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I am not going to sugar coat it, or make it seem that things were any different to how it actually was, quite simply, it has been tough. So I shall get into it and explain how. And of course give some more details of the surprises along the way.

The past few weeks have been a bit tougher than usual, mainly with the build up to the London to Amsterdam ride. So imagine my delight when I woke up feeling fresh for the trip, and headed out early to get some pre ride miles in.  By the time I arrived in Sydenham my mood had already slipped, and it was starting to fill me with dread again. So many people milling around, not sure what I should be doing, trying to put on a brave face.

An hour passed, anxiety building more, trying to gravitate towards those who I have had positive experiences with, and less towards those which oozed negativity. Big group, busy road, not sure what I was meant to be doing, I ended up just plodding along, and trying to get from A to B. By half way in to the first day, I was cramping badly, which was really having a negative impact on my mood, I was now riding solo, although that was probably a good thing (which I will come back to later), and mentally I was drained. 

A bit of delay and drama at the first main stop of the day, lunch, was enough  to really get the mood cascading full flow. Time to go and get out of it all. Riding away, my brain spinning like crazy, I found myself some space, and just plodded for a bit. Drizzle and wind really helped the mood, especially when reaching the hills. 

At one point I called my other half, Ann. Just looking to hear a friendly voice, vent a bit and try and get my head in the game. Walking up a hill, as my quads were cramping too much to ride, we spoke about each others day, and cleared my mind a bit. Back on the bike, head in the game, I got there.

Arriving at the meeting point, once again, so many people, mood was a solitary one for me, so I rode away for a while to have my own space, and returned when it was time to move to the terminal. For the rest of the day I pretty much kept myself to myself, eating alone, and avoiding having to put on a smile for the sake of it. Rolling in to Calais, all I wanted was a shower and my bed. Thankfully it was a single room for Day 1, so I was able to escape. 

After a poor nights sleep, I woke with a bit more enthusiasm for Day 2, and although I ate alone for breakfast, I tried to be a bit more integrated with the others. Breakfast isn't something I usually do before rides, so within 20 mins of setting off, I was feeling a bit rough. Add to that the headwinds we would be riding into all day, and it was a recipe for a mood bomb for sure. Within the first 5-10 miles, I was done. Mentally, there was no way I was getting through the day. The worst part is, the more you tell yourself that, the truer it becomes. By the first water stop I was torturing myself non stop, and 10 miles after there, I was already running the conversation scenarios through my head for what I would say if I saw the van. "I can't do it!" featured in most scenarios. 

As the miles went on, I would run the conversations in my head,  but each time I saw a van or another rider, the fake smile would appear and I would say nothing, opting to plod on instead. By lunch, which I almost rode straight past due to being deep in thought, I was managing my thoughts a bit better, but just wanted to eat and go, and get the day done with.  This was NOT going to be the case. Lunch was a terrible experience, with it's only redeeming feature being conversation believe it or not.  

While we waited to eat, I found the conversation with the group I had aligned myself with to be easy and natural. It was a long wait, but a blessing in disguise I guess, as once we got to talking about the ride that day, it was obvious to see that almost everyone was in fact struggling, at least physically. 

A quick chat with a couple of the other riders before we set off, and something started to be come apparent. I was not alone! There were others, men, struggling a bit mentally. And we all seemed to be sharing a single characteristic behaviour, isolation. Not completely, but just when things were at their toughest. Like me, there were a group of us who seemed to find solace in our own company when trying to push on. Not afraid of being included if the mood was right, but completely happy, and probably more in our zone to just be left alone. Not to have to follow any set pace or timetable. Happy to plod, stop, take photos and enjoy what was around us. Maybe allowing ourselves to absorb the surroundings was a good distraction from the non stop thoughts, or maybe just a nice break for the body.

By the end of Day 2, it was startling obvious that a number of men was of the same mindset as me. Much to the confusion of some around us, who were (understandably) worried about us excluding ourselves from certain aspects of the ride, mainly the "group" thing.

By Day 3, the weather had taken a turn for the better, the going was a bit easier, and the scenery was stunning. Everything the mind of an overthinker needs to keep it in check. A much more enjoyable day for sure, and something I saw reflected in the moods and actions of my like minded mini group.

From this point on, it became a bit easier to chat to one another, expressing how we felt about being among the groups which had formed, both socially and on the road. And what a relief that was. Almost like being in an anxiety group, sharing feelings, and understanding you are not irrational or strange, but simply not the same as everyone else, and that is OK. 

By the end of the trip I felt I had found a few kindred spirits, people who could ride together, yet alone. Not isolated, just separated by a common desire. I cannot express how good that made me feel!

I should point out that one of the main reasons of doing this challenge was to challenge myself, mentally, and I can say without doubt that I achieved that. Pushing my comfort zones to new limits, seeing how I would cope in these groups of people. Getting to know complete strangers, and trying not to pre-judge how things would work out. 

I have to say that my early judgements of some were terribly wrong, failing to see that some of the personas were simply social facades, masks, worn to please others. Discovering the people behind the masks were nothing like the person who masqueraded whilst wearing it, was rewarding and a bit of a wake up call. It is something I have done for years myself, put on a face to make others think I was someone else, but completely failed to see (until now) others doing it. 

I have learned I can make new friends, without the need to be the fake me, my genuine and laid bare persona is acceptable to others, and there are far more people out there, going through similar struggles and dilemmas than I first realised. I just hope they are all aware of their situations, and in control of what is going on around them.

Men fighting with mental demons is real, VERY real, and if you take a moment to look carefully, the signs are right there to see....

How are YOU today? 

I recently had a conversation with a very good friend of mine about mental health, and how it affects us. Discussing how the stigma around men being perceived as "weak" for admitting they are struggling, is still very real, and how some groups of people, even those who are meant to be there to help, still don't quite get it. My biggest example of this was a female counsellor who was doing my preliminary assessment deciding I had "mother issues" after five minutes of speaking to me. Having recently lost my mum, she was quite central to the discussion at the time, however, not the root cause of what I was feeling. So man feeling down, mentions his mum, awww, mummies boy, there there... That is how that felt, and really left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

Going back to my conversation with my friend, it was quickly apparent that it is a common theme in seeking help for depression or anxiety, to be made to feel like you are weak, rather than in need of some support. That is not to say there is not a huge amount of help and support out there. There are some amazing people out there, for which I am truly grateful.

The talk was probably the longest talk I have had with a friend about the condition to date. There have been other chats with a couple of other friends, but we have never focused on things for quite so long. I think part of the reason for that was, that for once, it was not about me, it was about them, as well as talking about our collective experiences, a lot of time was spent talking about his own. Which felt amazing. It was almost like the conversations I have with myself when writing these entries, but for once, with an actual person, who responded with their own experiences. 

One of the things that came up in our chat was, what is it like to be on the other side of things. What is it like to live with someone who is struggling with mental health?

Ask someone in the midst of an episode of depression or anxiety what is wrong, and the chances are you will get  very vague answer, along the lines of nothing, or oh I am just a bit tired etc. Very rarely will you get a full on detailed explanation of what is wrong. And to be honest, if you do get an answer like "I have just been feeling really depressed recently", most people don't know what to do with it, and revert to the old classics like "aaah chin up mate, you will be OK". No offence people, but it's true. 

However, for some, namely our partners, and people we live with, there is a whole different world, and one I have given very little thought until now. What is it like to live with someone who is detached, sometimes vacant, and slowly but surely curling up into a little ball of safety and silence? At some point, our / we (the person with MH issues) behaviour starts to affect you / them (the person living with the person with MH issues).

Be it, withdrawing from regular activities, loss of interest in intimacy, YES!! men really can lose interest in sex when feeling off, or just lack of engagement in day to day life, friends and family. Whatever the changes, they are bound to be noticed by our loved ones, and they have to somehow cope with that. For example, my last blog entry said IDGAF, and I meant it, to a great degree I still do. But for my partner to read something like that, how does that feel? How are they affected by being shut out so to speak?

The first thing I want to say, and I think I speak for a fair few men is, "it's not you". We can be in a strong and loving relationship, care deeply about a person, and still quite simply shut them out. It isn't personal, it doesn't mean there is someone else on the scene, or that they don't want to be with you, or that they are unhappy with the relationship. In fact to some extent, I think we tend to shut out the ones we love the most, the fastest, maybe to protect them from the spiral of destruction we find ourselves in. 

So how does that feel? I really don't have an answer for it. So for me, yesterday I decided to make sure that my partner knew, to the best of my ability, that it is not about her, not caused by her, and that my behaviour is about me, and no one else. Isolation works because I can focus on me, silence works, because I can work on me, me me me. Selfish if definition, but very much needed in reality. When things are not right in my head, the one person I can rely on every time to sort things out (eventually) is me.  No amount of pressure is going to make things right.

When I say pressure, I mean pressure to talk about how I feel in the moment. Another common theme between me and my friend is that we both recognise each person has a role, and that role has a specific time and place in the timeline of recovery. I realise there are many people out there who care, and want to help, unfortunately it is more about quality than quantity. For someone in the midst of an MH episode, speaking alone is hard enough, let alone speaking to people who simply just don't get it. It can feel like speaking to a plumber about an I.T problem. They might want to help, and might have some ideas, but ultimately you need to speak to the I.T guy, not the taxi driver, mechanic, or cook in the local cafe. OK that was all a bit strange I know. 

What I mean is, just because you are the closest to someone, does not mean you are the right person to speak to, and that is not personal, it's just a fact. Sure, by all means, enquire, ask how we are, but please do not be surprised or offended if the reply is a very short and sweet one, with very little information. If we respond by saying we are not feeling great, but don't say much more, there are a few little pointers of what you can do. 1/ Don't just shrug and give up. 2/ acknowledge there is something wrong, remind the person you care. 3/ Guide the person, don't force them, suggest speaking to someone else. 4/ Don't pretend to understand, unless you actually do, from experience. And finally.... Please don't just give up. There is a balance to be found, we are all different, but I would say for most, a quick, occasional, "how you doing", with no expected response, is really quite nice.

I was explaining to Ann yesterday that my responses will vary depending on how I am feeling, but I will always respond. If the response if distant, and short, please just accept that is just how I feel at that time, and don't push. She has become good at recognising when I am feeling a bit down, and tends to give me some space. I don't want to use the phrase a wide berth, as that just suggests you should avoid contact, which is not the way to go.

For me, the main thing is for her to understand my behaviour is not based on my emotions towards her, and this is the same for many. Sadly this is not recognised by many, and instead the partner feels alienated, puts it down to a breakdown in the relationship, and things begin to fall apart. The last thing someone in the middle of an MH crisis needs. Guilt and abandonment.  Of course, this all comes back to my original point of what it must be like to live with someone struggling with MH. I don't imagine being shut out feels great, struggling to communicate is damaging to both parties in the long term, and depending on the severity of the episode, the level of being shut out can vary.

This is where a conversation really needs to take place. For anyone who has an ongoing battle with their mental health, I would implore you to take some time when you are feeling more like yourself, to have this conversation with you family and loved ones. Explain it is not personal, and express how you truly feel when you are low or in a dark place. Make sure they understand your processes, and what role they do, and can play in your bounce back. Information is key, for both parties. 

Anyone living with someone with a physical disability or condition, learns what to do when the moment strikes. Epilepsy for example, knowing what to do if you see the signs of a seizure coming, or what to do when one happens. Because it is a physical display, we can understand, and respond with empathy, and offer the right help at the right time. MH is not really any different, you just can't see it, and that, for use humans and our narrow perspectives, is a problem. So just learn what you can do when you see the signs. Please.

So I have gone on about the loved ones, but now lets focus on us for a second. Another thing that came up in the conversation was how WE respond to prompts from those around us. The world is slowly recognising the reality and severity of the number of people fighting MH these days, especially that men can indeed feel weak and vulnerable. The messages are out there, for us, Its OK to not be OK", and on the other side the prompt to just ask "are you OK". Which is fantastic, the ball is rolling. 

However sometimes numerous people will ask if you are OK. Some you are happy to communicate with, others you would rather not (again, not personal). But, they have after all gone to the extent of asking, so we at least owe them a response of sorts. In person, we tend to just brush people off with a facial expression, or a grunt containing a couple of works. Body language and evolution helps us interpret that as a kind of "leave me alone". Most get the message, but sometimes the wrong message. It is less "leave me alone" and more a "not right now". But if you were to say not right now, it would start a conversation, which may be unwelcome at the time. 

The most common way of communication these days however is IM and social media. And that is a whole other world. For a long time now, a vague post on social media, or short reply on IM has been seen as attention seeking. I have written about it a number of times now, and it falls into the same category as misuse of certain phrases. "I'm so depressed right now" gets used so much by people who are disappointed with the outcome of something, but is assumed to be the same as someone who is going through a bout of depression. Because you were sad about losing your friendship bracelet is NOT the same as being depressed. Being nervous about a job interview is NOT the same as suffering from anxiety. But in the modern world, everyone feels they know what depression and anxiety is like, because they have used the words before, to describe a very temporary and short lived moment. 

So anyway, back to IM and social media. A short post can actually sometimes be a cry for help, gently seeking those who you can turn to at a moment of vulnerability. However, just to complicate things a little, in a conversation on IM, it can also be more of a "I'm not up to talking right now". It is a frustrating and delicate balance, but one that ultimately needs to be driven by the person who is having issues at the time. 

For US, the ones in the driving seat, I would encourage one thing, and this is what was discussed the other day. Emojis. Yes they have taken over the world it seems, with stories being told with them, and even plush toys of them now, but they can have a use too. If you get a message from someone asking how you are, I know all too well the dread of "do I reply" which looms when you open it, and they get a read receipt. Well, maybe emojis are the answer. As long as the other person knows what to expect, a simple emoji could express how you are feeling right now, albeit vaguely, but can also says you don't want to talk right now. 

If someone has gone to the trouble to ask how you are, the chances are they care, and can tell something is up. So they at least deserve a response, to put their mind at rest that nothing serious is up today, and they can get a gauge of what your state of mind is too. Sounds a bit silly to some maybe, but for me, to be able to fire off a simple emoji, relieve myself of pressure or guilt of "ignoring" someone, and relieve them a little of their concerns, it is surely a win win. 

I guess my message from all this rambling is a simple one, talk! Communicate, make sure people on both sides understand what is going on. We talk so much now about caring about the ones who are fighting with their minds, but we also need to make sure the ones on the receiving end of the silent treatment understand too. When you are in the right frame of mind, have those conversations with the ones who are always there for you, and the ones you care about the most. Make sure that they understand it is not personal, and you truly value what you have with them. If nothing else, it helps with the feelings of doom about friends and relationships when you are at your lowest.

Hope some of this makes sense to people on both sides. 

Thank you to everyone who has stuck by me, put up with being pushed away, and stuck around for the bad times as well as the good. And sorry to anyone present or past that I have pushed away. Like I say, it's not you 🙂 Regardless of uptake on offers of chats, meet ups etc, I appreciate every genuine gesture made, and am pretty sure most people in the same boat do too. 

After a bit of a wobbly morning, and a nice long 3 or so mile walk at lunch, it was time for the afternoon session.

I have been trying to drip feed the info a bit more this time around, as the first time I was here, I felt I was giving it all away a little too easily

Morning sessions were all positive, great interaction with each of the students doing their differential. However this afternoon, I have just come out of the first session and am genuinely blown away by the approach  professionalism and thoroughness of the first student.

Her approach was spot on, as if she has done this 100 times already, however it turns out it is just her first  time doing mental health this week. Calm, interactive, patient led and compassionate. You can't teach that sort of persona.

This is not to detract from the other brilliant students I have interacted with already today. Each one of them is fantastic in their own right. Simply for being in the line of education they are in, they get my full respect. Not to mention how each one has been brilliant in diagnosis and patient interaction

But sometimes one person really stands out, and this was the one this time around.


Just come out of the second session, and again, amazing! Empathy in gallons, understanding, and all the right questions and replies. 

Going back to me for a bit. This morning was a little draining. Feeling situational anxiety I think would be the right way to put it. As expected, the slight drain on my energy levels of late has had an impact  However it has also taught me something about myself too.

Situational anxiety, is not the same as general clinical anxiety. They may present the same, but bounce back from situational is instant, where as being clinically anxious and going through a full on episode is completely different  thank heavens! I can understand more now when people say they feel anxious for a moment, and can better relate to what they mean by it. I have felt it many times before  but this is an eye opener for me, and I can now feel the difference.

Similar with depression really, although my feelings of genuine depression are a whole lot lower than when I feel, what I call "down". But I can understand when people call it being depressed about something all the same.

I do love a situation where everyone is coming away with new knowledge, and today is certainly one of those times. Last time I said I thought I felt anxious about talking about anxiety, and presenting with the symptoms again. I can confirm this is the case again. Reliving the visits to the doctors really does bring things to the front of your mind and can start to feel really real. However I won't stress as I know how it passed last time, and will again this time.

Well, here I am. Just got here on a rather wet an woeful day. Thankfully I have slept a little better over the last few nights, after having had a cold and struggled earlier in the week.

Currently sitting on the floor away from the group of actors and other real life patients, partly because I am still full of germs, and partly because its just nice to have some space after spending an hour on public transport

Second time around is a lot easier for sure, far less nerves about what to expect. That said, anxiety is knocking at the door, but in a very calm and gentle way. I got this! I have my rota for the day, and no quick escape this time. Rathe than a free session at the end of the rotation, I am in with a group, so my escape is delayed. Hopefully (and my biggest concern right now) I can get on a train and on the way home before the mad evening rush starts. Last time worked out just right.

Took a different route here today too, a little bit of variety is good for the soul  and keeps me trying new things, rather than sticking to the known all the time. Got to keep on top of things eh. Thankfully the longer section of my journey home starts at the first station  on the route, so the chances of a seat are much higher, especially as its London Overground. Fingers crossed eh. To get there is one stop on the Victoria line, which was rammed this morning, urrgh..

I travelled to London Bridge earlier in the week too, again around peak time, so if I say so myself, I have done well with the whole travelling thing. I think the hardest part has been the whole feeling crappy thing. Sniffles and travelling do not go well together.

Right, better get my head in the game, and think about my scenario for the day. Maybe the same as last time? That seemed to work out OK.

Oh no! I gave myself plenty of room here on the floor, away from the hustle and bustle of everyone else. But just like parking spaces, one person in an open area seems to attract others, so now people are setting up around me. Doh.

Not the end of the world, I am just making it out to be more than it is. Anxious thoughts, creating anxious feelings. Calm down Michael, its all OK. We will hopefully be going in for the briefing soon, then onto the sessions. I am straight in at 9.30 today, so time to calm down, prepare and do my thing.

Here goes...

Have a good day all.

The clock is ticking down on my next session at the Royal College of General Practitioners on Friday, and I have to say the suspense and stress is building. It will be my second rush-hour trip to Central London in the week, which never bodes well with me even at the best of times.

The first session I did was a real eye opener, and while it was fun, it was quite draining too. That was starting from a nice high spot in my mental cycle. This time around I am somewhat lower than I was before, so it will be interesting to see what impact that has. Whatever the cost to me, the important thing is being able to help the students understand the presentation of anxiety and depression.

On the plus side, the whole day is a known thing now, it is not full of surprises and uncertainty, so that will help enormously I am sure. I will just get there nice and early again, missing the majority of the morning rush, and have a little wind down walk before getting started.

I will have to put some thought into the scenario for this time too. I am quite happy with the original, but it is good to mix things up a bit. As much for my sanity as theirs. Really is quite draining mentally, recalling events from your life, and playing them out in a scenario over and over for a day. By the end of the day you are mentally exhausted. I kind of envy the actors who also participate in these events. Surely it is much easier to pretend to suffer with something you don't already struggle with. Maybe I am wrong, who knows.

Either way, as I say, the main thing is the students come away from it all with a better understanding. I really do want to have more time to answer questions, and help in any way I can. With so much work being done to raise awareness of mental health issues, it is only right to make sure it can be identified and caught nice and early, so help can be given before the issue worsens for the patient.

Which reminds me actually, I have got to read back through my emails, and do a submission to the BMJ as suggested by Niki. It may come to nothing, it may be the beginnings of being able to do something more positive, time will tell. Not like I don't like writing now is it!

Right, better get my head in gear and thinking cap on, ready for the (next) big day.

Thanks for reading.

PS, students, you can now find all my MH writings on my new website (if you are not already reading this entry there)

I guess the time of year doesn't help much with things, and a lot of people are heading in the same direction right now. Back down the rabbit hole in preparation for the short days, more time spent in darkness, and the gloominess of winter. Not to mention the stresses and strains associated with the "festive season".

So at least if nothing else, I don't feel surprised or alone as I pace in circles at the entrance to the rabbit hole.

Lots going on in life as usual for me, some putting a little extra strain on my mind, other self inflicted things weighing heavily on me both physically and mentally. At the start of the year, setting myself a realistic distance goal on the bike was a good idea. However as the year has progressed, the self imposed stresses have started to show through. Passing my preset goal much earlier than expected led me to aim higher, and higher... To the point where although officially I have passed my goals massively, I am still coaxing myself to push harder. Physically it's taken its toll, mentally I am starting to beat myself up a bit to achieve every mini-goal I have set since then.

Mid way through the year I had the energy and get up and go to do some running too, but soon realised I was spreading myself a bit thin. That said, I had avoided injury up until this point, so it made sense to back off from the running, and focus on wellness and the initial goals. Now later in the year, I am missing running, but lacking the energy to run too. So I am really looking forward to the new year, and new beginnings. Less riding, more running, more stretching, and more about looking after myself, rather than beating the hell out of myself day in day out.

Physical battering aside, my mind is starting to feel the strain of day to day life. Getting up later, having less energy or inclination to do anything other than what is officially on my agenda. Things that need doing can wait, non urgent things can just be forgotten about. Even getting out of bed for trainer rides in the morning is becoming a bit of a chore. Sleep is shocking, with about 45 mins a night of deep sleep. Only the first hour of sleep I get nightly seems to be worth it. Once I have woken at 1-2am, I may as well get up, as it is all downhill from there on.

Nothing is on my mind really. Life is busy, has it's challenges, and a few boulders have been thrown in the road recently, but in general, life is good. A far cry to years gone by where I would have struggled to tell you anything positive about my life. But still I find myself loitering at the entrance to the damn rabbit hole.

Focus is needed, a reboot too, and hopefully that is what the time off over Xmas, the trip to Wales, and the start of a new year will give me. Time and space to hit the reset, recharge a little, and get to grips with what I need to do to get the right results for myself for 2019.

A few ideas, some new goals, a new project or two. All sounds good, now I just need to put pen to paper, draw up the proper plans.

One of the key things for me is physical well-being. I know my body has taken a bit of a beating this year, so next year will be different. More running, or should that just be running, given how little I have done this year. A focus on stretching, recovery, and maintenance is also on the cards, with a return to yoga, and getting muscles like my Psoas recovered and back to full flexibility. Pain pain go away!

On top of that, I want to get back to a daily morning routine, be it floor, gym, HIIT or bike trainer. I remember back to the days of my first round of P90X, and remember feeling supercharged every day. Starting out with some physical activity is really a great way to get the body and mind into the right place. And I think that is the balance I am looking for here.

Physical activity equates to a stronger mind. Be it the endorphins released from the buzz of the training, to the positive feelings and state of mind from being active, and feeling good about yourself. For me it works a treat, so as we progress back towards Spring 2019, I want to arrive fresh, and fully charged in both mind and body.

Until then I just need to make sure I check in with myself regularly, and stay on the level. I know I am vulnerable, but I also know I can stay in control, and do what is needed to stay out of that rabbit hole this year.

I know there are others out there circling too, and would urge them to stay positive, keep active, don't lock those feelings away, and make sure you speak to someone (or the internet like me). Bringing all the thoughts to forefront of your mind, and processing them openly is a great way to rationalise what you are feeling, and breaking the cycle of doom and gloom which shows its face so quickly at times like this.

Take care all 🙂