I’m happy to present another guest post. This one is by Robin Sheeran, a journalist from Belfast. He’s a member of King’s Moss CC and proudly wore the club’s blue-and-yellow jersey at the Gent-Wevelgem Cyclo Sportive this year.
Mental health, good or bad, is not just in the mind. Here, Robin writes of the frustration and worry before identifying the cause, and where he went from there.
There’s a long, echoing corridor at work and I’m hurrying along it to my desk when I notice a tiny numbness in my lip. I flick my tongue at it. It’s like the numbness you get after you’ve had an injection at the dentist, but much smaller.
It’s June. There’s a ton of work to get done before the summer. We’re working 12-hour shifts. My mum’s just been told her cancer is back and she’s not going to get better.
The days pass and my tiredness and frustration ramp up.
I’m round at my mum’s a lot. We’ve become more like old friends these days. I make the tea and we watch Pointless. We talk about the past. Her past and mine.
Then I jump back on my old bike and cycle home – it’s 10 minutes away.
The lip thing hasn’t gone away. I nibble on the numbness sometimes. And notice it’s spreads across the whole left side of the lip. It’s become a thing.
Then I’m lying in bed one night unable to sleep when I notice the roof of my mouth is numb – just the left side up to that little ridge line.
In the morning I have a raging headache and my left arm and leg feel a bit numb too.
It’s Sunday and my wife takes me to the out-of-hours doctor.
He advises me to go to A&E immediately. We need to check it’s not something “sinister”. I weep a bit in the car on the way to hospital.
Lying a curtained-off cubicle I can hear the doctor talking on the phone. He wants me to be seen urgently. I’m taken off for a scan. They don’t find anything.
We go on holiday for three weeks.
Hill walks, the heat and a visit to Vienna and, weirdly, it all kind of falls away, apart from the small numbness in the lip.
Then the day before I go back to work there’s a crisis.
I’m hit by a massive headache. It feels like a waterfall of blood gushing inside my skull.
I’m convinced I’m having a stroke and my wife calls the ambulance. By the time the crew arrives it’s worn off and I sit shamefacedly in the back of the ambulance watching the hedges spool by.
A young doctor half my age takes my details and I cry a bit. Then they tell me they want to keep me in overnight for observation and the neurologist will see me in the morning.
I’m put in a bed in a ward my mum’s been in a few times. An elderly, confused patient keeps us all awake that night calling loudly for her parents.
The neurologist listens to my story and diagnoses migraine brought on by stress.
I’ve to take three weeks off, and just to be on the safe side I’ll have an MRI scan.
So that’s how I come to be lying face up in this torpedo tube – face an inch or two from the curve of the metal pipe.
My broad frame fills the tube from side to side. I’m crammed in, but they’ve told me it’ll only take 20 minutes.
Suddenly 20 minutes seems a bloody long time. I can’t turn over even slightly. It’s OK I tell myself. But it’s not OK. I can’t move my arms. And I can’t move my legs. And I can barely move my head. And it hits me that I’m going to drown in here.
I press the panic button and the radiographer rushes in.
“Get me out, I want out!”
I feel ashamed. It’s a Sunday morning and I’ve wasted everyone’s time.
The next day I’m due back to work. I panic at my desk in the busy newsroom – end up weeping in someone’s office and escape by the back stairs.
Two weeks off this time.
I begin to take the old bike out in the country lanes. I’m so unfit the sheer struggle to get up the hills clears my head – all I can feel is my body fighting with itself.
I’m eased back into work and the cycling becomes more obsessive. The old hybrid doesn’t like the punishment so I buy a cheap road bike with terrifyingly skinny 23mm tyres.
I find there’s a process to this: get on the bike feeling wound up, hacked off about work, annoyed by the headwind, thoughts racing.
Then, 10 minutes in, the veil’s pulled back and I feel like I’m flying headfirst over the road, between the hedges and through the sound of the wind.
It’s most real when tearing downhill at 40 mph, crouched in the drops, knowing a change in the road surface, or an angry farmyard dog could prove catastrophic – yet my mind’s utterly clear.
It’s been three years now, with just one major relapse, but the bike thing just seems to work.
A more expensive bike followed, shedloads of kit and clothing, and this year a mad sportive escapade to Belgium.
But as therapies go its actually rather cheap. At least that’s what I tell myself.
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Looking back at the episode I still can’t escape feeling a little ashamed at not being able to cope. Maybe it’s to do with being a middle-aged man who wants to be strong for his family. And the cycling isn’t a cure-all. The following year I had a fairly major relapse. But the cycling also helps me to set targets. I’ve already surpassed last year’s mileage. Next year I’m hoping to do the Tour de Conamara and I’ve entered the ballot for the Prudential Ride London. Wish me luck!
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Robin kindly reminded me about the following 2017 study by researchers at the University of East London on cycling and middle-aged men. Something to see in context of the reported statistics of the high percentage of MA men who experience anxiety and depression. Over the last 4-5 years there have been alarming statistics on the high levels of depression amongst men in their 40s and 50s (and levels of suicide in men, generally speaking). A few articles suggested you’re middle-aged in your 30s which is something I’d question. I also came across a reference to ‘manxiety’ (I almost threw up on my Sidis at this appalling portmanteau).
Here are a couple of links that may prove informative and useful (alongside information on various mental health charities and organisations such as Mind, Mental Health Foundation, Rethink, Time to Change, and also NHS England).
Men’s Health Forum