Put me back on my bike: Mental illness is real
Where’s the fire, what’s the hurry about?
You better cool it off before you burn it out
You got so much to do and only
So many hours in a day
– Vienna, Billy Joel
When I got into the sport of cycle touring, it seemed like I was carrying a rainbow on my shoulders. My folks seemed to be having a jolly good time going out there and exploring the world on their bikes. Inspired by their heroics, I embarked on my first tour in 2015 and haven’t stopped since. But over the course of three years, I have soon realised that the sport is not perfect. As much as it increases dopamine levels and makes one really really happy, it also has a few restraints.
For one, I realised that the training regime I put myself under is rather brutal and taxing on the body. Richard Marchinko famously said “The more thou sweateth in training, the less thou bleedeth in combat.” It sounds a bit too harsh for a 22 year-old city-dweller to digest, but these words best describe my obsession with a training plan.
So what’s the regime?
Well, I wake up at 4 am every day and spend about three hours on the road – irrespective of the weather. Whether it’s the blistering heat, dreadful cold or harsh rain, I train. Back home, I recover for an hour and rush to work. Quite obviously, any trace of social life I have disappears. I learnt about this from a seasoned cyclist in Bangalore who said that if I had to get serious about cycling, then social life would have to take a hit. It didn’t make much sense to me back then, but over time I started believing he quoted straight out of the cycling bible.
Mentally, I’m constantly thinking about practice. There’s only one responsibility. I need to train rigorously, eat healthy, and sleep on time. Repeat. Needless to say, I stress myself thinking that if I don’t follow this regime seriously then I’ll struggle out on the road. I wouldn’t want the Mountain to get the better of me, no matter how strong it might be.
Then comes the nice bit – long, hard miles touring on the road. I remember spending gruesome hours in the dry deserts of Gujarat when the sun refused to have pity on me, or nerve racking days in Sri Lanka, when the sun’s glare and the oceanic headwind combined forces and wreaked havoc all over my mental peace – all under the banner of adventure.
But if touring was so easy, would I be training so hard?
If you love something as much as I love to tour, then you understand that the toughest experiences are most memorable. There’s no running away once on the road, come hell or high water. Over the course of time, the tires roll, the scenery changes, the skin tans, and eventually the tour comes to an end. This is where my story takes a turn.
Each time I return from a tour, I laze in bed, get massages, and hog on carbs. The focus is on getting my energy back and waiting for the muscles to heal. Each day spent in the city not being able to ride my bike feels traumatic. The moment there’s a spike in recovery, I take off in the wee hours of the day – awaiting the sun to rise over the horizon – just not as rigorously as I tend to pre-tour.
Each time a tour ends and home calls, a strong sense of disorientation takes over. Life in the city makes little or no sense. I’m consumed by nostalgia and melancholy. At 7 am, I could either be getting ready for work or packing my panniers and loading them on my bike. Not a tough pick is it? This disorientation lingers on for months on end. I experienced this disorientation only when I started embarking on month-long tours, where I completely escaped from my routine and built a fresh one that I could tweak any time I wanted.
Back home, I am forced to follow the same routine I try hard to run away from.
In 2016, I accompanied Tim Chittock, a Kiwi attempting to set a Guinness World Record for cycling the Indian Golden Quadrilateral in under 20 days (that’s nearly 6000 km!). Both Tim and I returned home with bruised egos and heartbreak for not having finished the job. We were glad to have met each other and to share such an arduous journey. But once you go through an experience like that, the mind wants more. It wants adrenaline. It wants adventure. The mind definitely doesn’t want a routine.
I was still in college when I accompanied Tim. When it was time to come home, a lot of things made little sense to me. I lost my phone on tour and managed to break the replacement two days after purchasing it. I forgot how to go about getting that phone fixed. I forgot how to go about my daily chores. I forgot how to make it on time for class. I was still living in my dream world where cycling 300 km a day was Tim’s target and making six omelettes, four bowls of oats, and hourly tea for the driver was mine. Over the next few weeks, things only got tougher. I fell ill and picked up a recurring case of diarrhoea. It was quite vile. The illness became worse and soon, I lost all my energy. Waking up and going about my daily business felt like a magnanimous task.
I had big plans of cycling the Killar-Kishtwar Highway – one of the world’s most dangerous roads. Then spend a couple of weeks in Ladakh exploring the cold desert region. My flights were booked but I knew I wasn’t going to get better. I visited some of the best gastroenterologists the city has to offer but none could solve the mystery of my stomach. Quite literally, life was a dump.
The situation only became worse over time. I got very anxious and couldn’t be left to myself. This, coming from a boy who yearns for solitude on the road. I moved back to my folks’ place once college ended. I refused to interact with anyone. Visits to the doctor didn’t stop. I got every possible medical test done – an endoscopy, an HIV test, and a colonoscopy (I was anaesthetised, thankfully). Finally, the doctor gave up and directed me to the psychiatrist. In acute cases, the brain takes over the digestive tract and gastroenterology becomes redundant.
I was a bit wary at first, but didn’t see any harm in taking the prescribed pills. My doctor asked me to eat well, sleep well, and work out regularly. All of this seemed a rather cruel task. It’s hard to describe, but when one feels sleepy through the day, fails to communicate, can barely walk, and finds little motivation to complete any chore, it’s a bit of an asking to exercise and stay fit. But I got through it. I swam, swung my squash racquet, and played table tennis with mum. My family was the only people I interacted with from May through September of 2016 and it didn’t seem like I was missing out on much in the world beyond the confines of my room. After about six weeks of medication, I started feeling better, got my strength back, and was graced with the gift of speech. Soon enough, I was thrashing Dad at squash and playing Mum with either hand. In no time, I was back on the bike and started training for cycling around Sri Lanka.
Let’s fast forward to February 2017. I was recovering from the two months I spent cycling in Sri Lanka, Gujarat, and Rajasthan. I never wanted this adventure to end but when both money and energy ran out, I was forced to hit the sack. After exploring 2500 km of open road, I was confined to 2000 sq. feet of my apartment. The feeling of disorientation returned. I ignored invites to plays, parties, dinners, or any other social gathering. I had no interest in the TV shows everyone was talking about. My friends had moved on and found new routines in jobs or a Master’s programme, and here I was, lost in my world, once again.
My mum forced me to apply for jobs and in about two days I found myself employed as a writer. Life seemed to be stable, but I knew that any small change in environment would lead to a relapse. With the course of time, I forgot about my illness and went about town making merry with my mates. On one such night, I ran into a pot hole while cycling back home and ended up cracking my frame. My heart sank when my bike broke. Pahadi, my faithful steel tourer of 36 years was no more. I’m known to be overtly dramatic but this was real. I was gutted from stem to stem. This bike had shown me so much of the world, and I was thankful to it for never breaking down and giving up on me. For three days, I felt lost. I knew I had to say goodbye to rotten steel, but didn’t expect such a hurtful departure.
A few days later, I lost all my strength and got a relapse. I was bedridden for a couple of days but decided against staying-in. Work kept me distracted and kept the dark thoughts at bay. At work, anxiety and depression were at bay. It sucked to not be able to ride my bike. It sucked to give up on another tour – this time the Holy Grail, Manali to Leh.
It’s nearly the end of July and I’m still not completely fit to jump back onto the saddle. But small steps towards recovery have been taken. I’ve been strictly following my doctor’s advice – eat well, sleep well, and exercise regularly. It took six weeks the first time and it’s been nearly three months this time and I can safely say the summit on the road to recovery is in my sights.
Here’s where you come in.
I want the reader to acknowledge that mental illness is real and can have a critical impact on the life of those suffering. Anxiety is real. Depression is real. Bi-polar disorder is real. Eating disorder is real. ADHD is real. Sometimes, these illnesses can be chronic. Those effected need medical help and not nescient comments like ‘it’s all in the head, just chill’ or ‘get a beer and some fresh air, you’ll be fine.’ I suffer from depression because of returning to lows of city life after highs of touring on a bicycle. As much as I take pride in the Gift of the Gab, it hurts to not be able to express myself and tell people what I’m going through. If mental illness was treated like fever, I’d be showered with empathy. Everyone’s suffered from fever, so they know what the implications are. But not everyone knows what it’s like to suffer from a mental illness.
The irony in my story line is that what I love the most leaves with the darkest scars. It makes me sad and depressed yet I pursue it everyday. They are mere barriers of a long ride. Punctures happen every now and then, but there’s nothing a patch can’t fix.
Dear reader, please be more accepting of these problems. They are real. They are fatal. If you know someone who isn’t having the best phase in life and seem to be struggling, steer them to a doctor and not to a cold beer. Don’t let your friends and family direct themselves to safe havens and bolt holes. Everyone deserves to be happy. Happiness is best enjoyed when shared.
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