The second instalment for MTB Voices has been submitted by Jess, self-proclaimed Spaniel lover and avid outdoor enthusiast. Jess’s story is one that I’m sure we can all relate to some degree, but it focuses on an important topic that requires more attention, consideration and understanding; mental health. So without further adieu, here’s Jess in her own words…
I had no idea whilst writing this that it would be so challenging to condense 6/7 years worth of thoughts! I think that’s the biggest thing, mental health isn’t black and white. In my opinion, it’s complicated, scary and very individual. This little ramble is my own personal experience on the subject and discovering a bike on the way.
I’m Jess, and I’ve been able to ride a bike since I was about 4 years old. I have a few blurry but very sketchy memories of my parents sending me down a grassy hill to get me used to pedalling with just 2 wheels. That being said, I didn’t realise how enjoyable it could be until about 5 years ago. I became addicted whilst training as an outdoor instructor in North Wales. My little house was positioned bang slap in the middle of the Marin trail, and my friend kindly let me use her bike every so often. At first, I used her bike to take myself around the forest trails to become more familiar with my new home. I was more of a runner back then, so it was handy for scouting out the most scenic routes.
“At some stage along the way, exercise also became my way of earning my food.“
I guess it started to become more and more of a thing that I chose to do. I ran to release stress. I ran to ease the niggling feeling of anxiety. I ran to disassociate from the looming ball of darkness that surrounded my head. And when running ceased to be a thing for me due to a dodgy IT band, riding a bike became just that as well. In fact, it was even better. Queue the adrenaline rush! After conquering a seemingly terrifying section of downhill singletrack at a grand old speed of 1-mph, even though it felt about 30-mph! I look back on that part of my life fondly; In my mind, it’s bright blue and green. Around this time, I also began to acknowledge that I was perhaps more anxious than ‘normal,’ and my relationship with food wasn’t healthy; It hadn’t been for a while. I find this the complicated part of mental health. I’ve always enjoyed being outside. I hiked with dad from a young age, had an epic scout group that took me on adventures all over the place and started climbing at university. I took this eagerness to Wales to get my outdoor tickets… but at some stage along the way, exercise also became my way of earning my food.
Although I was enjoying my newfound hobby, biking became another way for me to earn some dinner. And if I didn’t do some exercise, I either wouldn’t eat, or I’d throw up what I had eaten to the point that my body was so under fuelled that my periods became sporadic. I was totally embarrassed that this was something I did- retrospectively, it doesn’t make sense. However, riding also helped me escape the anxious feelings. It gave me something else to focus on that wasn’t an irrational worry—a bittersweet relationship. Pedalling, a pair of headphones and a cereal bar fed me comfort when I needed it the most. I sought comfort.
It wasn’t long before I found my comfort zone on a bike, and I didn’t venture far from it for years because, at that moment in my life, that’s what I needed. And for the first time in a long time, it wasn’t all about burning off calories.
Existing in monochrome
A few months after I left Wales, I barely picked my bike up. I really wanted to. I just couldn’t. I struggle to pinpoint a particular time when things started to feel more unbearable. I pushed it aside and blamed other aspects of life for making me feel unhappy. I knew I had anxious tendencies, but the little stabs of depression that visited every so often began visiting every day. I could feel my mindset shifting but felt too worthless to do anything about it. Surely, the only reason I felt this way was that I was a ridiculous human being, right?
In colours, this depressive part of my life was simply grey and black. I tried doing things I was familiar with, which comforted me as I had done previously, but it was not enough. It’s hard to articulate how messy my brain felt. It’s as if all the words are lost in a big, knotted ball of yarn, but the yarn is too scrambled up to find the words. Simply put, I didn’t feel like a version of myself that I was familiar or happy with. I was unhappy physically, and I was unhappy mentally. I didn’t want to be here anymore, and I found myself thinking of ways to make this possible.
Living in Colour
I wish I could find a simple way to describe how I found myself back on my bike, climbing, hiking and doing the things I love again. I think the turning point was telling my parents and my sister. My mum and dad can relate entirely and provided me with the kick I needed to get help. I opened up to therapists, friends, strangers and made new friends by talking about mental health. Suddenly there was a community of amazingly strong people everywhere who offered support, advice and sometimes needed support and advice. There was no need to feel ashamed. I stopped feeling guilty, and I stopped feeling like a burden. Any toxic thoughts or mindsets were being acknowledged and altered to fit a person I used to know. My relationship with my body improved, and food became a valuable source of energy that I needed to ride my bike! I often wonder whether depression found its way into my life because I didn’t eat properly.
It’s taken 4 years since what I call ‘the bad bit‘ to get to where I am today. Bit by bit, my worth stopped being decided by what my body looked like and more about what it could do and the places it could take me. Through this process, I became kinder to myself mentally and therefore physically. When I felt ready, I picked my bike back up because I had a reason to live and appreciate the enjoyment it gave me again.
This last year, I reached a place where I felt I could start stepping away from my comfort zone in all qualities of life! I listened to a therapy chat recently that spoke about how fear became a result of not feeling good enough. I mean, have you ever heard of anything so relatable whilst out on the bike?! I realised I was worthy enough of a person to try out enduro and downhill riding. I can’t quite believe it took me this long, but it is SO MUCH FUN. I traded in my old school Orange Five for a newer bike (dropper seat and suspension that works blew my mind). Although some features absolutely terrify me, I know how to manage my fear. I’m getting good at eradicating the feeling of ‘not being good enough.’
Riding for me now hasn’t got anything to do with earning a meal. I actually get worried that I haven’t eaten enough! Blasting downhill at that 1-mph is the ultimate way for me to free myself of stresses or anxieties. Thoughts become much more digestible afterwards. When focusing on the line ahead, it’s all I can think about and being in that present moment is invaluable. I love letting my bike take control of the ground underneath- absorbing all the bumps, taking corners and churning up the surface. I am so proud of my body for being able to learn how to move with the bike. I’m proud of my head for thinking, “I’m going to leave this feature for today,” or, “let’s give it a go and see what happens!” It doesn’t matter which one it is- they’re both positive to me. It also doesn’t matter what you look like. Your body shape is wonderful just the way it is, and it certainly does not determine your worth in life or on a bike.
“Whoever needs to hear this: you are strong, resilient and bloody beautiful in every way!”
So today, the reason I ride is a little different to how it began. I sometimes think experiencing the bad bits highlights how the good bits should feel. You develop a deeper appreciation of them. This took so long to write, and it’s a ridiculously condensed version with bits missed out here and there to save waffling on. Still, I hope that it offers some solidarity to others.
If you are concerned about your mental health, talk to friends and family and seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional. If you would like to reach out to one of the many fantastic support organisations available, there’s a directory at the bottom of this article – here.