Commentary: A cyclist confronts depression
Kelly Catlin’s death this past weekend has shaken many of us in the cycling industry who deal with a problem well beyond the confines of our quirky niche sport. I joined the chorus of people dealing with depression and anxiety, urging those who need help to get help. But it’s never that simple.
The breezes never blow gently in cycling. Even tailwinds push hard and can terrify those who aren’t prepared for it.
It took years for me to realize something was wrong. It took even more time for me to realize I could get help, even though people told me, often, that options were available. And then the hardest wind came: Admitting to myself that getting help for a problem wasn’t, in fact, weakness. It was an incredible strength.
We’re taught to punish ourselves. We’re taught to battle pain, to persevere through rain and wind, to ignore the mental anguish of our optional suffering. It’s the way of the cyclist. It’s the beauty of the sport.
Our sport is not life.
It is conducive to metaphor, but cycling does not echo the same suffering depression and anxiety can bring. Cyclists are lauded for persevering through the struggle. Those of us with depression and anxiety have to hide our suffering. It is not glorious; it feels shameful. It is shunned in all aspects of American society; it can be poison to a workplace; it manifests as negativity when in fact it is simply an act of processing; it can steal joy from the most reliable sources of happiness; it can increase the distance between you and every human touch.
Cyclists can take a pull from a teammate. Depression shuns companionship. It isolates. The winds blow firmly on the individual.
Twitter became something of a confessional for those of us who regularly struggle with depression and anxiety, urging those who haven’t sought help to do so immediately. To reach out. To know you’re not alone.
I was one of those people confessing on Twitter.
As someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety, and as someone who sought help for it, I echo Phil Gaimon’s sentiment: My only regret is not doing it sooner. I’ve never even come close to being suicidal, but depression has steered my life in other ways. It was destroying the things I loved.
And it was those same things I loved that convinced me to address the problem. I finally went to the doctor because I was always tired. There were days when talking seemed like a monumental task. I would drive to work and endure waves of dread for no reason at all. And I went to the doctor because my wife encouraged me when I needed it most. My depression was a mild case. I can’t imagine how difficult a severe case is.
For me, medication was the answer, and I bristled against it. The stigma around it scared me. But I did it anyway because I knew I had to do something. I had to try. And now I can’t imagine why I waited so long. I’m still me. I just feel better now.
Given how difficult that process was for me, I can’t even imagine how much bravery it takes for a suicidal person to seek help, or how much bravery it takes to supply that help.
But it’s important for those of us who have gotten help to realize something: This sentiment does not necessarily mean much to those who haven’t taken those steps. Or to those who have reached out for help, but it wasn’t enough. That’s a reality fewer people consider: that help just isn’t enough.
We say it takes incredible bravery and strength to get help when you need it. I contend it also takes incredible bravery and strength simply to exist with depression and anxiety. Kelly Catlin was brave simply for being who she was and persevering until she couldn’t anymore. That is the very definition of bravery. I don’t want to glamorize what she did, but we need to recognize that simply living a life is an act of bravery. She reached a finish line. Her suffering is done. Celebrate her for that, and for the life she lived.
But know, too, that there are other ways to persevere.
I wouldn’t dream of judging Catlin on her decision to end her life. She saw a solution to what was, to her, an insurmountable problem. But if you’re still here, and you’re still battling the headwinds, you still have options. As Viktor Frankl said, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
What do you do? At this point, it would be easy to throw a phone number in your face and tell you to call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. That is indeed an option. But pressing those numbers might be the hardest thing you ever do. If you’re not ready for that, I propose a simple action.
Say it out loud to yourself: I am in control. And I need help.
Say that out loud as many times as you need to say it until you’re ready to push those numbers. Or to say it out loud to another person. To someone you trust. To a total stranger. To the cycling community weirdos on Twitter. We’re here to listen. Despite how it may feel in the moment, you’re one of us and we take care of our own. That’s why pelotons exist.
Please understand that asking someone you love for help is a gift to them, not a burden on them.
If you’re ready to dial the number for the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, here it is: 1-800-273-8255
For those of us on the other end — friends and family concerned about those we love who might be battling depression — here’s one more thing to consider. You may not have the answers. Your help may not be enough. But that is not your failure. You also face a headwind, and that can be frightening. There is help for you, too.
See that phone number above? It’s for you, too. Call it. Get guidance. Get help. Maybe throwing yourself in that headwind means someone in trouble gets a draft behind you, if only for a moment. That moment can mean the difference between finishing the race and dropping out.
To Kelly’s family: The cycling world loves you. In this incredibly difficult moment, we hope we can provide a draft for you, even if it’s only a small one.