Crystal posted in a VeloVixen Women´s Cycling Chat on Facebook about a conversation with her partner about the power of cycling in helping to heal times of depression. Their conversation ended in loving tears as a door was opened in communcation and the potential of sharing time pedalling together. It was a vulnerable, honest and open post that touched so many of it´s readers and induced a barrage of supportive comments. Here at Hopetech Women, we thought some of you would also like to hear a little bit more from Crystal.
Crsytal is brave. She might not know it or value it because she has a long-term battle with depression, and depression has a way of not letting you recognise your good qualities. But look at it like this, most people will experience some form of depression or anxiety in their lives at some point, but not all of them will talk up about it. In fact, most won´t. Still! But Crystal does and in doing so, she helps everyone to take a step out of the abyss. This article is the evidence...
How long have you suffered with depression?
I figured out I had depression in and around 2005 when I was in college. It was a period of my life when I basically isolated myself in my room for 2 years, only leaving to go to college or 'long drives' when I got annoyed at college and wanted to escape. Always returned to the safety of my dark room though. It wan't until I saw the Stephen Fry 'Secret Life of the Manic Depressive' documentary that I clicked that there could be a reason why I felt this way. Growing up in a small town in Suffolk, talking about metal health wasn't really a thing. I felt so alone in what I was feeling that I wanted to speak to someone and it sounds weird but the only person I felt comfortable opening up to was a complete stranger, knowing I wouldn't get a response, but I would have at least got it off my chest. So I wrote my feelings and emotions down on a piece of paper and shoved it in an envelope and sent my letter to Stephen Fry's agent. To my utter shock, 6 months later I got a response to my letter from Stephen Fry himself and he explained things in such a way that made things make a little more sense. It was after I received that letter that I went to my doctor and got my formal diagnosis - I had depression. I wasn't a freak, I wasn't a miserable anti social weirdo, I had a mental illness. Over the years I have looked at my mental health and try to recognise as many facts about it as possible and be aware of them. To just be, and witness it come and go without any judgement (although that in itself is a very tricky thing when you feel like you're sinking in an abyss). But that letter I received in 2006 always gives me hope when I feel at my lowest. I still reference it to this day when I need a boost. It literally changed my life.
How did you get into cycling?
I have always loved cycling. Growing up we were very poor but one christmas my parents surprised me by buying me a BMX for christmas, and I loved that thing. It was the ultimate freedom in a small town with not much to do. Just the simple fact of riding to see my friends and ride around enjoying myself, it was liberating. I used to borrow my sisters bike to ride to high school until one day I was cycling home from school and a car came straight out of a junction without looking and hit me as I was riding home, impacted near the where the cranks were, bent the steel frame in half sending me summer-salting in the air. Luckily I came away with just scrapes and bruises, the doctor said I was lucky that I didn't break my legs. I didn't cycle that much after that. It wasn't until I started working in London in 2011 that I started my cycling journey again, mainly started as a commuting tool from the main train station to the office on my retro Raleigh Candice with annoying imperial sized 650A wheels, so finding tyres and inner tubes was a pain in the butt. But a few years had passed and I had bought my first real road bike - a Felt VR40W. I'll tell you, finding bikes for little people like me is a real challenge as the Felt is a 43cm frame! I guess now that's why I get obsessed when I see small frames on eBay and build my own. In my house I pretty much have 2 builds on the go and 6 other bikes. Cycling is definitely an obsession, even if I don't go out and ride much, I pretty much tinker with my bikes every week. Youtube is a girls best friend, the only thing I have yet to learn is indexing gears and wrapping bar tape. With my Boyfriend now having a bike, we are now a 9 bike household. Oops, well that escalated quickly, lol.
One of the builds I’m doing is directly related to me trying to overcome anxiety - I started a cycling challenge where I can build the bike of my dreams (a Pinarello Dogma) if I hit a certain KM goal. I’m working towards ‘unlocking’ a wheel set at the moment, which will be unlocked as soon as I cycle 1300kms. The way I save to do this is pretty funky, as you can link your Monzo card to your Strava via an 'If This Then That applet' which automatically saves money into a pot whenever you cycle. I’m sharing my journey on Instagram, the idea being that I can look back at my experiences, good and bad and use it as a visual diary of my cycling journey.
What is it about cycling that you find therapeutic?
It's true escapism. When you're in the middle of nowhere and it's quiet it's the most pure thing in the world, all of your stresses and troubles leave your body and you're left with the here and now, your own breath and the sounds of the surroundings. In September I completed a bucket list item and I spent a few days cycling the Ardennes region in France along the Meuse River and it was the most beautiful and serene experience I've ever had. Living in London it's harder to find that serene feel, but I sometimes venture out with clubs and Breeze rides to learn of quiet routes, but anxiety usually always keeps me from experiencing this on my own. So now my OH is open to the idea of cycling I can once again look forward to more serene cycle rides closer to home.
What other methods/tricks/tips do you use to maintain your mental health?
I think for me it's about recognising how my mental health works, what triggers me, when my depression surfaces and for how long. Over the past few years I've been more aware of my depression getting worse as soon as the clocks go back and the dark nights arrive. I felt a consistent sense of emptiness during the winter months and yet when spring always inevitably came along it brought me so much joy, simply the additional sunlight and the sight of flowers blooming, I celebrate the arrival of spring every year, the countdown begins when the clocks go back - I'm much more excited about that than anything else in the year. I have a countdown on my desk right now on a ceramic elephant! haha. As soon as I saw a pattern emerging over the winter months I put two and two together and I did some research into light therapy and invested in a Lumie desk lamp and wake up alarm clock which I've used solidly these past 5 winters and they help a lot. They don't fix it, but they help. I think when you open up about your methods to tackling your own mental health battles, people can get defensive thinking you're telling them that they are failures of your methods don't work but mental health is a very personal thing and people are going to have their own ways of dealing with things. It's a journey of discovery and trial and error, but hopefully one of those trials may make a difference and help you build an arsenal of tools to help you through. I recently shared my tips on NHS.uk's facebook page under a post: Being kind to myself, even when I feel I don't deserve it. Take regular breaks to hydrate. Go for a walk in nature. Hug my dogs. Have a tight daily routine with a consistent bed time. Making sure I get at least 8 hours of sleep. Treating myself to something nice once a week (a posh coffee will do it). Watch one of my favourite films. Having a prolonged social media detox. Reassuring myself that what I'm feeling is temporary and WILL feel better in the future. Remembering those times when I felt really happy and telling myself those times will come again. A mixture of things really, the main role I take is to practice self care and be kind to myself, almost taking a self-babysitting approach (without patronising myself). Allow myself little indulges, guilt free. Guilt has no place.
I also received some of the best advice of my life many years ago from someone I was working with. Take a break every three months, even if you feel like you don't need it. Before I was told that I suffered from regular burnout, because I thought taking so much time off on a regular basis was excessive, but now after 6 years of following that advice, I suffer from burnout a lot less, and thus, my mental health has also benefitted. It's the number one piece of life advice I give anyone now. To me it's possibly the most important piece of advice I've ever received.
Tell us about your conversation with your partner when you both realised that cycling could be shared together....
It was over Christmas. Christmas has stopped being special for us for a variety of reasons, but for me it was because I was exhausted of always having to travel over the christmas period. I have dogs, don't drive, my OH usually goes to see his brother in a different part of the country, so it's very tricky for me. Every year of my life I travelled home for christmas, but last year I didn't travel home. First time in my life. What I was expecting is my family to think 'Crystal hasn't come home this year, let's go see her'. No one came. This past Christmas was my second where I didn't go home, so me and my OH sat around playing games. I really wanted to go out for a ride but I felt that anxiety of going out by myself again, the sadness that I couldn't share this with anyone, so I didn't go. I got really depressed and anxious for the rest of Christmas day, knowing everyone was celebrating christmas, opening presents and sharing in something they enjoyed. I had none of that. We just sat... and play games. Usually I'm ok with that, but this time was different. I really wanted to ride my bike with someone. Boxing Day came around, and I felt a sense of relief that the world was open again, so I said to my boyfriend, let's go to Nero to get a coffee. That's where I opened up about how I feel when I cycle. How I feel so incredibly alone and haunted by previous experiences of verbal abuse and nasty drivers (I was involved in a hit and run which also scars my mental health every time I jump on a bike). Hass, my boyfriend listened intently and wanted to join. Offering solutions, but had limited scope. He would hire a Brompton and join me on rides. This was great to hear, but it didn't match my love for riding road bikes, the ambitions of each bike is different, the road bike is fast, aero dynamic and covers more distance, and the Brompton wouldn't be able to catch up, thus we wouldn't have the same experience. We came home after coffee and Hass started to cry a bit, that's where he truly opened up about his cycling anxieties. The anxiety over spending a huge amount of money on a bike and the gear to actually go cycling. I never knew this is how he felt and I felt really sad for him. To see him in this state cut me up. He had seen the difficulty I had getting a bike that fit, which meant I had to pay alot of money for a new bike. He believed his journey to find a bike would be the same. But me being the bargain hunter I am, saw this as an opportunity to not only buy him a Christmas present, but also to cure his anxiety over the cost of buying a bike. So I hopped on all the online market places I could find and within an hour I found a bike his size being sold locally. That was it. I bought it for him. I'm currently in teh process of upgrading the brakes and cables, but I've planned 12 easy rides that we can do together. A variety of short quiet urban rides, to exploratory rides that pass castles in the countryside. It's essentially a cycle plan for us both. Something I couldn't even think about doing for myself, but as soon as Hass expressed an interest, it was done in a matter of hours. That's the moment I got excited for the journey we were about to go on together, as there's a plan. I can't cycle without a plan, but without hesitation, I created one there and then.
What did you learn from that conversation?
Transparency. Be open and be honest. Even if it's a difficult subject. It was really difficult to tell a long term partner that you feel lonely and there is nothing they can do to help the situation. Luckily we are both very open with each other so I felt comfortable expressing my feelings, but what took me by surprise was his response, his reaction. I had no idea how he felt about it all, and how helpless he felt being unable to help. I jumped to the conclusion that he had no interest what so ever and he didn't care, that was not the case in the slightest. From this, I've definitely learnt that I need to step back every now and again and look at things from another perspective. Things may not be as it seems on the surface. Every one has their story, their reason and justification and I need to be open to hearing it.
You shared your conversation on the lovely VeloVixen Women´s Cycling Chat group and got a huge response. Were you expecting that? And why do you think it touched so many people?
I wasn't, no. I share stuff every now and again, but always assume I'm insignificant in groups like that where you've got loads of amazing women doing amazing things, my posts are surely going to get lost in the amazingness that surrounds me. So me sharing a little story on the group and getting so many positive responses was a shock, but it was also amazing to see how much support I got. Even today when I shared a story about a ride that made me anxious and had to leave early, the replies to that were so warming and made me feel less alone in my mental health struggles. It made me feel so much better after a really bad anxiety filled day.
To me, it seems like in the space of a couple of days you opened yourself up and shared your true feelings twice, and both times you received an incredibly positive response. Does it scare you to let yourself be vulnerable like that?
I guess I'm the kind of person that wears my heart on my sleeve. If I have something on my chest, I need to let out otherwise it will eat me up. I'm not going to lie, it has got me in trouble a couple of times, but that's mainly because I'm much better at the written word than the spoken work - my brain works faster than my mouth and I say things I don't mean. It's why I like to use facebook as a kind of personal blog for my feelings and I like to share certain things with people who share my hobbies. I think social media is a double edged sword, but being able to truly express myself to my limited and exclusive friends list (my friends list tops out at 50, and you have to be very special to have a place there) helps me decompress. I can share my troubles in a safe space without sounding like a moron or getting in trouble, and without the anxiety of talking in public. It's just nice writing my feelings down. Some people asked me if I would start a blog, but I think facebook is a nicer place for it as my friends are already on the platform so they don't have to expend any effort to hear my ramblings (who would want to voluntarily hear them anyway? haha), but it is really soothing just to type away my feelings. It gives me space to truly look at them in a rational way.
What tips would you have to another cyclist who battles with depression and can´t always find the motivation to get out on a ride?
This is a very recent discovery I've made, but I think of my own cycling journey as the innovation curve. I bought my road bike, got really excited about it and then my anxiety got the better of me and I didn't cycle much after a certain point, but other the past couple of years my milage has been increasing. I think little and often is better than a huge effort to join a club, go a certain distance or do X number of sportives (I've found that sportives aren't a motivator for me purely based on the amount I signed up to but didn't go to last year). It doesn't matter how slowly you take it, you are still getting better, slowly that curve is on the upwards trajectory and you will get there. I've found focussing on routes is helping me get out more, that means joining breeze rides and locally led rides on quiet roads and recording the route on my Wahoo so I can then use those routes for when I want to go out for a quiet ride. In the summer I cycled a route that I cycled on a breeze ride a few weeks prior to a cafe 7 ish miles from my house, and just had lunch there and came home. It was actually really nice. Without Breeze or knowing the route, I would never have left my house that day.
And finally, did you go out on that duo trip together yet?!?
We did. It was a bit of a odd one as we came away from it early (a ride with road bikes and we were on Bromptons) but we went out non the less. It hasn't scared him off yet so there'll be much more to come
WORDS: Anna Glowinski