I've been thinking about posting something about this for a while, and its funny that although my day job is all about social and emotional wellbeing, suicide reduction, reducing stigma around mental health and mental health policy advice, I actually most of the time avoid talking about this sort of stuff personally.
The video above is a live version of a great Michael Franti song - called Pray for Grace. It's got some great lyrics that have been stuck in my head lately, starting with 'Why must I feel like this today?' and talks about dealing with living a life that has shades of grey in it or living in a haze, and just finding grace by taking a breath and reminding yourself that everything is going to be okay.
It rings pretty true for me because i have lived with some fairly dark shades of grey for quite some time now, i usually call it bike-xiety because its riding my bike that actually keeps me well. There's a whole story behind it, and a range of things that happen for me that i wont go into detail about here, but it does mean that on top of my exercise induced asthma, i sometimes get quite physical panic attacks and today (as has happened once or twice before) I had both multiple asthma attacks and a panic attack that lasted for the whole hour I was attempting a 12km climb of Corin.
I was feeling pretty awful just generally in the morning and normally it's a good ride that actually makes me feel better - which, incidentally is why I am always riding such big kilometres - but this morning a few other random factors came into play and instead of settling into the ride, I went lactic trying to climb the first pinch out of the carpark with my back brake locked on, and rather than getting past it my bike-xiety and my asthma joined forces. When we got to the Corin turn off, before we even started the 12km of climbing I was pretty close to losing it and waited for the bunch to start climbing so they wouldnt see me if i burst in to tears.
And then I started to climb. When you're mind is panicking, it means your heart rate is higher than it should be, regardless of any hills and then the effort of climbing on top just sends it through the roof. By the time I hit the bottom of Billy Billy creek I was already done for and losing the battle against my head which had been saying for 20km that I shouldn't have come, couldn't make it even to do one Corin rep and what the hell was I doing training with a much stronger group I was clearly not in their league blah blah blah....
With that sort of anti-motivation, internal dialogue going on I didn't stand a chance and half way up my asthma was tipping me over the edge and I unclipped, stopped and had to sit down on the side of the road just to breathe and sob.
Being a caring bunch, shortly some riders appeared over the hill repping back for me and I couldn't even answer what was wrong. I got back on and with my lungs rasping struggled to the top - feeling like a failure that everyone else had come out for multiple reps and I couldn't even do one properly. (and its that kind of defeatist bullshit thinking that normally I use cycling to get rid of).
We stopped at the top for a bit and i could barely talk to anyone, its always impossible for me to talk about these things and shortly we set off on the descent. Lisa was kind enough to roll slowly with me - being in the kind of jumpy state where you might burst into tears at any minute is *not* a safe way to descend, but we had to get down. I did take one risk though today, and that was to actually explain to Lisa what was going on and I think in hindsight that must have helped.
Anyway, we got back to the start and I was pretty much toast but didn't want to stop the group from doing the training they had come for, so they set off on rep number two and I said I'd just roll around a bit and then crawl back the 15km back to the Tharwa carpark.
I gave myself permission at that point not to be as good as everyone else and put some tunes on my headphones figuring I'd just ride along in slow motion until they came back again.
I rode along for a while, until a funny thing happened. The grace kicked in. See, I'm not really a god/religion type of person, but I am a firm believer in the ability of riding a bike to be good for your whole body, including your mind. Next thing I knew Paddy appeared beside me, and there's nothing quite as good as having a buddy to ride with. He said we were pretty close to Gibraltar falls, which we thought was roughly halfway so I made that the goal and thought if I could just get there it would be 1.5 Corins which wasn't so bad.
We made it to Gibraltar turn off which is just below a crest and, not being an ambi turner I continued to the crest where some downhill was just ahead. Rationalising that you can't stop if there's downhill in front of you I rolled a little bit further, to the next little hill where I felt like I had a little bit to get up it and we continued on this way with the theory that we'd surely run into the others soon.
I was a bit surprised then to find myself at the bottom of Billy Billy again as I hadn't planned on getting that far and I knew that being there meant I should probably make another attempt to get up with out stopping. I was pretty nervous that I wouldn't make it, but with a good buddy next to me I thought maybe there was a small chance I could do it.
I slowed right down on the approach, and focused on my breathing and heart rate, consciously trying to recover before the incline.
As soon as it started to rise I just focused right on my front wheel. I thought- I know I might stop and its a hard hill but I'll try for slow and steady and I wont look up ahead so the length doesn't psyche me out again. Paddy stayed right with me to his credit (its actually pretty hard to climb slowly with someone if its not your right rhythm) and on we went. I didn't even dare look up to see if I could pass the point where I had stopped the first time, but eventually I knew I had passed it, and then suddenly there was Brad and Lisa descending and cheering because they thought there was no way I'd go all the way up Corin a second time - and then next thing we knew we were over the KOM line and it was starting to rain, but I didn't want to stop.
It's this point in cycling that I love - where it brings you to a place where you are completely in the moment - there's no failure, there's no anxiety, there's no worrying about the things you haven't done right, there's no yesterday and you aren't thinking about tomorrow or later tonight or even coffee - its just breathing and pedalling, right here, right now, keep going because you are nearly there.
We made it all the way to the top of Corin, completing a second full rep when the first time round my head had me convinced I'd never be capable of that.
So for me, this is why I cycle - its the best way of looking after myself, it teaches me that when I think I can, I probably can, that I am capable of great, surprising and inspiring things and that I have great friends who will ride in the rain with me. My version of grace.
The other reason I wanted to post this is because this week in Australia it's mental health week, and something I always think is important is to remove stigma from feeling lame, because feeling lame is actually part of the human spectrum and its the fear about it that actually makes it ten times worse than it really is. Plus, I'm pretty sure everybody experiences shades of grey to varying degrees, and I wanted to share this experience with you, I'm pretty proud of my two Corin reps today.
Next time maybe I'll do three.