15 May Mental Health Awareness Week
This year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Week is loneliness. I want to share how loneliness impacted my mental health, how cycling helped me to overcome it and why I’ve launched the 7 Days of Smiles charity campaign.
I questioned the point of life and believed the world would be better off without me.
In my mid-twenties I graduated from university; my closest friends moved to other parts of the UK, I lived with people I didn’t know, and I was self-employed in an industry where I felt like I didn’t fit in. I sacrificed doing the things I loved in the pursuit of a socially accepted “success”, yet I felt completely unfulfilled. I struggled, bottling up increasing pressure, making mistakes and feeling as though I had nobody to turn to. I found myself feeling isolated in my room, overlooking the streetlights of the city skyline where I believed everyone was having a great time and I was completely alone in my sadness. I questioned the point of life and believed the world would be better off without me.
I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. “What colour do you see when you look to the future?” the counsellor asked. “I don’t see anything” I replied, “Just emptiness.” My situation forced me to question what I truly wanted to do with my life and I made a radical decision, setting myself a challenge so big it had previously only been a dream.
I cycled around the world for seven years. I spent a lot of that time in solitude but I never felt lonely; the challenge gave me direction, purpose and excitement. Every day I found my own solutions to problems I’d never experienced before and realised I could achieve more than I’d imagined. The vulnerability of the bike opened doors into the homes of those I met on my adventure and I was invited to share their lives and see the most intimate view of the world.
Cycling has given me something to live for and people to share it with. That’s what I hope the 7 Days of Smiles campaign can offer everyone.
Returning home, I found myself in a familiar situation; without a challenge, I was overwhelmed, anxious and depressed. The bike again offered a solution; this time I joined a cycling club. At first I was intimidated by everyone who looked faster than me, on bikes much more expensive than mine. However, within the first miles together they became like family; friendly people with a shared interest, looking after each other and helping one another to improve. I found something very human in riding as a group, seeing new horizons, exercising together and sharing our problems. When I broke a world record, it was messages from those friends that got me through the hard times and I realised that I wasn’t just doing it for me, it gave all of us something to believe in.
In many ways cycling has been my salvation, it brought colour to the dark, empty future I’d described in the counsellor’s chair. Cycling has given me something to live for and people to share it with. That’s what I hope the 7 Days of Smiles campaign can offer everyone.
Through the lockdowns and isolation imposed through the global pandemic, loneliness has had a major impact on the physical and mental health of many of us. 7 Days of Smiles is an opportunity to get active, challenge ourselves, spend seven days with friends, family or club members and to raise much needed funds for MQ, the UK’s largest mental health research charity.