Wednesday 19 November 2018.
About 4.30 in the afternoon.
That was when I sat down with my doctor and admitted that I had lost control of my brain.
I didn't have the words for what was happening then. All I knew is that I was constantly afraid, my brain was endlessly spinning out scenarios in my head. I couldn't sleep, couldn't think, couldn't get a few minutes of respite from the fear. That's all I wanted from my doctor - a break, just a little time to recompose, re-gather and get past this so I could carry on.
It turns out mental illness doesn't work like that.
At the beginning of 2011 I had barely even picked up a camera, I couldn't have told you about shutter speeds, apertures or ISO. Five years later I was running across the globe shooting the sport I love with a client list that included many of the biggest companies in the business. I pushed myself hard to do that and thought it was normal that I ran at a pretty high level of stress, but the truth is that I was running too hot and I was so scared of it all falling apart that I never gave myself time to rest or recover properly. As soon as the fatigue started to lift I'd be back running again. That's the dirty secret about doing something you love - it brings about a whole new set of pressures, because how can you live with yourself if you fail at it? Or have to go back to working that 9-5 desk job?
Looking back it's so easy to see the cycle. I locked myself into a vicious circle: the more I over-worked myself, the more stressed I got, the more stressed I got, the harder the work became and the harder it was to recover... By the end of my time travelling, shooting a race or a project for a client was no longer fun, but an ordeal to be endured. Once I stepped away from racing in 2017 I thought I would unwind, but I repeated the same mistake, piling work on myself rather than using it as a chance to reflect and refresh. Maybe the hardest thing now is to not get frustrated with myself as it all seems so obvious with the luxury of hindsight, but if you had tried to tell me at the time I know what I would have said - "I just need to get through this bit and then it will be better..."
Come the beginning of 2019 I started seeing a therapist and learned a new word, one that has come to stain my daily existence - anxiety. She diagnosed me with general anxiety disorder, brought on by chronic stress. This was a shock for me, I'm not what most people would consider an anxious person. Over the years I have been described as aggressive, intense and over-competitive - and those epithets would be pretty accurate. If there was a problem I would try and bulldoze it rather than avoid it, but that in itself is a problem, because what happens when you find a problem you can't handle immediately?
I still refer to what happened to me in November as a nervous breakdown, but god only knows if that is accurate as it's not a phrase medical professionals seem to like these days. What I am more sure about is that I pushed my brain into a chemical imbalance, that it began constantly cascading the fight or flight hormones into my body which is both terrifying and exhausting. I could barely sleep, the fatigue from the constant worry left me unable to exercise and I lost most of my muscle mass in an alarmingly short time.
It has taken me ten months to sit here and put this down on the page. Partly that is because of the illness and medications, which have meant that only in this last week have I been able to get back on my bike and do the days I love doing. It has been a constant battle with fatigue to try and stay active. Yet on Monday I went out and did one of my bigger loops and came home feeling good, and having lost that sensation for so long I can't tell you how good it felt.
The other reason is fear. There is still a part of me that sees publicly admitting to struggling as weakness. At the height of my crisis I felt very alone - everything I read about anxiety was about people who were scared to go to the shops, drive a car or talk to people... and I couldn't relate to those people. So on one level I knew that I should write about this after, because reading something relatable at the height of my struggles would have helped.
I also know that as men we need to talk about our mental health more openly as not talking about it is killing us. Have a look at the suicides rates for young men in Europe and the US if you don't believe me. For me there was a moment in the middle of the night, as I lay there tossing and turning, that the idea of ending it all started to make sense. It would stop the suffering, after all. I don't want to over-dramatise this, the very opening of that pathway of thought still scares me today as the idea of suicide felt far less distant than I had ever imagined it could be. Certainly I had a conversation with my wife about at what point she would phone the men in white coats to have me locked away and medicated.
It never came to that - I managed to get the help I needed and today I'd say I'm doing pretty well, even if it's not always easy still. In many ways I'm quite lucky, that although my life will always be divided into the before and after this, anxiety can be dealt with. My therapist assures me that it can be put away into its box and those damaging behaviours unlearned. But I am still nervous about putting this out into the world, to admit that I reached a point where I broke. When I feel that fear I try and remember the words of an old friend - a ruthless city lawyer who I had always considered the hardest man I knew. He confessed to me that he had his own struggles because of stress, not quite the same, but not so different either. He told me that real weakness is not in falling down, but only in not getting back up again.