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Out of the darkness

19 August, 2013

Iain Treloar reflects on depression, mortality and the escape of bike riding. 

Out-of-the-darknessIt 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

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. 19 August, 2013 12:43 pm

    I have just got through severe depression. I am also a cyclist and I am an advocate of exercise to help with mental health, especially mild and moderate issues.

    However for me, I was too deep and exercise didn’t help. I did a few sprint triathlons. I was on my bike at weekends. I was also swimming. But the benefit, if there at all, was only ever temporary. It just delayed the inevitable. I realised eventually that I needed to do things that were good for my brain. Along with the exercise, I tried mindfulness meditation, and also started drawing. Along with counselling and medication and exercise, I now find myself in a much better place. But I know it’s a fragile one.

    I am not an expert, but if I was in a difficult place like your friend, I don’t think getting on a bike would have helped me.

    But I am only one person. Everyone is different.

  2. Aaron permalink
    19 August, 2013 3:38 pm

    Thank you Iain for this great piece. You sold me my first proper bike and I can attest to the freedom it has brought me. Whilst I’ve never had to battle mental illness, it has certainly allowed me to vent many work-induced frustrations

  3. Dan permalink
    11 September, 2013 4:59 pm

    Thanks for the article. I can certainly say that when I had a bout of severe depression last year, cycling was the one thing that kept me going.

  4. Just breathe permalink
    11 September, 2013 6:20 pm

    Interesting read, but to comment: when I’m in a delicate state what I find what is not required is to get on my bike for a bit of ‘therapy’ and then be bought back down to earth by being hollered at and nearly ran over by foolish people. It puts me back in my box (and back on the couch) pretty quickly. You’ll never know someone’s story just by looking at them, so I’d also add to always to be mindful of your attitude towards others all of the time.

  5. Joan permalink
    12 September, 2013 12:11 am

    Thank you your story is so interesting my partner suffers from depression. Some things help others do not, I guess it’s different for every one suffering this disease. I know getting out helps.
    I want to know where or who to go to, I’m after bike riding lessons. Don’t laugh I know you are saying just get on your bike and ride! I’m 65 and haven’t ridden for about 20 years , i trained and got fit, then I joined a bug group thinking it would be great fun. Well the first thing everyone commented on was my very old heavy bike, then I had trouble changing gears, and I just could not keep up with everyone. The group were very kind, however my bike is back in the shed. I can’t say how disappointed I am. It was one of my retirement dreams to ride every day and join a great fun riding group! I’m looking for a kind person who will come training with me and maybe help me buy a new bike. I feel so disappointed about my dream. I live in Eltham. Thank you. Joan

    • Dave permalink
      12 September, 2013 12:58 pm

      I would love to help you release your bike riding skills but I fear I may be to far away from you. I’m in Sydney.

      Kind regards Dave.

    • 12 September, 2013 2:05 pm

      Hi Joan,

      I read your story with great sadness and I feel terrible that your return to cycling ‘journey’ has has meant your bike has returned to the shed…I hope we can change that for you and get you back on your cycling ‘journey’.

      I run a group called Wheel Women and we cater especially to women, have a focus on helping women return to cycling, or helping them build their confidence even if they’ve been cycling for a while. We even teach real beginners who have never even been on a bike before but want to try it!

      I love nothing more than making sure we break down the barriers which might put cycling in the ‘too hard’ basket for women…we have a very supportive environment, have LOADS of fun, don’t take ourselves too seriously, and we don’t care what kind of bike you have, or what clothes you wear…no lycra necessary! (We tend to make coffee and cake the mission on our rides).

      Aside from the skills programs which will help build the skills you need to be confident in all kinds of situations, we run regular rides – some long, some short, some fast, some slow. We also do ‘shopping missions’ and provide advice on buying new bikes, can source some good discounts and actually GO with you so you have some support and don’t feel pressured from the bike shop.

      To start with, I’D LIKE TO OFFER YOU A FREE ONE ON ONE LESSON because I want you to know that there are people out there who are willing to support riders like you.

      If you could email me I’d love to chat with you and see what we can do to make sure the bike comes out of the shed, and you fulfill the dream of riding everyday!

      Tina McCarthy
      NCAS Level 1 AustCycle Coach
      Winner, Women of Change Award Cycling Victoria

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