Cycling for mental health: Timmy Guy’s story
On the eve of the 2017 Tour de France, we consider the benefits of cycling. As part of an ongoing series about cycling and mental health, Timmy Guy talks through his issues and explains how riding is more than just about sport; it’s part of his therapy…
It gripped my brain, forcing fear and loneliness to the surface. It whispered in loop, “there is no hope – give up, give in.”
For six years, anxiety and depression plagued me with no respite. At first, I didn’t know what was happening, I hated myself for what I felt, for being void of empathy and absent of hope.
By the time I recognised I had a mental illness, it had already shattered my life. I’d walked away from all the things I’d loved. I could no longer face getting on a bike. I couldn’t even contemplate a relationship. I thought these were causes of my unceasing fear, not realising they too were victims.
I didn’t want to leave cycling, I tried to fight it. I couldn’t. I’d ride 10km, pull over to the side of the road, clutch my helmet and try to shake the messiness out of my head. I wanted to cry, I wanted to weep, but the tears wouldn’t fall.
I rode my first UCI races filled to the brim with anxiety that verged on panic. I couldn’t pinpoint what I was anxious about. It was general and unrelenting. It was like I had a vacuum attached to my brain, sucking all the life out of me and holding it in a void, somewhere just out of reach.
I didn’t know what to do. All my races and days became the same. Dark, paralysing and absent of even a moment’s relaxation.
The team I was contracted to folded and restarted three times over the span of a year. I couldn’t face it. I thought it must have been the sport, that I just didn’t want to do it anymore.
I retired from racing. I was 19!
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This series was proposed by Timmy Guy while he was recently abroad racing. He had finished a stage and found himself overwhelmed by emotion and cowering in a corner of his hotel room. While trying to manage his feelings, he grabbed his laptop and sent an email asking if RIDE would be interested in publishing his stories. Upon his return to Australia we spoke briefly and plotted our collaboration.
This is the first article of a series he believes will come in four parts.
From the sidelines I watched some of my peers – Rohan Dennis, Jack Bobridge and Travis Meyer – all move on to professional contracts. Only a few years earlier I’d ridden with each of them at the junior world championships. I wasn’t as good as them, but still, I’d had hope of a cycling future.
Now, I couldn’t even look at a bike – my heart would race uncontrollably, my chest tighten, my head grow dizzy and my feet turn to concrete. It just exacerbated my shame. I felt bitter and cold. Far from life. Far from hope.
It stung to see people progressing in the sport, it stung simply to see people enjoy riding their bikes, as I couldn’t and I didn’t know why.
In hindsight, cycling was what had given me my identity. It was my escape from feeling inadequate at school, my escape from feeling anxious about showing up to a party, or going on a date, “Sorry, I can’t come, I’ve got to train”. It had been my safety net, now it was gone and I was plummeting to the depths.
Every night I’d fall asleep with an inexplicable dread weighing me down. Every morning I’d wake, to that same weight pressing against my mind and body like lead. I didn’t want to wake up. I wished my life could be over.
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It wasn’t until I received a phone call from my Dad, telling me that he had prostate cancer and had been given two years to live, that I decided to seek help. I felt nothing when he told me, I felt numb. Not out of shock. It was the same numbness, the same emptiness that I experienced day in and day out. I knew I loved my dad, at least, I knew I should, but I didn’t feel it. I was indifferent. I felt heartless.
I went to my doctor and was put on medication. I didn’t want it, somehow despite my numbness; there was still room for me to feel ashamed and degraded. The first meds I tried did nothing. The second just seemed to have side effects and no lining. I kept taking them. Wishing they would kick in and be a fix. I was disappointed when finally; they simply took the edge off.
I spent years trying to run from it all. Hoping one day the anxiety and depression would simply be gone. But every morning, it seeped into my bones anew. I travelled the world, hoping to find life on its far reaches. I stood at hundreds of the most significant landmarks in the world and still felt empty and on edge. I couldn’t run from it, I could not hide.
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After four years away from the sport, I returned. Not because I felt any less crippled by my mind, but, because I’d come to understand that cycling was not the problem, that my mental illness was separate to my circumstances. It was part of me and was never going to just ‘disappear’. The way I saw it, the only path forward, was to learn to live despite it.
It wasn’t about performance, it wasn’t about structured training. It wasn’t about trying to make a ‘come back’. It was nothing inspirational. It was simply about trying to let cycling be part of my life again.
Four years on from that decision and I’m not cured – But that’s okay. I have learnt to manage better, to the point where sometimes I forget that it feasted on my life constantly for six years. Sometimes, I feel absorbed in life – free to be in the moment. Sometimes, I feel just as bad as ever.
The bike has become my classroom, my testing ground for life. It’s a dynamic sport. The majority of a race is about keeping composure, learning to relax at higher and higher outputs, higher amounts of stress. Then, there are also moments when you need to unreservedly react – channelling anxiety to a state where it is not so high to cause you to freeze, but high enough to incite increased focus and total emersion in the effort. Cycling is a constant yet unpredictable cycle, it’s a mini-life.
With the help of my coach Mark Windsor, my psychologist Susette Sowden and my Attaque Team Gusto Cycling Team, I use the bike to try and understand myself and life better. To use the stress, the uncertainty, the fear, to refine skills and bring them back to everyday life. Cycling is about refined management of the mind and body’s reaction to stresses – so is my life.
– By Timmy Guy
Note. Dad is still kicking eight years after his two-year diagnosis, and he’s not going anywhere soon.
*Mental health issues are not uncommon, not a sign of weakness, and not something we can all just ‘get over’. If this article has raised some issues or concerns for you, please consider talking to someone and getting some assistance.