Tandem Trust, Trials and Tribulations: Panic Attacks on the Bike

In compliment to Alex's article on our soon-to-be-baby, 'Tan-nay-nay the Tandem Bicycle', I would like to offer up a little bit of face-saving perspective.

I am a very proud person, it is important for me to do the best I can every time. EVERY TIME. In the case of riding two separate touring bikes on our two year journey home, it would appear that I should just suck it up and get on with riding my not-very-heavily laden purpose-built touring bike and enjoy the road every day, practising my skills and gaining confidence on the bike. In fact, if there was no option, this is what I would continue doing.

I will tell you that at this point I don't believe that beyond a few bad days, my far-less-able riding abilities have had a huge effect on our trip. I think Alex would agree. However, there is the looming prospect of this changing with different, more difficult demands of the road environment. The main issues for me at this point are that (a) I don't have experience riding on very rough gravel roads, nor on very busy roads where vehicles travelling at high speed past by within a bee's dick of my elbow. Thus, I have zero confidence in my abilities to ride in either situation. And (b) I have suffered from anxiety and panic attacks for some time. It is mostly the second of these 'issues' I'd like you to know more about.

For those of you who haven't experienced a panic attack, let me describe a little of what it feels like: I want you to imagine you're me – normally, riding along the right-hand side of the road is all well and good; we're used to it now and thus far the cars and trucks have had a good awareness of bike riders and give us a lot, sometimes too much space crossing well over into the other lane, right-o? You're coming along with me?

Imagine now, please, that for some reason you're already very worried on these 'normal roads'. You can't quite find the explanation and oh! it pains you! Maybe it's because your bike is much heavier than you're used to. Maybe it's because you're also not quite fully in control of your bike, it feels unsteady, you feel like it is more in control of you than you are of it. It could be any reason because heck, rational thinking went out the window quite some time ago.

Your state of mind is unstable at best here, you constantly berate yourself for being pathetic because jeez, you've been riding bikes for a good 20 plus years and have conquered the zip around Melbourne city on a fixie quite well now thanks. So why can't you do this? So, you're incredibly angry at yourself and still, you're trying to stop feeling so 'poor me' about it and ride fast enough to keep up and not slow the traffic behind you and not annoy others you might be riding with. You know there's no pressure, so why are you feeling it so acutely? Why can't you relax?

You're angrily puddling about in mud-coloured shame and teeth-grinding frustration when suddenly there's a whining engine noise in the distance. Look down. Check the road hasn't disappeared from under you. But look just for a second. Don't lose concentration. Look, listen. Breathe. Oh wait, you can't. Your knuckles go so pale with tension you think blood may ever trickle in and feed the joints again, you brace yourself, heightening your heart rate and turning your body into a block of stiff but ultimately flimsy, useless wood.

Oh, you block of wood, you worse than senseless thing.

The sound gets louder and louder until you're hunkered down with your neck pulled in between your shoulders, you've all but disappeared into yourself like a turtle. You're holding your breath, there's a balloon in your chest, up and up and up it's blown.

VAHROOOOOOOOOM!!!! The twelve tonne bus screams past you, you're physically blown sideways, buffeted towards the edge of the road, over the white line and are balancing on the precipice of the paved road and of your sanity. So what happens now? You cry. Yep, hot tears of fear and shame leak out of your steeply angled eyes…you weren't hit! Suck it up! Just keep riding. Except now you really can't breathe properly. You take small inefficient gasps of air, air which feels thick and gets stuck at your breast bone. You body regurgitates the air, you vomit your invisible exhale of useless breath all over yourself. You cough, trying to dislodge the insidious creature who's claws are fastened around your larynx, trying to shift the rhinoceros sitting on your chest. So, you were worried before? You're terrified now, every sound makes you flinch and you swerve a little closer to the gravel on the side of the road, gravel that you know is harmless but now just looks like it will be the perfect launching pad for you onto the road or down the ravine on your right.

Keep trying to breathe. Struggle more and find a burning hot coal blistering in your throat. It's sliding up and down your windpipe as you swallow to rid the dry taste of self hatred in your gaping mouth. You're thinking of every possible catastrophe, your brain is stuck fast in negativity, your legs are slow and heavy. You're pathetic.

Right-o. So, if that's just step one of panic attacks, the next step is one that can go on to more and more debilitating and irrational fear and all-consuming self distrust and confusion. I'm not making this fear up but it is all in my head which makes it worse. It threatens me with its foreboding potential to rule every ride. You can understand why, maybe, I don't enjoy riding on narrow busy roads. Why the idea of riding towards oncoming traffic on uneven chunky rocks of gravel makes me shake with fear. It's not that I am a scardy-cat, I have done lots of things that scare me, in fact I quite enjoy being frightened, but this is different for me. I don't trust myself to ride capably and strongly on this kind of road. I don't have experience doing it and the more I try and fail, the more I feel like I can't do it and so it's a self fulfilling prophecy. It's called Purely Obsessional OCD, check it out.

This is one of the reasons a tandem bike sounds good to me. I don't like and I don't buy the idea that it will be just an easy ride for me behind ATM (Alex The Machine), I will be pulling my weight and riding my little heart out, I assure you: I'm a part of the team, not the baggage we're carrying.

No, this reason of many to like is that I don't have to distrust my ability and have panic attacks. I can take solace in the fact that I am doing something that scares the absolute buh-jeezus out of me, but I am not alone doing it. Let me frame it this way – skydiving. Right? Frightens a lot of people, excites a lot too. For most of us it's an amazing mixture of the two and proves itself worthy when done, a challenge to complete, to think to one's self and perhaps crow to one's friends, “I jumped out of a plane!”

However, one would not just do that activity alone, no, it would be ridiculous for your first jump to be a solo one. Tandem skydiving doesn't make you a pussy, it can be terrifying as you like, but, because there is an instructor, an experienced, confident other person strapped to you, you don't think twice about it. For me, the idea of riding bikes is all well and good. I am quite adept a managing a bike around town, navigating city traffic, trucks, trams, car doors, pedestrians, nighttime, the lot – but suggest that I do it all when I'm fully loaded on unstable gravel roads and I'll tell you to jump.

Perhaps, if I'd had a year, half a year, a month! of experience on these kind of roads… If only I'd had the foresight to gain confidence riding in these conditions then I'd be in a better place. I feel stupid and kick myself a thousand times a day for not doing this preparation, for not realising: DUH! There are about fifty billion unsealed roads on the way from Amsterdam to Australia, and ninety trillion potholes and every car which goes past me has the potential to knock me off and I should just calm down and practise… But no, I just assumed that because I am a quick learner and I love riding my bike, especially in the company of the man I love, that I would be able to do it. But I can't and I frankly don't believe that I can, not yet and certainly not without experiencing the trauma that are panic attacks – and continuing to subject Alex to them also. I'm in my own way and in his.

The crux is, for me it is actually more the confidence to do things that matters more than the skills – skills can be developed, confidence, of course, comes with ability and experience BUT! – when you doubt yourself every step of the way, when panicking is sometimes not an option but a mandatory experience, it is too much and maybe for once in my life, taking the easier way out could be the right thing to do. Not that riding a tandem the 30,000 plus kilometres home from Amsterdam to Australia will be any less challenging, perhaps just less terrifying!!

So, along with the awesome prospect of riding a giant purple whale, sorry, tandem, with Alex: Team Alleykat well and truly travelling together more than ever before, it makes me worry a lot less because I trust Alex wholeheartedly. I am completely convinced what his plenitude of confidence and ability is the exact opposite of mine, he is oozing with it and I am Nutella-jar-scraped-empty of it.

I know this sounds pathetic and not in the slightest bit fair, but I will do my bit every day because it is only my fear stopping me from being part of Alleykat in the bike able way. The prospect of developing my confidence over the next two years in a slightly different manner is a welcome, warm egg-yolk (or eggplant, even!) coloured one.


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