Cycling Stories

Ups and Downs: Cycling Through Major Depression

May 1, 2020

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Ups and Downs: Cycling Through Major Depression

“It had only been a few months, but the discipline and focus required by cycling translated into better control of my emotional life.”

Priscilla Owusu 

“You can’t ride a bicycle?” Temi asked amidst laughter.  

I stood there, ashamed. Now, I really had to prove to this new friend that I was a quick learner, or I would double my embarrassment. 

Being diagnosed with major depressive disorder at the age of thirteen was difficult enough. It was even more troublesome in a place where mental health issues were synonymous with psychologically ill people roaming the streets, and during a time when almost everyone was ignorant about the topic.  

There were few hospitals staffed with professionals who could offer benefits tailored to those with mental health needs, which made seeking help very tough. My parents had little-to-no understanding of what I was going through, and only thought it was a “phase that would pass.” 

That was when I was twelve. When I was thirteen, my parents’ motivation to find a solution was renewed when their once-bright daughter started failing in school. Fortunately — and unfortunately — after undergoing many examinations, a doctor finally diagnosed me with MDD and prescribed medications for me. 

At the time, these drugs were my savior, although I was too young to understand they were only suppressing my problems; they were bottling up my emotions and not helping me deal with the root cause of my issue. Any time I felt a slight discomfort or symptom of my depression, I would run to my medication. It was my go-to pain relief solution for years. 

Eventually, the medications didn’t work as well, and I desperately needed help. I was willing to try something new when I met a doctor who recommended that I see a therapist. During one of our sessions, the therapist suggested that I take up a new healthy hobby, other than writing.  

After I argued that writing was giving me what I needed, she replied, “With writing, you stay inside all day. But when you try something new like jogging or cycling, you see the beauty of this world, listen to its music, and enjoy the fresh air. That is what you need.” I couldn’t argue, because she was right.  

“But cycling?” I thought while scoffing. “That was impossible!” 

In Ghana, most people don’t ride bicycles — or take advantage of the many health advantages it offers — because it’s primarily seen as an activity for children. As such, many cease cycling after they graduate to high school. 

It had been a while since I’d cycled, so my first few attempts at riding ended horribly. But after jogging for a while and seeing someone ride a bicycle to one of my university classes, I felt it was in my best interests if I challenged myself to cycle again. 

I mustered the courage to ask the young man with the bike, whose name was Temi, if he could teach me. “You can’t ride a bicycle?” he said, laughing.  

Although people don’t take cycling very seriously in Ghana, most parents buy their children tricycles to help them walk, who then graduate to bicycles when they grow big enough. So, Temi couldn’t believe that I couldn’t ride.  

Nonetheless, he wasn’t reluctant to teach me. With a zeal not to embarrass myself any further, and with Temi as my teacher, I was good to go within a couple of weeks. I even found that I enjoyed cycling more than jogging, so I was ready to make an investment — purchasing my first bicycle. 

I’ll admit that the first weeks were hard. I had to buy cycling clothes and gear and frequently take my bike in for maintenance. At first, I didn’t see how this was going to help me with my depression, as it seemed like more of a chore than anything else.  

But after a few months, the change was quite noticeable. I could see that I’d greatly improved my cycling skills, and Temi, my therapist, and my family could see that I was not just more active, but also that my anxiety levels had significantly decreased. 

A few weeks later, my therapist asked that I try out another hobby so that I could compare it with cycling and choose which one worked better. But, I opted to stick with cycling. I didn’t want anything to distract me, because I’d developed a routine that demanded a few hours of my time each week, and I didn’t want to lose it.  

I’d become an entirely new person: from dull, anxious, stressed, and moody to active, energetic, and in control of my emotions. It had only been a few months, but the discipline and focus required by cycling translated into better control of my emotional life. 

I learned how to manage my thoughts and avoid slipping into a spiral of mood swings. For the first time in my life, I was the captain of my emotions!  

I was putting myself out there more and more, as I started making plans with Temi to start a cycling club. It wasn’t like me to put myself in a position where I’d share the company of others. Still, I wanted to pass along all the joys of my newfound activity and help them take advantage of its many physical and mental benefits. 

Today, we boast a 16-member club that participates in National Cycling Competitions and fundraisers! 

What started as a simple challenge during therapy — to step outside my comfort zone and learn to ride a bicycle — has transitioned into a year of immense change for me. Cycling is my safe space and has done more for me than any medication. 

I’ll never be able to express my gratitude fully. 

Priscilla Owusu is a freelance writer from Ghana.
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