As I have said many times since I started writing this blog back in the summer of 2010, I am not a whippet thin racing cyclist riding a top of the range racing bike, chewing up miles every week wearing clipless shoes.
But actually, I am
I am Charly Gaul,* winner of the Tour de France 1958, King of the Mountains 1955 and 1956. Winner of the Giro d’Italia and King of the Mountains 1956 and 1959. I was known as the Angel of the Mountains.
Some of you will be feeling distinctly confused and uneasy, to say the least. Some of you will say you know me, readers who have never met me will find this creepy.
Charly Gaul died in 2006.
While I never post pictures of myself on the blog for aesthetic reasons, some of you will have guessed from posts over the past 3 plus years that I do not weigh 65 kgs. Sometimes the only riding I do in a week is the 3 miles to and from the station 3 days a week to go to work…as a mental health worker.
So what’s all this about?
It’s about one of the single most significant and challenging symptoms in the miserable world of mental health problems. It is virtually unique in that it is almost impossible for someone experiencing these symptoms to realise what is happening and so take steps to address them, or be willing to take part in treatment willingly. This often means being taken to a psychiatric hospital against their will for long periods.
Psychosis. That’s what’s happening when you see people walking along the street muttering to themselves. This is what you don’t see: Those same voices keep people from going out, eating, washing. Psychosis means that it feels like there are messages being directed at them personally via the television or radio. Psychosis hits the headlines from time to time when someone kills themselves because of what those of us in the trade call Command Hallucinations. And most often when someone is detained in a Special Hospital for the ‘criminally insane’ (as they are called in the U.K.) for having killed someone as a result of these hallucinations.
What is often overlooked when thinking, talking and writing about hearing voices is the possibility that some of what these voices are saying is in fact positive.
And that’s how it is with me.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not claiming to be the most famous cyclist to come out of Luxembourg in the twentieth century. And yes, he did indeed die in 2006. But there are elements of who he was and what he achieved that I can identify with. Riding a bike – however distant my kind of cycling is from what he used to do racing up Alpine passes – makes me imagine a different me – a radically different me – one that is totally unrealistic.
So why do I do it?
I think it has to do with the importance of reimaging myself and in so doing allowing for the possibility that things can be different – that I can be different. I don’t mean that I could somehow become an elite racing cyclist winning Grand Tours and being King of the Mountains (although I must confess that some years ago I did buy a polka dot lycra jersey – not a pretty sight.) What it means is that I can be better than I am, feel pride in somewhat more everyday achievements, and recognise some other ones as more meaningful than I might otherwise.
There is something called the Jerusalem Syndrome; the phenomenon of people arriving in Israel and during their stay having a psychotic episode in which they believe they are the Messiah. This kind of belief is seen by some to represent the archetype of mental illness of the most raw and severe type. One might say that such a person is quite literally ‘out of his (or her) mind’.
I want to suggest a different, more hopeful slant. Could it be that such a person is striving to exert a measure of control over their thoughts and feelings which are spiralling out of control? Might it be that the sense of being powerful, revered as someone who is a saviour, with healing powers, is a way of not only trying to convince themselves that they do have the ability, the inner resources, to master their challenging internal reality, but also a wish to be taken seriously, as someone with some power and autonomy – a contrast to being helpless, and being controlled both chemically and physically by the medical establishment.
Wouldn’t it be better if those of us working in the field of mental health tried not to dismiss these declarations of a new different and powerful identity, but take notice of them and engage with such a person in order to signal that there is some recognition of the way the powerless patient might be feeling?
That way I still have a chance to ride in the mountains.
Much Madness is Divinest Sense
Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –
Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)
* Pronounced Ghoul