Out of the darkness
Iain Treloar reflects on depression, mortality and the escape of bike riding.
It was a year ago that I heard he wasn’t well. There’d been signs—erratic behaviour, symbolic of the peaks and troughs in emotion that would retrospectively point to his diagnosis as bipolar. He’d been forced to move back home from interstate to rest up, get well and give the medication a chance to work.
The last time I saw him, adrift in the bustle of Chapel St, it was a cold spring Saturday with a weak sun. I was riding north as he walked the other way, and I pulled into a vacant parking bay, jumped off my bike and shared my news the way old friends do. I told him I was writing about bikes for a living now. He’d never learnt to ride, he said, but he’d always wanted to. It’s never too late, I replied, self-consciously peppy, trying to inject cheer into a desperately bleak situation. Stupid. A smile, a hug, a farewell.
A couple of weeks later, I got the phone-call. He was gone; unable to see a way out, he’d taken his own life. Besides my punched-stomach-hollow sense of loss and ragged anger at the unfairness of it, I was haunted by our last exchange, and the terrible finality that it now was too late. I wondered whether I should have been more present, made more of an effort, done something tangible. And then, in the whirl of sharp emotion and blunt grey loss, I latched onto a firm thought—daft as it may sound, I couldn’t help but feel that if my friend had known the freedom a bike can bring, it might not have ended like this.
The inspirational Scottish cyclist, Graeme Obree, is testament to the power that physical exercise can have in wrestling control over one’s life back from mental illness. Although his life has been marked by severe bouts of depression and a number of suicide attempts, cycling gave him a sense of purpose and escapism, culminating in a world pursuit championship and a successful attempt at the brutally tough world hour record.
There’s something to that, I think. Another friend of mine, when dogged by low moods, would go out and ride as hard and as far as he could, a physical manifestation of his mental state that would help him work through it all. Invariably, he’d return having ground out some of his demons and with a new perspective that wouldn’t have been there if he’d stayed at home on the couch.
It’s not just riding of this extreme intensity that can help. Any exercise will create endorphins, and, as a welcome bonus, increase your exposure to Vitamin D simply by virtue of you being outside. The U.S. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recommends physical activity as a tool to help combat the effects of depression—and while there are many conditions too serious to be remedied by simply riding a bike or going for a jog, it’s widely acknowledged that exercise is far more likely to help than hinder recovery.
Physiology aside, there’s a crucial sense of freedom that any rider can relate to—rather than the passivity of driving a car or catching public transport, on a bike you are in control of your own motion—and if suffering from mental illness, it’s a powerful tool of self-affirmation and autonomy. We don’t need to be evangelists about it, but riding a bike is pretty great, and a little bit of gentle encouragement may help others to come to that discovery too. We all ride for a reason—be it transport, social interaction, health, sport—and getting out on the bike can be any number of different things to different people. But these things are always positive.
A wall of black coats huddled close around his parents as they scattered their son’s ashes, the air thick with grief at a good life cut short. After the wake, I drove home, got my bike, and went for a ride, turned the pedals over, felt the wind on my face, and thought of what could have been and now never would.
If you feel you need to speak to someone contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 www.lifeline.org.au
Ride On content is editorially independent, but is supported financially by members of Bicycle Network. If you enjoy our articles and want to support the future publication of high-quality content, please consider helping out by becoming a member.