After the high of any great accomplishment, follows the inevitable low. Explorers and adventurers the world over know it. This ‘after low’, or withdrawal, doesn’t really have a name, but it’s depression alright.
I often found myself staring out into the horizon, into the sky, and I didn’t know how long I’d stood there. It was like sleepwalking, not really here, not really awake. Everything in mediocre sepia. Everyone wanted to know ‘how was it?’ How could I explain the power, the rush of being alive, of feeling connected to everything, of just simply ‘being’. I missed being on that mountaintop. I felt the longing and loss of a lover. Wilting like a plant away from the sun. This in-between was deadening. All I could think about was getting back to that mountain.
They say adventure becomes addicting. Why do adventurers and adrenalin junkies do the crazy things they do? Are they a particular breed, or did they wake up one day and say, ‘let me try this one thing’, and that one thing became another and another, ad infinitum. Because chasing that high becomes their drug and they’ll do anything, even risk death, to get it. I think many subconsciously yearn for death as a kind of relief and release from the disappointment and mediocrity they discover existence to be. When chasing the highs becomes more and more difficult and the depressive inertia of the in-betweens more and more unbearable. So they run at things, chase down risk, look for a way to rise into the air, even if it means following the darkness of a solitary path. For it is true that when it is completely dark we see the light better. But I digress…
The first few weeks following my return home, I didn’t have a whole lot to say. In fact, I had trouble talking at all. Cycling the world, I was physically alone all day, with only my thots for company. I learned a lot about myself in the silence. Being totally solitary, with nobody and nothing to rely on but myself, more and more I felt myself changing. I was less willing to compromise with myself and others, to be forgiving of weakness in myself, less able to endure the day to day trivialities that I used to give importance to, less capable of making small talk. After being silent on the road, when I finally opened my mouth to speak, I started to notice how much nonsense came out. How little of substance is ever said. Everybody talking but nobody really saying anything.
I hadn’t realised just how mentally exhausted I was. I promised myself I would stay in form and keep cycling when I got home. My spirit was willing, but my flesh, not so much. I could not will my body to get on that bike. It may well be, my body and mind were suffering a mild form of PTSD, from all strain of the past 5 months.
By the last couple weeks of the world cycle, I had reached a point of total exhaustion. My body was ready to quit and I could have collapsed right then if I let myself. Temperatures had dropped to -9 celcius on re-entering Italy. The cold drained what energy I had left. I was eating every couple hours just to stay warm. My face was raw and red with windburn. When my nose ran, I would wipe away blood. My lips were cracked and dry. I couldn’t stop coughing. But the worst part was the frostbite. I was wearing three pairs of socks and two pairs of gloves, but somehow the wet and cold still soaked through. My hands and feet no longer ached, I simply couldn’t feel them. What I could feel, was a dull pain riding through my bones from the ankles up to the knees.
Instead of keeping to my usual schedule of stopping for food after 100 km, I was forced to break every 50 km to get warm and the blood circulating through my limbs again. I stopped at bars along the road, ordering hot chocolate in doubles and stuffing down whatever food I could find. It was like feeding a dying furnace. I would sidle up against the heaters, my body trembling, fingers blue. There was limited daylight, every day a few minutes less and these necessary breaks consumed valuable time.
I would cringe when I pulled off my shoes at the end of the day. My feet were not a pretty sight. Two of my toes were black and the rest covered in painful swollen chilblains, my dead toenails yellow and discoloured. The next day, they’d refreeze and the blisters would get worse. There were only a couple thousand kilometers left, but they might as well have been 20,000. Every day felt like a week, every hour a day. I knew it was almost over, but it seemed like it would never end. I was sure my body would give out by this point. Even my willpower was gone. At that level of mental and physical exhaustion, every tiny event seemed blown out of all proportion. The slightest hill felt like a mountain, the smallest gust a hurricane.
Perhaps it’s the subconscious memory of this suffering that my body is now negatively reacting to. Mike Hall, a fellow world cyclist who completed his circumnavigation in 107 days, told me it took him at least 6 months to recover from his endeavour and feel up for some serious pedaling again. That was comforting to hear. I’ve let a month pass, but with a future cycle around Vietnam coming up in May and a transcontinental race across Europe in August, I can’t let it go too long. I’m back in the saddle again, but still taking it slowly. Trying to maintain the muscles I built without sending my body and mind into breakdown.
Most of all, I’m trying to re-acclimatise to “normalcy”. Some days I am nervous and snappy from inaction, others I just want to leave the curtains shut and stay under a blanket. I’m going out of my way to socialise with friends and immerse myself in human contact. I think getting back on the bike will do me good. My body needs the physical stimulation before I start punching walls. People keep asking how I’m dealing with “normal life” again. All I can really say is, I’m dealing.