To Burn Off the Madness

I’d been full of piss and vinegar the night before, but when I woke up, I felt as flat as a train track penny. The couch drew me in, and two cups of coffee did little to raise my spirits. This is how depression blooms. I spent Father’s Day with my wife and kids, cheerfully walking in the woods, looking out over the ocean, eating seafood, laughing. I had no problems, and nothing hurt, but my mind was a roiling mess of irritation, restlessness and churn.

That radio plays nothing but static.

It was desperation, I see now, that had me planning an epic ride in the evening, like I was plotting an escape route. From what? From myself? And then of course, the bed wouldn’t let me go, and then the couch. I walked the dog with my wife and confessed to her that I was struggling to keep calm, coherent thoughts together. I find that the earlier in these cycles that I confess, the sooner the whole thing resolves. Depression wants to have you all to itself. Once you let someone else in, it gets too crowded for the disease to keep hold.

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By midmorning I was in a slightly better frame of mind. I was moving slowly but deliberately toward the basement and the bikes, and I felt confident I’d pick one out of the rack and do the ride that it wanted me to do. I performed some basic maintenance on a few of them. This was part procrastination, part deliberation.

And then I threw my leg over the gravel bike and left the house.

Having done this one-million times before, I couldn’t really be sure which way I’d go. My mind struggled to find an acceptable route, a problem I solved by turning in the easiest possible direction at each decision point. I almost turned back twice, but managed to keep going, because what else was I going to do?

Here is what helped: I made myself ride slowly and pay attention, just to try to enjoy the sensation of the bike rolling beneath me. I opted for the most familiar places that I guessed would have no other people in them. And I left my helmet at home. Why this last thing should be heartening, I don’t know.

I reached the woods not far from the edge of my neighborhood and threaded my way through some rocks slowly, rather than bashing through at speed. This patch empties out onto a tiny baseball field, and as I dropped down the hill to cross the outfield I saw my friend Joel there, pitching tennis balls to his son. I pulled over to say hello. I don’t see Joel much, and we exchanged warm greetings, and that was nice. He asked what I was up to, and I said, “I’m just out here trying to burn off the madness.” If you say a thing like this to most people, they’ll look at you like you’re playing frisbee in the frozen foods aisle. Joel knows that I know, and he nodded his head and said, “I hear you,” and he smiled.

Dysthymia is low-level, chronic depression. In my case it’s cyclical and episodic. I have learned to cope, to view each downturn as a sort of mental cold that will pass, given time. It helps to know that how I feel doesn’t attach to any particular event or cause. In the past, I’ve let myself get twisted up trying to find a reason for my depression. The truth is, I have no problems. All the people who loved me yesterday, love me today. All the good things in my life are still good today.

This is chemical. This is nothing very much.

So I rode. It’s good to have something to channel your thoughts, essentially to take over control of the broadcast, an AM oldies station broadcasting out of the chaos. In this case, actually a twisty ,overgrown trail with occasional rock and root surprises. And then, of course, different chemicals come flooding into the mix. In my experience no single ride solves the riddle, but if I can keep moving, a series of rides sure does help a lot.

If you struggle with depression I highly recommend asking for help. I called my doctor first, but there are lots of ways to find the right people to set you on the right path. That might be an addictions recovery group, a therapist, or even just a good friend. Don’t hesitate. Life is too short to suffer quietly.

Join the conversation
  1. hmlh33 says

    This. I’m seething mad. Ready to unload on my wife or either kid. Why? Actually no reason. As you wrote, “I have no problems”. I know this is true yet I’m feeling like there’s some real problems that I need to talk about in a loud and aggressive way. But I know it’s actually just some combination of buttons that I have that once in a while get pressed in just the right sequence. So the work is to keep perspective, be nice to people, and move through these feelings to the good ones that are always waiting on the other side. The bike is a huge help. Being honest with my people about it also helps. Thanks for the artful description of “it”.

  2. Hautacam says

    Respect to you for naming it, talking about it openly with your spouse, and posting this great, bittersweet piece here. Living this stuff out loud is the only way grind off the old stigmas attached to “mental health.”

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