Thursday, 17 May 2012

My Life With Autism - Keep Pedaling

During Autism Awareness Month we featured guest blogs from some of our supporters talking about their experience of autism. One post in particular, by Debbie, really struck a chord as she wrote a powerful piece on the depression she has lived with before and after her son was diagnosed. 

Debbie wanted to write more about the way she has dealt with her depression and some of the day-to-day struggles she faces: 

Keep Pedaling

I have always enjoyed riding my bike, but I had no idea how important cycling would become to me or that it would play a large part in coping with, and controlling, a serious illness.

My illness is depression, and although it can be well hidden (I have been an expert at this) it is a devastating condition which can impact on every aspect of daily life.

I was diagnosed with depression in 2008, having suffered silently and privately for a number of years. I do not know how many years. It sneaks up on you, gradually enveloping you in sadness. You feel apart from everyone else, almost in a dream-like state. It becomes difficult to plan ahead, almost impossible to make decisions. Anyway, that is how I experienced it. Causes can be many and complex. I do not know when depression caught me, but I do know that it was related to the suspicion, denial, diagnosis and manifestations of my precious wee boy's autism.

Matthew, now almost 10, is a beautiful, happy, loving wee boy. He has the cognition of, perhaps, a four year old, and communication skills of a younger child. I won't detail the years of denial, despair and finally acceptance. I won't list the difficulties we have faced on a daily and hourly basis. Suffice to say that in 2008 I “woke up” and found that I was very unwell.

I owe the initial recognition and treatment of my depression to having to take Matthew to see our GP that summer. The doctor recognised that I was unwell and told me to come back and see him myself. So I began treatment. But something happened that autumn which would also prove significant. I saw a small write-up about a new cycling club, called West Lothian Clarion, in a local paper.

I read through the article a couple of times. There was an email address and a website. I could check them out and make contact without picking up the phone. I emailed the club secretary Matthew Ball and arranged to meet up the following Sunday for a club run. When I arrived I knew I had made a mistake. There they all were, skinny guys on skinny bikes, with curly handlebars, head to toe Lycra and funny shoes. There I was on my Raleigh Metro, with my one pair of cycling shorts and an old pair of trainers. I nearly fled. I was making a complete fool of myself. Who was I to think I could ride alongside these guys? If the club secretary, and everyone else I spoke to that morning, had not been so welcoming, I would have turned tail and run. But I was persuaded to ride a few miles with them.

As we set off, the clicking of cleats into pedals nearly made me change my mind again. But the guys very politely rode at my pace while I sat about a foot higher than everyone else, puffing and red faced as we climbed out of Linlithgow. I felt totally foolish and out of place. But I felt something else – inspiration. I had something to aim for, something that had nothing to do with autism or depression. While I struggled back to my car, and home to nurse my aching legs, the Clarion guys were off on a 60 mile jaunt through Fife in the crisp autumn sun. Did I want to join in? Just a wee bit!

I needed a better bike – that much was clear, and I needed to improve my fitness. I had time during the day to ride my bike while the children were at school. I begun riding more on the road, planning routes that took me further from home. When I felt a bit fitter, I got a new bike, a “fast hybrid”. No, I wasn't ready for those curly handlebars yet. I seriously doubted that I could ride such a bike. But I went back to the club, about a year after I had initially made contact. Still a bit slow, still feeling out of place, but I joined this time.

Joining West Lothian Clarion has been wonderful for me. I have met lots of new people. People who don't know me first as the struggling mum of an autistic child. As the mum who avoids speaking to people, unable to say much for fear of the tears. My club mates know me primarily as someone who rides a bike.

As my cycling fitness improved, so did my mental health. I began to feel happier, made better use of my free time to fit in the cycling, and had a hobby that could take my mind off things, or give me the opportunity to think things through. An amazing amount of frustration can be worked out on a few steep hills. Instead of holding everything in, I can take it all out on my legs. Though they don't always thank me for it!

The feeling of riding my bike, out in the countryside, taking in the fresh air and the views always puts a smile on my face. The rush of speeding down a hill at 30+ miles per hour, for someone who is not a born thrill-seeker, is just amazing. The wind in my hair and face. The feeling of heightened senses as I watch the tarmac roll beneath my wheel, hanging on tight, scanning for potholes, ever alert to the presence of traffic. Struggling up a steep hill with horizontal rain in my face and the huge sense of achievement when I finally reach the top. Getting in home and warmed up after a cold winter ride. Chatting with club mates on a club ride. Working in a chain-gang to eat up the miles on a fast road. Café stops for cake. I love it all.

But the feel-good factor lasts longer than the ride itself. When I know that I will have a stressful time ahead, I do my best to get some decent riding beforehand, as it sets me up for the challenge and gives me the strength to face whatever comes next.

And I have gone and got myself one of those fancy curly-handled bikes. I tap-tap along in my funny shoes and click in as I set off. Top to toe Lycra is the order of the day. These things make me faster and more comfortable as I spin round the countryside of the Lothians, Lanarkshire and surrounding areas. I have entered a few races, and this year I hope to break the 30 minute barrier for 10 miles. Ok, Victoria Pendleton and the like have nothing to fear, but I take huge satisfaction in how I have progressed. New ladies joining the club come to me for advice, which also makes me feel great. Cycling has done so much for me and I want to pass it on.

Everyone must find their own path, their own coping mechanisms. Cycling isn't for everybody. But if I was to give one piece of advice to anyone who finds themselves struggling mentally, unable to cope, it would be this: 

Find a hobby that you love, make time for it, and reap the rewards.

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