Over the Edge

Feb 28, 2023
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This article first appeared in the December 2022/January 2023 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.

In 2018, I was on a work trip riding my bike down the Colorado Trail with Rim Tours, a bicycle touring outfit specializing in van-supported mountain bike tours in Utah and Colorado. It was a dream trip at my dream job, and I was escaping a pretty uncomfortable home situation by riding a rental bike that was nicer than any bike I’d ever owned in an area I'd never ridden in a part of the country I love and had recently moved away from. It was a perfect September afternoon with a light breeze and just enough clouds in the sky to keep the sunburns away, the smoke from nearby fires not yet reaching us and the leaves of the aspens just barely starting to turn golden.

There was a problem, though: I couldn’t ride. I chalked it up to altitude sickness, vertigo, new bike jitters. I found myself scooting along a ridge of a mountain at a petrified crawl. I hit a tight bend in the trail as it carved right and I dabbed my foot on the wrong side, the side that goes off the cliff rather than into it, and was saved by a bush a few feet downhill. I had tunnel vision, couldn’t see, was hyperventilating. I was the soon-to-be Editor-in-Chief of a famous mountain bike magazine, yet I was unable to ride even the most timid of trail sections of a terrain where I had become most comfortable riding just months prior. But a lot had changed in those months.

Sometimes I refer to it as my long bad week, or my very bad year, or years, or simply 2018–2019. Often it’s just vaguely referenced as “the bad time.” I don’t need to get into all of it, but there was death, sexual violence, heartbreak, moving, and a number of other major stresses for myself and people I love. I was devastated — not like a heart, but like a house in a mudslide. This wasn’t the first time the mud piled, or that my foundation was tested. I had a panic attack while mountain biking a decade earlier. Something about the sound of my boyfriend’s (eventual ex-husband’s) voice, something about the sound of splashing through the creek. Something the light through the trees, something the wind blowing in my ear, something the stress of something unknown. I saw myself falling endlessly into an abyss of dark waters from which there was no bottom, the sparkling rocks a blur of movement, a swirling field of unmarked graves in which to fall. I started hyperventilating, threw myself to a log on the side of the trail, and gasped and sobbed and apologized. We got Slurpees at the nearby 7-11 and rode back to his mom’s house. It took me another 15 years to get used to crossing a creek on my bike. Even riding the Great Divide, I laughed at the feral dogs who chased us, pedaled full-speed and fearless and alive despite still being sick from tainted water, and yet paused shaking at a trickle of water in my path and hesitated at any bridge. It wasn’t the creek I was afraid of; I played in a creek for most of my childhood. But that’s not what my brain recalled. Instead, another long bad week in the early 2000s was recollected in the tire splash and turned the idea of a shallow, slow-moving gash of water into despoliation and despair.

cycling for mental health
The scree field of destiny, and in the distance, the easy grassy section where I crashed.
Courtesy Rim Tours Mountain Bike Adventures

Here on the Colorado Trail with a group of incredibly kind and patient middle-aged men, there was no creek to survive, no trauma triggers I could identify. Just me, some strangers, and a bike. Just months before, I had ridden my bike solo from Pittsburgh to West Virginia for a mountain bike fest; before that, I rode down the California coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise money for AIDS research and community support; before that, I was riding my bike to work a few times a week, up half a mountain to a resort in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and back; and in between I was commuting, road riding, and mountain biking my little heart out to get used to the East Coast terrain I never quite got the hang of when I lived there years before — I was so often caught with these flashes that didn’t take me back to that creek but caused me to pause, my heart racing. I set up logs in the yard of my work building to practice riding over them, but when I hit the trails I would have to psych myself up before coming across a log pile au naturale. Out west, I rode over chunky, sharp rocks with no problem. Not only should the logs have been fine, but the dusty, occasionally rocky terrain of the Colorado Trail should have been right up my alley. I was at the peak of my fitness and my skills.

And yet, there I was hanging onto a bush that had found itself wedged between me and my absolute doom. One of my fellow riders had been hanging back with me, casually chatting to keep my brain from focusing too much on the riding, or on the cliff, and helped me back onto the trail. He made sure I wasn’t broken and I made my slow way down the trail to catch up with the group, my tunnel vision making it ever more difficult. The trail tucked into the woods from the cliff; it became moderately easier but I was terrified, unable to pedal more than a few miles per hour. My gracious, patient guide rode with me and told me about his own experience with vertigo and didn’t make a big deal about my utter lack of ability to not only mountain bike but ride a bike at all.

By the time we caught up with the rest of the riders at the next trail fork, my guide and I decided to call it an early day and rode to the camp along the fire road while the rest of the group took the fun singletrack. Back at camp, no one said a word about my panic attack. We greeted one another with hoots and hollers and the camaraderie that comes with camping in a spot we reached by bicycle. We took turns showering behind a bush overlooking a purple mountain vista as the sun set. I broke the shower, my brain still beyond capacity. There was a slight tint of exasperation in my tour guide’s voice when he told me it was no problem, but just slight. We ate dinner and clinked glasses, sitting in a circle where, in a wetter climate, there would have been a crackling campfire. People shared their stories of vertigo, altitude sickness (I also had a screaming headache for the majority of the weeklong trip), and even the yips (a term often associated with baseball players and golfers to describe their sudden inability to pitch or putt, respectively, that is both neurological and physiological). I felt sheepish and somewhat ashamed of myself, but I still got back up in the morning and kept riding. What else could I do? I was on assignment. I was supposed to be good at it, a literal pro. Plus, I love this stuff, even when I can’t do it. If embarrassment could stop me, I wouldn’t have made it far in life.

cycling for mental health
My very capable legs, with tire marks from running myself over. 
Courtesy Rim Tours Mountain Bike Adventures

Momentum again setting in and the memory of how to ride coming back to me, I was again moving at a faster-than-snail pace through light-speckled woods and rocky, punchy climbs and descents. We came across a section I was prepped might be a challenge for “some of you” (me), a ride along a narrow trail in a mountain of scree. The trail was off-camber, it had a swift descent with another cliff dropping sharply into oblivion on the right and sharp rocks on the left. Looking at it from afar, it was practically flat, but in the moment, up close, with my abject terror, it was a straight 90 percent pitch into hell. I made it down scooting awkwardly with my post dropped like a kid’s Strider, not enough room to walk my bike, and finally got to the dirt section of the trail where the drop-off was grass-covered rather than scree and I could pick up some momentum. I almost immediately hit a grass-hidden tree stump and flipped over the bars, breaking my wrist. Somehow, that was the crash that did it for me. I had broken my wrist and didn’t die, I fell and not over the cliff (this time), I laughed and brushed myself off (with my left hand), and kept riding. My brain was unbroken, sense smacked into me.

I had a fantastic time, despite everything, and eventually the panic subsided. By the end, I was using my dropper post as intended, rather than as a Strider, and was keeping up with the middle pack of the crew. My legs actually had a chance to get tired. I crashed again, and at the end of the official trail section I sat on a rock to assess the damage. I took a photo of my beat-up, bloody knees and ankles, my riding buddies barely dusty. Still, I felt great. I returned a call from my mom, who had tried to reach me while I was out of cell coverage. My Nana was in the hospital, she’d taken a bad fall. Riding into town in Durango, I was once more struck with panic and was nervous to hop over a curb, something I’ve done easily since I was a kid. I stayed with some wildland firefighters, a friend I knew from graduate school and her colleagues, and played down the stress and panic, the tunnel vision, chalking them up to altitude and vertigo. I housed pizza and beer and felt like a champion, choosing to believe my own narrative.

Back at the office in Pittsburgh, I had little time to recover from the broken wrist, with bikes to test, products to review, features to write, and other events to attend. I froze at the top of descents that were less steep than roads I’d ridden, surrounded by colleagues who had no problem making it down. As we dove deeper into the year, and my marriage pulled further apart, “the yips” as we called them on the Colorado Trail that one night became more severe, and yet I had no outlet for them. Instead, my brain started to short circuit. Each time it was the same: I grabbed my helmet and suddenly felt a zap. There was a sort of black and white flash, and I woke up on the ground covered in sweat. I got shingles. In therapy, I sometimes talked more about the pressure to be good at mountain biking than the divorce, the coma, the assault, the dead dog, the move from my favorite place on earth back to the city I never thought I’d live again, living alone in my marital home. It was all connected, but the bikes were at the forefront of my duress. The tool of my freedom, the object of my passion and career, the monument of my lifelong obsession was the hub connecting all these traumatic spokes. How’s that for a lousy metaphor? When my life was so centered around the bicycle, when I turned to cycling to get over every injustice and infuriation, my dumb brain saw the common denominator in all my life’s stresses and warned me against it.

cycling for mental health
A group shot of the kindest people I could ask to have a complete functional breakdown with.
Courtesy Rim Tours Mountain Bike Adventures

I talked with Dr. Tanisha Ranger, psychologist at Insight to Action in Nevada, about the relationship between exercise, specifically cycling, and mental health crises. She likened my temporary connection between cycling and panic with insomnia. “The reason that it starts is not the reason it persists,” said Dr. Ranger. “What helps it to persist is the conditioning that we do to ourselves unwittingly. When you are dealing with insomnia, it’s incredibly frustrating and anxiety-producing and all of that, right? And so you spend enough time in your bed feeling that way and start to associate your bed with that feeling, and now you’ve conditioned yourself to evoke certain stimuli just from being around something that was previously neutral, if not positive.” As a person who struggles with sleep on many levels, this hit close to home. Pavlov’s dogs came up, with their salivation at the ringing of a bell. My heart gets racing at bedtime, and for a while I started panicking whenever it was time to ride a bike, however much I wanted to do it and did it anyway. I remember sitting on my bike at a local trailhead, frozen in fear about the thing I’d been looking forward to all afternoon. “If you pair feeling terrible with going on a bike ride, eventually you're going to turn bike riding into something that makes you feel terrible. And so when that happens, you’ve now created a problem for yourself where the thing that you thought you were using to cope has now become something you need to also cope with.”

As a kid, my bicycle was my freedom. I duct taped a small tape player to my handlebars and cruised to the candy store, friends’ houses, down to the harbor to watch the tide change and the lobster and fishing boats take turns at the dock, blasting Anthrax, Young MC, and Salt-N-Pepa, feeling on top of my small world. Later I used it to go to concerts, to ride to parties so I could leave without waiting for a ride or for a friend to sober up, or would just pedal until I felt better about the world. Sometimes that took all night, riding around Boston or Santa Fe or New York City until the sun came up and I felt some sense of accomplishment or closure. Sometimes it took three weeks.

New England is famous for rugged individualism, and so’s the Southwest. Heck, it’s the American way. And what’s more rugged, more individual, than bicycle travel? I moved from Massachusetts to New Mexico because I was looking for something absolutely new to me, but it was in many ways the same. As my mentor said one day when she heard of a plan I’d concocted to take off once again, you can’t escape yourself. No matter how many rotations your legs make, no matter how many chains you replace. It didn’t stop me from trying. You could draw a constellation of my Long, Bad Weeks by finding the imprints of my tire treads on soft shoulders and gravel roads. Stitches and scabbed knees. Gravel and road shrapnel embedded so deeply in my skin I set off metal detectors at the airport and have to pretend I’ve had a knee or hip replacement. Bone heart skin bike: steel.

In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., writes about how our bodies hold onto the trauma we’ve endured and how that can wreak havoc on our physical selves. “It’s not just a phrase,” Dr. Ranger said. “We store things in our body and it’s movement that helps us to release things. But you have to process it. You have to engage that frontal lobe part as well.” There are a number of therapeutic practices that engage movement to help patients process, from somatic motor therapy to tapping and walking therapy. “Physical movement is such a huge part of our mental health, especially around PTSD,” said Ranger. “But it’s not the only thing.”

cycling for mental health
A lunch stop near the tree line.
Courtesy Rim Tours Mountain Bike Adventures

Our brains give us chemicals as rewards for movement. Endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin are good. Our brain makes them for a reason. We need those chemicals, plus water, sunlight, and positive social interactions. And any distance cyclist knows that bicycle travel offers us all those things. But like any chemical, we can build up a tolerance, and if we are using those chemicals to deal with a pain rather than dealing with the thing that causes the pain, we will find ourselves pedaling endlessly. Which is fun until our brain also makes that bad connection between pain and cycling.

“We just have to move out of this feeling that there is one thing that’s going to be a magic bullet,” Ranger said, “whether that’s just medication or just therapy or just riding your bike across country or running across the entire state.” If he allows it (I imagine he would be a member of Adventure Cycling, were he still alive), I extend Walt Whitman’s exaltation to all of us: we are large, we contain multitudes. And similar to how getting out of bed and onto a bike may feel impossible to a person struggling with depression, so can seem the obstacles of finding a mental health professional who is both a good fit and affordable or/and accepting of our insurance. But if cycling isn’t enough, and you find yourself riding more and more and the problems are still waiting when you pitch your tent for the evening or get back home, then it’s worth the trouble — you’re worth the trouble — to find someone who can help in addition to riding.

Eventually, the bike, the treads, the chains, the patience, the stomach for it all give. In addition to the brain zaps and the shingles, I had bouts of hives, rashes, internal bleeding, and pains. But the most painful was the inability to ride. I didn’t just sit frozen at the trailhead, I also stared numbly at maps, unpacked panniers, and airline websites, unable to do the thing I’d always done best: leave. Instead of the trip to Singapore I’d been dreaming of, I managed my expectations a bit and rode down the GAP Trail. I hit reset and rebuilt my skills until suddenly I was once again traveling solo down dusty roads in a far-off wilderness. And there I was again: straddling my bike, edging a descent on an off-camber trail with a drop-off to my right, an incredible vista on a partly cloudy, smokeless autumn day in the mountains. My saddle dropped, I lifted my weight and hovered over my bike and flew down. I spent two weeks cycling through Alaska with a partner and seven strangers, back to my antics and feeling as natural as ever in my favorite place on earth: the saddle.

Most striking in my memory, though, is the moment I came back together. In Hot Springs, Montana, last summer, pedaling at dawn with my dog running by my side, I kicked up dust one-handed while holding a travel mug of coffee in the other. Cows and horses lined the wood and barbed wire fences and I sang along to the song in my head, “Juice” by Lizzo. All the trepidation I had felt the day before, struggling to leave, had left my body and I felt alarmingly, completely, free. Like a kid. It became once again so easy that I wonder some days if it was ever that hard. But my body knows. I still have a moment of fretting at the top of a drop when riding singletrack and remind myself that I know how to ride. My first impulse is always to ride alone, before remembering I no longer zone out for an hour, no longer hold anyone up. I just ride.

Ride your bike. Take it easy on yourself. Find professional help if you need it. Lean on family and friends but not too much. You are already a rugged individual by design, as an adventure cyclist. You don’t need to prove anything, push anything, denounce any agony in your heart asking for something more than just endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin.  

Nuts & Bolts

Help is Available

If you find yourself having a mental health crisis, whether on a bike tour or just sitting at home, you can call 988 for immediate, free, and confidential support. If you are in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, there is help and support.

To find a mental health provider, visit psychologytoday.com. You can narrow your search based on location, insurance/payment options, types of therapy, and more. Dr. Tanisha Ranger’s book, Finding Your Person, is packed with helpful information regarding what to look for in “the one.”

Dr. Ranger’s other book, Nontoxic Positivity, is a helpful guide to combatting toxic positivity (whether external or internal) and connecting to your emotions in a healthy manner.

If you wish to combine your love of cycling with breaking down the stigma about and the barriers to mental health, visit rideformentalhealth.org.

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Comments

Kerry O'Connell March 25, 2023, 10:46 AM

My absolute favorite advice to anyone struggling with depression is to buy a bike and get outdoors as much as possible. Now I am truly not sure that was wise. I have never felt the way you did riding but have felt that way trying to ski down mountains in bad conditions. A very vulnerable story thanks for being so courageous.

TIffany March 1, 2023, 8:26 PM

Carolyne,

I really appreciate your article! Focusing on your mental health is such an important thing. I agree, that the bike can help, but it's not always the full solution. Seeking therapy can really get you headed in the right direction.

Thank you for sharing your struggles and insight,

Tiffany

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