At this time of year, in this part of the world, we are emerging from the winter. While it may not mean such severe weather as in some parts of the world, every year, in some part of these islands, roads become impassable. Public transport stops, and schools are closed. I get to ‘work from home’ for a day or two.
What does this mean for cyclists? Well, we don’t put chains on our tyres like they do in places like Canada and Scandinavia. Some people walk, some take the bus, and others get back in their cars.
And some of us, making our own weather, stay home.
I pride myself in being an all – weather cyclist, wearing base layers, seal skin gloves, a neck warmer and even – in extremis – a lycra balaclava. Yes, it sounds as bad as it looks.
I am writing this on Purim – a minor post – biblical festival. The connection? It is traditional to dress up, wear masks, a bit of cross – dressing is not unusual.
Masks. Dressing up to appear as someone we are not. Having fun on this day whatever the mental weather. Sound familiar? This ability, this ‘putting on a brave face’, is fundamental to some forms of mental illness. Expressions of shock and sorrow at the suicide of someone you know. ‘S/he seemed so cheerful’. ‘S/he was so engaging and kind.’ Or ‘s/he didn’t seem the type.’
‘The type.’ Perhaps I’m being unfair. I often have conversations with people I am supporting in their recovery from enduring mental health problems that go something like this: ‘I can’t understand why my friends won’t support me.’ Or ‘my girlfriend knows I suffer from [dear reader insert name of a mental illness here] but she doesn’t notice when I am struggling.’ In a clumsy attempt to lighten the mood (a high – risk strategy, believe me) I will say something along the lines of – ‘well, none of us are mind readers’.
There is no ‘type’. I have known people with mental health problems who are 6ft 4″ (1m 93cm), 5ft 1″ (1m 55cm) have straight blonde hair, curly brown hair, halitosis, teeth whitening, have lived for years on a locked ward of a psychiatric hospital plus several doctors. And a surprisingly high number of civil servants. But we have one thing in common – we all put on an act. There some days I turn up to work and I hesitate at the door, my hand gripping the handle just ever so slightly too hard, and hyperventilating for good measure. I am about to let go of the handle and run – hurtle – back down the corridor and away when someone appears at the edge of my vision walking towards me, so I arrange my face, turn the handle and lean forward into the day.
While I am able to trick my colleagues most of the time, this practice of carrying on regardless is dangerous indeed. Not only are we not actively seeking help and support, we are preventing those around us who would offer help if only they knew. we are getting closer to becoming the subject of one of those conversations of disbelief I mentioned earlier.
I was about to unclench my fist and get my finger wagging kit on just then. There’s a reason for turning so readily to the dressing up box. Stigma. What people say about us – and what they don’t. Better break out the face mask, the blusher, eye liner, lipstick and lean forward into the night.
I wake up and say: I’m through.
It’s my first thought at dawn.
What a nice way to start the day
with such a murderous thought.
God take pity on me
– is the second thought, and then
I get out of bed
and live as if
nothing had been said.
Nina Cassian (1924 – 2014)