Cycle Therapy – Managing Mental Health Issues

This article was published in 2020, in Magazine 146.

Image as described adjacent

Riverside has always been one of my favourite places to cycle in Cambridge. It has its flaws (such as terrible surfacing at the Stourbridge Common end), but in general is an uplifting place to ride. It’s a rare place where pedestrians and cyclists massively outnumber motor traffic and the majority of car drivers act considerately, as guests, making me entirely comfortable to take all three of my young children from Chesterton to Newmarket Road Tesco, with even the three-year old scooting along the road on her balance bike. Here you will see people of all ages and cycles of all styles: teenagers giving each other ‘backies’, a young cycle commuter pulling her boyfriend along on a skateboard behind her, people of all races and backgrounds carrying children, shopping and huge musical instruments. The river is full of ducks, the friendly Cambridge heron lurks on the bank and birdsong often fills the air. One day I cycled along here nine months pregnant and felt as if I was flying!

A year earlier though, I passed this way in darkness and didn’t feel so uplifted. I looked at the still, black river dotted with the ghostly white shapes of sleeping swans and, as I rose up onto the cycle bridge, I wanted to slide down into those waters. It would be easier than dealing with the struggles of life and the endless loops my brain was traversing to try and help me untangle them. My thoughts had never wandered this way before and it was scary to feel them go there.

How had I got to this place? Sleep deprivation mainly. Sleep deprivation combined with work anxiety, a tight deadline, a difficult baby and a knotty problem in the project I was working on. Each week was like Groundhog Day as my colleagues and I tried different ways to solve it and the time ticked on while we all got increasingly grumpy with one another.

When I look back, it was obvious. My work days started early and finished late with child-rearing and breastfeeding absorbing my time before and after work. My clingy, windy baby would wake me every night, often multiple times, and if we couldn’t get to sleep together I might be out on the streets of East Chesterton at 3am or 5am, smiling at the people who were going to or returning from work at this time and pushing the buggy past the huge building site opposite the chip shop. Even when I was in bed, though, my brain was whirring with anxiety; I hadn’t suffered from insomnia before, but my mind was on a problem-solving treadmill – how to finish the project and get the baby to sleep? – and had been infected by the horrible lingering atmosphere of redundancies at work.

Cherishing the daily pedal

It’s not the single nights of sleep deprivation that get you, it’s the long, endless strings of them, stretching out so far you can’t see or even imagine the end. It’s the randomness of wakings and sleepings, the torture of night parenthood where every bone in your body wants to ignore the cries of your child, but every piece of your heart would go immediately to their bedside. I knew there was light somewhere at the end of this tunnel and I tried desperately to cling to that as I struggled. There would be light at the end of the work one too – the deadline would appear and we’d have to resolve our differences and cobble together some sort of creation to put out into the world.

But logic can only get you so far. The things that got me out the other side were family, friends, faith and cycling. I had never been a big fan of routine but the daily pedal to work was a precious tonic. I may have been cycling when I first thought those dark thoughts, but it was cycling that would remind me of the light. Some days all you can do is show up. Climb on the saddle, feet on the pedals, just do it. Round and round for half an hour, waking me up for the day and sending healing endorphins around my bloodstream. Then, home at the end of the working day: saddle, pedals, off again. Pushing round and round, winding down and processing thoughts before they got too big and overwhelming. Cows on Coldham’s Common, rowers on the river, people and beauty and glimpses of things I would care about again soon. The deadline passed, the fog started to clear, I didn’t lose my job. The baby would be challenging for a while, but she was worth it. One day she’d scoot herself along beside the river and make my heart leap. One day her big sister would be cycling in her merry, distracted way and I’d capture it in a haiku (poetry and pictures for Instagram being two other valuable contributions to my healing). It said:

Five-year-old cyclists
Know what’s important in life:
Enjoying the view.

When I look at the river now, I don’t see the darkness, just a reflection of what’s been and gone. When my children fall off their bikes, I tell them the scrapes and scratches are part of their story. This is my scar. I hope whatever each day brings that I’ll be able to climb on the saddle again. Pedal and go. Round and round and round.