It was the summer of 2001. I was riding the 60 mile route from London to Brighton, on the south coast, for the first time. I had started cycling, as an adult at least, the previous summer (a fund – raiser for my children’s primary school.)This would be the longest distance I had ridden by a long, long way. I had been diagnosed with depression 4 months earlier and had spent much of the intervening period signed off work and in the care of my psychiatrist, G.P., family and friends. My preparation for the event had consisted of a couple of rides with my friend Ivan who would be joining me, up and down the rolling hills north of my home.
I remember the beginning of the ride, the peleton snaking through the south London suburbs early that sunny Sunday afternoon, before the group thinned out.
Nine miles into the ride I was picking up speed as I swept down a slope. Too late I saw the yellow – clad marshals signalling a left turn at the bottom of the hill. Instead of slowing down, passing the turning and going back, I steered my bike left, made the turn at speed, and came off my bike, landing on the tarmac by a grass verge. A St John’s ambulance paramedic was soon by my side and found me clutching my left arm. He inspected it and declared that since I had not broken the skin I was safe to ride on.
Gingerly I eased my way back on my bike and saw my friend waiting for me at the top of the hill. He had not seen what happened, and being the much fitter one, was waiting for me to catch up.
My left arm was so painful it was all I could do but hold the handlebars. I couldn’t change gear and cycled the remaining 51 miles of that hilly route without moving the chain onto the smallest cog (most useful for tackling the numerous climbs that made up much of the remainder of the route.)
I cycled on because the paramedic told me I could.
On arriving at the seafront not far from home, I dismounted in front of the 3 generations of my family who had come to see me finish and lay flat on my back. By now my left arm was so sore I had to ask for one of them to remove my cycling gloves.
After an uncomfortable night my wife took me to the Accident & Emergency department of our local hospital and the doctor I saw confirmed that I had broken the radius bone at my elbow.
I was my very own hero. I had cycled 51 miles with a broken arm! I have shared that story numerous times over the years, including in the archives of this blog. If cycling has saved my life – as I have claimed from the very first sentence of the first post back in the summer of 2010 – then far from making a mistake, that paramedic gave me the gift of rising: rising far beyond what I thought I could ever achieve. His mistake helped to save my life.
I took part in the ride 12 times in the next 13 years. As I reached double figures the ride became a kind of time trial as I tried to better my performance year on year. It was time to look for other cycling challenges.
In my role as a peer worker, I too have been that paramedic.
Once, I told my story of my recovery to a peer I was supporting in the early stages of his recovery. He had a history of suicide attempts dating back over a decade. Telling my story is something I do all the time in supporting people both individually, and in groups. I’ve been at it for a while.
The next time we met what he said left me as breathless as I was at the end of that ride all those years ago. He told me that what I had described to him of my own experiences on the road to recovery had – quite literally – saved his life. He described how, only days earlier, having said goodnight to his teenage son, he had gone downstairs to his kitchen, had taken the largest knife he could find, lay down on the sofa in his living room and put the blade to his neck. He told me in a voice as steady as the steel on his skin, that it was remembering what I had described of how I cope with my persistent feelings of hopelessness and despair, that had stayed his hand.
There are times when even I have to steady myself. So I excused myself and headed for the toilet where I spent a few minutes controlling my breathing while resting my forehead against the wall repeating over and over again, ‘I saved his life? I saved his life! I saved his life?’ trying to convince myself of what he had just told me.
I composed myself and headed back out into the crowded café. At the end of our time together, as we emerged onto the street, I stopped him before he headed off and told him: ‘I didn’t save your life, G—, you did.’
As the Mist leaves No Scar
As the mist leaves no scar
On the dark green hill,
So my body leaves no scar
On you, nor ever will.
When wind and hawk encounter,
What remains to keep?
So you and I encounter,
Then turn, then fall asleep.
As many nights endure
Without a moon or star,
So will we endure
When one is gone and far.
Leonard Cohen (1934 – 2016)