“Guess who was the second most popular podcast of the year?” messaged Jen Brown, Chief Coach and owner of Sparta Chicks, including Sparta Chicks Radio, the podcast devoted to telling inspiring stories coupled with practical advice from successful women in sport, business and life.
Me: guesses a few different podcast guests that I’ve really liked this year, or who have resonated with me during 2020.
Jen: Nope. Guess again…. pauses… technically you were 2nd AND 3rd.
Tiffany Winchester is an ultra-endurance cyclist who rides the kind of distances most of us hate driving! She was first on the podcast June, 2019 (which also turned out to be the 5th most popular episode of that year). At the time we recorded that conversation, Tiff was 3 months out from competing in the iconic Paris-Brest-Paris race, a 1,200km cycling event that’s only held every 4 years and is effectively the Olympics of the ultra-endurance cycling world. And so she returned in 2020 to share how it unfolded. Now Tiff is an incredible storyteller, which is why she and I were on the phone for close to 3 hours in total (now you’ll be pleased to know – not all of that was recorded!). So when I first published it, I divided it into 2 parts, the race and the aftermath. For the sake of the countdown, I’ve combined them into one long, very vulnerable and, at times, hysterical conversation. In this conversation Tiff shares everything from her training and the lead-up to the event, the race itself (including why she had to apply white wine vinegar to her “lady parts”) as well as the aftermath – the trauma the race inflicted on her (and/or she inflicted on herself), the physical, mental and emotional toll it took on her, the depression that followed and how she was able to recover from it and get back on her bike.https://www.spartachicks.com/2020/
For those wanting to recap my experiences of PBP 2019, you can head to the home page of my blog and find them all, or read/listen to them using these links:
- The blog post (Paris-Brest-Paris 2019)
- The first interview with Sparta Chicks: what PBP was like (Awkwardly Gritty)
- The second interview with Sparta Chicks: the aftermath of PBP (So who wants to dance with the rabbit down the hole)
So today I sat down, with a glass of wine, and listened to the podcast that I recorded with Jen just three short months after returning from PBP. As I listened, I realised that I was no longer in the same space as I’d been in that conversation, and it really made me reflect on the changes that 2020 brought for me. A year and a bit of surrounding myself with people who support me (and to be honest, covid made this a lot easier as I could really choose who I allowed in my personal space and who I allocated time to). Months and months of counselling and therapy, of talking things through, of trying, changing, questioning, hurting, and growing. This personal growth can be summed up in one short sentence.
I own my sh!t.
Now, I’ve heard a lot of people say that they own their own sh!t. Some I agree with. Many I don’t. But what does it really mean anyways? Here’s my thoughts on this, and how I dealt with this during 2020.
[Note that a lot of personal and identifying details are removed from this blog, so it might seem at times like I'm being a bit vague and unclear. It's not on purpose, it's just there's still a pretty big line for me between being open and vulnerable and oversharing. In short, I had a relationship with some friends blow up pretty badly during the PBP aftermath, and the ripples of that are still being felt today. So during 2019 while I was dealing with the trauma of PBP and some pretty 'fun' PTSD mixed with depression, I was also dealing with ambiguous loss, and crushing grief.]
Yes. I. Not you, not him, not her. I.
The biggest part of this is owning up to the fact that I am not a victim, and let’s be honest, there was a lot of issues with this during covid. It sounded something like ‘it’s (insert politicians name here) fault that we are in lockdown. It’s covid’s fault I’ve put on weight. If only things could go back to ‘normal’ then I’d be better. Many of these statements could ring true, and a lot of what happened in 2020 was not our fault.
Part of me dealing with my own mess was acknowledging that I was responsible for it. What happened at PBP was no one’s responsibility but my own. And what happened afterwards was also on me. It no longer matters who or what was at fault, or what I should’ve/could’ve/would’ve done if I’d known, in hindsight, what was going to happen.
Because I am responsible even if I am not at fault. Sucks, but it’s true. And trying to avoid all that and ‘holding out for normality’ made things even worse. Denying that everything hurt made things worse and increased my own suffering. Trying to blame everything outside of myself for my problems … well, that’s victim mentality in a nutshell. And as long as I was looking outside of myself for something or someone to blame, I wasn’t owning my sh!t. Period.
I am responsible for the choices I made. I am also responsible for the choices I did not make.
Owning my sh!t came from many months of self reflection and often that self-reflection had to be brutally honest. The hardest part of owning it was that many times I really wished that I felt differently. So I’d say things like “it’s been over a year now, surely I shouldn’t still feel like this” or “I don’t want to feel like this anymore” or “I should be over this by now.” So I’d bury how I was actually feeling behind constant statements of ‘it’s fine’ and ‘I’m dealing with it’ when in fact, I still wasn’t. I’d grasp at invisible straws still trying to find meaning in what had happened and what was happening.
So yes there are still times that I get on my bike and my body freaks out. There are still times where my neck starts hurting and I go into instant panic. Even after telling my PBP story a hundred times, there are still times I find myself repeating ‘I can’t go through that again. I just can’t’ over and over in a somewhat hysterical tone. And I recognise, and own, that it still affects me, and perhaps it always will.
This is how I feel and who I am. Pretending otherwise is not owning it.
I’ll admit that I’m an analyst. Yes, I’m sure the spreadsheets give it away as well, but it goes deeper than that (scary eh). I like to consider every possible decision that can be made, and analyse the repercussions of each of those decisions. Like a choose your own adventure novel where you’ve dog-tagged each page hoping to go back and make another choice in case the path you’ve followed leads to you falling off a cliff. Except I think about what might be on each page before I’ve even made those decisions to turn and have a look at it.
Yes this could lead to analysis-paralysis, where I’m so busy trying to figure out what might happen with each choice that I make no decision, but often I just like to have a vague idea of what the future might be based on the choices I make. Indeed, I like that perceived feeling of control.
But the problem with 2020 is that so many decisions were not only out of my control, but I couldn’t even see what all the possibilities were. And because we weren’t seeing people very often, I couldn’t even use my intuition-radar to ‘vibe’ how people were going and therefore make choices on that feel. So I’d lie awake at night trying to (over)analyse what was happening. I’d do this with work, with my marriage, with my friendships and other relationships. And it was exhausting. My anxiety was nearly out of control. I’d spend most days in a highly triggered state of flight/fight/freeze just not breathing.
[If you think I'm a mad analyst, my husband Max is even worse. We would often sit and look at a problem we were facing and pick at it piece by piece, turning every corner over, thinking and re-thinking of what it meant, replaying scenarios and decisions back to each other to try and understand it. Side note: this makes us awesome problem solvers, but not great company all the time as we tend to overanalyse things. A lot. (understatement).]
And then the one-year anniversary of PBP rolled around and it brought back with it all the memories and emotions of that time. And re-ignited some of the trauma, and the grief.
A few days after the PBP anniversary, I still couldn’t quite get a grip on my anxiety. I felt largely okay with the PBP memories (after all, I’d been working through my mess in therapy for nearly a year so had anticipated and accepted that it was going to be a hard week) but I was still trying to tackle the nearly insurmountable problem of grief and loss that had surfaced in the post-PBP aftermath. I’d looked at this problem from every angle I could think of. Tried all approaches I’d learned about in therapy. Hit emotional burnout and crashed hard. Finally one day I hollered in desperation to Max that I just couldn’t fix it. “I’ve worked so hard this year” I cried out, “and I own my own sh!t!” (insert emphatic waving arms and hand gesture), why is it not over yet?!?
Yes you own your sh!t he said, but you don’t have to own anyone else’s.
I stopped and looked at him. Just looked at him. And suddenly a weight just lifted off me and I took the first deep breath of 2020. I’d been shouldering everyone else’s issues for so long that I didn’t even realise I was doing it. This was in relationships, at work, and with my family. All the analysing I was doing was trying to protect those around me. And it was exhausting. Not efficient, and at the end of the day, not my problem to deal with.
I don’t need to own everyone else’s issues. Just my own. It might seem like a small thing to say, but this was a game changer for me this year. And it finally allowed me to breath. And my anxiety has largely disappeared.
When they say to own your sh!t, it means all of it. The good, the bad, and the truely ugly. But honest self-reflection is difficult. Really difficult. Dealing with the good and the bad was largely okay, and personally acceptable. But the true sh!t, the real ugly, isn’t pretty. But the problem is, the more I tried to avoid dealing with it and facing my own personal truths, the more cognitive dissonance I had, and the more anxiety I had flood my system. It’s like my inner brain knew I was lying to myself to make it all seem okay, and the more I lied to myself, the worse it eventually came.
Acknowledging, and then accepting, that THIS is where I was and THIS is how I felt, was one of the more difficult things I’ve done this year. I can’t erase the past, and I can’t change the choices that I made. I have to live with those choices, and their consequences, for the rest of my life.
Not facing the things about me that I wasn’t happy with meant I was stuck. I couldn’t move through the emotional tunnel to the other side. I couldn’t gain any control over my life. I just sat in limbo. And the longer I sat there, the worse it got. I struggled. Felt awful. Felt embarrassed. And while I was in a much better place than I had been immediately after PBP, I just didn’t feel like I was anywhere where I wanted to be yet.
We all have skeletons in our closet, things about ourselves we wish we never did, never happened. We all have strengths, weakness, moments in life of great darkness and great light. We would love to focus all of our attention, and the attention of others, on those moments of light, on our strengths. But unfortunately, that’s not reality. Reality is beautiful and ugly all wrapped into one. We can’t have the good without the bad, the strength without the weakness, the light without the dark. We must own our [sh!t] because there’s no getting rid of it or living life without it, and if we don’t own it….it will own us!https://www.congruencecounseling.com/blog/2018/3/18/the-power-of-owning-your-shit
So what about cycling?
We all have stressors in our lives, be it work, family, relationships, that car that passed us way too close on a bike ride, covid, guilt, self-esteem, etc. “Stressors are events or conditions in your surroundings that may trigger stress. Your body responds to stressors differently depending on whether the stressor is new or short term — acute stress — or whether the stressor has been around for a longer time — chronic stress” (Mayo Clinic). Stress is then our reaction to these stressors.
[Note: reading Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski has been essential to my understanding of the stress cycle, I highly recommend it if anything in this blog is resonating with you: https://www.npr.org/2019/05/05/720490364/to-help-women-kick-burnout-sisters-write-book-to-understanding-stress-cycle]
I’ve always known that cycling, specifically ultra-distance cycling, was a way for me to calm my system down. After going on a long ride, I’d almost always feel an enormous sense of well-being and almost disassociation from the real world. It was a catharsis, a way of letting everything that had pent up in my body go.
Turns out I wasn’t wrong in this part. Cycling was my way of completing the stress cycle, of letting my body know that it was safe, and reducing that stress buildup.
The problem has been that I wasn’t dealing with the stressors. So while I was very good at releasing stress, it would keep building up and coming back, and I’d have to get out and do another long ride to get rid of it. Audax was a great outlet, but often I was riding because I had to, rather than because I wanted to.
When Audax Victoria shut down all their rides (and cafes/restaurants all over regional Victoria were closed) I lost my stress outlet. Combined with a massive increase in stressors, it was became a perfect storm. But also a very good opportunity to actually work on owing my sh!t, instead of continuing to let it own me.
But that begs the question: now that I don’t have the stressors building up in the same fashion anymore, do I really need to ride Audax distances?
Nope. I don’t.
I no longer have that almost desperate need to get out and ride long distances. I don’t have to wait for my body and mind to be nearly shaking with anxiety to book in a ride simply to feel normal for two days afterwards.
Now I can ride simply for the joy of riding. Because I really do love riding my bike.
I will always remember the trauma of PBP and the aftermath that followed (well, aside from the parts that exist in the black spaces of PTSD that my mind has locked away now and doesn’t remember), but I have changed since then. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt still, or that the healing has been easy.
But in 2020 I chose to allow the hurt to heal.