It could be very easy for me to dismiss the year 2017 as a terrible one.
Shortly after returning from my New Year’s trip to London, I sank deep into an all-consuming depression the likes of which I’ve never experienced before.
I mean sure, I’d experienced depression before.
Whether it was my ex-wife finding me fully clothed in an empty bathtub, crying my heart out for unknown reasons or all times I’d drunk myself into oblivion to numb the pain of the aching void, the dreaded black dog had been a regular companion throughout my adult life.
Yet never had things reached such a critical point that each day began with me wondering whether that was the day I finally got the balls to kill myself.
Nor had depression ever crippled me so severely that I spent most of my days hiding under my duvet on the sofa with neither the energy nor desire to do anything else.
I didn’t shower, brush my teeth or shave. I mean, what was the point if I was only going to die anyway? I barely spoke to other human beings, and as for going out and making a living, that seemed impossible.
Of course, when you’re self-employed, you can’t really afford to spend every day lying on your sofa, delaying suicide.
Before long, any money you’ve saved starts to dry up, your clients go elsewhere, your debts mount and your business eventually crumbles.
So you find a way to get off the sofa, no matter how tough it might be.
At one point, I told myself that I was going to get up and hit the year hard and that if my life situation hadn’t improved by New Year’s Eve, I could go ahead and kill myself.
I took a kind of twisted comfort from that, knowing that I would definitely be able to end things and at least enjoy the peace my soul sorely lacked.
My logic -as broken and dark as it was- was that nobody would be able to blame me for committing suicide because at least I’d given life my best shot before I died, right?
I convinced myself that nobody would blame me for my suicide because me and this world were not mutually compatible.
I wasn’t supposed to be here.
So suicide, at least in the depraved logic of a battle-worn depressive, was just the inevitable end to a life that I often suspected was never supposed to be.
Still, I couldn’t go ahead and bid the world farewell just yet.
I’d made a deal with myself.
I had to give it one last shot.
Yet that in itself posed a problem:
How do you give life your best shot when you can’t even get up off the sofa?
I knew I needed something to motivate me. Something to drive me and keep driving me all the way until that fateful day on New Year’s Eve when I would decide whether I lived or died.
I came up with this:
The 1,000 Mile Challenge
I told myself to get up off my sofa, get on my bike and go for a ride.
I told myself that I would cycle 1,000 miles before December 31st.
It seemed like the perfect challenge — big enough that it would require me to get off the sofa and make a commitment, but still realistic enough that I could actually envision myself doing it, even in my state of depression.
I’m sure ‘proper’ cyclists blitz a thousand miles in a few months — but when you lack the strength to even take a shower, that one thousand miles looked like a million.
Regardless, I was determined to it, even if a big part of me felt it wasn’t going to help.
Deep down, the only reason I wanted to do it was so that I could reach December 31st and say “Ah well, I really have tried everything and it didn’t work so, see ya.”
So I got up, I took a shower, and I got on my bike, determined to achieve this challenge no matter what.
No Matter What
It turned out that ‘no matter what’ was the important part here, because I had to keep peddling despite one unfortunate event after another.
My freelance business had all but tanked during the worst of my depression, so I basically had to start things from scratch.
A few years down the line, I’ve eventually built things back up, but I spent most of 2017 stone broke and in major debt as a result of my mental illness.
As I dealt with this, I kept peddling. Mile after mile, no matter what…
Meanwhile, as I fought to keep my business alive, people around me started to pass on.
In summer, my dear friend David passed away. David had been a huge part of my journey into, and through, sobriety, and I was heartbroken.
Yet there was something positive to come from my experience of grieving for my friend.
David’s last gift to me was the gift of inspiration.
It was standing room only at his funeral, and I was so inspired.
That was the kind of life I wanted to lead — the kind of life that impacts the lives of so many other people that it’s standing room only at your funeral.
All the while, I peddled…
A Life Changing Experience
It was also around this time that I had the simplest and yet most profound of life-changing experiences:
Plugging in someone’s TV
In order to clock up as many miles as I could, I’d begun cycling out to different 12-step meetings that were further away from the usual smattering of groups on my doorstep.
It was at one of these groups that I met a guy who, as a result of a really weird conversation in which he completely misunderstood what I do for a living, ended up asking me for help fixing his TV.
I went round, and felt a little embarrassed that helping was as easy as realising he hadn’t plugged a specific cable in, but you should have seen the difference it made.
I mean, this guy was elated and, afterwards, so was I.
I’d done a very simple thing and yet it had made such an enormous difference to the man’s life that it was as though all his Christmases and birthdays had come at once.
I left his house feeling AMAZING, knowing that I had made a difference to that one person’s life.
I knew there and then that this is what I wanted to do. No, not plug people’s televisions in, but make a difference, help people.
The fact that things still weren’t going great at work was no longer a curse but a blessing, a sign (another one) that yes, it was time for a career change.
But first, there was some more death to deal with.
A Brutal Winter
My paternal grandfather passed away following a long and battle with stomach cancer, and then my maternal grandmother, a woman who had spent much time looking after me as a child, also passed away following a lengthy illness.
The same week that Nan passed, I also started a new, temporary job — a six week run over the Christmas holiday designed to do two things:
1: Help make up the financial shortfall from the past 12 months
2: Help me put some money aside to pay for college so that I could retrain to work as a counsellor, helping others who have been through similar life experiences to me and passing on what I’d learned.
The next few weeks would turn out to be brutal.
Trying to grieve for my grandmother, work a horrible part time job that I hated and keep my freelance writing clients happy all at the same time quickly took its toll.
With over 900 miles clocked up over the course of the year, I stopped peddling. So close to the finish line and yet I was so tired, and so busy, that I believed I had neither the time nor the motivation to keep pushing on to that 1,000-mile target.
I began to get stressed and angry. I became increasingly tired, not just physically, but spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.
Every day seemed to bring a fresh onslaught of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Every day brought something new to deal with that I hardly felt capable of even acknowledging, let alone successfully dealing with.
I could feel myself about to break…
…and then I did.
The Inevitable Return of the Great Black Dog
Through a moment of madness, I’d agreed to work a long day shift at my shitty part-time job, which meant getting up at six am, leaving the house an hour later and spending 45 minutes stuck in traffic just to reach the end of my road.
A further 30 minutes later and that traffic had crawled less than five miles. I had ten minutes to make it the other 10 miles to work and traffic was at a standstill.
As I sat there, looking out into the horizon at a never-ending line of stationary cars, buses, and lorries, the darkest of dark thoughts rose up from the depths of my mind like some haunted demon from the depths of hell.
‘Hey, remember at the start of the year when we agreed you could kill yourself if things didn’t go well? Well look — things are pretty bleak right now and there’s only a few weeks left.
Good news! All this will soon be over! You can go ahead and kill yourself soon….
In fact…why wait? Why not go home and do it now?’
It’s funny how something as simple -and ultimately trivial- as being stuck in rush hour traffic could push me over the edge and drag me right back to the horrible, suicidal depression I’d gone through at the start of the year.
As it happened, I did go home.
I turned around, went straight back home and didn’t even bother telling work I wasn’t going to be there.
Hell, I wasn’t even sure I was going to be anywhere for much longer.
Schizophrenic and Suicidal
I spent most of that day feeling schizophrenic; one minute vowing that I could overcome this and trying to do something -anything- productive to get me back on course, the next sinking to such overwhelming lows that I wasn’t sure how I could even go on living another minute.
I called -and got an appointment with- the doctor. That helped, but not in the way that you might think.
Back in the Saddle
Walking home, disappointed that the best the doctor could do was given me drugs and send me on my way (I’m not sure what I was expecting — my mind clearly wasn’t at it’s best), I was struck with a thought that should have been obvious:
I didn’t have to put up with this.
I was struck by this sense of power that made me believe that I could take control of my life. That I didn’t have to commit suicide or even let depression beat me for a single day.
I’d love to tell you that I’ve no idea where these thoughts and this sense of power came from. I’d love to tell you it was cosmic intervention, a message from a universal spirit or some divine inspiration gifted from the Universe, but that wasn’t the case.
The thought that I could take control and beat depression myself came from the route that I took as I walked home from the doctors.
It was the same route that I’d used for some of the shorter bike rides I’d been taking on the 1,000 Mile Challenge. For most of the year, I’d kept that challenge alive through far worse things than what I was going through now — was I really going to get this far and quit just because things were tough?
When work and finances took a turn for the worst, I had gotten on my bike and gone for a ride.
When my friend passed away, I had gotten on my bike and gone for a ride.
When my grandparents passed away, I had gotten on my bike and gone for a ride.
I didn’t ride to avoid dealing with those things, or even as a way of helping me cope with them, at least not on a conscious level.
I rode despite all those things.
I rode because I’d told myself that I would and because every ride got me a few miles closer to a goal that had seemed like such a Herculean challenge when I was lying on my sofa at the start of the year.
Like I said earlier, I understand that to serious cyclists, 1,000 miles is probably not that big of a thing — but to a suicidal depressive who could barely find the strength or motivation to get off the sofa, it was huge and now, almost a full 12 months later as I walked home from the doctors, I remembered that I had almost completed the full 1,000 miles.
I’d cycled at least 960 miles, which meant just 40 to go.
What with working two jobs, keeping my home affairs in order and the small matter of Christmas on the horizon, I knew that I wouldn’t have time to go out and blast 40 miles in one ride.
What I could do, however, is take the very same approach that I’d taken for the first 960 miles:
Break it down into smaller rides.
I went out and did just five miles.
Then I came home and got on top of my bills and paperwork.
The next day, I rode just a few miles again and took care of the work situation — and then the day after, I actually went back to work and gave it my all for the first time in days.
The following day, just a couple of miles.
The day after — a blip.
The kind of shallow despondency which comes with fatigue and which, when I’m not paying attention, I can mistake for depression.
When I start believing I’m depressed, I inevitably become depressed and everything spirals out of control.
This time, I wasn’t going to let that happen. I chose to believe that I wasn’t depressed, that I was just tired, and that I had it in me to complete my challenge.
The Final Miles
I was so close to the finish line both with the 1,000-mile challenge and a few other big goals I’d set for myself that to give up now would be stupid and tragic and the kind of thing I’d kick myself for forever more.
I had days to go.
As tired, sore and beat up as I was, I’d also developed a new sense of determination.
I was going to do it.
No matter how tired.
No matter how cold the weather.
No matter what.
With just two days to go, I saddled up, journeyed out, and did it.
In completing the 1,000-mile challenge, a funny thing happened to me.
New Year’s Eve came. It was D-Day. At the start of the year, I’d promised myself that, if I felt like it, I could end my life on this day.
You know what?
I no longer felt the need to take my own life because a few weeks earlier I had decided to take something else.
I had decided to take control.
Like I’d done for the first 960 miles of my 1,000-mile challenge, I took one foot and put in front of the other.
Then I did it again.
Take enough small steps and you’ll eventually cover a great distance.
I may have only cycled 1,026 physical miles in 2017, but mentally, emotionally and spiritually, my journey had taken me galaxies away from where I had been at the start of that year.
The most interesting part is that all this happened without any tremendous shift in my personal circumstances.
My friend and my grandparents were still gone and the financial repercussions of my failed business were still being felt.
All the external stuff was still the same, but internally, everything had changed.
For the first time in a very, very long time, I felt motivated and impassioned about my career, especially now that I was (and am) in the process of changing that career towards one that actually helps people.
Most importantly of all, I felt like my life had a purpose again.
Two years down the line, I feel incredibly grateful for whatever spark of inspiration prompted me to start the 1,000-mile challenge.
I feel grateful for the hurdles, the triumphs and the tragedies that made 2017 one of the most important years of my life.
Most of all, I feel grateful for knowing that no matter what life throws at me in the future, I can always just go for a ride.