Words by John Polson, Co-Founder of Black Sheep Cycling.
On Thursday 29th September 2016, 8 cyclists from Australia and 8 cyclists from the USA will embark on a 1000km journey over four days. There is one goal – to raise awareness for Men’s Mental Illness. How are we going to do that? By doing something crazy and talking about how we got here. How we got through life to this point, and some of the hurdles we’ve endured along the way.
To kick start this, I wanted to tell my story. It’s not one of heartache or tragedy. I have been very fortunate, and remain very fortunate because of the people in my life. However, I constantly walk that thin line between comfort and capitulation. Between being single-minded in my pursuit of whatever it is I am chasing to being completely lost when I don’t get there. Many of us experience this. It’s about time we stopped and made talking about it that little bit easier.
Outwardly, I was ecstatic… Inwardly, I was done. I was an emotional and physical wreck.It was 23rd September 2014. I had just arrived back from the USA at my usual six-month station in the Land of the Free pursuing my insatiable appetite for athletic pursuits. I had just achieved one of my best performances. Thirteenth at the World Championships in Ontario in a professional field that was one of the best ever assembled. Outwardly, I was ecstatic. I was finally on the path to fulfilling the potential many people thought I had, and with a southern hemisphere summer ahead of me to take that next step. Inwardly, I was done. I was an emotional and physical wreck who felt I had put every ounce into the last six months and was relieved it was finally over. I wasn’t in the least bit motivated about what was ahead.
Every summer I went over to the US to race on the North American Ironman 70.3 circuit (yes people, I was a triathlete – it’s ok). I had taken the advice of my parents, completed undergraduate and Master’s studies before pursuing my athletic dreams. The conservative road to happiness, apparently. I was a second tier professional triathlete, not quite earning enough from the sport to truly call myself a professional, but with all the talent and family-induced enthusiasm to pursue my goals to get to the next level. But for whatever reason, I just never quite got to the top. At times I got incredibly close to pulling off a breakthrough; missing a decisive move, having a mechanical, or simply being beaten by better. On other occasions, I wasn’t even in the same postcode. I would completely capitulate before the gun had even sounded. Some say it was mental. Some say it was physical. The truth was probably somewhere in between.
As a self-obsessed athletic Australian male, I already had challenging communication skills and an innate ability to spend extended periods alone in my thoughts.By the end of summer 2014 I was a wreck. Regardless of what could have been with that breakthrough at the World Championships, I was a shell of a human that was confused with my life choices and overwhelmed about what to do next. I would spend days moping around. I shut my family out, I shut my friends out. As a self-obsessed athletic Australian male, I already had an innate ability to spend extended periods alone in my thoughts. I had finally tipped the balance of being in control of myself and my emotions, to just completely capitulating both internally and externally.
I was lucky. This junction point in my life ultimately ended up being a simple transition. It just so happened to be the time when a small little venture I was working on at that time called Black Sheep Cycling started to get traction. My ability to become incredibly focused on one task, and completely shut off from every other thing in my life, was simply transferred from triathlon to the start-up world. In hindsight, I dodged that metaphorical bullet. I avoided, to an extent, a slippery descent into anxiety and depression that someone with my predisposing factors faces a constant battle with. A battle that many guys my age, in very similar positions, don't find themselves in the lucky position I was and go to far darker depths.
One in Five blokes suffer from some form of mental illness, with rates higher in Australian males.The rates of mental illness amongst males is staggering. One in Five blokes suffer from some form of mental illness, with rates higher in Australian males. We live in a world that demands excellence. A connected world that is judged, critiqued, and reviewed every second of our lives. We are encouraged that giving 110 percent is far better than just the ordinary 100 percent. We are effectively encouraged to pursue the unachievable perfection. I have seen too many amazingly talented friends of mine suffer from mental illness, and I have heard far too many stories of much worse. This is not about being oblivious to the also-staggering rates of mental illness in females. This is an issue that needs to be seen through the predisposing traits that each gender has. Where I can help, for now, is as a male, for males.
16 guys, two continents, 1000 kilometres, one goal – to raise awareness for Men’s Mental Illness.
If this hasn’t affected you, it’s affected your mate.