Friday, September 25, 2009

Free Museum Day! Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ok, ok, I promised bikes and bipolar, not art, but I have to be true to myself. Tomorrow, 9/26, is the Smithsonian's Free Museum Day! Over 800 museums nation wide are offering free admission tomorrow, just go to the site linked here, check out the participating museums near you and download a free admission card.

Hey, museums are expensive these days -- even if you only go to one once or twice a year, take advantage of this opportunity. And while I'm at it, remember that many museums have a free day or evening every month -- First Friday, Third Thursday, whatever. Check it out and go see some art, science, history or whatever. Have fun!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Last Chance, Part II: It's Kind of Like Your Parents' Walk to School

When last we met, I'd just hit the sack after a long and at times demoralizing day in the saddle riding from Louisville, CO to Atwood, KS. I apologize in advance that the remaining installments of the story will involve fewer photos: as with food and drink, apparently, fatigue makes me forget I have a camera.

Day 2: Atwood to Atwood via Kensington, KS
218.6 miles
14.8 mph average
18:35 elapsed time

Upon waking after 4 1/2 hours of sleep, the first thing I noticed was how good I felt. My legs were not especially stiff and, more importantly, my left knee had not locked up as I'd feared it might. Starting slowly with a cup of coffee and a quick bite, I packed my gear for the day slowly and deliberately, not wanting to forget to replenish or replace anything.

Fog clung to the road for the first sixty miles, giving the passing landscape a certain surrealness, especially while it was still dark. The ghostly shadows left me with a totally mistaken understanding of the topography, especially between Atwood and the first stores in Phillipsburg.

In a repeat of my misapprehension of the final climb into Atwood on Day 1 (you'll recall, I later learned it was mostly descent), I imagined that the ride out of Atwood was likewise mostly uphill, with just a short drop into the day's first town, Phillipsburg. This meant the promise of a relatively easy 30 miles upon my return that evening. As it turned out, the fog teamed with a stiff headwind to make a long downhill seem up (sensing a theme here yet?), a sure sign of the wind I would face all the way to the turnaround in Kensington. The fog also gave me insight into a peculiar Kansan habit. It seems that many Kansans have an aversion to using their headlights in the fog, meaning that cars tended to sneak up (devious, stealthy creatures that they are) and scare the hell out of me. This danger, which I did not perceive clearly at the time, led to at least one rider abandoning.

The first control in Norwood proved to be a major turning point in how I felt physically for the remainder of the ride. To that point, I had tried to get my calories primarily from liquid nutrition, but as the sun rose, my stomach felt worse and worse. The number one rule for nutrition on long distance riding is to let go of a diet that isn't working. Many riders carefully map out their calories (as I did) and stick with their plan until they are forced to drop out of the ride because of gastric problems or sheer fatigue. As I arrived in Norwood, I was contemplating this problem and wondering how best to proceed.

As I pulled up, I ran into Viktoriya Shundrovskaya and Alain Abbate, tandemneers from Florida who recommended the sub shop we'd all stopped at. I expressed doubt about eating more on top of what I'd been trying to consume along the way, but ultimately chose to follow Alain's simple advice -- "never pass up a chance to eat real food." As it turned out, my 8:00 am steak and cheese sub, the first of three steak sandwiches (among other things) I would eat that day, was the start of a whole new Last Chance for me, physically and emotionally.

This sandwich (and the others that followed) turned my entire ride around. I called Tanya from the sub shop and we chatted cheerily. When we finished, I headed back out into the wind -- not strong, but distinctly out of the east -- and rode on alone to Kensington, the ride's turn around point. It was on that leg, 47 basically flat miles, that I enjoyed one of the high points of my entire ride, passing other Last Chancers on their way back west. Seeing them succeeding, exchanging waves and words of encouragement, I felt some of the strongest bonds of camaraderie of the whole adventure.

 Guy Oldfield manning his pie-equipped Kensington outpost.

Come Kensington, we were expected to mail a postcard confirming our passage before turning back towards Atwood. I didn't expect to find much beyond a post office and so was very pleasantly surprised to meet Guy Oldfield, a former Seattle International Randonneur and now a member of clubs local to DC, manning a table across the street from the post office. On arriving, I signed in and collected myself while he dropped my postcard in the mailbox. In addition to water, Guy had laid out a terrific spread of homemade pies from a bakery in next town over. Returning from the deli across the street with a roast beef sandwich, I passed half to Guy and we enjoyed a short meal and good conversation, a welcome break in the midst of a long day with myself. No matter how good the riding, no matter how happy you are to be alone with your thoughts, like real food, one shouldn't pass up the opportunity for some company once and a while.
Rolling out of Kensington, I saw with relief that the flags were still blowing west, offering the promise of a tail wind on the way home. Though it wasn't strong, that promise was fulfilled: despite trending generally uphill, the return trip took 1h15 less than the way out. For the most part, the ride back was uneventful - true, it was the only stretch of the entire 750 miles that I (and, it turns out, others) ran into trouble with passing trucks, but that didn't last long. Another steak sandwich in Norton, another Mountain Dew in Phillipsburg, and in the last light of day I began the final climb back up to Atwood.

Rising out of Phillipsburg towards Atwood and the setting sun.

Riding through the dark, you have the sense that you are going much faster than you actually are. The fields seem to fly by. On the night of Day 2, this progress was countered by one of the clearest skies I've ever seen, immobile above me as the road passed quickly away. Aside from a few farmhouse windows in the distance, there was no light to dim the shining of the stars, which stood out with crystalline brilliance against the chill night. With the Milky Way overhead, I rode quietly over the last rises of my day and down into Atwood, to dinner and to bed.

On a break in Kensington, KS.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Last Chance, or, A Very Long Bike Ride Uphill Both Ways

Last week was, as you probably know, was the culmination of a long season of training for me, the Rocky Mountain Cycling Club's Colorado Last Chance 1200K.

At 750 miles within a time limit of 90 hours, 1200K "randonnées" (as distinct from the shorter 200-600K "brevets") are the most challenging of rides in randonneuring, a type of self-supported long distance cycling that originated in France. There are several such events held in the United States each year (this year including the Gold Rush 1200 in California, the Shenandoah 1200, which I hope to ride next year, and Pennsylvania's Endless Mountains 1240), but I chose the Last Chance for two reasons: first, it was local to me, put on by my club and promised to be well populated by riders that I knew, and second, I believed it to be the easiest of the American 1200Ks. I can now say with some confidence that while the first is true, the second is irrelevant -- there is no "easy" randonnée, either mentally or physically. Uphill both ways, indeed.

Day 1: Louisville, CO to Atwood, KS
251 miles
16.4 mph average
17:54 elapsed time

Our day began, as each one would, well before dawn. Thirty-six starters assembled in the surprisingly warm darkness, all anxious, nervous, excited or some combination of the three. Following an introduction from club's founder Charlie Henderson, the flag dropped and the group was off.

Riders assembling at the start before 0300.

Normally, brevets seem to start out at a reasonable pace, the group staying together at least for the first 15-20 minutes. Not so this time, as the front runners, those riders who aspired to very quick times and perhaps qualification for the Race Across America (RAAM), were off like shots down the road. Concerned that I not start out too fast, I settled in with some familiar faces, Nate Dick and Robert Pogorelz, with whom I rode for about 30 miles. We were briefly waylaid at a train crossing that conveniently allowed everyone (and I mean everyone) to avail themselves of the bushes before continuing on. During the next few miles, I enjoyed what would prove to be a prophetic conversation with Robert. A veteran of many long distance races and rides, including the Furnace Creek 508 and ten successive Leadville 100s, Robert and I had discussed the psychology of ultracycling before. We agreed that rides such as the Last Chance require a willingness, even a desire, to see a side of yourself that many would prefer either to avoid or seek out in other, perhaps less abusive ways. On this note, he promised me that on the fourth day, "you will see your soul." Gulp.

The eponymous Last Chance, CO.
Shortly thereafter, we worked our way up to a large group of perhaps 10 riders riding in a pack. I pushed myself to catch and stay with them, figuring that I'd benefit if not from the company, than at least from the protection a group provides. Unfortunately, I couldn't stay with them, but this was the first object lesson in learning something about brevet riding that may be particular to such long, multi-day events: unless you are going for a very quick time and are therefore going to almost entirely forgo food stops and sleep, the need to get off the bike for meals and overnight is a great leveler. Everyone comes together at these points, and unlike on shorter rides, most people are not in and out in a matter of minutes. If you're able to speed yourself up a little at stops, therefore, you can catch on to a group in front of you. Further, there's no point in worrying about your relative position in the pack (if you're inclined to worry about it at all) until the third or fourth day, as there are far too many variables to predict what the quick guy on day 1 will feel like on day 4. Sometimes, it may be better to ride your own pace or work or wait for protection and company, rather than obsess about time.

That said, the rest of my first day underlined the importance of speeding yourself up or slowing yourself down that little bit so that you do get to ride with other people. I took my time at the first control in Byers, wanting to make sure that I was dressed correctly, that I had eaten and my bottles were full and that my bike was still working.                

Breakfast Burritos at the Byers Control
As a result, I left Byers by myself and remained so for roughly the next 85 miles. Riding alone and into the wind, my energy and spirits were mixed. Dark gray clouds massed in the distance, making me wonder if I would have to cope with rain, too. A stop at Cope for a burrito and a Diet Mountain Dew (I know, gross, but somehow it works for me) picked up my energy, but my mood stuck and I inexplicably left ahead of a group that was minutes from departure.

Thankfully, the clouds parted and the group, including Leslie Sutton, Brent and Beth Myers and John Jost, caught me somewhere short of the Kansas line. We rode mostly together under beautiful, wide skies, stopping for photos at the border and to talk with some incredulous ranchers at the fuel co-op in Idalia. I was growing tired, feeling the results of nearly 10 days off my bike, but enjoying the company and the scenery.
Enjoying a respite at the Kansas line.
At our last control of the day in St. Francis, we stopped for a bite and to resupply for the final 42 miles into Atwood. There, we met a man who had recently celebrated his 80th birthday by riding 10,000 miles in the 1000 days leading up to it. He seemed to take great pleasure in our efforts and I know that we took great pleasure in his.

Bird City (all of it) as the sun set behind us.
The sun soon started to drop and we stopped in Bird City to turn on lights and don reflective gear. It felt good to be riding with friends and to be so near the finish for the day. I knew that 25 miles would still take some time -- likely at least an hour and a half -- but with 225 behind us, I felt confident I would see my bed. With these thoughts, we set off into the quickly falling dark.

With Leslie Sutton & John Jost, Bird City.

It was in these last miles, which turned out to be the hardest of the day, that I realized another important rule that would help see me through to the end of the ride: eat until the end. I've worked hard this summer on figuring out nutrition for long rides (which I'll discuss more in a later post), but one weakness clearly remains, which is that as I get tired, I forget to eat and drink.

So as we rolled through these last miles, which seemed to close with an endless eight mile climb (it turns out that it was about 4 miles, with 4 miles of gradual descent into a strong wind), the fatigue and pain of the day caught up to me and real doubts entered my mind for the first time. The back of my left knee had hurt terribly all day, the result of a too tight hamstring. My left ankle and right knee had begun to hurt as I compensated for that tightness. My energy sapped, I began to question not just whether I could finish, but whether I wanted to continue at all.

Even Stella the Stegosaurus felt pretty down.
At long last, we pulled into Atwood and the It'll Do Motel at 8:54 pm MDT, 17h54 after we'd left. Even though this was a personal best for 400K, I was demoralized. After signing in, my first stop was to call Tanya, to let her know I was ok and give her an update for the blog. I tried not to cry. My next stop was pizza and watermelon, which brought home the problem of food. To my surprise, I was really hungry -- somehow, I hadn't felt that way on the road, which underlines the difference between feeling hungry and having low blood sugar. I immediately felt better, took a shower, organized myself for the morning and decided that day two was possible. And then I slept, easily and soundly, for a few hours.

Trying not to drop the camera, east of Bird City, KS.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Back from Kansas

Having now returned from the Last Chance, I am more than a little overwhelmed by Tanya's wonderful, thoughtful post (not to plug my own wife's writing, or anything) and the many kind, supportive comments our posts have received. In coming days, I will post a report on the ride and some photos, but in the meantime, I am very happy to report that I finished in something over 82 hours. I feel great considering, though as one riding partner said, the ride will probably leave a mark or two.

Thank you for your support of the blog, the Sutherland Center and my ride!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ride update from Stephen - Day 1

I finally heard from the man himself with a brief and not so detailed message. He arrived at his first day's destination last night around 9:00 pm (MST) feeling tired but otherwise great! There was a hint of surprise in his voice at how good he was feeling (though it was no surprise to me - the man's been training his tail off!). After some pizza (food of champions!) and a shower, he hit the hay to prepare for his 3:30 am (MST) departure the next day.

Here are the stats he gave: in the end, he ended up riding the 253.1 miles of the day at an average of about 16.4 miles per hour (pretty great!). He did his own personal best on the 400K at 17.53 mph. I don't know about y'all, but it sounds like this is turning out to be a very successful ride so far. I hit you with more details as they come (and hopefully pictures will follow once Stephen returns to DC).

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A pre-update post

Hi all, Tanya here. Though I haven't yet received an official update from the man himself, I thought I'd at least take this opportunity to offer my own insight into Stephen's journey(s). As a writer, my talent is definitely meager compared to that of my dear husband. However, I will do my best to inform and entertain as best as I can.

Stephen's cycling and I have had a somewhat tumultuous relationship. I've always been a runner and was somewhat disappointed that Stephen could never join me. Instead, cycling became an incredible physical outlet for him. When he became (and this has not changed) overwhelmed, he could get on a bike and return renewed and refreshed. I was happy to see the effect that this exercise had on him, both physically and mentally.

Then he started doing much longer rides. He'd be gone for hours and even entire days. Sometimes he would come home frustrated or so exhausted that he didn't want to talk. I began to rethink my admiration of the power of cycling. I felt as though it was becoming counterproductive in some ways and was definitely impacting our relationship.

Over the past month or two, that has slowly changed. As we began to make our transition away from Colorado in preparation for our move to DC, I appreciated the time that he had to spend with his friends and with Colorado itself. It also seemed to help to calm him in a way that was necessary in light of the tremendous stress we were both feeling.

Now, I'm back to understanding the love between man and bike. There is something inherent in the activity as whole that ignites a certain passion in this man that I love so much. It is not just turning the pedals or racking up miles for him, he love the mechanics of it, the freedom it offers and the adventures that unfold while in the saddle. This ride is a culmination of months not only of riding but of memories and friends, scenery and satisfaction. It is a manifestation of commitment and comfort for Stephen and I am proud of what he's doing and where he's going.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Following the Last Chance

The bags are packed, the chain is lubed, the chamois cream has been applied. All that's left is to ride!

If you're interested, you can follow my progress and that of the other 38 foolish souls riding this year's Last Chance in a number of different places:

First off, my ever-supportive wife Tanya will be updating One Wheel... a couple of times a day, so check back here!

The Rocky Mountain Cycling Club will have two pages being updated by the ever-faithful Foon Feldman, a spreadsheet charting arrival and departure times at major checkpoints and the Last Chance blog.

Finally, the apparently ever-looking-for-more-to-do Paul Rozelle will be tweeting the Last Chance -- no word on whether he'll be texting while riding or not. You can follow his tweets here.

Feel free to post questions here if you like -- Tanya will do her best to answer them, though I can't promise I'll be cogent enough to provide her good information.

Preparing for the Last Chance

The Last Chance starts tomorrow and I am filled with conflicting emotions -- excitement, anxiety, relief, all products of months and months of anticipation. I haven't been riding as much as I had planned, partly because of the move from Boulder to Washington, DC, but also because late July and early August included a lot of hard rides, leaving me feeling pretty burned out by the middle of the month.

The last long ride I did was the Stonewall Century, a beautiful but rather nasty hundred mile ride south of Pueblo, CO. An out-an-back course over Cucharas Pass, it was either up or down the whole way, and the return, especially, drained me -- strong headwinds at first, followed by the much steeper side of Cucharas. More significantly for me, however, was how quickly I got dropped in the early going. My friend Eric and I spoke confidently in the parking lot of riding hard all day. We both did, I think, it's just that his hard turned out to be a lot faster than mine. I came away from the day kind of upset and anxious -- where was my fitness? Was this a bad omen for the Last Chance? How much more could I do to train? What else might go wrong between then and the start of the big ride?

Competitiveness wasn't the issue. Like many riders, I like the pressure of "racing" friends on short club rides, sprinting to the top of a hill or along a certain stretch of road. Living in Boulder, however, I've ridden with riders of widely varying levels of fitness and speed and learned that while I'm almost never the slowest, I'm also never the fastest. While there are things I could do to get faster (or not do to get slower), there are some things I just can't change. I am too big to climb fast and this is basically beyond my control. Losing 20 pounds would help my cause in this regard, but I'm not sure I'm ready to choose the level of single minded dedication that would be required to lose that weight. Surprisingly (at least to me), I'm comfortable with these limitations. Indeed, they feel like part of the beauty of cycling -- the same weight that slows me down on the hills helps me pull hard on the flats, while my "lack" of dedication gives me more time for family, friends and work (however much I might still neglect all three).

*  *  *

But how to apply this philosophy of acceptance and comfort to other parts of my life? In therapy one day, I expressed great frustration about the times I am unable to work consistently, about how my mind scatters rather than focusing the way I want it to or feel it ought to. My therapist told me that this was something I needed to accept, that this was part of my life, part of how my brain works (or doesn't work) and part of who I am. I felt, and often still feel, that this concept, the idea that I am limited because of bipolar, was totally unacceptable, completely contrary to who I imagined myself to be and how I hoped to live my life.

It is hard to see this limitation in the same way I see climbing, as part of the beauty of life, the beauty of who I am. In my darker moments, it makes me feel cheated. My life wasn't supposed to be like this. I was supposed to be able to be anything I wanted, to do anything I wanted. Accepting this version of a bipolar reality means accepting a life narrative that seems somehow disappointing. It means that my life will come and go with a weakness that I did not choose and that I do not like. Accepting bipolar means accepting my own mortality, because having something for the rest of your life, whether it's bipolar, marriage or a trick knee, means that there is a rest of your life and that one day, that rest will be gone.

If I have to have a rest-of-my-life, though, I don't want to spend it being angry about having bipolar. I think my therapist was both right and wrong when she spoke about acceptance. On the one hand, acceptance cannot mean giving in, coming to believe that limitations are immutable and cannot be pushed. On the other, I believe that acceptance, true acknowledgment and ownership of my bipolar, is the only route to letting go of my anger and my disappointment. Ultimately, I need to get to a place where living with bipolar is like climbing.
*  *  *

On the way back from the Stonewall Century, Eric encouraged me to let go of my concerns about that day's ride and the Last Chance because they are beyond my control. At this point, I think I've done a pretty good job of that -- I'm looking forward to the ride, to four days on my bike without a phone or email, meeting new people and challenging myself. I'm sure there will be moments when it feels like a death march (how could 750 miles in Kansas not have those moments?), but I know that I'm really lucky to have the freedom to do this, that I've prepared myself as well as I mentally and physically could, that I'm going to make new friends, see new places and learn new things about myself. This feels like a good step towards accepting limitations and embracing life as it comes.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Additional Donation Information

I've been told that to use the Sutherland Foundation's online donation page, you need not only my name for the "in honor of" section (again, this is about keeping track of donations, not a desire to be mentioned in the annual report), you also need my address for notification. So, at the risk of publishing info on the web for all to see...

Stephen Whiteman
Dumbarton Oaks
1703 32nd St., NW
Washington, DC  20007

Many thanks for all your support -- stay tuned for more information before the ride and updates during it!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Return of the Blogger

Apologies for a long absence -- the last several weeks have been consumed by moving across the country, relocating from Boulder to Washington, DC, leaving too little time for either writing or riding. The transition is now nearly complete, however,  and a family wedding this weekend provides some opportunity to catch up on blog business. Coming up... an overdue review of recent mental health news on the web, some information about logistics for the Last Chance 1200K, including following riders' progress, and some thoughts on preparing for my biggest ride ever, 750 miles to the middle of Kansas and back.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Vincent Van Gogh says...

"Give a bit of yourself -- donate and support the Sutherland Center!"

Read more here about my ride and efforts to support the research and treatment of bipolar disorder at the Sutherland Center.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Climbing Beyond Ward

I do not fall into the category of cyclists that have been obsessed with bikes since they were kids, that found their freedom exploring on two wheels or whose identity is tied up with coaster brakes and 1/8" chains. I had a succession of bikes when I was younger -- a big wheel, if that counts, a Schwinn BMX bike with a sweet checkerboard top tube pad, a blue Panasonic 10 speed with safety levers and stem-mounted shifters that I found terminally embarrassing. I toured my street on the first, friends' neighborhoods on the second and Nova Scotia on the last, but when each was done, I moved on to something else; I was never drawn strongly to bicycles.

When I moved to California for grad school, I decided that I needed to figure out a new and more regular exercise plan. Cycling is very popular in Northern California and for good reason -- there's a lot of amazing riding to be done. I bought by first "adult" bike, a 2001 LeMond Buenos Aires built with Reynolds 853 steel, and then my second, a Soma Rush fixed gear, and began to put on miles. Not a ton, but a steady stream, as I rode the same few 20-35 mile routes around Stanford for a chance to talk with a friend or escape from the library. I tried some of the famous climbs in the area -- Page Mill, Old La Honda -- but never got far, mostly because I saw the tops of these steep ascents as all but unattainable, reserved for the skinny, super-fit "real cyclists" on the road. In truth, I sabotaged myself from the start

After four years in and around Palo Alto, I again moved, this time to Boulder, CO. Without the regular schedule of coursework, I had a lot more time to ride and began to explore the area. I quickly learned that climbing was central to Colorado cycling and that the climbs were, if anything, harder than those in California. While generally not as steep, Colorado Front Range climbs are often very long -- 15 to 20 miles is not at all unusual. Perhaps these, too, were only for the fleetest of pedalers. So I continued to ride routes with shorter climbs -- rollers, really -- wondering whether I could get strong enough to make it up Lefthand, St. Vrain or any of the other famous Boulder climbs.

The spring following the move, the snows melted and I decided to find out. Joining an annual April ride departing from Lyons, north of Boulder, I found myself on the lower stretches of the 17 mile ascent up Lefthand Canyon to Ward and the Peak to Peak Highway. In the past, I often tried to charge up big climbs, going as hard as I could from the start; this rather idiotic approach was a holdout from nordic racing in high school, which were all-out 5K sprints ("go out hard, pick it up in the middle, finish fast," was my coach's mantra). That I couldn't apply this strategy to cycling hadn't really connected for me until this April morning. Determined to go as far up the canyon as I could, I settled in to a calm, even pace with several other riders and wondered how long it would take to cross the miles to the top, or if I even could.

Newfound conservative pacing notwithstanding, the climb was not easy. Ultimately, 17 miles at nearly 4% grade proved a long, long way to go -- a reality hardly aided by the last 3 miles averaging 10% that followed the ominously named "Turn of Events." I made it to Ward, however, and beyond -- up onto the Peak to Peak, over its rollers at nearly 9500' elevation, and back down into Lyons. Along the way, I passed riders and got passed by riders, finding that I was neither the skinniest nor the slowest; I learned that I could choose my pace and that if I was patient, I would get to the top; and I discovered the cycling could be my route to seeing a great portion of Colorado that I would otherwise miss out on, beautiful vistas taken in at a human pace.

Most importantly, however, I learned that in a life that often feels very much beyond my grasp, cycling is one thing I can control. I am the sole determiner of success or failure. I decide whether to go on or turn back, whether a climb is too steep or too hard, whether a day is too long or my feet hurt too much. When I returned home that day, for a few hours I truly felt filled with pride. In the three plus years since then, successes on the bike -- Denver to Aspen in one day, my first 600k -- have brought me that same feeling, putting me in touch with a world that, however briefly, seems absolutely filled with possibility and potential.

I don't want to paint a picture of my life as one filled with quiet desperation, though it certainly has its moments. It's just that riding my bike starts with my body and extends to my mind, precisely the reverse of many situations I find so frustrating in my life. I've found that by challenging myself in this way, I can put my finger on something tangible that I am good at, something in which I can reach my goals, making it easier to envision success in other areas.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

In the News: Mental Illness and Youth

Each week, I'll post links to a couple of articles about mental illness that I think are worth checking out. Of course, among the hundreds of new pieces out there, mine will be a tiny sampling with a different theme week to week. This week, mental illness in youth.

According to a report in the New York Times, "cash-starved states are increasingly relying on the prison system to handle young offenders with mental illnesses, who often need therapy more than punishment." Despite evidence that prisons in America fail to consistently rehabilitate criminal offenders or care for the mentally ill, jails have too often become the destination of first resort in our country. In our judicial system, protections for the poor and indigent, the mentally ill and the mentally retarded (classes that overlap considerably), are often stronger in principal than in practice. Without more robust advocacy and fitting care, those who are less able to understand and look out for their own interests will continue to find themselves on the unequal end of a system that promises equal protection.

Depression “tests” permitting self-screening in adults and kids are now available for the iPhone, with a similar application for generalized anxiety disorder in the works. Strange as this might sound, self-evaluation is a key part of mental health diagnosis and is where most, if not all, psychological treatment begins. If people, particularly kids, can be educated about the symptoms of mental illness and encouraged to reflect upon their own mental state, it seems possible that more will recognize a need for help, rather than continuing to live (or worse, die) in pain.

And a tangentially related note: The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has announced an interdisciplinary study of suicide and mental health among military personnel. Investigators aim to identify risk and protective factors for suicide among soldiers and effective and practical interventions to reduce suicide rates, and to address associated mental health problems. In a situation not dissimilar to the New York Times report above, our government needs, in my opinion, to see its commitments through to the end. If we want to have a military of young men and women wage war, we need to be dedicated to providing the care they need upon their return. Medical care for veterans is woefully poor, while evidence of mental illnesses, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, is rampant. Too many soldiers face broken families, dysfunctional lives and suicide upon their return from combat. This NIMH study is a step in the right direction.

Monday, August 10, 2009

How the Wheels Work

In the past few years, amidst the many experiences and changes in my life, two themes seem to have emerged, growing steadily in importance over time. The first is bipolar disorder, the second, bicycles. They may seem a strange pairing, yet each serves as a kind of emotional and cognitive filter, alternately clarifying and distorting aspects of my life. I’d like to talk about each in separate posts this week to give you a sense of where I’m coming from, why this blog seems like the right thing at the right time for me and why it’s called “One Wheel in Front of the Other.”

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as manic depression is now known, during the second year of my PhD program. I had come to a place where I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t sit still, couldn’t work for longer than 10 or 15 minutes at a time. I was frustrated, angry and scared. How could I pursue a career that depends almost more than anything else on the ability to focus? How could I choose a life that required often solitary work in quiet places when I my mind and body were both racing?

Since my diagnosis, medication – in my case a combination of an seizure medication (many are very effective off-label as mood stabilizers) and an anti-depressant have helped limit, though hardly eliminate, the most serious symptoms. Bipolar is now more often fatiguing or frustrating than debilitating. I do not struggle with major depressions or manias that truly disrupt my functioning, as is the case for so many.

Instead, it appears (psychology being a rather inexact science) that I have a relatively unusual form of bipolar called cyclothymia (also, here),which causes me to move rapidly from low-grade depression to low-grade mania all the time. This is rather like riding an old wooden roller coaster blindfolded, up and down at unpredictable intervals, at times dragging on interminably, occasionally plunging pleasurably, but in any case, rarely flat. As a result, the filtering of my bipolar lens often feels nearly all-pervasive, every moment, every action, every reaction being tinged by its shade. In some sense, this is probably not really the case – I imagine there are times when I am by some measure “normal.” Knowing those times, however, can seem almost impossible.

It can be useful to recognize when certain behaviors or thoughts are related to bipolar. In these cases, coping techniques (for lack of a better term) can help not only control issues in moment, but also over the longer term. Here, the Sutherland Center’s focus on cognitive-behavioral therapy, shown in many cases to be as effective as medication for treating bipolar, has been a godsend. By recognizing the warning signs that difficult moments are heading my way, it is sometimes possible to head them off at the pass, removing myself from a situation either physically or mentally. At the same time, I don’t want to allow bipolar to become an excuse, a way of explaining away other problems that need to be confronted.

Even more importantly, I need there to be some part of me that is genuinely, truly me, a core that I can see, feel, name and describe that transcends the noise. One of the great challenges of mental illness is the elusiveness of one’s true self. How do I tell the difference between the “real me” and the “bipolar me” when they have coexisted for so long and are so frequently muddled together? This need seems to be a constant thread connecting all the people I know with bipolar and other mental illnesses – to a greater or lesser extent, the stories they tell about themselves reveal anxiety over whether or not this genuine self still exists and how hold on to it.

Coming later… it’s at least partly about the bike.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Give it Up! Please?

So, here it is, the plan, the pitch, the whole kit and kaboodle.

Since January, I have been training and qualifying for a truly epic ride, the Last Chance Randonnée. I’ll leave the details of the ride for you to read via the link, but at 1200K (roughly 750 miles) over 3 ½ days, this will be the most difficult physical challenge I have ever undertaken.

Obviously, completing the ride will be an accomplishment of great personal significance, but I also want to use it as an opportunity to contribute to something larger than myself. The Last Chance is not affiliated with any charity, but I hope to use my ride (and this blog) as a means to raise awareness about mental illness in our society and support the work of the Sutherland Center at the University of Colorado.

Given the length and difficulty of the Last Chance (even the name has a rather grim ring to it, I’ll admit), I thought that per mile pledges might be a fitting way for you to consider supporting my effort, as your generosity will push me towards the finish.

Please know that 100% of your gift will go to the Sutherland Center. I have already paid for the event fee, travel expenses, food, etc.

If you would like to support me in this effort, there are a couple of steps to making a donation:

1. You should choose whether you would like to pledge a certain amount per mile or make a fixed donation either before or after the event. Remember that any amount, whether it’s 1¢ or $1 per mile, makes a difference.

2. If you’re willing, please send me an email telling me of your plans – this will help me keep a running tally of how much we have raised together, which I will post on the blog.

3. When you are ready, go to the Sutherland Foundation’s website and make a donation via the web (you can read more about donating to the Robert D. Sutherland Foundation here). Choose “Honorary Donation” and complete the forms as instructed. Asking that you make an honorary donation is not intended to be vain, it will help the Sutherland Center know how much my friends and family have succeeded in raising. You can also make a donation via mail or fax.

If you have any questions or would like to let me know about your gift, you can send me a message via the blog or email me at redcliffs (at) hotmail (dot) com. And whether you are able to donate or not, thank you for your interest and support!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Raison d'etre

As many of you already know, a major reason for starting this blog is an effort to raise awareness about the condition and care of the mentally ill in our society and to support the efforts of the Robert D. Sutherland Center for the Evaluation and Treatment of Bipolar Disorder at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Studies indicate that nearly 21 million, or roughly 9.5%, of adults in the United States suffer from a mood disorder (bipolar or major depression, for example), a number that does not include personality disorders, schizophrenia and many other debilitating psychological disabilities. In particular, bipolar affects roughly 5.7 million American adults, afflicting men and women equally across racial, ethnic and socio-economic groups, and while the average age of onset is 25, there is a growing recognition of its prevalence in children and adolescents. Despite this, public funding for mental health care remains woefully low, leaving the under- and uninsured with few options for help. In such a context, organizations like the Sutherland Center stand in the breach, providing care for many who would otherwise go without.

The Sutherland Center is committed to the support of people with bipolar and their families through diagnosis, treatment and education. Their principal mission is to provide care for the uninsured. Clients are asked to pay fees on a sliding scale that is roughly equivalent to many co-payments. The remainder of the Center’s funding comes from the Robert D. Sutherland Foundation, a non-profit organization dependent on grants and individual donations.

My reasons for seeking your support for the Sutherland Center go beyond the importance of their mission and their contributions in the greater Denver region. When I first came to Boulder, I had a difficult time finding a new therapist from the list provided by my insurer. I contacted the Sutherland Center for recommendations of psychologists who specialized in the treatment of bipolar. They responded not only with a list, but also with a promise – if no one on their list was a good fit for me, they would help. In the end, that’s what it came to: the Sutherland Center has reached beyond their stated mission and have given me the best, most productive care I have received since my diagnosis.

In my next post, I’ll fill you in on my plans and give you information on how to donate if you’d like to do so. More soon…

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Welcome to One Wheel in Front of the Other

Hi all,

Thank you for visiting my blog. I’ve never done this before, so please forgive me if I begin poorly – hopefully that won’t last. From reading other blogs, I think I’m supposed to start out by saying something about myself or the blog. Truthfully, I’m not quite sure what is to come. I plan on talking some about bikes and riding them. I’ll also try to convey something of my experience living with bipolar disorder. Perhaps I’ll discuss art or politics a little, but that might get boring pretty quickly. In any case, I hope there ends up being something here for each of you, something that makes the reading interesting or at least occasionally worthwhile.

So, with out further ado…