Tag Archives: mental-health

Life is worth the fight!

I’ve had a lot of time to myself the last month. Both while walking The Great North Walk and Cycling for Hope, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my life, the world and generally pondering the meaning of life.

One thing that keeps coming to me is the amazing inner journey I’ve been on these past few years. I don’t usually share a lot about the inner struggles that I have and sometimes continue to experience because I don’t like to dwell on them and don’t want to be judged for them. But they’re a part of my story and how I came to be where I am today.

See, for most of my life, I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety. I know I’m not alone and that everyone has struggles. But for me, the struggles have been so difficult at times that I wondered whether I’d make it through the minute or hour I was in, let alone the day or week. And I never told anyone about it because I felt too ashamed.

But I kept on going. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. I kept turning the pedals one more round until the minute, hour, day or week of anguish slipped away. It wasn’t always easy. There have been times when I’ve sought the help of professional ‘talking doctors’ to have a sounding board against which to bounce ideas. About four years ago, I tried to make an appointment with one and they said there was a two month wait. I told them not to bother because I wouldn’t be around that long. And I meant it. Fortunately, they made an opening and I finally found the courage to tell someone how I was feeling.

I don’t do the whole lengthy counseling and therapy thing. It’s not my style. It’s not what works for me. When I’d start a series of sessions with a new ‘talking doctor’, I’d lay down my ground rules. My key rule was that I wanted to retain my independence and didn’t believe they could “fix” me; that their job was to help me learn new tools to deal with the challenges I was facing. I told them that I would tell them when I was ready to move on – I wouldn’t just keep coming back because they told me to. I would do any homework they gave me but I wouldn’t accept any diagnoses or referrals to ‘prescribing doctors’. Some psychologists and psychiatrists reading this are probably horrified – but hey, the psychologists I went to respected my rules and the experiences were largely positive.

The pre-outdoor athlete Andrew was messed up in a big way. Sure, I looked like I had it all together – job, partner and education. But I had some destructive coping mechanisms, was scared of getting to know new people, couldn’t describe or name my feelings, and was a moody S-O-B.

But I hung in there. I kept chipping away. I kept trying new things. I kept getting up every time I fell down (and boy did I fall a lot). I refused to give in to what was going on inside my head.

It’s taken years. My outdoor adventures and physical training are part of my recovery. They give me an outlet and positive focus in my life. But when I think back to the Andrew I was before I became an outdoor athlete, I am proud of the changes I’ve made. I’m happy with the man who I am becoming. And I’m grateful for the people who’ve stuck by me through all the dramas I inflicted on them (because, like so many depressed and anxious people seem to do, I splattered a lot of innocent people with my dramatic messes).

I don’t usually cycle with music but on some of my rides I just need some company. Why? by Rascal Flatts is in my playlist. It’s a great little song.

To anyone who’s struggling – take it from someone who knows: the words from 3:10 about this world not being such a bad place and life being worth the fight are so true! Take one more breath. Take one more step. Tell someone how you are feeling. Then take another breath and another step. And don’t stop fighting! None of us want your beautiful song to end.

I hope no one minds me interrupting my usual stories of adventure to share these slightly rambling deep and meaningful thoughts.

Trying to shrug off the anxiety demons

Doom Hippy MTB trail by Andrew Gills
Doom Hippy MTB trail, a photo by Andrew Gills on Flickr.

I am the first to admit that I struggle with an anxiety disorder. It has plagued me most of my life. But, unlike the Andrew of the past, the me I am today won’t wallow in this unfortunate reality. I am fighting hard to keep the Anxiety Demon and his friend, the Black Dog away.

The seemingly constant rain isn’t helping my emotional state. All I want is for the cool blue sky days of winter to kick in. I’m tired of the wet season and the associated wet cycling clothing, wet clothing and, increasingly, cold body. Early in the wet season, I took some time off to stay indoors during the heavy rains. Then I went through a period where I just went out to play in the rain because the weather was warm anyway. But the air is turning autumnal and the rain drops are no longer fat and warm; they have become slim, stinging and cold. Perhaps it’s time to remember to take my waterproof jacket with me when I go out until the winter starts.

I know that the Anxiety Demon is of my own making. I try to do too much. I try to push too hard. I want to do everything at once and be everything to everyone. And acknowledging these things is the first step to overcoming them.

This morning, the Anxiety Demon and cold rain really affected my riding. I got frustrated that my rear derailleur kept slipping. I got annoyed when I couldn’t take turns on slipper gravel. I felt slow when my speed dropped.

So, halfway through the Doom Hippy single track I stopped. I parked the bike against a log and took some photos. I stood on the side of the track and forced myself to slow down.

I pushed my anxiety about the university assignment I submitted last night to the back of my mind: I can’t control my grade now I’ve submitted the assignment. I reminded myself that the pile of work on my desk will never go away. I acknowledged that it’s okay to only train one hour a day instead of more because I need to make time to study; I actually enjoy studying. And I decided to stay home the weekend of 20-21 April because it’d be good to repaint the walls and tidy the house so that we can get it ready for sale.

So, while the MTB ride this morning was fairly average in speed, technique and distance, it was just what I needed. The fresh air helped me get some perspective and the beauty of the bush helped calm my nerves. Sometimes we all just need to take a few moments to breath. And I need to remember that the challenge of balancing uni and work and training and Scouts and my magazine column and family is a first world problem. Each of these elements of my life are important to me. Uni and Scouts only take up 26 weeks of my year, while the rest of life just ticks along.

The Anxiety Demon feels much further away now than it did out on the trails this morning. I can see him standing on Doom Hippy enjoying the scenery, rather than sitting on my shoulder whispering in my ear. My life’s pretty good. Besides, in three months time, I’ll be walking the 250km Great North Walk and that trip will give me plenty of time to recharge my batteries. Here’s to the sun coming up on a new dawn tomorrow morning 🙂

My route this morning

My route this morning

Total: 9.5km MTB

Post Script: I try to keep my blog positive but it would be remiss of me to pretend that I don’t experience anxieties and struggles from time-to-time. By being honest about these things, perhaps I can help others who also struggle with anxiety or depression to see they too can overcome them.

Let’s end the pity party

Everyone has pity parties sometimes. It’s a normal and natural part of being human. We want things to happen easily and quickly. But sometimes they don’t. When we are hurting or afraid our pity parties sometimes take on a tantrum-like quality. It’s like we revert to childhood and to rolling around on the floor threatening to eat worms. It’s not very dignified and it’s difficult to come back from a tantrum. But the measure of one’s strength and courage is not their ability to avoid the pity party; it’s their ability to recover from it. It’s their ability to say, “No! I am going to fight this fight! I will not quit!”

I have spent the past two weeks feeling sorry for myself. My old anxiety disorder has been forcing its way back into my life. I let my guard down while things were good and forgot to protect myself when things got tough. That’s the nature of anxiety disorders, they creep up on you and then cut you down like a sword strike to the backs of your knees. Once you are down, it’s difficult to walk again. So you start to crawl. And you look up at the world around you and feel so small for not being able to walk with them. It takes deep resolve and focus to grab hold of a railing to lift yourself back up into the sunshine. But I’ve been there before and it’s worth it.

Being injured has made me scared. I’ve been scared I’ll never heal. I’ve been scared I won’t be fully productive at work again. I’ve been scared that I’ll lose myself back into the grip of anxiety that I used to live in. I’ve been scared I’ll regain all the weight I worked so hard to lose. I’ve been scared I won’t be able to enjoy the company of my running friends. I’ve been scared I won’t get that seratonin hit that comes with pushing through the wall in an ultra marathon.I’ve been scared I won’t be able to ride my bicycles again after spending lots of money fixing them.

I’ve also felt guilty. I’ve felt guilty about the $250 a month physiotherapy is costing me. I’ve felt guilty for spending lots of money fixing my bicycles and then not being able to ride them. I’ve felt guilty about the angry and miserable moods my fear has caused. I’ve felt guilty about not performing well at work. I’ve felt guilty for not being a better role model for my employees. I’ve felt guilty for not being more available to my son and grandchildren. I’ve felt guilty for not repairing the relationship with my son after we had a major argument on a day when we both felt vulnerable. And even worse, I’ve felt guilty for feeling guilty.

Fear and guilt have built inside me until it’s become a crippling anxiety. And that’s only fed both the fear and guilt.

But I don’t want to go back there! I am not merely the sum of the races I enter or miles I run. They are things I do for enjoyment. Yes, they are a big part of my recovery from anxiety. But there are things I can do right now to fight both the injuries and the anxiety. I always knew it was going to be a long slow road to recovery when I started getting treatment for my shin splints. Fifteen years of muscle tension doesn’t just disappear overnight. I just wasn’t prepared for my back to go. So I didn’t mentally prepare for a recovery period that included a second round of pain.

Now that I know these things, I can decide to take steps to take charge of my body and mind. I can become a Body Leader rather than someone who lets my moods and lifestyle react to my body’s signals. Because my body’s signals are signs of how well I am treating it and I need to listen to them and take proactive steps. I won’t perfect this skill overnight. I’ve got to see it as part of my ongoing development. But I can take small positive steps every day.

I took a day off work yesterday. I was a cranky so-an-so all day, though the 40’C (104’F) heat didn’t help. But I did take some very positive steps:

  1. I went to my Australian aunt for Chinese medicine treatment and I asked her to explain what she was doing, why she was doing it, and how it can help me
  2. I got an xray of my lumbar spine to make sure there are no bone issues, which there aren’t
  3. I bought a jar of St John’s Wart to help break the cycle of anxiety and depression; while drugs or herbal medications might not cure the causes of the anxiety, sometimes it’s necessary to get some relief to help you think clearly and retake command of your body and mind
  4. I bought a jar of cod liver oil because my Australian aunt recommended it for joint health and to help reduce inflammation
  5. I didn’t cancel my physio appointment for Thursday (one of my self-destructive behaviours is that I walk away from professional help when the going gets tough so I fought the strong urge to just cancel the appointment and walk away).

Today I am working from home. I am going to take some more small positive steps to help me take charge of my body and mind:

  1. I am resting my body instead of going walking with my partner because I haven’t tried full rest as a treatment option yet
  2. I am researching aromatherapy treatments for my back, calves and mind; I love aromatherapy and believe it can be a helpful tool in both physical and emotional healing
  3. I am making enquiries with a local yoga instructor about her classes; my muscles are too tight and my core weak so I need to take proactive steps to help with those things
  4. I am designing a bar table style desk to use at work so that I can stand part of the day instead of having to sit
  5. I am getting my work done today
  6. I am going to the movies for a few hours with my partner because movies are one of my favourite sources of inspiration.

Most of all, I will not push everyone away from me like I always have in the past. It’s my go-to response. My big goal for this week is not to use it. I will go to physio tomorrow instead of cancelling. I will go to the bakery on Saturday morning at running club instead of being absent. I will phone my mate to see what he’s doing on Saturday afternoon instead of pushing him away.

I will fight back. I will take one positive step every day to control my responses to negative stimuli such as anxiety and injury.