Chapter 12: Doing > Being > Becoming > Belonging

Riding less often has been challenging. Like trying to wean yourself off a highly addictive drug, perhaps?

You know you really should try not to take it so much, but the feeling that you get from it is like nothing else. I find this drug particularly addictive as it is the only thing that enables me to feel something like my old self.

As June came to a close and I started to draw together my various musings into something vaguely coherent for my last post, I already knew what had to be done. So, reluctantly, I took the plunge and decided to make a concerted effort to reduce the frequency of my riding back down to a maximum of 3 days per week – a level at which walking had previously been much more manageable. Unfortunately, this brought 2 of my 3 nemeses – namely, planning and decision making – back into play.

Previously, if there was a reason to go out, I would go, regardless of what I had done the day before. By actively trying to ride less often, I found myself storing things up until the next time I was planning to go out – and so behaving less instinctively and feeling more fatigued as a result. Somewhat predictably, I also fell into the trap of planning different routes to make up for the lost mileage arising from riding less often – forgetting the lessons I had learned over the previous year about keeping things simple in this respect. Having to decide what to do on the days when I stopped myself from going out added further to my cognitive demands.

After just a couple of weeks, the “full up” feeling in my legs was much more pronounced, with several days spent without a great deal of feeling below the waist.

Thankfully, at this point I remembered Rule 1 (Only fight the bear when you have to). Forcing myself to be more rigorous in my application of this rule by identifying the single most important task that day, regardless of what I did yesterday – whether that be going out on my bike to get something, walking the dog, vacuuming the house etc – has simplified the planning / decision making process for me.

After a couple more weeks, I had just about arrived at the point where constraining my riding was no longer adding to my level of cognitive fatigue. The lesson learned has been to be a bit more flexible in my approach, rather than sticking to a rigid schedule. At the start of each day, I ask myself – if you could only do 1 thing today, what would it be? Anything above and beyond that is to be regarded as a bonus.

Over the same period, my walking has certainly improved as a byproduct of cycling less often – so mission accomplished, it would appear.

The cleaner coming back has no doubt been a factor too, enabling me to swap out the additional housework I had been doing in exchange for walking the dog more often.

In addition, I have been sleeping better – I assume because I am not accumulating as much fatigue by exploiting the cognitive recharge effect of riding so much.

When I went back to cycling after my accident, it was as a way of reducing the fatiguing effects of stuff that I had to do (e.g. getting to appointments). I realise now that, as these demands have fallen away, in order to keep benefiting from the cognitive recharge effect I have been manufacturing reasons to go out on my bike (e.g. buying loose fruit and veg from the supermarket to avoid the unnecessary plastic packaging that it comes in as part of a delivery). In other words, creating new cognitive demands – most certainly not in line with Rule 1!

After more than a year of only getting out on my bike for a reason – even a fairly dubious one – maybe it’s time to just get out solely for the benefits that it brings? I have plenty of existing cognitive demands that I already struggle with, so why not use the cognitive recharge effect to help me cope with these, rather than inventing new ones? One for me to consider.

More recently, going away on holiday with my family has given me the chance to take a break from cycling without having to work out what else to do. I am always very happy to go along with what other people suggest if it means that I can avoid having to plan and make decisions.

First up was a week in Wales, sharing a cottage with 1 other family – good friends who we have known for nearly 25 years.

A few days in and I noticed that I was fatiguing less often. I didn’t start to experience anything close to my normal day to day fatigue levels until day 5 and even managed to go without my mid afternoon nap on one day.

Much to my surprise, I managed to sleep reasonably well too, at least until the last night when I pinged wide awake at 3:43am – either the fall out from the fatigue accumulated over the week, or more likely the conductor awakening to “get things organised” in preparation for departure. By that same evening, 3 loads of laundry in and I had hit the wall – my right leg tightening up for the first time in a week. I slept well that night, but it only took my regular morning activity – feeding the dog, making coffee and emptying the dishwasher – to have me at my limit again.

This experience got me thinking about why there is such a profound difference between the bears I come across on holiday and those that live at home.

I had noticed a very similar effect from previous family holidays since my accident – albeit 2 weeks away in an all inclusive resort – which I had put down to having absolutely no cognitive demands upon me. However, a week spent in self catering with another family has allowed me to make a different comparison. Certain elements of my usual workload had been removed (e.g. vacuuming) and others significantly reduced (e.g. cooking, laundry), but I had still been contributing by making food for the youths on the few occasions where demand outstripped existing supply, plus tidying up after mealtimes.

For me, the difference comes down to the expectations that I put upon myself. At home, I am always thinking about what else needs to be done that day, whereas on holiday, I have no expectations of myself. Being able to step back and get out of the “what next?” mentality has felt like being a different person.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that something akin to this feeling is what many people experience when on holiday – indeed, it is the point of a holiday for most. In this instance though, the contrast for me has been really very stark – and opened my eyes to there potentially being a more manageable way to live arising from changing my mindset.

For example, on holiday, rather than planning when to fit in a dog walk – which I normally find highly fatiguing – I was able to accept that, one way or another, the dog would get a walk – and if not, this was ok too. Most often, we simply took him with us when we went to the beach. Other times, I would take him out on the spur of the moment as a way of getting some time alone – rather than quarantining myself in my bedroom. At these times, walking was hardly challenging at all.

Perhaps then, I can find other ways to live in this kind of holiday mindset more of the time, whilst still getting the essentials done. That way I would have more left in the tank at the end of each day to do things with my family, rather than hitting the buffers as I set the dinner down on the table. Something else for me to ponder.

A week on from my Welsh epiphany, we went away to Cumbria – this time with a larger group of family and friends who know each other less well. Fatigue levels were higher than during the last holiday, but still considerably lower than normal.

Of course, despite trying to manage my resources carefully, in my eagerness to “perform” – by joining in and making other people feel included – I overreached myself. Whilst this was enjoyable – for me, at least – it made me a bit too excitable / vocal and ended up tipping me over the edge. By day 2, I was already awake in the small hours due to the excessive stimulus to my brain. Day 6 and I was back in the same place.

On a practical level though, there has still been a useful finding from even this rather draining experience. It has taught me to be more aware of my tendency to use coffee as a way of keeping fatigue at bay.

For some time now, on the rare occasions when I do socialise, I reach a point in the evening when I find myself craving a coffee. I had assumed that this was a contributory factor in my sleep subsequently being disrupted. Consequently, with the holiday period inevitably involving more socialising, I have tried drinking de-caffeinated coffee instead.

It transpires that the caffeine is not the cause of my sleep deprivation. Even drinking decaf coffee leaves me spun up and awake in the night. It is the extra stimulus to my brain late in the day that results in disturbed sleep.

Knowing this means that I can now use the craving for coffee – of either type – as a signal to let me know that I need to step away. If only I’d picked up on this prior to this most recent spell of socialising!

In between Wales and Cumbria, I had the pleasure of taking my eldest son into town to buy him clothes for his birthday. It was fatiguing, but I just about managed to make it through the entire expedition without being too embarrassing – only really starting to talk nonsense on the bus home. To maximise my chances of success, I let him take the lead and confined myself to the role of “money man”, though I found that I was still able to occasionally make a few useful suggestions – or so he allowed me to believe.

It felt very special to be able to do this with him – certainly not something I would have had time for in the past – so there’s at least one upside to having a brain injury!

The fact that I was able to do it at all also shows me how much better I have been doing at managing my fatigue recently.

Prior to this last few weeks, I would have been inclined to say that the last year has been spent going round in a loop, testing the boundaries of my capabilities, only to end up right back where I started. My normal daily routine is virtually identical to that which I documented in the submission to my income protection provider last September.

But my recent holiday experiences, plus that trip out with my son, have shown me that there is potentially a better way of managing my resources. By being willing to spend a bit less time focussed on doing – including the planning and decision making that often surrounds it – and spending more time just being, I have managed to create a little extra headroom for becoming something closer to the person that I want to be.

This is a way of thinking that my occupational therapist introduced me to around 18 months ago that I didn’t manage to wrap my head around until now. It is tempting to wonder whether I could have saved myself (and others) a lot of pain by trying this out sooner. But at least now I know for sure where my limits are and that when I do remember to stay within them, I am not selling myself short. Better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all.

Back home now and already I am struggling with the same old bears – the conductor has elbowed his way back into the picture and is trying to drive the orchestra on to do more rather than leaving the musicians to their own devices. It seems that applying the holiday mindset to normal daily life isn’t going to be straightforward and I can’t help feeling like a fool for even thinking it might be possible.

Or perhaps it’s just that I haven’t quite made it to the belonging phase yet?