April 30, 2023

Mental Health and My Recent Cycling Struggles

Vulnerability time.  This isn't really a post with a lot of research or specific insights into the benefits of cycling on mental health, but is rather a simple reflection on the last few years of my personal cycling, and - more specifically - how the pandemic seems to have really jerked the rug out from under me.

Yeah, yeah.... "boo hoo": another complaint about how damaging the lockdowns and the pandemic was for an individual, when it truly did have an impact on us all.  My case is simply another in a long list of evidence to the fact that "things were great until" ... yeah.  You know.  

One need not look much farther than the title of this blog, my email address, and all of the evidence that dates back to 2002 in these pages that commuting to and from work by bicycle was sorta my thing.  In fact, it was truly a large part of my identity.  This is a dangerous thing, really, in retrospect ... and I think there is evidence that suggests wrapping oneself up too much in one aspect of personal identity can be dangerous on the premise of what might occur if that with which one identifies is taken away or lost.  Taking away sight from someone passionate about photography or painting, for example.  Someone deeply enamored with a spouse, someone for whom they find purpose... and then that spouse gets ill and passes away.  A construction worker losing their hands in an accident.  A musician falling deaf.  A cyclist or runner who loses their legs.  Granted, each of these examples is an extreme case, and mine is not nearly so tragic ... but, I have noticed a marked difference in my attitude, my confidence, and how I approach problems these last three years since we transitioned from working in an office to working at home full time.  

First world problems, yes.  I still have my sight, my hearing, my arms, and my legs - and I still ride my bike here and there, even pretending to be a randonneur on occasion.  But, the consistency, the daily, self-forced exercise, the self-imposed routine that I once identified with so closely and loved is gone.  I have only been to the office a handful of times since March of 2020, and each of those times - because of a drastic remodel of the building and its facilities - have been by automobile.  In short, I feel like a sham, a failure, and honestly... I'm not even sure why I have renewed this domain name.  In so many ways, I'm definitely not the "commuterdude" I once was.

Why is that such a bad thing?  Well, in short, I have had a hard time standing on my own two feet as a person.  I think I had that problem before I started riding, which helped me find some self-worth and purpose in life.  That seems really, really silly typing it here ... which is the point of this entire post and exercise in self-discovery:  this "problem" isn't nearly as large a problem as it has become inside my own head.  I have self worth.  I have value in ways other than bicycle-centric subject matter.  The problem is, I haven't been believing it...and at the end of the day, I don't put myself first.  Hell, I usually don't put myself tenth.  

I'm relatively healthy, I have two wonderful children, a terrific life partner in my wife, people whom I consider friends, and a long standing career in data visualization for a global company.  In many regards, I have it better than a vast majority of the population.  So, what then is my problem exactly?  Is it not enough?  How dare I complain, honestly. 

You see, I love this sport.  I honestly think that I owe a large part of my adult health and mental fortitude to cycling.  Prior to finding myself needing to ride to work because of a broken down car so many years ago, I was not really in a good spot.  I wasn't taking care of myself, and I really didn't have much to point to as far as self-worth.  I worked hard, but really didn't like myself that much.  This is a problem that persists today.  In large part, cycling has been something about which I have been very passionate ... but, at the same time, I've only been using it to slow the bleeding, in a manner of speaking.  I still struggle with anxiety, depression, social awkwardness, low self-esteem, and have a tendency to try and bury all of this underneath a pile of poor eating habits.  Cycling - as passionate as I am about it - isn't enough to fix all of the root of those issues... it simply was enough exercise to keep my bad habits from sending me to the doctor's office.  Even going back to school as an adult wasn't enough to unload a lot of my personal baggage.  For some reason, what I have accomplished (regardless of category), and what I think of myself, are at odds.

I'm great at making plans, though. 

The last two years have seen me teeter-tottering on a repeating wave of big plans, and cancelled plans.  Big dietary plans, but quick cave-ins.  Big cycling plans, but big cancelations.  I still struggle from this problem of "if I can't be perfect, then I shouldn't even try", or "if I can't do it all, then what's the point of doing anything?".  The evidence of that is clear.... BIG plans to ride all of the spring brevets, but then consistently missing every single one of them.  Then, however, I'd go out and ride a solo 100km ride, on the heavy bike, and not die... so, what was I afraid of?  Am I embarrassed to let people see how far I've let myself go?  Am I worried about being last?.... like it even matters?  I have even shown up at the local Monday night ride on "the wrong bike", and have managed to hang in with the group... but, I still don't think I belong.  My jersey is too tight... I have too many bags.... I have fenders.... or I don't have fenders.... or I'm not a real gravel guy.... or those REALLY talented local racers will look at me funny... like that should matter....  or whatever my manufactured justification for not going might become in the hour or so leading up to the ride start, which is barely a mile from home.  Rinse.  Repeat.

The hard work that got me here has been forgotten, and there is part of me that doesn't want to hurt or suffer to try and get back to that good place again... the place where 200ks are "easy", and hanging in with the front group while having a conversation is just expected.  I am afraid to fail, but also afraid to do the work.

For the second year in a row, I find myself watching other people achieve things on Strava, while I ride alone... terrified to show myself, or to be judged, measured, compared.  I mean, I'm not fast.  Never have been.  And, no-one has ever cared, except me.... so, why this is a problem now, well, I'm still trying to figure that out.  But, it's a problem.  I'm actually in therapy.  Which... for me... someone keen to fix everything himself, or ignore the problems altogether, is a huge step.  Apparently it's "hip" to have a therapist nowadays, so, there's that.  

Most recently, I managed to try my hand at touring, and attempted to ride out to see my son at his school in Rolla, MO.  Missouri is a really pretty state, with the Ozark Mountains, and - of course - the Lake of the Ozarks, the Katy and Rock Island trails, and dozens of other notable cycling attractions - plus, it's also really hilly.  I planned for months, figured out the routes, hotels, and logistics ... and actually managed to get out of the driveway on day one!  Unfortunately, I ended up getting chased, caught, pulled off the bike, and bitten by a stray dog, about 20 miles into day two of six, which really put a damper on things.  Day three was spent in a regional ER getting the first round of rabies treatments, which is the standard course of action when the animal's vaccination status can't be verified.  Of course, this was a completely random thing, and while there are likely a dozen different scenarios I can think of where I got out of that unscathed, the fact is, I didn't... and things - like them or not - tend to happen for a reason.  At the end of the day, however, I was DOING IT.... and I felt really good.  I even completed the day two ride, not receiving the local sheriff's phone message about the dog's status until hours later ... and the bite itself was minor enough that the EMT's cleared me to continue.  Heck, I was ready for day three, which - in my mind, all told, should be success enough... but the trip still felt like another failure to complete something that I'd set out to do.  Needless to say, the subsequent trip to visit the daughter at her school in the opposite direction a couple weeks later was canceled, while I instead searched the internet for the best dog deterrents and pepper sprays.... none of which I'll likely ever need again.  Statistically, my dog-incident-per-mile ratio remains absurdly low, as is the case for most cyclists in this country.  Overthinking is something I do well, however - and more often than not, my noisy inner dialogue has talked me out of personal growth and challenges that I should be facing.  

As we move into May, I have finally had enough of all of this.  I am committing myself to starting a more sustainable dietary regimen, to get my health back on track.  I have committed to simply showing up ... which, clearly really is the hardest part of any journey.  I have committed myself to getting back into that which I love most:  randonneuring ... and to stop making excuses and saying "no" to myself and my goals.  Also on tap, I want to ride all of the local rail trails in their entirety over the next couple of years, including the monster loop of the Katy Trail and the proposed and planned Rock Island trail that (once finished) will create a 400-mile loop across Missouri and back.  Part of that trip will involve an off-course jog down into Rolla, so I can finally say "yes, I made it to Rolla by bicycle, under my own power".  Also, I will ride the Flint Hills Nature trail out to Council Grove (if not beyond to Herrington, should they ever finish it), and then up into Manhattan, KS.  

And finally, as my company finally starts to emerge from the throes of the pandemic and starts bringing us back into the office once a week, I will pack up my stuff into some panniers and ride there instead of driving.  Like I love to do.

Goals are good, plans are good ... and if none of these things actually work out, well.... life is still good, and I am still worth the effort.  I think more than ever I am a work in progress; and while most might think someone of my age and experience would have this all figured out, trust me:  I don't.  I don't think a lot of us really do, and that's okay to admit.  We get up, dust ourselves off, and keep at it.

I think the pandemic threw most of us off of our game ... but, in time we can hopefully each start to see the way back.  The painter can still find ways to be creative without eyesight, we all know what Beethoven accomplished after he lost his hearing, and even when we lose a loved one we can each still find purpose within ourselves.  That is my quest.  I hope you are each finding your way forward, too.  Much of my journey will still be atop a bicycle, because it still feels right.  I hope to see you out there.  There are a lot of great miles left to cover together.... and they don't have to be ridden alone.  I need to remember that, and allow myself to show up.  Trying to do all of this alone for the last few years, well.... yeah, it hasn't really worked.  Time to get back to it.  

Thanks for reading, as ever.

The trip to Rolla, April 20th, 2023: Day Two, after the dog bite, climbing some ridiculous hills on the way to Eldon, MO., and still finding a reason to smile.  Is it ever really "that bad," after all?