saturday let alone 200, and stoke levels were on the floor. Thinking about targeting bike rides for 2019, I started to plot big off-road day rides – which I’ve come to learn are my thing – but every time I got started on one I’d manage to talk myself out of it within a few miles of leaving home.
Contrary to the experience for so many, cycling wasn’t bringing me out of depression, but pushing me further into it. As a great deal of my perceived self-worth is based on what I’m achieving on the bike, which I plotted as zero at that time, I was feeling pretty damn crappy about it. The harder I tried, the more I felt like a failure. Bike riding is key to my identity and I couldn’t even do that.
It’s taken me a while to learn that I need to be more compassionate. I think a lot of people will be able to relate to this. Right now we’re in the depths of winter – it’s cold, often wet, seems to be always dark, and the trails are tough. There are few events and social rides, the weather is unpredictable, we’re a bit skint after Christmas and everyone is pretty much hibernating. To think that I should able to do right now what I was capable of last June isn’t just unrealistic – it’s downright bonkers.
On bikes, I’m building back up slowly. Reintroducing the cycling commutes, starting to plan in weekend day rides with friends that aren’t beyond my reach, forgetting the ‘training’ and trying to find the stoke again. I ticked off 50 miles off road last Sunday with loads of mates and it felt awesome. I’ll look at finding a goal for this year, but right now I’m concentrating on just enjoying it week by week.
There are two main ways that I plan on banishing my black dog; Behavioural Activation and thought work. The two operate at opposite ends of the thoughts-feelings-behaviours spectrum.
On the thought work side, I’m listening to podcasts including UnF*ck Your Brain, The Self-Help Podcast (absolutely awesome, two lovely guys in Sheffield) and Project Love. I’ve committed to 2 minutes daily, morning and night, to think positively about the day ahead and reflect on what’s happened.
Behavioural Activation is a fancy way of saying doing stuff to improve your mood. Low energy levels that are symptomatic of depression can actually be alleviated by doing more, surprisingly, so planning in events from pleasurable to routine can help here.
One of the times when you can bet my black dog will come bounding over is when I have empty, free time. Take a weekend with no plans – that’s the red hot danger zone. I’ve found that for me, planning in stuff to do in advance is really important, which is why I’ve come up with another of my goals for this year; plan at least one weekend away with friends monthly. No doubt you’ll hear me trying to cajole everyone into big off road rides in due course.
Another tool that I’ve been using for planning and reflection has been the Project Love Hello Goodbye journal. It’s a book which encourages to look back on the previous year – what you enjoyed, achieved, life events etc. and then helps you make a plan for the coming year based on what you want to prioritise in life. It’s easy to forget about the importance of reflection and planning, and this book in conjunction with the podcast has helped me make some firm goals for the coming year, which they help you review quarterly. Sounds a bit business-like, doesn’t it? It’s my first time, but so far, so good.
If any of this resonates, I urge you to take a look at the aforementioned tools, and please do let me know if you use anything that you find helps, too. I’m all ears if you’d like to talk about any of this, and I really do know first-hand how hard it is to reach out when your very own black doggo comes to play.
Just one more thing – and something that my therapist has urged me to do. If you’re talking to yourself – i.e. thinking – and being harsh on yourself, just think ‘what would I say to a friend in this position‘ . Likelihood is it’s totally different to what you might be saying to yourself. Have a little compassion with yo’self.