Cycling is more than just a hobby for me. I named this blog with a bike related title not because I enjoying riding that much (although I do) but because I found out that for years I was self medicating with a combination of two wheels and leg power. I never really got into drugs and even though towards the end I drank it wasn't too much of an issue because I was more focused on making sure I could ride the next day. I would pedal to and from work, sometimes get in and extra 30-60 miles in before my commute to work, or ride another 10-30 miles after work. I loved it but looking back I realized while I was riding my demons couldn't quite catch up and that's what kept my legs moving.
Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love riding for pleasure. It has served so many purposes in my life but when I was at my worst it was my crutch. I would have severe panic attacks and of course I could hop on and ride through the streets of Richmond to either distract myself or to push myself so hard I would puke and forget about the racing cesspool that was my mind. I was always fighting an unknown force inside of me and I used my pedal therapy to deal and I had no idea that's what I was doing.
I worked in a bike shop up until about two years ago. I spent 3.5 years in the industry and as hard as it was sometimes due to my anxiety, depression, and mania I absolutely loved it. It was weird that a funny looking goth chick would be so captivated by such a "normal" sport. I didn't care and all the vampires could kiss my ass- I loved cycling more than anything else I held onto in my life. I didn't know a whole lot when I first started working there so for me it was a playground of information and holy crap did I eat it up. The first year at the shop my moods seemed to level out, there were some episodes and bad weeks but over all I was ok. I always look back at that time as the last time I remembered being truly content. After that my mental health started to deteriorate bad and it became quite a struggle but I fought for everyday because I loved all things bike related.
I couldn't get enough. I would go home and read about lumens, grams, cadence, how carbon was made- friggin EVERYTHING! I used my phone to learn what each tool in the shop did and I spent months switching my brain over the the metric system. All of this is very silly but I was in love. I still looked like an idiot in front of the other guys because they had had 10+ years on me as far as experience goes but I didn't care. I asked stupid questions, got laughed at, and learned to laugh along. I also learned how to overcome a lot of anxiety working there- my coworkers were relentless and I loved them for it.
When I went home I wasn't as happy. I didn't really know anyone into cycling outside of the people in the shop. My severe anxiety kept me from group rides or even considering racing. It wasn't until a friend insisted I start going on rides with him and a group of people that I was able to break that barrier. Up until then I would spend my days off in the country for 60-90 mile rides by myself. I would take in everything and it centered me. There were some rides that were awful because my mind was breaking down but my body was able to collect my gear and get me out the door and onto the pavement. I have more memories of pedaling through tears than any thing else from my rides back then. When I had paranoia or anxiety set in I would push myself to the point of puking. I didn't care- it was better to focus on a granola bar exploding from my throat than it was to sit with the thoughts in my head for one more second.
I would ride in the rain, the cold, through thunder storms, 105 degrees outside, in the middle of the night, even through a couple snow storms. I didn't care. The faster I pedaled the further my demons seemed to fall behind me. The more I rode the less I was trapped in my own skull. I would wear my body out in hopes of killing what was wrong inside of me. I eventually spent more time on the bike that anything else as a way of avoiding dealing with my life. I was in a horrible relationship that I knew was a bad idea but the disorder attached itself so strongly to that unhealthy situation that I couldn't rationalize what I needed to be doing in order to better myself. So I would ride instead. That was when I felt like me. Those were the times that the women I have found myself as today was able to shine through. I felt human and like a strong individual that could deal with anything life threw my way. I wasn't wrong- I was very much that person but I had no idea I was tackling life and battling bipolar. I seriously had no idea that the hell that was my existence off the bike was because of a chemical imbalance. I just kept pedaling and getting more and more immersed in bike culture.
I felt like I was leading two different lives. Off the bike I was Typhoid Rezurex- the manic creature of the goth bar scene. On the bike and at the shop I was Gwen- the weird but sweet enough girl who asked stupid questions but knew a whole lot about what she was doing. I was no big shot at the shop or in the cycling community, in fact I was nobody so my mania had no way to latch on. I didn't like Typhoid's life but that one was most familiar and that was the one the disorder loved the most. As the years went on I saw less and less of the Gwen I did enjoy being.
My brother died at 23 years old in October of 2010 from a heroin overdose. That is what triggered my further decent into a very severe mental health decline. My relationship at the time and the death of my brother were enough to kick start the bipolar into full blown manic swings and severe depression that resulted in a hand full of suicide attempts and a couple times behind bars. My whole life flew out of control. A year later I found my fiance had been cheating on me with several different women for at least 6 months prior to me finding out. I had never known paranoia until then. My anxiety reached a level to where some days at the shop I couldn't leave the bathroom for fear of interacting with others. My self esteem plummeted so low I couldn't look myself in the mirror. The disruption in my brain seemed to have taken over and I forgot simple every day bike knowledge and job skills. Some days I would look at a drive train and have no idea what to do- like it was the first time I had ever seen one. I had days I would get confused and forget the combination on the safe at work (something I had had memorized for years), I would get frustrated because I all of a sudden couldn't explain the difference between the bike trainers we carried despite the fact it's the same ones that just last month I knew more about than most of the other guys in that shop. My brain would literally just stop working. I could true a wheel one day but forget how to put lube on a chain the next.
This was devastating. I spent a lot of time in the bathroom crying. My brother and relationship were one thing but I didn't think that would kill my ability to function, especially at something that I loved so greatly. I retreated further and further away from people and became over sensitive towards the customers and my coworkers. I felt like everyone was just trying to annoy me or waste my time. I lost the ability to have conversations with people and this wasn't good for work. I kept forgetting important information and felt stupid for it. I started to fear going to work because I didn't know who I was going to be when I showed up. There was no Gwen anymore. I didn't want to talk about bike stuff. I didn't want to hear about who was racing. I didn't care what new stuff that was coming out. I was angry because my brain had betrayed me and took away the only source of happiness I had.
I kept riding though. I didn't even enjoy it that much for a while. I didn't have any energy and I was indifferent to whether I was on the bike or not. I know now that I was going through a severe depression. But I kept riding, mostly because it was just habit for me at that point. I would ride to work, ride home, or spend 8 hours on country roads but remember none of it. It was like this for quite some time. Not every day was bad. Every once in a while Gwen would come back through and I would wake up in the middle of a ride and enjoy what I was doing. I didn't enjoy anything anymore but I kept pedaling.
I was tortured by thoughts of suicide all of the time back then. My mind couldn't seem to kill me off fast enough. I use to ride while biting my tongue until it bled in order to make them go away. Every time I passed a cemetery my mind told me that's where I belonged and that moving my legs is useless and idiotic. I pedaled through every thought about how worthless I was. I pedaled through every thought about my little brother until I just couldn't do it anymore. I had no energy. It was becoming winter, my mind and body were finished.
I took a 6 month long break from riding and tried to kill myself twice. I was miserable at work, at home, with my friends, with my fiance; I was just a body. I didn't care about my bikes, I didn't care about the bike shop, I wished cycling was something I had never gotten into. I felt so different from the people at work and who rode. I felt like we had nothing in common and that I wasn't a cyclist. They were weird for doing it. We're all just going to die any day. Who cares how much your brake pads weigh? Who cares if you have a race this weekend? Who cares if you tacoed your wheel? I didn't. They should all just give it up, it's pointless.
Of course none of that was me talking. That was the hole the disorder had created and was trying to bury me in. Of course I cared about that stuff! I just couldn't tap into it. Any time I felt anything is was because I was miserable and would spend hours in bed with fits of uncontrollable crying. I wanted my brother back and I wanted to be happy again. Cycling still represented happiness for me back then. I identified my concept of a good day with the ones I use to have at the shop, even the ones where I would ask something stupid and the guys wouldn't let me live it down. I didn't want to give up- I remembered what it was like to be happy I just needed to get back there.
Some part of me was still alive because as soon as the weather started getting better I did as well, enough anyway to clean off the dust on my trusty steeds. I got back on my two wheeled machines and rode until my will to live was stronger. My brain got a bit better and I slowly got back into riding shape.
The biggest turning point was someone we hired at the bike shop who I felt I could relate to a bit more than the others decided I needed to do group rides with him. I swallowed my anxiety and went. That spring and summer I found my love for cycling again except it was 100x stronger. I was able to ride with others and made stronger friendships with riders. I knew through that second wind in life that no matter what in life comes and goes I'm a cyclist and the rest can suck it.
I'm going to cut the story off here because there's a part two to this bipolar and bicycle tornado that I'll write hopefully next week.
I used cycling as self medication and as the first part as finding out who I really am. Without it I wouldn't have had those moments of clarity back then nor would I have had a distraction from the more harmful choices I could have made. I am very lucky that I found it when I did and I'm very grateful I worked in a shop when I did. The combination almost seems like a meant-to-be scenario but I don't really believe in that stuff but I'm glad it played out the way it did.