I don’t usually ride my mountain bike alone. In fact, I only started mountain biking in the early days of my relationship with my now-husband, at his urging. He talked constantly about mountain biking, about the freedom and exhilaration he felt exploring in the woods. It was the anchor of his childhood. Talking about bikes lit him up like a little kid even though he was a serious and quietly brilliant 25 year old man.
My cycling history, until I met him, had been quite different. I remember riding my first bike without training wheels for the first time—down the driveway to the mailbox up the street—and scraping the whole underside of my chin when I braked suddenly at the mailbox and ate it HARD. The crusty scab took weeks to fully heal. That apparently didn’t put me off. I have vivid memories of riding that magenta bike with white tires through the streets of the generic West Island suburb where we lived at the time, past rows of virtually identical streets and houses. Not lost but close enough to lost for it to be kind of exciting. Stopping at the park. Swinging on the thick black rubber swing I could barely reach alone.
Recently, reflecting on my relationship with the notions of competition and performance during a bike ride ahead of a therapy session, the memory of my very first long bike ride came up. It was some kind of cycling event— I think it was called the “Tour de L’lle”—and it involved a ride around the Island of Montreal. I remember waiting at the start line with my dad and brother an a huge crowd of kids and parents. The exhilaration and vibration of the mass start felt like it was coming from right inside my body. I took off through the unknown streets and left them behind even though we were going to stay together. I didn’t know where I was or where I was going. Freedom. That’s the last time I remember really riding a bike until adulthood. I was 9 years old.
I’ve always liked going really fast. As a little kid in Quebec, I ski raced on winter weekends, one of only a handful of little girls my age in a sea of boys. At my first ski race, when I was 6, my dad, who had proudly volunteered as a gate judge, had to disqualify me for going around both of the giant slalom gates. No one had thought to tell me to go through them. I was so angry with him that I didn’t speak to him for days. That inauspicious start once again failed to put me off. I loved racing, but I mostly loved training for races. In the winter, I spent my days with my friends on the chairlift and going fast down the hill. After our ski day ended, we would go explore in the woods on snowboards or cross country skis. I imagine this has changed now that mountain bikes are more mainstream, but at the time, our fall training involved literally running up, down and around the wilds of the ski hill on what would probably now be mountain bike trails.
My family moved to Memphis, Tennessee shortly after the “Tour de “L’Ile”, and my ski racing career came to a halt, for obvious reasons. If I owned a bike, I didn’t ride it— I never felt comfortable alone in my neighbourhood, even though it was perfectly safe. But I found horses. Connected. And that saved me.
A few years later, in high school in suburban Chicago, I found myself trying to pick a school-affiliated sport to sign up for in the fall of my freshman year (grade 9), knowing I had to sign up for something if I was going to have a competitive college application. I had been put off my lifelong love of soccer in Tennessee when I was made to play on a more advanced grade level team and then promptly ended up riding the bench (at my request) after what in retrospect were probably my very first panic attacks. I was already a social pariah as an undersized, underaged and foreign person with a foreign accent in a social environment totally inhospitable and impenetrable to outsiders, and I was completely ostracized by the older girls on that team. It continued to sting. It still does. When my best friend mentioned she was signing up for cross country, the runs in the woods flashed by and I decided to join her. So cross country and track (in the spring) it was. I loved exploring in the trees and spending time with friends.
As it turns out, I actually hated running, but I especially hated the impenetrable social hierarchy of the team dynamics. I nonetheless stuck with it until the end of junior year (grade 11), and quit promptly as soon as my other increased extracurricular responsibilities justified it. My last running race was as the start leg of the sprint medley relay (200 m X 200 m x 400m x 800m) at the state championship. I was not on the combination that had qualified, but I was nonetheless really proud to represent my school and my team on that stage. I was not an “athlete” by the standards of my community or my peer group. Most of my friends who competed in sports were far more decorated and accomplished, and my younger brother was single-mindedly devoted to a tennis career he would carry on into college. I competed in horseback riding but never very seriously, and I experienced almost debilitating anxiety anytime I entered a performance setting. I never told anyone, and then the horse days ended, and it hasn’t come up again. Until now.
In what in retrospect was one of the countless attempts I made to try to reconnect with myself in early adulthood, I joined the ski team in college and raced a couple of seasons. While my school was an NCAA Division I school, the ski team was not fully funded, and it was a co-ed team. It was very low pressure. I remember being drunk a lot, and having a lot of fun. I tried avoiding the actual races whenever possible because they filled me with dread.
Fast forward to the spring of 2009. I was back at my parents’ in suburban Chicago. I had graduated from college a semester early to save my parents some money. I was antsy during my last semester there, just returned from a whirlwind of 14 months in France , yet stuck in my head in my apartment writing 4 simultaneous thesis papers for 4 different theoretical discussion courses. I was randomly applying to any job I could find and to the one law school I ended up attending after failing to get any of said jobs. It was a godsend just to be somewhere else. I was unhealthy and out of shape and I hated myself. I couldn’t stomach the thought of running. I had seen people road biking on the bike paths nearby and it looked fun. I found a very basic road bike on Craigslist. The guy’s wife had ridden it twice and lost interest. For $500 cash, I got the bike, the clipless pedals, the shoes, and the cycling computer. I had no idea what I was doing. I fell over in the driveway the first time I clipped in. I did some rides on the bike path and felt like I was flying. A few months later, in Montreal for law school, after a few bad experiences on downtown streets and consumed by the vortex of my new existence, the bike sat forgotten. And then, that spring, in Vancouver, I met the man who would become my husband, and the bike collection he had crammed into the tiny Kits apartment he shared with a roommate. (Eventually, I moved in and the second bedroom became an even more replete bike room).
Later that summer, he brought me to Whistler to see Crankworx and convinced me to try mountain biking. We took the Greyhound bus up from Vancouver with his mountain bike in the cargo hold. He assured me that I would be totally fine going down the hill because I am a very strong skier. (He did not realize that I had never even been near a mountain bike of any kind). It was wild, and terrifying, and a test of our relationship. I was hooked. By the next summer, I owned my own mountain bike, a Kona Minxy, and I was following him down as best I could, hanging on for dear life. Shortly thereafter, I also upgraded to a proper road bike (a Cannondale Evo, just sold to a new owner this year).
We started spending any limited free time we had riding one bike or the other around Vancouver or Whistler, or visiting his parents in Okanagan. We packed cycling into any vacation we could, renting bikes and doing long scenic road rides. The bike times were some of the best times, but they were very limited; he had decided to go back to school and I was by then a very junior associate in the Vancouver office of a major national law firm, on a collision course even though I didn’t know it yet. Any attempt I made at a formal fitness program was largely financial. I barely ever had time to actually attend any of the many activities I paid for. I once bought a year’s membership to a boxing gym I never once set foot in. I was awed by my colleagues who somehow found time to have a fitness routine, and added my inability to get my act together to my growing, gnawing list of personal deficiencies. I looked like someone who was doing exercise, and that’s all that mattered.
Right before I got pregnant with my oldest daughter, I had the guts to attempt some boundaries at work and hire a personal trainer. For a time, I used to go to my fitness appointment at lunch on Fridays. Once a week. And I spent the whole time I was gone panicked about being away from my email, checking my phone as soon as I got back to the locker room and sprinting back to my desk with my hair half blowdried. It felt so deviant to take time for myself in the middle of a workday. One that had likely begun with some emails before 6 am, at my desk by 7:30, and which would continue, whether actively or due to the prison of my anxiety, to consume me with varying degrees of terror, anxiety, panic, shame, hatred and self-doubt for the rest of the day, the weekend, and virtually always, until I got so ill that I almost died from that suffocating beast. I can call it by its name now. Depression.
This week, I found myself on the side of a trail at SilverStar Bike Park. My second mountain bike ride alone, ever, following closely on the heels of my first, the day before. I (now) ride my gravel bike alone all the time, but mountain biking is something, until this week, I only did with my husband. It was too intimidating. I wouldn’t know what to do if something went wrong.
Which, now, it had.
My handlebars, instead being perpendicular to my bike frame, had been knocked into a parallel position by the force of my impact with the hard, dusty ground. I had briefly lost my focus on the drier than expected turn and landed hard. Calmly, I took some deep breaths, got out from underneath my bike, and assessed the damage to self and gear. A few tender bruises, but I was totally fine. I looked at the bike and realized I could not wedge the bars back into place. I needed a tool. I didn’t have one. Never mind that I hadn’t actually ever used one. My husband worked in bike shops and is a fanatic about bike repair and maintenance. I phoned him and he confirmed he would need to fix it, and could meet me (with our toddlers) at mid-mountain (simultaneously, he went to the bike shop to buy me my own multi-tool). I quickly realized I would not be able to pedal down to him. I worked up my courage and asked the next person who passed if they had a tool. The guy generously offered it up and watched kind of patiently as I fumbled through the repair. Myself. Osmosis from the garage bike repair tutorials kicking in at the right time. I returned the tool, dusted myself off, and got back on the bike, forgetting about the throbbing pain in my bruised ribs and leg. I was free. I was flying. I was 9 years old.
Later in the week, riding with my husband and his brother, my seat post gave way on our last run of the day and I had to stop on the trail to assess and fix it (thankfully, now equipped with a tool). Alone. They didn’t notice me stop and got much further ahead. On World Cup. A black diamond downhill run. I had already put in about 100km of time in the bike park that week; it was hot and dusty, my water was running low, and my bruises were throbbing. After making contact with my husband, I caught up and bombed it down the rest of the run, the wood ramp, flying over jumps, counting strides to my approach just like I used to when I jumped over obstacles on course with my horse. Then we got back in the truck and drove to the familiar hugs of the tiny humans we made. Our daughters.
I almost did not get to really know them. Six months ago today, I was admitted to the psychiatric ward at Vernon Jubilee Hospital following an unsuccessful suicide attempt. That it did not succeed is the singularly most fortunate event in my life, because it changed everything. I am here for the first time. Really here.
I am writing and sharing all of this because I genuinely believe that things could have been different for me if I had been able to access the right help at the right time.
For me, and many others I know, the impediment isn’t that services are not in existence or even unavailable-- it is stigma. I wasn’t “allowed” to be sick. I had to continue. Keep going, no matter how much it hurt. Eventually, something would give. I continued to carry on, to take on more and more of others’ burdens, until I became a shell of whoever I was at 9 years old, clinging to myself, surviving, until it was too painful and something deep inside me gave way. I was so deficient, unworthy of love, a burden to everyone around me. I genuinely believed that my husband and my daughters would be better off without me, that my daughters would be better off never having really known me in their lives, and that I was unable to bear the terrible pain of having to open my eyes and face another day. I was very, very sick.
I did not know that. No one around me really knew it, either.
Fortunately, I received appropriate care and am recovered, and truly better than I have ever been.
See you out in the woods.
If you would like to know more about my journey, please see my note here.