Friday Night Rides to the Coast are the stuff of dreams. A throng of cyclists, around eighty to a hundred, swoop up in the night at 11:00pm to Wellington Arch in Hyde Park Corner, riding at the stroke of midnight down to the coast. These monthly rides happen around the full moon, barring the height of winter. Carried through the night by a combination of endorphins, adrenaline, food at halfway stops and fine company, I have cycled to Burnham on Crouch, Brighton, Southend and other coastal towns starting from the capital.
Nothing beats winding down country lanes in half-light darkness, lit by an overhead moon. Tree shadows dancing off the bright beam of tarmac thrown up by my blinding bike light. I chance upon a stream of distant blinking red lights, hinting at the company of cyclists following this patch of solitary peddling. I drift up the crest of a hill, descending at speed for the momentum to carry me up bumpy land to catch up.
Plenty of rich memories swim up:
Puffs of my breath in the darkness of a cold night, stripping down to my bike bibs in the wintery chill of a tiny toilet, trying not to strike my elbows on the walls, the eerie beauty of dark country lanes, conversations with cyclists to keep myself awake and always the necessity of cake, tea and sandwiches. Watching the sun break through darkness, an orb rising up from the rose orange sky, clearing the clouds to warm and lift me. Another time, coming to the end of a Southend ride; creeping along Leigh on Sea, to be greeted by row upon row of sail less boats with ghostly clanging boat wires hitting their metal poles. Walking up the epic climb of Brighton’s Ditchling; seeing the crystal blue tide wash in at Burnham and the rewards of a huge English breakfast at the end of rides, usually with me falling asleep at 7am at the table.
I love cycling, there was even a time where I was training for a race but that’s another story. However, I may never do these rides again and it’s been a while since my last one. Fond memories makes this a much sharper realisation then I’d like but I’m recognising limitations I’d rather not have.
Writing has stopped for months, it’s been hard and winter and autumn hasn’t been kind. I decided back in December that I wanted this blog to have a stronger news focus as after all, I am a journalist.
However, I was ill, I spent weeks confined to bed, exhausted and unable to get up. Things piled up and I sank deeper under the depths.
At the beginning, I’d be able to drag myself to the very sporadic social gatherings to see friends where I’d put on a bright smile and exist, feeling alone amongst friends whilst inside I felt black, exhausted with myself and empty. Eventually, I stopped seeing anyone, began to tail off contacting friends as the effort was too much. People knew I was severely depressed as I never hide these things but I just drifted further down. There was this post from earlier last year where I’d started to unravel as I’m no stranger to being pinned by heavy, dark emotions.
Another great love of mine is food but I couldn’t face or handle the thinking and processes to make a meal. Staring vacantly, I stood for ages in-front of an open fridge door with less and less food inside and drawing blanks on what to eat or how to make it. If I got out from under the duvet, heating up a tin of beans was the most I could manage. Things reached a head when a friend came round and did my dishes as I sat with a cup of tea he’d made me. I’d be lying if there wasn’t shame in writing that but that was reality.
This depression was different, I felt driven, an irritation brewing to just do. A growing impulse was pushing and pushing and felt increasingly insistent though I had no more energy. Frustrated that I’d ground to a halt, I kept deriding myself for not achieving anything. I’d failed at the simplest task of being a human being.
Without warning, I woke very early after weeks of sleeping all day and felt good and bright and followed my driving impulses. Some of that I want to remain private, I’m all for confessional first person stories but this is not about airing my dirty laundry. Over days, I’d bought a collection of items I didn’t need in a vast spending spree and was convinced I needed all these ‘things’. I’d removed labels, worn clothes, used things and didn’t think my actions had consequences. Ideas and puns spun around my head, lines of songs repeated over and over and I wasn’t sleeping.
What began as productive wellness turned into out of control unpleasantness, ramping up my irritable angst. Unable to stop, my concentration fractured and focus went on the wrong areas; this feeling of immense confidence and connectedness to the world continued to mushroom. After over a week of constant going and doing and being, I crashed into another dark depression as I’d exhausted myself and driven my body over its precipice. At this time, I wrote an anonymous guest blog post on a friend’s blog during December as I felt I couldn’t write as me and followed it up with this post very recently. Charlotte is an award winning mental health blogger and was one of the people I spoke to during this time. Interviewing her last year and hearing her describe being ‘driven from the inside’ sparked warnings. She writes beautifully and with searing honesty about her experiences of bipolar and I recommend you have a read.
After difficulties with the NHS, finally, I was diagnosed at the end of January with Bipolar Affective Disorder where moods go from immense highs to immense lows. After being put on the mood stabiliser Lamotrigine, I began to feel better for the first time in ages. The noise, ideas and thoughts cleared and I could relax. The feelings of unhealthy drive, of having to keep going outside of my will had disappeared. For years I’d been rumbling along with this burning away in the background. I suspected I was bipolar but every time I raised concerns with health professionals, it was swept aside as anxiety or severe depression. After all, the usual statistic is it takes on average over thirteen years to diagnose and a person is misdiagnosed at least once, like I was.
So where do I go from here? I’m not sure. Hiding ill mental health is not what I do but I didn’t write openly at first to protect myself. As I am a journalist and photographer, there is stigma in these highly competitive industries and being ill has already cost me as you can read in my anonymous post. Journalism isn’t just about the journalist, I write in a variety of styles and didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a mental health personal perspective writer, as I have been restricted by past editors to niche areas. My journalism doesn’t appear on this blog much and this has always been a personal writing space but I’d like it to be that and more.
I talk about bipolar and mental health to take small steps in breaking down stigma and shame, including my own. I tweet ‘outed’ myself on 6th February as part of ’Time to Talk’, an initiative to get people talking about mental health. You can read the tweets on my Twitter page, @GraceWongPhoto as I don’t believe in Storifying monologues. Presently, I’m figuring out what is my personality and what are the beginnings of illness and becoming good at recognising when I’m going up. Spotting it and heading it off isn’t easy and to be honest, the highs feel good so it’s counterintuitive to stop, reduce stimulation or force myself to sleep and not go with it. Not being able to trust my own senses and intuition is painful. Trying to stick to a rigid pattern of sleeping by 11:00pm and waking early and needing to be careful of not running on adrenaline. Of course this is why I can’t do a Friday Night Ride anymore. Thankfully medication has removed any emotional effects of depression, though if I have a week of highs, I exhaust myself. I’ve coped with depression over the years by seeing it as an external illness but with bipolar highs, I can’t make that distinction. I am both it and not it at the same time. It’s early days, medication is being increased slowly and it will gradually make sense. I’ll find my power in it and grow as I’m adaptable.
Cross your fingers and toes that one day, I’ll see the sun rise again peddling on my bike, for now back to the writing and that is good enough for now.
Thanks for reading.