It was a couple of months before I got around to getting a ‘new’ bike. Dan fixed me up with a guy he knew who was getting rid of a Scott Team Expert. Dan was semi-sponsored by Scott for a while there so he knew when bikes we coming free after a season’s racing.
This was a cut above The Apex. the frame was lighter (Tange Prestige for metal heads) the groupset was one step up the range and, most importantly, it had suspension forks.
When I say suspension I mean it had one inch of travel care of ‘elastomers’ - basically springy pieces of plastic. It wasn’t the most sophisticated suspension even back then, but even that little bit of bounce made a difference.
While this bike wasn’t as good on my favoured steep downhills, it was faster overall and had a lovely supple feel. And it looked like a race bike with a lovely deep-green fleck paint job and neon stickers.
I had some nice rides on this bike, for sure, but my life was changing fast and I wasn’t coping that well. While I was at Drama School and had strong boundaries and routines the bike had been a nice counterpoint to the daily challenge of living in the armpits and egos of twelve other drama students. But now I was out in the messy real world trying to find work and get along. Being an actor is a worrying business all round and I was accumulating stress and anxiety and the old trick of riding it out was becoming less and less effective.
The first sign of the coming trouble: I was riding back home after performing in a very successful but stressful play and got a puncture, right out by the airport and near enough to midnight. A puncture, no big deal right? But I couldn’t take it, I simply exploded in anger and tears and found myself repeatedly kicking the bike, to the point of hurting my foot. Stress, frustration, an internal storm of self-doubt and a nagging feeling of worthlessness all vomited out in a black rage. Not so much a puncture as a blow out.
I don’t think I have ridden as hard as I did the day she broke her pelvis. I had taken her up the Rimutuka incline, an easy girlfriend-friendly ride. At the top there is a clearing and a couple of gentle banks. I was showboating, riding up the banks, encouraging her to have a go at riding down them.
If I can ride up it you can ride down it.
But she didn’t know enough. I hadn’t taken the time to teach her. I was not in tune.
It was the kind of fall that I would have rolled out of and not so much as thought about, but she went over the bars and fell awkwardly on the cold, hard ground.
I didn’t see it, but I heard it. The scream. The kind of animal sound that leaves you in no doubt that something awful has happened. No visible broken bones, no scars, no blood, just a flood of pain deep in her core.
I thought she had broken her back.
There was no one around. This was before mobile phones. We were five miles up a track. It started to rain.
It was a very very difficult thing to do but I left her there, covered in a jacket, and rode as fast as my legs could. Considering the jolt of adrenaline I was on I imagine it was very fast indeed. Half way down I came across some other riders and asked them to help, to stay with her when they got to the top. They said they would.
Eventually I found a house with a phone, called up the ambulance service, and within ten minutes, as I was riding back down to the car, I could hear the helicopter overhead, some forty minutes after the accident.
Her nerve-shredding scream lived with me for decades. I felt responsible and guilty. Something else to feel bad about.
It took another year but the relationship fell apart too. She had seen something in me and was prepared to take a bet on it, but I threw it away. Not my best moment. I didn’t have the tools to dig myself out of the hole I was in. I didn’t want her in there too, to see that level of ugliness, and I didn’t, ‘couldn’t’, ask for help.
It is an unattractive form of egotism to think that your own pain is so much worse than everyone else’s, so different, but by now I incapable of seeing that. I was operating under the logic of depression and anxiety, which has its own rules, its own way of seeing the world.
There is a belief about the creative temperament - that you suffer more. It might be true, it might not, but because I saw suffering as part of the creative deal I put up with it all for a lot longer than I should have. I dealt with the symptoms as best I could - taking night walks, enduring the crying, thinking that feeling hopeless was normal. And each stressful episode took me a little further out to sea, a little bit further from other people and any help they might offer.
Something I know now but didn’t then - If you can’t ask for help then there’s no way out but down.
We are still in the early nineties, so ALT culture was very much alive and well. We are in the era of American Psycho and Nirvana and Natural Born Killers (to select a few recognisable cultural highlights). People with tattoos and beards still rode Harleys not Pashleys and were more likely to beat you up than design you an app. The over-riding concern was difference - you wanted to be different, to place yourself outside the violent and corrupt narrative of the state and the corporation.
I was reading a lot of post-structural philosophy (for fun!) where it was taken as axiomatic that a story was ‘unstable’, that corporate PR and politics were simply a series of self-interested statements of power, that meaning and identity were liquid and multiple. I was (and remain) aware that narratives, particularly those the self tells itself in order to be healthy, are partial and fictive. The ultimate minor narrative - the story of me - is as much a creation as Ulysses. And more arcane.
However it’s one thing to be different and celebrate all your parts in their technicolor glory, it’s another to not really have a sense of self and be chasing those parts, trying to make sense of them all, failing, and then having to give up and leave them on the floor and throw up your hands in despair at not understanding.
It’s not like I wasn’t still having some great rides, I was, but they were less about having a life than about avoiding it. I was still getting in some epics, but more and more I was simply taking off on the bike for a couple of hours and obsessing over a short downhill, something that was edgy and required complete concentration. I started exploring way off the beaten track for new challenges, searching inside the urban envelope for small chutes hiding behind houses, or in the obscure paths and gullies on the Miramar peninsula where I used to go as a teen on long, rambling walks.
I was also riding by myself all the time. Understandably I didn’t want to be responsible for anyone else on a ride. And I just didn’t want to see anyone, could barely tolerate people I didn’t know very well.
I started having longer episodes, several days where the stress would build and build, self-loathing quickly following - why can’t I cope with this? It got to the point that I wouldn’t be able to do so much as enter a shop and buy anything - the thought of having to deal with people was too much.
Those who have been in this kind of territory will know how messy and desperate it is.
You wake up and for half a second you feel normal, then you gasp as the prospect of the rest of the day slams down on you. You hold it together long enough to do a show, or a rehearsal, and that seems like the easy bit of the day. You are acutely sensitive to everything and yet you feel unable to express it, like you are inflating inside yourself but unable to let off pressure. You bounce from anger to shame to desolation without being able to control the shifts. If you’re lucky, you sleep.
Those who have been in territory that you will do just about anything to stop feeling this way. This is why people put a knife to their flesh or burn themselves to feel something. To puncture the horror. I remember talking to a therapist many years later and saying that I never self-harmed, that I only hit myself. He looked at me like I was bonkers and had to point out to me that hitting yourself was self-harm.
He had a good point.
Eventually the pressure would break. Often I would ride or walk myself into a state of exhaustion until a final, engulfing wave of negative emotion would crash over me and then somehow I would fight my way to the surface, up into the sunlight again.
The irony is that after one of these episodes I felt fantastic. Not everyday great, beyond great. You have no personality left to defend so you merge with everything around you. After the storm of a mind destroying itself passes, the silence and the stillness are profound. For a day or two you bathe in the arms of angels.
And then you head starts to duck under again. First for a moment, then an hour, then a day. Here I was at a stage of my life where I should have been enjoying some of the rewards of hard work and talent but most of it was a misery. Don’t get me wrong, I had some terrific times too and knew some wonderful people, but the up-down cycle was exhausting. There was no way this was going to keep going without something breaking.
The first thing to break was my bike. I can’t even remember what did it now, but I had a small crash, or jumped off something and the frame broke at a really unlikely point, at the drop out.
Again I couldn’t afford to repair it and I am not sure I even cared by then, because shortly thereafter my mind broke.
I simply couldn’t move. I was kneeling on the floor and I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t think of anything without it causing me so much stress that I would instantly burst into tears. There was no sight of calm on the other side, this was a proper, incapacitating panic attack where bad thoughts kept twisting in on themselves without rest, turning each moment in to a hellish forever.
Catatonic on the outside, on the inside an endless scream. The kind of animal sound that leaves you in no doubt that something awful has happened. No visible broken bones, no scars, no blood, just a rising flood of pain deep in your core.
Even I knew I couldn’t help myself out of this one. This was the end of the road; turn around and get help or end up dead pretty quickly. I was, like many people approaching very dark places, certain that people would be better off without me - that I was utterly worthless and that anything was better looking at this endless vista of pain. I was one thought, one moment of resolve, away from the final act of negation.
Perhaps it was all that actor training, that ability to place yourself slightly to one side, like you are your own material, but I was able to find the thought, the courage I suppose, to finally go for help. I finally knew I needed it, and fast.
Steph took me to the doctor. I spent an hour in tears explaining what had gone wrong, something of my history. The doctor reached for the big guns, prescribing some heavy duty tricyclics - old school sedatives. Addictive, dirty, very effective. I snatched the script out of his hand and spent the next week at Steph’s house, hiding, while the drugs kicked in.
Anafranil. For depressive and panic disorder, with agoraphobic benefits.
An actor with agoraphobia!
The next couple of months were spent recovering, being looked after by a couple of very good friends and getting used to being on strong drugs. My mental state certainly relaxed and I was very grateful for it, but the sudden shift into being artificially ’calmed’ was not entirely comfortable - when you are used to feeling like utter shit for so long it’s strange to feel less, like you have been gently lobotomised which is, of course, exactly what had happened.
I am sure I am preaching to the converted but for those who ‘don’t like’ pharmacological solutions all I can say is until you have been in this space you have no idea what you are talking about. People get in real trouble with this. When it’s a matter of life and death if you have a choice you choose life, and not in an ironic Trainspotting way, you just grab anything that looks like a handle and you are grateful for any relief it gives you.
This is a not a misery memoir. It took a long time to sort of all this out - with a combination of drugs, meditation, cycling, therapy and a great deal of time and patience - but this is the low point. Now days I feel very fortunate to have had the education, income, insight and friends enough to see me through.
This was, however, the end of my career as an actor. Here I was at 27 without a degree or profession or much of an idea of what to do next. I only had one sustaining desire and that was to write. So I wanted to move from one tenuous career to another. Brilliant.
So what did I do with all this? I did the least logical thing. Instead of recovering and getting back to work I decided to leave the country. I was giving up everything just as I was getting good at something - something of a bad habit I am prone to.
So the Scott went into a lock-up with the rest of my life. It didn’t amount to much, the rest of my life - a pile of books, a big box of clothes, some cycling kit and that was it. I had enough money for a return ticket to the UK where I would hang out for six months, then go and live in Australia.
So I jumped on a plane and left the country. I had no idea at the time I wouldn’t live in New Zealand again and if you’d told me that I probably would have said good riddance. It’s not the country I was fleeing of course, it was the idea of myself, the blood of my history on the streets.
As if it were that easy to get away from yourself.