Pedro Delgado (winner of the 1988 edition of the Tour de France) used to talk about the disparity between the number of kilometres set by the Tour organisers and the number of kilometres they actually had to ride. Warming up before the start of the stage, rides down to the hotel after mountain top stage finishes, and (in that era) rides back to the team hotel.
And so it is with me.
Mental illness is known as ‘the invisible illness’. How often have I heard fellow sufferers complain about the lack of an outward manifestation of mental illness, like a plaster cast, or a bandage?
I have written about the dangers that having no outward physical sign of depressive illness can have last March, in the edition called ‘The Mask’. (You can read that blog by going to the archive section.) This time I want to expand on that topic.
In the blog edition called ‘Yellow’ I spoke about shying away from the spotlight during depression, withdrawing from life, compared to the importance of high visibility when cycling on the road. But it’s not exactly that kind of visibility that I want to tackle here. Instead, I want to speak about the ‘invisible miles’ that we have to travel in order to accomplish the most mundane of tasks.
Many has been the time – I am not proud to admit – that I have promised to clear up the kitchen, do the laundry or make the bed. I am at home all day, while my better half is at work. By the end of the day there have been times that unpacking the dishwasher has been the extent of my domestic accomplishments. I used to say that I wouldn’t lie on my deathbed rueing the fact that I hadn’t done enough housework during my life. I understand better now the impact that my behavior has on those I love, and I accept now that I don’t want to be on my death-bed rueing the lost opportunities to do what my beloved has asked me to, and I had failed to do.
The failure to embark upon the most mundane and routine of tasks is frustrating to say the least for those around us – we are not paralysed from the neck down, after all. True, but it often feels like we are paralysed from the neck up when we are going through the worst of times.
It’s like cycling into a strong headwind.
Looking out of the window of a passing car at a cyclist heaving the frame of their bike along a flat stretch of road at little more than walking pace is difficult to comprehend from the comfort of a passing car or bus, that outside – in the weather – it’s much harder to make progress than it looks. The cyclist looks lean, the bike top of the range, but still the struggle.
But there are ways of coping with the invisible challenges of mental illness. I like to think of some strategies for coping as the aerodynamic approach. Regular readers of this blog will recall Graeme Obree. He was a pioneer in the 1990s of the aerodynamic position in the saddle. In fact, so effective was his bike design, and position on the bike, that the world cycling body banned it. The aerodynamic approach simply means positioning yourself as low as possible over the handle bars, to create the lest resistance between you, the bike, and the air in front of you. Professional cyclists spend hours and hours practising and perfecting their position on the bike in this way.
How does aerodynamics translate into the challenging world of someone like me for whom every day bulges with a cacophony of irritability, mood spikes, and racing thoughts; not to mention the grandiose musings on all manner of topics, about which I know next to nothing?
It’s like this: Once I have screwed up every sinew in my mind to focus on something, I try to concentrate on just one thing – be it an activity like writing an email at work, or making a cup of tea, or (I kid you not) putting on my fingerless cycling gloves, and helmet before a ride. The rest of the world can go hang. If I fail to do this sparks fly, and an irritable rash crackles through my mind, and most often ends up as expletives at the top of my voice, followed by much slamming of doors, and banging of fists on tables.
And you thought I was such a nice guy.
Lists are another low – tech way of pinning down my world into a place I can get things done. Just do one at a time. If I can’t prioritize I just work down the list as far as I can, making sure to tick off tasks as they’re finished.
You may be surprised to hear that the phrase ‘snap out of it! ‘is a sentiment I sign up to. Rather than decrying it as showing a total lack of understanding of the challenges that poor mental health brings, I find that it is an effective technique to bring me round from that most pernicious of habits: ruminating. This is the Broken Record Syndrome – a reference some younger readers my find mystifying, alas. In other words getting stuck on a particular unhelpful thought or feeling and going over it time after time after time. To what end? Precisely. And it’s those kind of gnawing circular thought patterns that need to be snapped out of.
Things take time. This is something that is blindingly obvious to those of you whose minds are not constantly churning away with thoughts, ideas, and plans, all of which seem attractive, inspiring, and things that should be done right away, and hang the consequences. It’s something I have only recently discovered, and doing things thoroughly, well, or with attention to detail, does take time. And concentration – quite often to the exclusion of all else.
Then there are the untold benefits of doing nothing at all. This is not to be confused with ruminating, as described above. No, I mean the subtle art of stepping off one’s personal treadmill – whatever hum-drum aspects of life we can all become caught up in – and taking in the Here and Now; taking a moment to soak up our surroundings, appreciate and notice where we are. I find that staring out of the window is as good a place to start as any.
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
William Henry Davies (1871 -1940)