For the first time in years I’ve not been riding regularly at the weekend. My usual winter turbo sessions are in place – two sessions a week keeps my mood higher than it would be otherwise. I’ve ridden three, perhaps four, times out on my usual roads out of London and into Kent since I was made redundant at the end of September.
I think there was a certain element of… not guilt, exactly… but a sense of shift in the structure of my cycling year. I was conscious of not riding but became more at ease with it as time went on. Turbo gave me an ‘excuse’ of sorts. If I’d been made redundant in the spring or summer it might have been a different story. There has been a new beam inserted into the structure however – running.
I started in the gym a couple of years ago and not having run since my school days it was rather a trial. Six or so months later I tried my first Park Run. I’ve been going to these fairly regularly over the past eighteen months and even that has taken a little while to adapt to. Saturday was Bike Day. So Bike Day became Sunday. Latterly it hasn’t been any particular day.
Earlier this year I starting running on my own, sometimes in addition to Park Run, sometimes as a substitution. The maximum distance I run is around 8km. It brings different fitness, new physical experiences. Not all of these good. Old injuries groan and whine with the impact of the tarmac. I am much more conscious of my unequal leg length. What it is, however, is time efficient. My world has changed shape, perhaps shrunk a little – you see so much more of the world on a bike than on foot.
When I first left work I felt a sense of relief despite the circumstances. I hadn’t been happy for a long, long time. A palpable lifting of the weight on my shoulders left me emboldened and optimistic. I had more energy, I visited friends and went out in the evening because I wasn’t too exhausted from the daily grind. Some freelance work brought in a little though two thirds ended up getting wiped out by Universal Credit.
The tasks the Universal Credit demands of you are overwhelmingly performative. I attend appointments for the sake of attending appointments. If I don’t they have a ready excuse to sanction me. My ‘work commitments advisor’ is someone who views my job hunting efforts like an examiner running down a sheet of answers and determinedly marking a large cross next to each one. He undermines my self-esteem and self-confidence and sets my anxiety spiralling. For two days after my last appointment my stomach pitched and rolled with worry. Compared with many of the people who walk through the door of the local job centre I am privileged. I am not one missed payment away from homelessness. I do not have to decide whether I heat my home or I eat. The amount I receive is the equivalent of around 60% of my previous monthly earnings however. Low level panic sometimes finds me looking around for possessions I can sell – I’ve already marked two bikes that I could let go, maybe three.
Without regular work I’ve lost my focus. My perfectionism slows my form-filling to the extent that every personal statement is squeezing blood from a stone. Tortuous process of tweaking, copy and pasting, deleting and redrafting. Universal Credit doesn’t care about quality, it cares about quantity. My advisor shows no interest or care that I am trying to increase my likelihood of securing an interview by submitting the very best application I can muster – he wants to see that I’ve applied for whatever he considers the appropriate amount of jobs to be. He’s already injected a vague air of menace by informing me that there is only a certain amount of time they ‘allow’ you to look for suitable jobs before, presumably, they expect you to except any old shit for the sake of it. He looks over his glasses at me with the air of someone who presumes everyone sitting in front of him is out to cheat the system. It’s belittling and makes the whole situation worse. I wonder whether all the other work commitments advisors are like him and designed by UC training to grind the applicants down. Or perhaps he just can’t be arsed and doesn’t care. All I know is that his attitude has a tangible negative impact on my efforts to find work.
Most of my periods of depression have been associated with work. It’s important to me that I can work to a high standard, though this often morphs into the desire to reach standards above and beyond those I can realistically achieve in the situation. The thought of being forced into a job that makes me miserable and that offers no intellectual sustanence merely for the sake of having employment initiates a deep-seated knawing horror. I know too well how this would impact upon my mental health. Against this backdrop I do my best to function but I am unsettled and nervous. There are so many things I could do, but where do I start? I procrastinate knowingly, putting off the To Do list because I am overwhelmed by its length. The procrastination makes it worse, of course. This will mean nothing to my UC advisor who has offered nothing in the way of positive and helpful suggestions to aid me in my hunt for employment. Just thick, marker pen crosses against what I *have* done. Not Good Enough. It’s crushing for someone who struggles to subdue perfectionism.
I fantasise about leaving everything behind, starting again somewhere and somehow. Shedding my old life and beginning anew. Discarding current obligations like a threadbare coat and walking towards the horizon. It is only a fantasy… though an apparently important one it seems. I ride to the job centre. The return journey feels like an escape. I attempt to push my frustration and anger out over the hills of South London in the short ride home. I’m beginning to wonder that I’m deliberately avoiding longer rides because the urge not to return might wash over me, pulling me out into the flood plains and beyond to the limits of the land itself. Rather than finding my equilibrium through riding I’m rather afraid it might slip from me completely. Turbo is safe, fixed, familiar. It is structure, it is predictable and reliable. I see the same faces, undertake familiar efforts, receive the predicted email with my stats afterwards. I cling to the routine and use it to mark the days.
Even when I’m not working on job applications I’m thinking about them. Or thinking about working on them. Obligations, both real and perceived, cause my shoulders to rise and fall. I try to syphon off small moments of calm in the morning taking my time over breakfast, making a second cup of tea. It feels like a swindle. I’m just putting off the inevitable worry about job-hunting again. It’ll still be there after I’ve drained the mug.
Everything feels up in the air. It’s as though I’m waiting for something to happen, not expecting but hoping. When The Thing happens I presume I can relax, and move forward. For now I’m in stasis, active but not moving. I Am Turbo.
In other news, I have a contribution in an upcoming anthology on bike-related MH recovery/management. Edited by Olivia Sagan and James Withey, it will be similar to their earlier publication The Recovery Letters. More details in due course.
I’ve also been in contact with Isabel Hardman over the last year or so and some of my comments will feature in her forthcoming book, The Natural Health Service which will be published in April.
I was contacted by Lilith from @gearsforqueers via the B&B twitter account. They have kindly arranged for me to be sent an advance copy of their and Abi’s upcoming book on touring and its effects on legs and head. As someone who only starting touring recently I’ve found myself chuckling with understanding at some of the thoughts and feelings that cropping up for them both, as well as some of the shared analogies. Due to be published in June by Sandstone Press if you fancy getting your mitts on a copy.