Upon reading my teammate Loren Rowney’s brave blog touching on mental health, I have revisited and added to this piece I wrote in December 15’ while I was staying at the AIS in an altitude house.
It’s fair to say, I have experienced my share of ‘dark days’ over my 32 years and I would like to share my challenges, lessons and triumphs with whoever cares to read.
Part one: The black dog
If you asked someone to describe me in my 20’s, they would have painted a very different picture to who I am today.
‘Lizzie had her struggles, although she was always up for some fun and risky behaviour. She could be unreliable at times and flake out, then disappear for days or weeks on end’.
That’s how I would describe myself in my early-mid 20’s. Looking back, a lot of my behavioural patterns circled around my severe depression and anxiety. The anxiety became more prominent around the age of 19 when I was racing at a national level for the VIS (victorian institute of sport). At age 20 I was granted a scholarship with the AIS and I was to travel os to Italy to race with the National Women’s Road Team. At that point my performance anxiety was unmanageable, and my coping strategies manifested into an eating disorder. My mind was derailing my cycling career and consequently I decided to hang up the bike to address my mental health issues.
Initially, leaving cycling left a massive void in my life as my whole identity was tied up in it. Those first few years post ‘lizzie the cyclist’ were tough. The black dog seemed to linger and my anxiety manifested into agoraphobia. I became a prisoner in my own head and isolated myself from family, friends and life in general. I somehow still managed to complete my degree and land my first teaching job at 22. But once again, my anxiety around work/people became too debilitating and I began to self-medicate during this period. It wasn’t too long after this that I left my job. Many lessons were learn’t during the first few years post cycling. Feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness were felt strongly during this period and I just couldn’t understand how to feel any different. There was no defining moment where I realised ‘'hey, I’m better'’, but instead the ‘dark days’ became less and I started to seek help to talk through my thought processes. Drugs were trialed but never worked for me (stubbornness contributed to this). But I can say that health and fitness played a pivotal role in my wellness. I am person that needs to to exercise for those ‘happy’ endorphins’ to be released. Making smart food choices and being outdoors in nature are all preventative measures to keep me on track. Not to mention surrounding yourself with good company and positive people that wouldn’t ‘trigger’ me.
I have 'been there’, caught up in that vicious cycle; depression - self medicate (let that be food, drugs, alcohol) - guilt - self-hate- repeat. It’s not a fun place to be in but one reason why I’m writing this blog is so I can give hope to anyone out there that is going through similar situations like what I have described and to reassure you that IT WONT LAST FOREVER.
12 years on, I’m now into my 2nd year as a professional cyclist for Orica-AIS, racing at the highest level possible. I’m happy :0)
Part two: Character Building
Life experience has definitely prepared me for what I am doing today. I've learn’t to manage my anxiety a whole lot better these days but it still comes and goes in times of pressure and stress. It can also be unpredictable and pop up when life isn’t that hard. Pre-season preparation was a ‘challenging’ time for many reasons, personal and professional. It has became a somewhat ‘character-building’ experience. I tend to rack up a fair amount of ’tears in the bank’, consequently from a lot of ‘Km's in the bank’ (google saddle sores). And not to mention the solitude and hours to think while out on the road (the aspect that cracked me when I was 20). Since returning from Europe in mid October from my first professional season with Orica-AIS, my coach took me through a 2 month solid preseason block. Marv has witnessed quite a few of my ‘cracking moments’ and is not always the most tactile when reassuring my current state. For example, some of his comments included;
‘'If it was easy, everyone would be doing it’'
'‘Being a professional athlete is one of the hardest jobs going around’’
But actually, lets face it.. most of the time he would just start laughing. At this point I would crack even more and curse at him. He would then proceed to laugh even more!
Through October and November my training schedule incorporated multiple sessions a day, involving a lot of gym, plyometric (jumping up hills, running up stairs, hopping down hills etc) and speed training on the rollers (google if you don’t know what rollers are). Generally my days began on the rollers in my apartment block carpark, waving to all my neighbours going off to work. In the evenings I was back on the rollers doing sprints. One morning my neighbour left in his car to me on the rollers, and on his return in the evening I was back on the rollers. He yelled out out, 'I left you there this morning!… you haven’t been there all day have you?’ We both laughed.…
Then there were days when torrential rain wouldn’t even stop Marv from venturing out on the motor bike with me grovelling behind him. Where I literally ate dirt that flicked from the back wheel into my face for hours. These are ‘moments’ that aren’t captured but they are the moments you remember when you cross over the finish line in first place.
December was spent living high (the natural way). 2 weeks, 14hours a day in a bedroom, Steel bunks, airtight room, solitude…and no, I’m not describing JAIL but altitude training at the AIS in Canberra. I spent 2 weeks living at 3000 metres, while training at sea level on the roads in Canberra. This was the first time I had experienced altitude and boy oh boy, it was a shock to the system. I had come off a 1000km week training camp with Orica-AIS in Bright, so I definitely wasn't feeling too fresh. At altitude your body is having to work that much harder due to reduced amounts of oxygen in the atmosphere, also known as 'thin air'. The first few days were quite interesting for me. Because of my state of fatigue, everything was magnified, including my mental state. Initially I was quite anxious and my body wasn't sleeping. This gave me time to google 'anxiety at altitude' in the wee hours of the night and send distressing emails to my coach to inform him that I have come to the conclusion that I wouldn't be a responder to altitude....lol! I can laugh about it now. Luckily the tremendous support team at AIS were on top of things and Hamilton, the head of physiology reassured me that these symptoms are normal and I should back off the training for a few days so my body could adapt to the altitude. By the end of the first week I was starting to feel 'somewhat normal' again but I was definitely tired most of the time, both on and off the bike.
Forfeiting 2 weeks being at home in your off season is a gamble because we spend 8 months away from home already. All you want at the end of a season is to surround yourself with family, friends and familiar places, so you're recharged and ready to go for the following season. But these are the sacrifices we make as athletes to push the limits and strive to be better. I don't want to leave any stone unturned in 2016.
Post altitude house, I had a couple of weeks of training where I was 'floating' on the bike. I could push bigger gears for longer and racked up some PB'S training behind the motorbike in the Dandenongs. It was an amazing feeling, and well worth the anxiety and stress I experienced in Canberra. My job can bring me so much joy, but also so much pain and angst. Its a crazy life but I wouldn't want to be doing anything else.
My early season hard work has payed off thus far, racking up a few stellar wins in Australia and my first UCI 1.1 podium in the Women's Tour Of Qatar. Lets keep this momentum going into the European Season, next stop Belgium- Het Niewsblad. Time to pack the ugg boots!