This is the third part of my story.
My story takes place over a solitary day, but also the period of a few months, documenting a journey I started a month ago. I want to capture both a day in the life and the way that a wider situation evolves. As such, it has to span a series of blogs, written over a space of time.
This series has largely been written quickly and roughly, to help me explore my mind.
However, this draft changed. I wrote it a week ago and went to press ‘publish’. I paused, re-read it, and deleted thousands of words. They were still mired in anxiety; I felt i had to move on. It feels somehow liberating to have deleted those hours of thoughts, written in dark, solitary, low moments.
I wrote this second draft like i have the others – as the words and thoughts came in to my head. This time, there was no pause before i pressed ‘Go’.
Over the past few weeks, something has started to change in my mind.
I feel like I may have reached the bottom of a bell curve, and have started crawling back out up the other side. Like a spider tenaciously grappling its way out of the bath – sometimes slipping back, dangerously near the plug hole, but fighting back to make its exit, getting a little closer to escape every time.
I finished part 2 at my absolute lowest, two weeks ago. Wracked with axiety, guilt, self hate. I still feel all of these at certain points, but they’re not so ever-present in my mind.
I break from work to have lunch. My appetite comes and goes at the moment. My body seems to have adapted to the regular sessions at the gym and my metabolism seems to have slowed again, making it difficult to eat the surplus i require. I tend to judge my meals as much on time of day at the moment. Though occasionally, that dormant appetite and metabolism kicks in hard, typically in the middle of the afternoon, driving me to eating dinner at a time that would seem early even to a primary school kid.
A few weeks ago, the arrival of lunchtime would be both a blessing and a curse. I love food, but back then, it was a burden. I’d become tired of working out what to eat. I remember a few mealtimes where I’d spent about 20 minutes thinking about what’s in the fridge, considering one option then ruling it out for being ‘incorrect’ in some way, menu after menu and failing to find one that ticked the boxes of taste, and what i perceived as acceptable on that day. On one shoulder, a new side trying to burst out and blossom, one that eats without consideration of calorific values, of whether its been earnt – someone that eats instinctually and for pleasure. I enjoy healthy foods so don’t need to pressurise myself about the quality of what’s on the plate. But then, on the other side, the old me, that had become so imbedded since my late 20s, one that was concerned with giving me enough, but just enough, never a bit too much.
I’ve managed to avoid those terrible, pointless, nerve-crushing conundrums recently.
I’m comfortable, and becoming used, to eating more on a daily basis now. Each meal is slightly larger, slightly more sensible. Thinking back to the amount i used to restrict myself on days that i was off the bike makes me kick myself in anger. I can’t imagine eating that little now my stomach has adapted to what is approaching a more ‘normal’ quantity of food.
I suspect that i’m still not eating enough though – probably fine for a relatively sedentary man my age, but not for someone who is crawling out of an energy deficiency and disordered behaviour as entrenched as mine. But, it’s progress. Rome wasn’t built in a day. I know that the next step is probably just to re-arrange my plate a bit. Less of the huge mounds of greens and leaves – full of good stuff, but also full of air that makes me feel full, toward more emphasis on the grains, the starches – it’s still sweet potato, brown rice, quinoa, foods from the hipster isle of Whole Foods – foods htat do me good. It’s ironic that to get better I need to move away from what a GP may prescribe as a model healthy diet.
I’m in a privileged position really. I know I should be eating masses, almost like an athelete deep in training. High frequency, high volume. And I know, and indeed have been advised by those that know better than me – ex-olympic athletes, nutritionists, those who’ve been around the athletic block more times that i’ve had hot dinners (pun intended, i think) – that I should have my cake and eat it. As long as the good stuff is coming in, an occasional sugar-fat calorie bomb is a good thing.
Despite what they tell me, some foods had become off-limits during the years I got to this state. Ironically, put me in a good pizzeria or burger restaurant and I’d be in a very happy place. I would feel guilt afterward, but not much. However, they had typically been reserved for days after a big training session, where I knew the calories needed filling. I’d still eat them on a day they’d not be ‘earned’ but an anxious discontent would settle over my mind afterward, feeling guilty and out of control.
The things that are really off-limits however, were those that I had more access to, predominantly the foods of the bakery. The rich, buttery croissants, the overpoweringly flavourful fattiness of a sausage roll or pork pie, the sensual overload of a cappuccino cake. And though it had never been something I’d thought of much before, I’ve started craving pistachio ice cream. These foods, those I could go and buy right now, are forbidden. That privilege I referred to above placed me in a situation where I should happily eat these every day. The energy supplied to my repairing system would far forgo any health fears that the Daily Mail would start making headlines out of. That’s the next step. Learn to love that cake again, to eat it without fear. There’s a saying in cycling ‘will ride for cake’. I shouldn’t even need to ride to get that cake.
The change in my mind, the hopeful feeling that i may be starting to crawl out of the very bottom, has come about very slowly. After two or three weeks off the bike, the loss started to feel less like loss, more just the norm. The end of a grieving process. I’m still ravaged by a sense of worry that I might not ever get back on the saddle, that the relationship may have soured, but I’ve somehow distanced myself from it. When I knew the races and events I’d planned were off-limits, it became easier, like something I needn’t worry about for now.. The bike will be there for me when I’m ready for it, and it should be me that decides when the separation ends, not the bike applying pressure on me for a re-marriage.
The last few weeks was still peppered with lows however, and I know that I’m far from out of the woods. One afternoon, gracing myself a rare day off, I decided to confront a fear, as well as learn a new skill, and bake a cake. I went to the shop and brought the ingredients. I got them home and instantly put them all away. They remain untouched. I can’t face making it as I know I just won’t eat the cake that results from the process. I should try to make it. Having it there will encourage me to eat it.
Despite feeling like I’m on an upward curve, there have still been days in the past week I’ve been wracked with hatred at what I’d become, how I’d done this to myself. I’d sit and hate everything I’ve strived for, my project to forge myself into a freelance writer and build a name for myself. It’s something that provides me the flexibility to work where and when I want, to put bits of metal in my face, to explore my creative tendencies. It all feels like an airy-fairy load of bullshit to me sometimes, a peter-pan like existence. The anti-depressants help even out my mood a lot of the time, but it’s not always enough. I should listen to some of my friends who genuinely seem proud of me and tell me that, and I guess I should be proud of myself. But i still feel dominated by feelings that I’m a farce.
Lunch done, I stick my head back into work. Some of what I do fascinates me, but of course, with all jobs, you get the rough with the smooth and a lot of it is pretty dull. II have times when I find it hard to focus and I have to work hard to keep my mind on track. Whereas a few weeks ago my head was constantly filled with angst about my training – or lack of – and my health, permanently giving me issues concentrating, it’s becoming less frequent I find myself that anxious. Some days, I’m super-productive and feel creative. Some days I’m still filled with tension; overcome with grumbles of discontent and dissatisfaction. It hits me like a wave. I can be fine one minute, stressing the next. My developing practice of mindfulness – only 10-15 minutes a day – mitigates some of the damage.
Now it’s over a month since I rode my bike (not that I’m counting the days) I’ve become reconciled to it, it’s normal, and I feel at peace with it. But it does still fill my mind a lot. I still wonder if and when I’ll ride again, and whether I even want to. Like a few weeks ago, I worry that I may have lost the love.
I’m far from a ‘Type-A’ personality, but like all athletes, display that ‘Type-A’ need to fully commit, to invest their attention into something. Without the bike, that’s gone. I’m diverting it to the gym, but it doesn’t feel enough. The bike was so all-consuming, so gloriously enshrouding, whereas the gym somehow isn’t. I’m really enjoying lifting, and feeling like I’m progressing, after over six months of banging my head against a wall as my bike form deteriorated as my body shut down, is satisfying. But that enveloping effect of riding your bike regularly doesn’t come with the gym – I liked being a ‘cyclist’ but I certainly don’t want to be a ‘gym bunny’.
But herein lies the problem. I need to train my mind away through trying to prove myself through a sport, to tie all my energies into it. Somehow subconsciously, after a few years of being pretty good on the bike, I developed expectations of myself that were unsustainable, meaning that training was always met with a certain amount of dissatisfaction, and with that Type-A impulse to throw all my attention into something, along with my deteriorating mental health – a product of my hormones taking a nose dive – came an enshrouding gloom. At least now, if and when the bike comes back into my life, I can free myself of expectation.
One beauty of time off the bike has been the return of music to my day. All through my youth and early 20s, gigs, playing in bands, and listening to antisocial music filled my time. I continued to love it through the last five or six years, but I stopped actively pursuing it. The last month has brought that pleasure back. I spend all my spare time listening to the music that my parents hoped I’d grow out of, and discovering more. It takes me back to my teenage and university years, and some of the music I used to help me concentrate, to mellow out, or to vent frustration. It feels like a lifetime ago.
I’ve got myself into a habit of taking mid-afternoon walks. I initially did this when my anxiety got so high that I could feel myself melting down into some sort of panic attack; stepping out into the fresh air, away from the sometimes-suffocating presence of a laptop evened me out. However, as my mind has started to become slightly more settled, I enjoy it.
It’s mid-May and the weather is improving. Though the bike became mostly about training and self-progress, the walks make me realise how much I miss the simple pleasure of the fresh air and sunshine. Sometimes I listen to podcasts, sometimes I just listen to the beautiful stillness. If I do step out of the door tortured by anxiety, the sounds of birds and the wind eases my mind. A lot of cyclists ride on the roads around where I live. A few weeks ago I looked at them with angry recrimination. Now, I just look at them ambivalently, as though they were just any other person going about their business. It’s a distanced sense of removal that I’m not sure how to interpret – but seeing them certainly doesn’t hurt me the way it used to.
Today, as I walk, I think back to last night, the appointment with Renee McGregor, a dietician specialising in orthorexia and disordered eating in athletes, and the leading expert in Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). The session had finally come around after weeks of busy schedules and clashing availabilities had meant that the appointment had come far later than I wanted it to. I’d been anticipating the call all day yesterday, and in a sense, it had been anticipating me for years, as I dug myself deeper and deeper into destructive habits and bad health. For a lot of the, I‘d not wanted to take the call; I feared what it may bring – meal plans I couldn’t stick to, brutal realisations about what I’d done to myself, onerous targets and plans.
I answered the call with baited breath, nervous at what I was going to be told. I’d been envisaging meal plans and admonishment, but I got empathy and understanding. For one of the first times in my life, someone listened and totally understood. I’ve opened up to plenty of people about my situation, and some had clearly not really ‘got it’, shutting down the conversation or awkwardly steering it on another course, leaving me frustrated and dejected. Others tried to help but just didn’t understand. And some just weren’t interested.
Renee understood everything. She’s read my blogs and has been through similar experiences herself and so knew what was going through my head. We chatted through my feelings, my motivations, my weak links. She advised and consulted like a friend, not a distant medical practitioner. I wanted to talk forever, I felt like everything I said was met with positivity or solution. I felt like before, my openness had been returned with blank faces and mistrust. I came out of the call with some sort of sense of what I had to do, what I had to change.
And as I’d known all along, it wasn’t a case of me doing xx intervals and xx hours on the bike, eating xx calories at xx time and xx% of this and xx% of that. It was mindsets I needed to adopted, behaviours I needed to reframe. Some of them were big, and it wasn’t going to be quick or easy to move towards them. Some could perhaps be picked off a little more easily, and that gave me hope.
But for the first time in months, I had a sense of clarity and understanding.
I finished the call and sat in stunned silence, trying to compute.
I had a lot to work on. But the ideas were there.
It’s down to me, and my willingness to implement it.
I can get all the advice i want, but it’s time to start listening to it.
I think it all over as I walk. It was a long walk.