‘What kind of bike do you ride?’ ‘Where do you ride?’ ‘When did you start cycling?’ and ‘would you like to go on a ride with me sometime?’ are just some of the questions that people have asked me over the years about my life on two wheels.
The most thought – provoking question that I have ever been asked – ‘what do you think about when you are cycling?’ in part led me to start writing this blog as an attempt to answer that enquiry.
In the Jewish calendar we have just entered a time of questions, too. The festival of Pesach (Passover in English) began on Friday night. Jews around the world sit down to festive meals to remember the Exodus from Egypt. The core of the rituals surrounding these meals are questions. Children traditional ask questions about why we are doing what we are doing – ‘why is this night different from all other nights?’ Aside from that certain foods are eaten with the express purpose of promoting the asking of questions –‘why do we begin the meal by eating parsley dipped in salt water?’ The answer to this question is generally well-known, but it is there to trigger a questioning attitude.
And the questions don’t stop there, and they are not restricted to the questions that are part of the ritual. Participants engage in a long night of exploring the issue of personal freedom and what it means to them as individuals. Participants are commanded by the text we read during the evening to see themselves anew, as though they themselves were slaves in Egypt under Pharaoh, and they, too, were delivered to freedom – and all that entails – by the Almighty.
Symbolic foods are eaten on these nights, and throughout the week-long festival, to remind us and to focus our attention on the need for us to examine our lives from the stand point of free, responsible members of society. To throw of mental and physical enslavement, be it addiction to cigarettes and alcohol for example, or unhelpful patterns of behaviour or values that have become rusty.
The point of the proceedings is remembrance, personal change and development.
And so it is with mental health recovery. Questions have a malign edge to them when I am at a low ebb. Existential questions appear suddenly, and crumble into despair just as quickly into a stagnant pool of meaninglessness. Analysis of such noble questions as ‘why am I here?’ or ‘What constitutes The Good Life?’ slides away as depression grasps these themes and smears them with feelings rather than rational thought.
People like me get asked all sorts of questions about feelings, too. My doctors aren’t going to engage me in a discussion of The Meaning of Life. None of them are going to quote Socrates, Plato, Schoepaneur or Sartre to me in a bid to encourage me to understand why I feel as I do at my lowest point. But they will ask me questions. Eighteen of them, to be exact. The Goldberg Scale is a list of salient questions that was developed by the psychiatrist Ivan K Goldberg to help ascertain if the patient is suffering from depression.
The questions focus on physical symptoms, such as low levels of energy, disturbed sleep, or excessive sleep, for example. They don’t ask you about Life After Death, or The Suffering of the Righteous. Once a diagnosis of depression has been confirmed via this kind of questioning there’s opportunity to access treatments that delve into our thinking patterns. Cognitive behavioural Therapy (C.B.T.) aims to help us re-evaluate the negative thought patterns that characterise depression and associated disorders. This approach aims to look at the present and future, rather than reflect on past experiences in the way that other ‘talking treatments’, such as Psychotherapy, does. For me this approach runs the risk of putting to one side valid outlooks on life such as pessimism and cynicism. These views may appear damp and unappealing to many, but are they really just muddled thinking?
In earlier editions of this blog I have waxed lyrical about Mindfulness. But is that approach just avoiding thinking about challenging, painful topics, burying them, and failing to understand and engage with them? Focusing on neutral aspects of existence such as one’s breath – as Mindful practice calls us to do – doesn’t that just put off dealing with stubborn issues that are bound to stir someday and gnaw at our shins until we address them?
Back in the twentieth century, when I worked in a mental health Day Centre in London there was a man, I’ll call him The Marathon Man, who used to run marathons for charity. He raised thousands of pounds every year running in races of 26.2 miles. He told me what had started him on his marathon running career. He had been a patient in an old – style mental hospital on the edge of London. He had been there for months – against his will kept there by the hospital’s powers as found in Section 3 of the Mental Health Act 1983. His running began one day when he quite literally ran away from the hospital, and just kept running. Eventually he was found and brought back to the hospital. It wasn’t long before he was off again…and again…and again. Eventually he was released from hospital, and so began his marathon running for Good Causes. A positive, heart – warming story? Up to a point. At the time I couldn’t help wondering if, rather than running to somewhere ( as in his marathon running) he was still running away from somewhere, or something.
And it’s like that with my cycling. It’s always ‘where to?’ rather than ‘where from?’ The ‘why’of my cycling, my mental inner tubes, so to speak, only get my attention when they puncture. And even then am I reflecting on the ‘why?’ that the pause that punctures afford me, or am I cursing my luck, caught in the swirling chaos of my burning impulses?
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985)