It’s very tempting for me to dismiss 2017 as a terrible year. In some -many- ways it was. A lot of things happened which, on the surface, were simply awful.
Shortly after returning from my New Year’s trip to London, I sank deep into an all-consuming depression the likes of which I’ve never experienced before.
I mean sure, I’ve experienced depression before, but never to the point of starting every day wondering if today’s the day I finally get the balls to kill myself, and never to the point of then having so little energy, motivation or hope that I spent most of my days hiding under my duvet on the sofa, praying for some sense of peace.
Of course, when you do freelance work for a living, you can’t really afford to spend every day lying on your sofa, delaying suicide.
Work has to be done, and when it isn’t, money starts to dry up, clients go elsewhere, and debts mount.
So you find a way to get off the sofa, no matter how tough it might be.
At one point, I told myself that I was going to get up and hit the year hard, all with the twisted comfort of knowing that, if my life situation hadn’t improved by New Year’s Eve, I could go ahead and kill myself.
My logic, as broken and dark as it was, was that nobody would be able to blame me for committing suicide because, hey, I’d given life my very best shot, right?
It’s just that -as I’d suspected since being a child- myself and this world were not mutually compatible. I wasn’t supposed to be here.
So suicide, at least in the depraved logic of a battle-worn depressive, was just the inevitable end to a life that I often suspected was never supposed to be.
Thankfully, I was able to push such foul thoughts aside to make room for a much better way of motivating myself to get off the sofa and back to reality:
The 1,000 Mile Challenge
I told myself to get up off my sofa, get on my bike and go for a ride.
I told myself that I would cycle 1,000 miles before December 31st, no matter what.
It seemed like the perfect challenge – big enough that it would require me to get off the sofa and commit myself to putting in some serious effort for most of the year, but still realistic enough that I could actually envision myself doing it, even in my state of depression.
I’m sure ‘proper’ cyclists blitz a thousand miles in a few months – but when you can barely get off your sofa, that seems like a serious challenge.
Now all I had to do was saddle up and do it.
No Matter What
It turned out that ‘no matter what’ was the important part here, because I had to keep peddling despite one unfortunate event after another.
When I returned to work properly, things just weren’t the same.
Clients I’d long maintained good relationships with (even, miraculously, through the worst of my depression) weren’t the same.
They started taking longer to pay, taking so long to determine what they actually wanted that time I’d previously allocated to them went unused, and slowly but surely reducing the amount of work they ordered from me.
I don’t blame them for it. If anything, I’d made the mistake of relying too heavily on one client and keeping my fingers crossed that things would improve rather than looking for new work straight away.
I found new work, obviously, but as I later found out, it was too little, too late.
As I dealt with this, I kept peddling. Mile after mile, no matter what…
Meanwhile, as I fought to keep my business alive, people around me started to pass on.
In summer, my dear friend David passed away. David had been a huge part of my journey into, and through, sobriety, and I was heartbroken.
Yet there was something positive to come from my experience of grieving for my friend.
David’s last gift to me was the gift of inspiration.
It was standing room only at his funeral, and I was so inspired.
That was the kind of life I wanted to lead – the kind of life that impacts the lives of so many other people that it’s standing room only at your funeral.
All the while, I peddled…
A Life Changing Experience
It was also around this time that I had the simplest and yet most profound of life-changing experiences:
Plugging in someone’s TV
I’d called on an acquaintance to help him set up a printer, and whilst I was there, he asked if I might be able to help fix a TV that wasn’t working.
This man really wanted his TV to work for reasons which, if I’m honest, I really didn’t understand. I just knew it was important to him, so I was happy to help.
I felt a little embarrassed that helping was as easy as realising he hadn’t plugged a specific cable in, but you should have seen the difference it made.
I mean, this guy was elated and, afterwards, so was I.
I’d done a very simple thing and yet it had made such an enormous difference to the man’s life that it was as though all his Christmases and birthdays had come at once.
I left his house feeling AMAZING, knowing that I had made a difference to that one person’s life.
I knew there and then that this is what I wanted to do. No, not plug people’s televisions in, but make a difference, help people.
The fact that things still weren’t going great at work was no longer a curse but a blessing, a sign (another one) that yes, it was time for a career change.
But first, there was some more death to deal with.
My paternal grandfather passed away following a long and battle with stomach cancer, and then my maternal grandmother, a woman who had spent much time looking after me as a child, also passed away following a lengthy illness.
A Brutal Winter
The same week that Nan passed, I also started a new, temporary job – a six week run over the Christmas holiday designed to do two things:
1: Help make up the financial shortfall from the past 12 months
2: Help me put some money aside to pay for college so that I could retrain to work as a counsellor, helping others who have been through similar life experiences to me and passing on what I’d learned.
The next few weeks would turn out to be brutal.
Trying to grieve for my grandmother, work a horrible part time job that I hated and keep my freelance writing clients happy all at the same time quickly took its toll.
With over 900 miles clocked up over the course of the year, I stopped peddling. So close to the finish line and yet I was so tired, and so busy, that I believed I had neither the time nor the motivation to keep pushing on to that 1,000-mile target.
I began to get stressed and angry. I became increasingly tired, not just physically, but spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.
Every day seemed to bring a fresh onslaught of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Every day brought something new to deal with that I hardly felt capable of even acknowledging, let alone successfully dealing with.
I could feel myself about to break…
…and then I did.
Through a moment of madness, I’d agreed to work a long day shift at my shitty part-time job, which meant getting up at six am, leaving the house an hour later and spending 45 minutes stuck in traffic just to reach the end of my road.
A further 30 minutes later and that traffic had crawled less than five miles. I had ten minutes to make it the other 10 miles to work and traffic was at a standstill.
As I sat there, looking out into the horizon at a never-ending line of stationary cars, buses, and lorries, the darkest of dark thoughts rose up from the depths of my mind like some haunted demon from the depths of hell.
‘Hey, remember at the start of the year when we agreed you could kill yourself if things didn’t go well? Well look – things are pretty bleak right now and there’s only a few weeks left.
Good news! All this will soon be over! You can go ahead and kill yourself soon….
In fact…why wait? Why not go home and do it now?’
It’s funny how something as simple -and ultimately trivial- as being stuck in rush hour traffic could push me over the edge and drag me right back to the horrible, suicidal depression I’d gone through at the start of the year.
As it happened, I did go home.
I turned around, went straight back home and didn’t even bother telling work I wasn’t going to be there.
Hell, I wasn’t even sure I was going to be anywhere for much longer.
I spent most of that day feeling schizophrenic; one minute vowing that I could overcome this and trying to do something -anything- productive to get me back on course, the next sinking to such overwhelming lows that I wasn’t sure how I could even go on living another minute.
For a reason I couldn’t quite explain to you now if I tried, I called -and got an appointment with- the doctor, and that helped, but not in the way that you might think.
Back in the Saddle
Walking home, disappointed that the best she could do was given me drugs and send me on my way (I’m not sure what I was expecting – my mind clearly wasn’t at it’s best), I was struck with a thought that should have been obvious – I didn’t have to put up with this.
I was struck by this sense of power that made me believe that I could take control of my life. That I didn’t have to commit suicide or even let depression beat me for a single day.
I’d love to tell you that I’ve no idea where these thoughts and this sense of power came from, like it was some divine inspiration gifted from the Universe, but in all truth, I suspect that I actually know why I had horse thoughts.
They came from the route I was walking back home from the doctors.
It was the same route that I’d been taking as part of some of the shorter bike rides I’d been taking as the 1,000 Mile Challenge neared its end.
For most of the year, I’d kept that challenge alive through far worse things then I was going through now – was I really going to get this far and quit just because things were tough?
When work and finances took a turn for the worst, I got on my bike and went for a ride.
When my friend passed away, I got on my bike and I went for a ride.
When my grandparents passed away, I got on my bike and went for a ride.
I didn’t ride to avoid dealing with those things, or even as a way of helping me cope with them, at least not on a conscious level.
I rode despite all those things. I rode because I’d told myself that I would, and because every ride got me a few miles closer to a goal that had seemed like such a Herculean challenge when I was lying on my sofa at the start of the year.
Like I said earlier, I understand that to serious cyclists, 1,000 miles is probably not that big of a thing – but to a suicidal depressive who could barely find the strength or motivation to get off the sofa, it was huge and now, almost a full 12 months later as I walked home from the doctors, I remembered that I had almost completed the full 1,000 miles.
I’d cycled at least 960 miles, which meant just 40 to go.
What with working two jobs, keeping my home affairs in order and the small matter of Christmas on the horizon, I knew that I wouldn’t have time to go out and blast 40 miles in one ride.
What I could do, however, is take the very same approach that I’d taken for the first 960 miles:
Break it down into smaller rides.
I went out and did just five miles.
Then I came home and got on top of my bills and paperwork.
The next day, I rode just a few miles again and took care of the work situation – and then the day after, I actually went back to work and gave it my all for the first time in days.
The following day, just a couple of miles.
The day after – a blip.
The kind of shallow despondency which comes with fatigue and which, when I’m not paying attention, I can mistake for depression.
When I start believing I’m depressed, I naturally become depressed and everything spirals out of control, but this time, I wasn’t going to let it.
The Final Miles
I was so close to the finish line both with the 1,000-mile challenge and a few other big goals I’d set for myself that to give up now would be stupid and tragic and the kind of thing I’d kick myself for forever more.
I had days to go.
As tired, sore and beat up as I was – more because of work and everything else than clocking off those last 40 miles- I’d also developed a new sense of determination.
I was going to do it.
No matter how tired.
No matter how cold the weather.
No matter what.
Two days ago, I saddled up, journeyed out, and did it.
My final bike ride of 2017, the one that took me just over 1,000 miles.
Today, it’s New Year’s Eve, a day I promised myself I’d be allowed to take my own life if things didn’t improve by the year’s end.
You know what? I no longer feel the need to take my own life because a few weeks ago I decided to take something else.
I took control.
Like I’d done for the first 960 miles of my 1,000-mile challenge, I took one foot and put in front of the other.
Then I did it again.
Take enough small steps and you’ll eventually cover a great distance.
I may have only cycled 1,000 physical miles this year, but mentally, I feel like I’m whole galaxies away from where I was at the start of the year.
And the funniest part is that -on the surface- things don’t actually seem to be any better.
My friend and my grandparents are still gone, and the financial repercussions of the year are still being felt – but when I look a little closer, I’m amazed at how much better I am.
For the first time in a very, very long time, I feel motivated and impassioned about my career , especially now that I’m in the process of changing that career towards one that actually helps people.
Most importantly of all, I feel like my life has purpose again.
I feel blessed and incredibly grateful for all the wonderful sights I got to see on my 1,000-mile ride, many of which I documented on my Instagram.
More than anything though, I feel alive, and glad to be so.
2018 can throw whatever it wants to at me and I almost guarantee you that I won’t respond to it by talking of killing myself.
And if I do, just remind me to get on my bike and go for a ride.
Happy New Year.