It started out like any other Sunday in the last six months, drag self out of bed, onto the bike and out for some hills. This day wasn't going to be an epic ride, just short and sharp, taking in some well worn 'vehurtical' near home. Nothing I hadn't done many times before. I would have been lucky to be pedalling for even twenty minutes though when it struck me. Staring down at my stem, then at the road below my front wheel, thinking how slow it was passing beneath me, how heavy my legs were and how utterly drained I felt. Like a rising sea before the crash of a wave this heavy feeling quickly built itself around me, til my shoulders buckled, my head slumped and I started crying. Not delicate tears, but heaving sobs. I thought how utterly ridiculous I looked, this girl on a bike, riding along bawling, but I couldn't stop it. It hit me like a freight train and I had no idea why. Overwhelming sadness.
I knew it was a dumb idea to try and complete the ride, so I bargained with the part of my brain that lays the guilt trip on me when I don't finish what I set out to do and told myself to go home, get changed and go to yoga instead. There was still time to make the class, so that’s what I did. At the end of the practice, as the instructor was talking about how we should be kind and gentle with ourselves in times of struggle, I lay on my mat in the candlelight and cried again.
With the clarity I found later, it was so easy to see what had led to this straw versus camel's back moment. The warning signs had been there for a while. Has anyone ever burst into tears because they defrosted the wrong meat for dinner? Like as if it honestly was a truly world-ending moment? Yep, that was me.
About six weeks prior, I'd finished Peaks Challenge Falls Creek. A 235km, 4800m, twelve hour epic. Two days before this ride, as we were driving to Falls, I found out my mother had breast cancer. She hadn't wanted to tell me until the ride was over, but I'd beat her to the punch by phoning and asking about the test results I knew she was getting back that day. We all just thought it would be a calcification like before, but she couldn't lie, and I was a mess. So, in addition to dealing with 'post event blues' as they call them - that completely empty feeling you have when that thing you've been building up to for so long is finally over - I was worried about Mum. She had surgery very soon after her diagnosis and would be starting multiple rounds of radiation in a couple of months time. In the background of all this, Mum was losing her youngest sibling. He had been diagnosed with cancer some two years earlier and was coming to the end of his brave fight. The night before I sobbed my way through that ride, we got news he had passed away and I had seen Mum's surgery scars for the first time. Strangely, I didn't get too upset over either, as I wanted to be the tough one for her. However, in the light of the next day, these events, coupled with knowing that one Peaks Challenge was done and it was almost time to begin training for the next, was my complete and total undoing.
I knew something wasn't right. This was not my 'normal'. But surely I was just fatigued, maybe low in iron, I mean I was sleeping for all mankind at every opportunity, so it was probably just post Peaks depletion. I made an appointment to see my doctor thinking a quick chat, some blood tests and I'd be on the up again. However we both realised, when she said kindly 'Now how can I help you today?' and I just totally lost my sh$t, this was a depletion of more than just iron. After I blubbered my way through all that had happened, with the vocabulary of a pre-schooler so it felt, she told me empathetically but firmly that she believed I was clinically depressed, that I should immediately take time off work and that if all my bloods came back normal, begin on an anti-depressant. I was like 'huh??'. I mean, I've had down days before, everyone does, but was I really in a place that needed medication? She reassured me it was a very low dose and 'benign' drug, with limited side effects, but very effective in cases like mine, and that once I began it, I would feel the benefits within a week or two. Let me tell you, it was like night and day within a couple of days.
So I took the time off work and initially thought I'd fill my days with things like massage, maybe a facial, I'd go and get all those things done that I never have time for. But then I couldn't think of anything worse. So I came up with a project, something to focus on, took myself off to Bunnings for supplies and then proceeded to clean and stain the rear deck of the house! It was boring, it was mundane, it took multiple days, but it was methodical, required little thought and had an outcome I could look at and be proud of. Sounds ludicrous. I mean it's housework right? But it was exactly what I needed. A focus that wasn't getting through tasks at work, or making it to the end of a ride, or chasing up all the things I hadn't done. It was calming, and without pressure.
Within the space of a couple of days, the change was immeasurable. I was clearly so completely deficient in serotonin that even the lowest dose of the most basic anti-depressant was enough to bring me back to a much brighter place. What I also hadn't realised for so long, was that I was functioning way 'up here', and I needed to be brought back down to a normal level. I was a little ball of anxiety. Once the fog had lifted, I realised that the times I ended up on the side of the road during Peaks training, god knows how many hours and kilometres in, staring up at some ridiculous bloody steep hill, hyperventilating and starting to cry - which of course does trying to breathe no favours - wasn't just because it was a crazy big hill and would take a hell of an effort to get over, but was actually panic attacks. Once I started the medication, the crying stopped (ok maybe not when it comes to RSPCA ads and stuff..), the panic attacks stopped. Completely. It was an absolute 180 degree turn from where I had been. I cannot express the difference it made.
So why am I telling you all this? Because I want to normalise it. I want you to know that although what I went through is pretty much a standard human reaction to some very big life events; death and illness in close family, achieving but in the same breath losing a goal, sometimes you just can't cope on your own. Just because you were an absolute lionheart that one time last year, last month, last week where that big thing happened and you were really upset but then you got yourself through it, does not mean that you are able to do that every time. Sometimes we don't even realise these things are building, layer upon layer on our backs, until we break. Many will tell you that you just need to talk about it more, or talk to the right person, maybe even that you just need to HTFU (yep I got told that too..) but if you physically aren't in a position where you can get two words out about what's troubling you (or you don't even really know what's troubling you!) without breaking down into a blubbering mess, it really is time to seek professional help.
I cannot tell you the difference it has made to my mental and physical health, and my cycling. I went on to train for and complete Peaks Challenge Gold Coast and Cradle Mountain, without a roadside meltdown in sight. Without that all-enveloping, constricting, paralysing fear of failure. Don't ever be afraid to just pour it all out there to a professional who you trust and who knows you. If you don't have a regular GP, reach out to organisations like beyondblue.org.au and lifeline.org.au or speak to your friends and see if they can recommend someone. You'll find a good GP is like gold, so people will often be more than happy to pass on their details. If you're in Brisbane, I'm more than happy to recommend you mine! As my yoga instructor said, we must be gentle with ourselves when we are at our lowest. Only then can we climb back out and stand strong again.
In a few days, on 10th September, on her ‘rest year’ she’ll be attempting her first Everesting challenge, climbing 8,848m, 235km, in one go, and it's on her birthday! https://8848.everydayhero.com/au/phillippa Phillippa we think you rock, thank you for sharing your story and helping breakdown barriers about mental health.