One Train, Two Buses and a Bicycle

These days I’m doing the short miles. A 3 mile round trip to the station 3 times a week  to get the train to go to work. Most weeks a 6 mile round trip into the centre of town. Urban, utilitarian, purposeful miles. Even then, they lift my mood. Even these short distances that hardly register a heart beat or trouble my lungs, are good for me. I know I need to be clocking up the miles, climbing the hills and enjoying the descents in the countryside that sits on my doorstep. I’ve stopped telling myself that I should. ‘Should’ doesn’t help. ‘Should’ sits on my shoulders and harms my posture. ‘Should’ wags its finger at me and reminds me of my failings.

These days, however the short downhill trip to the station on my way to work is full of dread. It’s not my job I dread, but the certainty that my journey home will be a trial.

For those of you blessed not to live in, and rely on trains to get you about, in the south east of England a little background is necessary. Since around the middle of April the trains in the south east have been – how can I put this? – erratic. Cancellations, delays and many more broken down trains than usual. Announcements of fires in signal boxes scarcely raise an eyebrow. And, yes, delays caused by ‘a body on the line.’ Replacement bus services’ are propping up my homeward – bound journeys.

Image result for a train, a bus and a bicycle

This chaos is mainly caused by what the station announcements describe as ‘staff sickness.’ This is code for unofficial strike action. This week, at least, they made it official and there is a 5 day strike. I’m working from home. Here is not the place to delve into the staff grievances, the poor performance of the train company and the passenger protests at stations in London and Brighton, however.

What I am writing about here started on 17 October 2000 just outside Hatfield, a town north of London. A train came off the tracks resulting in the death of 4 passengers and injuries to a further 70.

The Hatfield disaster.

I wasn’t there, I have never been there. Never travelled through there, and, most probably, I never will. I didn’t know anyone on the train, either. But the events of that day echo still for me. Back then I was commuting to London by train. No bike ride to the station (it was a 5 minute walk.) But there was an underground train and a bus ride after that to get me to the mental health service I was running back then. The impact that the Hatfield disaster had on me was a significant factor in the onset of my mental health problems that were first recognised by me and my doctors the following March.

The reason for the derailment at Hatfield was that there were cracks in the rails. Train companies could not simply stop running services while the entire network was checked. But what they could do is have the rains running at half the speed they would do normally. So my ride to London was reduced to a 30mph speed limit, doubling the length of an already long trip – there and back. Trains were cancelled, station concourses teemed with despairing passengers in varying states of despair and resignation. I can clearly recall being unable to even get into the station for the crowds of people waiting more in hope than expectation that a train would arrive to (eventually) take them to where they needed to be. Finding a seat on a train was no guarantee either. I can still recall like it was last week finally sitting on a train that would take me home after somehow having done a day’s work only to hear an announcement to say that that train would not be going anywhere and that the train 3 platforms away would be leaving for home right then. I remember running to get there only to join crowds 3 deep waiting for a train, any train, to appear. And then there was another announcement about another train on another platform … and the crowd surged again. I can’t recall what happened next, but you get the picture. This situation continued for weeks, months as the tracks were checked and repairs made.

There have not been any derailments, no passengers killed or injured. But the same uncertainty and unpredictability is there, coming back in waves every working day. And all this and I only have to travel 3 days per week. And it’s not a busy commuter line on the scale of those journeys to London that I used to make 5 days per week.


Yes, I remember the place –

The station. One dull afternoon

The train drew up there



Before the town was reached

From the windows I saw

The usual picture-postcard scenery.

The sheep – cropped fields revealed


Not a hint of catastrophe.

A few passengers looked up,

And jolted from a Sunday doze

They saw the place name and froze.


Opposite me a woman wept.

Some people came aboard,

And passed on the baton of heir grief

To those who left. The place’s name


Was not observed by all.

Noses stuck in books some read on

As car parks, new housing. dull fields,

Were quickly passed then gone.

Brian Patten (1946 – )

Here is a link to the historical background to the poem:



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Not Disco

So, the 103rd edition of the Tour de France has come to an end.The riders conquered mountain passes in the Alps and the Pyrenees before the procession to Paris. Kilometre after kilometre of climbing as the air thins, the oxygen supply diminishes. And they are racing. This is not a sponsored bike ride with rest stops and an opportunity to relax along the way. This is hard. But the riders do everything to drag themselves up mountain passes and retain control of the road as they descend at speed, as fast as cars.

As they do everything physically possible to make up into the clouds the riders rise up off their saddles and push harder still on the pedals, their bodies swaying from side to side as they seek to employ their core strength and even the muscles in their arms and shoulders. They call this ‘dancing on the pedals.’ This not aerodynamic, smooth, metronomic pedalling we see when a lone cyclist takes on the challenge of cycling round a track to see how far s/he can go in exactly 1 hour. No, climbing the Pyrenees, in a race, involves swaying and twisting, a lot like on a dance floor.

I went to a Jewish wedding recently. A lot of dancing is involved. Not the dignified waltzing newly weds kind of dancing, No one is asking to have the next dance. It’s circle dancing, men and women dancing separately (in this particular case the two groups were separated by a curtain.) And before you ask – there’s no space here to delve into the whys and wherefores of the cultural practices of orthodox Jews celebrating at weddings. I raise it here because that wedding represented a significant positive shift for me.

In the past I have written about the impact of genocide, in particular, the Holocaust on me. In that post I wrote that ‘the Algerian/French philosopher Albert Camus (1913 – 1960), the only footballer – he played in goal for Racing Universitaire d’Alger – ever to have been awarded the Nobel Prize (for literature, 1957) wrote in ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’: ‘revolt gives life its value.’ What is the connection between mass murder, an existentialist philosopher and dancing at a wedding? It’s like this: My upbringing, especially my idiosyncratic religious practice, is heavily influenced by what happened to my family in the years of European infamy (1933 – 45).

For me, observing Jewish religious rites has been a long series of acts of revolt. The most potent of these  has been dancing at weddings. Why is it that my creaking gyrations on the dance floors of assorted ballrooms, Jewish community venues and synagogues is steeped in such energetic meaning?  Back in the 1980s I read a book called ‘Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust.’ It is a series of short of accounts of the experiences of members of the myriad of Hassidic groups during that deadly era. In one account it is recalled how a survivor of the terrors of one of the death marches that took place in the months before the end of the war, who, despite missing toes from frostbite, made it his practice to dance at weddings despite the physical pain that doing so caused to his feet. This response to such suffering pierced me. It has stayed with me. It lives in me as an outstanding feat of resistance, a positive response to his pain, sorrow and loss. At  a distance of 0ver 70 years my response has been to dance … vengefully. A  revolt against annihilation.

Annihilation. A revolt against suicide, the ultimate destruction of the suffering that is life. It is my decision to act in the present moment, to risk celebrating the continuation of the life cycle in public, to stand up and dance on the pedals.

This Room

This room is breaking out,

Of itself, cracking through

Its own walls

In search of space, light,

Empty air.


The bed is lifting out of

Its nightmares

From dark corners, chairs

Are rising up to crash through clouds.


This is the time and place

To be alive:

When the daily furniture of our lives

Stirs, when the improbable arrives.

Pots and pans bang together

In celebration, clang

Past the crowd of garlic, onions, spices,

Fly by the ceiling fan.

No one is looking for the door.

In all this excitement

I’m wondering where

I’ve left my feet, and why

My hands are outside, clapping.


Imtiaz Dharker (1954 – )




Posted in Cycling, dancing, Depression, Genocide, Holocaust, Mental Health, mental illness, Mindfulness, Poetry, Suicide | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The Wrong Bus

Yes, despite what the title seems to suggest, this is a blog about cycling and mental health.

So why the reference to public transport all of a sudden? I took a bus yesterday – a couple of them, in fact. I didn’t see cyclists pedalling along through the rain – streaked windows. I wasn’t musing on the fluidity of movement that cycling brings in comparison with the shuddering, groaning and wheezing of that most asthmatic of vehicles – the bus.  No, I wasn’t thinking, in any depth, about anything at all. Nothing Mindful about that; just so many rivulets of skull – based activity that eventually settled into a pool of flaccid, of soon to be forgotten, angst.

I caught the wrong bus. I misread the arrivals board, or the number on the front of the first bus that arrived, just as I made it out of the rain and into the bus shelter. It took about 20 minutes before it dawned on me that I had jumped on the wrong bus.

For those of you reading this in Barbados or Equatorial Guinea it may be difficult to understand, but this British ‘summer’ has been very, very wet. When it should be, well, what we like to call barbeque weather. I like to call myself an all weather cyclist. Actually, I’m fast becoming a no weather cyclist. I have been driven away from doing the one thing that best promotes my good mental health. And it’s been going on for a while now. I volunteered to help marshal the London to Brighton sponsored bike ride (a life – changing 60 mile event that I rode 10 times in 11 years between 2001 – 20011.) Came the day, and I just didn’t show up. I knew that they were short of volunteers, and I still stayed away. I’ve volunteered a couple of times to make sure riders don’t take a wrong turning, calling out encouragement to the most ragged looking of the trailing pack. But not turning up this time round didn’t so much as create a ripple on the calm waters of my conscience. That afternoon I found myself in the passenger seat of my wife’s car going for drive in the countryside. A drive? This something we never do. We had to change our route. A couple of roads were closed …. to allow for the sponsored bike ride that I had ridden 10 times in 11 years, and that day had not bothered to help organise.

Amid all the fanfare of my going back to work this week after 4 weeks off sick with depression, catching the wrong bus yesterday reminded me just how far in the wrong direction I have allowed myself to stray these past few weeks. It feels like I am in such a poor state that I can’t even get it right when I am recognising that I can’t do the things that are good for me, that I love. Yes, that’s cycling I’m talking about. It’s like my psychiatrist increasing my dose of Quetiapine (a mood stabiliser) as he did a few weeks ago, and my not swallowing the extra pills. Actually, I have been taking the extra pills. I’m treating them like they’re working. If not chemically, then mentally, at least. If you think this post is rambling and drooling, you might just be right.

Today I took another bus. This time I checked and checked again, that it was the correct bus before getting on. Little did I know there was a diversion. After a while I looked out of the window and I saw unfamiliar sights. The wrong bus … again! I staggered to the front and sked the driver. He told me about the diversion, and that, yes, this was the bus I wanted.

I haven’t cycled – even a short trip in and out of town – for a few days now. But today, despite everything that I am going through, I did take the right bus.



Let me do my work each day;

and if the darkened hours of despair overcome me,

may I not forget the strength that comforted me

in the desolation of other times.

May I still remember the bright hours

that found me walking over the silent hills of my childhood,

or dreaming on the margin of a quiet river,

when a light glowed within me,

and I promised my early God to have courage

amid the tempests of the changing years.


Spare me from bitterness and from the sharp passions of unguarded moments.

May I not forget that poverty and riches are of the spirit.

Though the world knows me not,

may my thoughts and actions be such

as shall keep me friendly with myself.


Lift up my eyes from the earth,

and let me not forget the uses of the stars.

Forbid that I should judge others lest I condemn myself.


Let me not follow the clamour of the world,

but walk calmly in my path.

Give me a few friends who will love me for what I am;

and keep ever burning before my vagrant steps the kindly light of hope.


And though age and infirmity overtake me,

and I come not within sight of the castle of my dreams,

teach me still to be thankful for life,

and for time’s olden memories that are good and sweet;

and may the evening’s twilight find me gentle still.

Max Ehrmann (1872 – 1945)







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Atlas Shrugged

These past few weeks, the skies above my head have been belligerent. Normally an all – weather cyclist this British summer has turned me into a 6 miles rider. The longest trip is an urban – to and from the centre of town. The traffic lights, the pedestrian crossings, the cycle lanes have left me sweat – less. That’s not much to be going on if I’m going to post a new edition of my cycling/mental health blog now is it?

Or is it?

The weather analogy has served these pages well enough in the past, and so I will call upon them again today. On Thursday 26 May I saw my psychiatrist for my regular appointment (around 4 times a year) and it took him a mere 15 minutes of that 30 minute appointment to sign me off work for a fortnight. 2 weeks later when he saw me for a follow up appointment he signed me off for a further fortnight. And it is from there that I write to you today. I was confident that this was just a blip. I would bounce back after that first 2 weeks and so I made a plan of how I would return to work. Adjust my hours, do 2 days a week, rather than my usual 3, for a bit. Ease myself back in by attending this meeting, skipping that one. Spend a carefree afternoon working from home trawling through emails. I emailed my boss with the plan. She sounded positive. I sent her my Fit Note signing me off for a fortnight. And that, I supposed was that.


But by the time I came to be sitting in my psychiatrist’s office a fortnight later we both knew I wouldn’t be going back as soon as I had planned. I felt relieved, disappointed, guilty and a whole lot of confusion about all those feeling as they jostled for my attention. I knew that I wasn’t going back to work the following Monday because I had failed (yes, that is the right word here) to do what I had needed to in order to drag myself up the hill and out from under those skies. Cycling? Not so much. In and out of town. It made for variety in my otherwise cumbersome days. 12 hours of sleep most nights, and even then the mornings were blurred with fatigue. Upping my dose of mood stabiliser, my most trusted friend in these circumstances, failed to show up.

And so it goes. This week will be different. I will lurch back onto my bike, heave those cycle routes books and maps out of that draw and set off somewhere – anywhere – that is not here.

But then again I might not.

Those skies are on my shoulders, I move and they will surely fall. But amidst all that aching responsibility, all that effort it takes to breath as I sit, my feet still. I sigh, I cry out in frustration and I hold my breath. And then, when all is lost, I shrug my shoulders and I’m ready to let the skies come crashing down.

These days, these nights, this sleep, this waking. The colours of the sky outside, the wet, the dry: its like all the times preceding this I will trust the skies once more. And that is all the hope I have.


Stay near to me and I’ll stay near to you –
As near as you are dear to me will do,
Near as the rainbow to the rain,
The west wind to the windowpane,
As fire to the hearth, as dawn to dew.
Stay true to me and I’ll stay true to you –
As true as you are new to me will do,
New as the rainbow in the spray,
Utterly new in every way,
New in the way that what you say is true.
Stay near to me, stay true to me. I’ll stay
As near, as true to you as heart could pray.
Heart never hoped that one might be
Half of the things you are to me –

The dawn, the fire, the rainbow and the day.

James Fenton (1949 – )


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My Advice

Which route to ride? This is a question that comes up regularly for me. And sometimes it doesn’t. I used to consult my collection of maps and cycling routes books and decide that way. A whole variety of rides, some starting locally, some I would take a train to the start of the route. At some point I stopped consulting them. No map required since I knew my favourite rides by heart. I mislaid the books. They sat in a drawer, untouched. Gradually the familiar routes were forgotten. I would ride just one or two different routes – both headed north on the same roads for 5 miles or so before splitting off in different directions. The same lanes, the same hedgerows, the same fields, the same horses, the same sheep.

Recently I came across those maps and books. And, yes, I have been out on one of those rides I had forgotten. But only one. But they’ve sat in the drawer again since then. It was weeks and weeks ago that I went on that ride. A couple of weeks since I’ve been on a ride of any distance, really, except for those trips into town and back. They help, sure. But they’re also part of the problem.

I know what’s good for me and I’m not doing it. And I need to be. Last week my psychiatrist signed me off work for 2 weeks. I’ll see him next week to decide whether I’m fit to return to the world of helping folks in their respective recovery journeys.

The depression is back.

I knew it was coming and I kept on going, regardless. Winston Churchill – himself a sufferer of severe depression – once said ‘when the going gets tough, keep going.’ I am reluctant to criticise a fellow sufferer, but I have never agreed with this maxim. It just seems too, too … macho, somehow. It doesn’t speak of change, it doesn’t speak of how weakened we are by the ‘Black Dog’ – his expression – to personify this most canine of maladies. It doesn’t speak of the need for outside help when our own mental and physical resources are so compromised. I think he forgot that we can’t all lead a country to victory in a world war while laid low, as he was, with depression.

When things are on the slide the best thing to do is to pause. I’m not saying drop everything and slow down. No, what I’m saying is call upon what works. Call upon what and who has worked before. I  realise that I am talking like you have the energy and will power to take these steps. I need to stop pedalling and free – wheel a little here. I know well how crushing solutions and advice, even good advice can be – especially when we have nothing left to act in our own interest. I know from my own experience that motivational quotes and stories of triumph over adversity only serve to remind me of how alienated we are from, well, everything.

flat tyre

And then there’s the debilitating optimism of people who want to help (please don’t) with nuggets such as ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.’ Really? I think it just makes us weaker. Or that sunny practice of counting one’s blessings. In a recent personal audit of my own blessings I counted, oooh, lots. Double figures. Helpful, yes? Dispiriting is putting a positive spin of what I feel when I think of everything and everyone I have to be grateful for. The gravelly feel of guilt, more like. All these riches, like my bicycle, as useless as its pedals, its chain, its saddle at times like these.

Punch and Judy

He feels so old, something primordial,

something that surfaced through the permafrost

sliding blindly towards warmth …

Icy against her back: she dreams herself

diving through breakers in the winter sea.


Rain at three, rain again at seven,

Hanging leaden in the tiny square.

Dawn after dawn – detriutis from the whirlpool,

the spars and splinters of  shipwreck.

Walls of water roar beside the windows.


The girl’s blonde head is drawn

into a caul of weed

and her long legs trawl the dark.

His shoulders rap the sea bed. There comes

a noise like singing as their bodies sunder.


Picked over by dabbing fish …

her plump lips on his face and on his neck,

dampness of her hair uncoiling.

His mind comes loose: he sees a figure

out on the drowning streets,


camouflaged by morning twilight,

watching the room, his eyes

luminous, like an assassin’s.

Her shadow runs on the curtain, then she floats,

a tangle of pink and gold on frosted glass.


Love is his energy and his trap, spurring

the thug beneath the skin: homunculus

hooknosed, hunchbacked …Her voice

rings in the shower … it stirs in its cage of ribs,

inarticulate and murderous and mad.

David Harsent (1942 – )


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The Peleton

I am someone who has never belonged to a cycling club, who hardly ever – years can go by without it happening – goes cycling with anyone else. Not a groups kinda guy when it comes to turning the pedals, clearly. A cycling club for people with have mental health problems? Well, there’s an idea whose time, it appears, has yet to come if my 5 minute internet search is anything to go by.

But when it comes to mental health recovery, it’s a different matter. Groups have played a pivotal role in my recovery. Peer support groups, that is. The first peer – led support group that I ever went to was in Westminster, central London. It was a 100 mile round trip (by train). Although so fragile was I back then – 2001 – that it pretty much felt like I did the trip on my bike.

What did I find there? A group of strangers from all walks of life, and all stages of recovery. We would go round the group and introduce ourselves. There were a disproportionate number of civil servants, I recall. But seeing that it was near the seat of government, that wasn’t such a surprise, I guess. The group facilitator – a peer, of course – was a guy called Richard. What remember best about him was that he would wear shorts that were a size (or two) small for him. What do I remember from those weekly meetings? Practically nothing – except that a few of us would decamp afterwards to a local pub and do convincing impersonations of a group of friends without a single mental health problem between them. And that is what I took away from those meetings. Acceptance, acceptance, acceptance. No one judged, no one was ever rejected by the group, and those who made the meeting unsafe by overstepping the group guidelines were asked to leave. Actually, I only remember this happening with one person. He was a regular and he used to bring a half finished bottle of spirits into the meeting in a brown paper bag. He always took it well, left, only to return the following week, paper bag in hand and leave when Richard asked him to.

Image result for paris roubaix riding on cobbles in the rain

I attended that group for at least a year, using my annual season ticket (I was running a mental health day centre in north London) when I was first diagnosed with depression.

But that wasn’t the only peer support group I was involved with. I became a member of the leading U.K. charity Depression Alliance ( and became a member of their online support group. It helped me to keep a foothold in the world when days would go by without me leaving the house, or feed the cat. Days when (my wife was a way on business) a friend would pick up the children and take them to school because I didn’t even have that in me.

Since then I have attended peer support groups for depression – facilitated a Depression Alliance one in my home town for a year. Since my proper diagnosis (Manic Depression) I attend the local monthly peer – led group.

Although I am open about my mental health, and my openness has been met with good responses, I still cringe at those who express their admiration at the way I am prepared to talk about it. When I do choose to talk about my mental health publicly, on civvy street, I talk like it’s cancer. Remember when that was a taboo subject?

Let a Place be Made

Let a place be made for the one who draws near,

the one who is deprived of any home,


tempted by the sound of a lamp, by the lit

threshold of a solitary house.


And if he is still exhausted, full of anguish,

say again for him the words that heal.


What does his heart which once was silence need

if not those words which are both sigh and prayer,


like a fire caught sight of in the sudden night,

like the table glimpsed in a poor house?

Yves Bonnefoy (1923 – )




Posted in Bi Polar Disorder, cancer, Cycling, Depression, Depression Alliance, Mental Health, mental illness, Peer Support, Poetry, self help groups | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brain – Lock


A few weeks ago my bike lock gave up the ghost. It was what we professionals call a D lock – with a little imagination they kind of look like the letter D. It happened at a most inconvenient time. I was trying to lock my bike up before getting the train to work. Luckily, they allow bikes on the route I take at that time of the morning – it’s not a major commuter line. Once I arrived at my destination I rode to the nearest bike shop and enquired as to the future possibilities for said lock. The knowing look on the face of the mechanic told me all I needed to know. £44.99 later I was the proud owner of a cumbersome  chain – lock.

So, these heavy duty, pricey bike locks are pretty effective. It’s a case of you get what you pay for. But that has never stopped me from worrying. Every time I lock up my bike – and this has been going on for as long as I can remember – I don’t trust myself. Did I lock it properly? Was I in such a rush (running late for my train in the morning) that I just forgot. Or – in my mind – I just wrap the lock round the frame of the bike, without actually looping it around the bike stand. I walk away to catch my train/go to the shops/visit a friend, glancing back to see that I actually tied it up right. I’ll go back to double check, jerking the lock about just to be sure. Once I rang my son from the train and asked him to get out of bed, get on his bike and go and check that I had actually locked it up (I had, he texted me a photo.)

Now I want to make one thing very clear. I am absolutely not claiming O.C.D. for myself. I am certainly not trying to suggest that Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is on some kind of a spectrum. Nope. I do not think for one moment that the anxiety I feel about whether or not I have locked my bike up makes my thoughts into some kind of disorder. But what I do think it does is give me some insight into what folks who are plagued by O.C.D.

These thoughts, uncertainty don’t apply to anything else. I never worry that I have left the cooker on, or that I forgot to lock the front door.

According to the American psychiatrist Jeffery Schwartz, this compulsion which says ‘I just want to make sure’ is what drives the disorder. He talks (and writes about) the technique of re -labelling to help manage these intrusive, demanding thoughts that so constrain the ability of sufferers to lead fuller lives. He gives an example of this approach to challenging obsessive thoughts in the following way. He suggests that the person who is having such obsessive thoughts leading them to check and re – check, to clean or wash repeatedly, instead of distraction techniques should notice what is happening and acknowledge it. So, one might say ‘I’m having an obsessive thought that is making it feel like ….. ‘

He follows this with the idea of re – attributing these compelling feelings as being symptoms of a disease. So, for example one might say, ‘It’s not me that’s feeling worried, it’s just my O.C.D.’ I don’t know much else about his work, and as I have said earlier, I am no authority on this topic. However, I wonder if elsewhere he challenges the notion, implicit in the quote above. that we own our mental illnesses. Isn’t there a danger that we see it as an intrinsic part of ourselves and that just makes it harder for us to disconnect from the troubling symptoms?

Out There

Do they ever meet out there,

The dolphins I counted,

The otter I wait for?

I should have spent my life

Listening to the waves.

Michael Longley (1939 – )








Posted in anxiety, Bi Polar Disorder, bicycle mechanics, Cycle safety, Cycling, Mental Health, mental illness, O.C.D., Poetry | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment