There are 3 positions on my bicycle. There is my impersonation of the sprinter in the final 200 metres, hunched over the handle bars, aerodynamic. There is me more upright, hands on the ‘hoods’ – that’s the drop handlebars by the gear shifters – as I climb the hills. And finally, there’s me with my hands draped over the centre of the handlebars, rolling along on the flat with no place I need to be.
Those 3 options cover everything when I’m sitting in the saddle. Other bicycles have fewer options. Most bicycles have just 1 option. You hold the handlebars and steer using one posture. Take the ‘sit up and beg’ model. The handlebars are further apart and, crucially, they turn inwards towards the rider which forces him/her (usually her, for some reason), to sit upright. No begging involved, in fact. This posture, while much kinder to the back and shoulders, means that it is much, much harder to go really fast; which is kind of the point for these machines. They’re a more Mindful ride, I guess.
Bicycles force us to change our posture, which is so far from how change in mental health recovery happens.
It reminds me of what that hairy, flouncy shirt wearing, agrarian scribbler Leo Tolstoy wrote about the distinctiveness of distress in his 1878 novel, Anna Karenina: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
I’m thinking, really, of individuals, rather than families, here. Ever since I was first set adrift on choppy waters, under a moody sky, I have attended peer – led support groups. They have been a key part of my journey of recovery from then on. While these groups – in my case a depression support group, and since 2010, one for people with Bi Polar Affective Disorder – are aimed at supporting people with certain mental illnesses, the members of such groups share a certain amount of experience. This means that there is a basic level of acceptance amongst members – even those new to such groups, or who choose not to say much about what’s going on for them. As someone who has facilitated such groups from time to time over the years (currently a weekly depression support group under the umbrella of the U.K. charity Depression Alliance (www.depressionalliance.org.) I am a firm believer that there is a residual benefit to such groups. Simply attending such groups has a therapeutic effect.
However, I have always been struck, each and every time, by the diversity of experience. Sure, there are universal themes: triggers such as anniversaries, for example. But there is always the personal. There is always what happened to me – and not anyone else, no matter how much others’ experiences resonate. It is in the telling and the retelling of our stories that change emerges. For the retelling is like water washing over pebbles and stones, for millennia: it smooths shapes in ways we cannot anticipate.
Like this, I check my lights, touch the handlebars and step on the pedals again, and again, and again.
We grow accustomed to the Dark –
When light is put away –
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye –
A Moment – We uncertain step
For newness of the night –
Then – fit our Vision to the Dark –
And meet the Road – erect –
And so of larger – Darknesses –
Those Evenings of the Brain –
When not a Moon disclose a sign –
Or Star – come out – within –
The Bravest – grope a little –
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead –
But as they learn to see –
Either the Darkness alters –
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight –
And Life steps almost straight.
Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)