Cycling during the winter requires a certain dedication – and I don’t just mean hoping on your bike to go down to the shops. Choosing to brave the icy winds at this time of year, on a ride of 20 miles or more, when stopping for a breather on the side of the road means that you can actually see your breath in clouds of vapour, makes you a member of a certain kind of masochistic club.
There is much we can say about pain and suffering in cycling, but there is one particular form of agony that I connect with this time of year. That is the lack of feeling in my hands, feet and face. Sometimes it is so cold, I complain of feeling like ‘my face is falling off’. This winter I finally succumbed and bought a lycra balaclava. One thing this cyclist is not concerned about is how he looks.
The way I keep circulation going in my hands is to change my position on the handlebars regularly; sometimes I am crouched low over the handlebars, sometimes sitting up with my hands resting on the top of the frame. As for my feet, despite wearing two pairs of socks, I regularly need to give my feet a good shake from time to time. I have the weird sensation of being able to pedal, but being unable to feel anything below my knees.
One of the symptoms that people who take anti depressants – and I have found much the same in the past few months with the new mood stabiliser that I am on – is a lack of feeling of any kind of emotion at all, a kind of mental numbness. The overriding feeling is one of ‘going through the motions’. On the face of it I am engaged in all sorts of activities: reading a novel, baking bread, watching T.V., or cooking a meal. But I am doing so as an actor might repeat his lines and act out scenes on stage. To the audience his performance might look and sound authentic, but to the actor himself, his skill is to conceal the fact that after so many nights he is in fact going through the motions. The audience might have their hearts in it, but he is only pretending to do so, and therein lies part of the actor’s art.
While numbness implies the absence of pain, with regard to the chemical numbness I feel, it does not take away the awareness of numbness. So, while I don’t feel suicidal, I also feel no enthusiasm for anything, either. In fact, I feel little interest in anything at all. Activities that I usually enjoy, have been reduced to a matter of going through the motions. I discovered recently that this also applies to cycling. The difficulty with the feeling of detachment that the tablets have given me is that cycling requires a degree of effort, and it is hard to summon up effort when you feel like a spectator. The self-consciousness that it brings to even the most mundane of activities means that my attention is drawn to the physical effort of cycling, the simple act of pedalling, leaving no room for anything else. The countryside loses its colour, the roads, nothing but banal tarmac. Even passing cars only serve to emphasize the disconnectedness of life.
This numbness makes me yearn for real feelings, even ones of pain or sadness – a reminder that I am alive, and not sitting in a tupperware forgotten at the back of the freezer. Although I have never consciously hurt myself, it gives me a small insight into the world of people who harm themselves. The feeling of pain maybe momentary, and soon flooded with regret, but they are a sign of feeling outside the head, a connection with the physical. When I decided to cut short my ride in the cold last week it was not the cold that got the better of me, but my numb mind – a feeling that even cycling failed to shift.
God give me strength to lead a double life.
Cut me in half.
Make each half happy in its own way
with what is left.
Let me disobey
my own best instincts
and do what I want to do, whatever that may be
without regretting it, or thinking that I might.
When I come late at night from home,
saying I have to go away,
remind me to look out the window,
to see which house I’m in.
Pin a smile on my face
when I turn up two weeks later with a tan
and presents for everyone.
Teach me how to stand and where to look
when I say the words
about where I’ve been
and what sort of time I’ve had.
Was it good or bad or somewhere in between?
I’d like to know how I feel about these things,
perhaps you’d let me know?
When it’s time to go to bed in one of my lives,
go ahead of me up the stairs,
shine a light in the corners of my room.
Tell me this: do I wear pajamas here,
or sleep with nothing on?
If you can’t oblige me by cutting me in half,
God give me strength to lead a double life.
Hugo Williams (1942 -)