Learning To Breathe

Granted the freedom to breathe, I remain lost.

From the age of 12, my main priority has always been to ride. March has always been the final month of preparation for the season to come. This March, preparation was no longer necessary.

During my first two weeks ‘off’, I continued to feel panic. All I could really think was: “Okay. So, I’m not riding right now, but what happens if I suddenly feel mentally ready to ride again? I won’t be physically ready. “I must be ready to race!” I would push myself to go for a run or a hike every day. I absolutely love hiking, but I quickly grew to stress about that too.

Photo of Bryanna from one of our hikes.

Photo of Bryanna from one of our hikes.

I was also still afraid to tell people what was going on. I would get a lot of messages asking questions, or people would ask me why I hadn’t been riding if I bumped into them. I would still say that I was sick or had mono.

The pressure was still on. While the outside pressure from my team had been lifted, I continued to put immense pressure on myself. I couldn’t quite accept my new position. I had to learn how not to be an athlete for a while.

I felt fearful about what people would think of me. I’ve always been ‘Oli the Cyclist’. I struggled for the first few weeks with the notion that I may be losing my identity. People would lose interest in me. All of my friends are cyclists or fans of cycling- would what’s going on with me mean that I would lose my friends too? I feared that my extended family and my supporters would be disappointed that I was off the bike. So many people have played a role in my achievements on the bike. I feared that I was letting everyone down. It went beyond simply feeling that I was not meeting their expectations of Oliver, but as if I was not fulfilling some sort of moral obligation. I was ashamed.

I feared that I was also letting myself down. Maybe I could have just pushed through and eventually the weather would improve, I would get fit, and I could continue riding. Again, all I could think was what if?

From another hike. Found an old mine with my dad.

From another hike. Found an old mine with my dad.

A break from cycling meant to me at first that I could try any one of a million other things I’m interested in but haven’t been able to pursue because of cycling - travel the world, get an interesting job, volunteer, hike, run a 10K - but even now, six plus weeks after hanging up my bike, I haven’t committed to anything. I’m afraid to. No matter how many times I try, I can’t shake the notion that I need to be available to get on the bike in the event that I suddenly feel the passion. I simply can’t. I’m stuck. I’m unaccustomed to my newfound freedom. I’m uncomfortable in the grey area.

And, downtime is foreign to me too. I don’t know what to do with all the time I now have. I hate not being busy. So I remain unsettled and anxious.

I tried talking to a professional. The contacts that my team manager, Mark, had provided were away, so I was introduced to someone else. Naively, I thought that a psychiatrist’s office would be where I found insight, answers and solutions. It was my first time talking to a professional about anything that I was dealing with. I don’t know what I was expecting. A magic wand?

The guy pissed me off. I don’t think he cared. He definitely didn’t understand. I mean, why would he? He doesn’t know me. He isn’t a cyclist or an athlete.

For whatever reason, I was extremely sad the night following that visit. I had pinned too much hope on the visit and I felt a profound disappointment. He hadn’t fixed me or even helped me start to help myself. For the couple of weeks beforehand, I had thought that as soon as I spoke to a professional, all would be well again and I would be on my way to recovery. But that wasn’t the case and I wasn’t suddenly happy, as I had stupidly anticipated. If anything, I was more confused about where I am and who I am.

That night I was reminded of the beast within me that, despite my immeasurable stress, had been relatively inactive for the past two weeks. In my vulnerability I invited it to take advantage of me. I suffocated and I bawled. I couldn’t escape this thing on my own, and I kept telling Bryanna, my girlfriend, “I need help!”

I visited the psychiatrist one more time. During that visit I determined that he wasn’t the right fit. I thanked him for his time, and that was it. I’m sure he’s a great guy, but I feel the need to meet with someone who is familiar with sport and athletes, ideally cyclists who, I feel, are somehow special.

I’m still waiting to find someone on the island.

This has been the most confusing time of my life. A massive transition. I’ve been following the same trajectory that I set for myself 6 years ago. From having a clear sense of direction, timelines, scripts and contingency plans, to having nothing. It is like being dropped, in the dead of night, in the middle of some mountain range without a compass, clothes or language. Whether I liked it or not, I had always known where I needed to be heading. Now I have no clue. I don’t have plans and I’m nervous to make any. I feel that I shouldn’t commit to anything, because I remain technically committed to riding my bike for my team.

Despite how lost I feel, I have stopped trying to time how long I can go without crying, or count how many days elapse between panic attacks. Getting off the bike was the right step. Where to step next, I do not know. I want not to worry about that and just to breathe for the time being.

Catching my breath.

Catching my breath.