Thoughts about mental health and balance (in life, sports & beyond)
I find that quite a lot has been written about mental health recently, and I increasingly found myself enjoying these articles. When well-written, they reveal a lot about what makes us human: happiness, doubts, problems... Let me swallow my pride and write down some personal thoughts. 👇👇
People are not as happy as you think
Many people feel occasionally depressed, they struggle with ups and downs, they feel worthless, they write about their issues — or not — and when things go wrong it can even lead to the worst of all outcomes. But let’s put the sad stories aside and focus on the constructive, positive stuff. Let’s talk about not being happy sometimes.
Recent reads that led me to writing this post include…
Adrien Costa & Taylor Phinney are both athletes I admired (I didn’t know Catlin & Kennough much). World-class athletes, precocious talents, beasts on their bikes, successful very early in their lives. I have been keenly following their early successes, from Tour de Bretagne to the U23 Paris-Roubaix, and their performances ever since.
I admire them even more now, now that they have come forward about their mental struggles, about not always being fulfilled and having doubts about living the life (as @AdrienCosta says in his bio).
Phinney, pro cyclist, realized that winning wasn’t everything, and Costa, rising star, has given up pro cycling alltogether after realizing “how big, and unbalanced, of a part of [him] was cycling.”
Their humanity is admirable.
Maybe it’s not just admiration, but a sense of closeness, too. I identify myself in what they say, and am not afraid to say it. It think about balance a lot. I’ve had difficult times on and off the bike. It started about 10 years ago and I expect to struggle with it all my life. I learn to see it as a normal thing.
Competitive cycling and unbalance
10 years ago I was a passionate, competitive cylist. I don’t think I had a lot of talent or physical abilities. I didn’t race smart neither — which led me to win only few races — but I loved the demanding sport and the dedication that had to be put into training. I liked the adrenalin and the pain, the perfectionism and the passion.
The most intense time I had cycling was during my academic semester at University of West Florida in Pensacola, Fl., in 2010. After a couple of weeks on campus and a couple of rides by myself, I was lucky to find an amazing team of passionate cyclists, whom I joined and who took me to races throughout almost the entire Southeast of the United States over the following months.
They trained harder and smarter than I had ever done with my previous teams (or alone) and I trained more than ever, too. We met at 6am outside of Pensacola for long training rides, we went to Mobile, Al. and back, our coached pushed us through intense interval training. The nice weather helped getting out to train!
I dropped quite some weight, to about 70kg for a height of 1m86—even down to 67kg after I started counting calories — and was at my best on the bike. It didn’t feel imposed by anyone, it was just focus. It was natural and effortless, so to speak, and it payed off: I was skinny but I was in shape.
I was the strong French kid in the US. We genuinely had a lot of fun together!
I won in Tallahassee, Fl., raced strong at Sunny King in Anniston, Al. and Rouge-Roubaix, La., and won again in Lakeland, Fl.. We raced with the pros regularly, and I even beat them sometimes. Hurting a pro is a great feeling, believe me!
Florida was a dream: sunshine, great friends (on and off the bike), a healthy environment (on and off the bike), fun and fitness.
And I was lean as f*ck. Healthily lean. Between the calorie counting and the training, my metabolism was burning every gram of fat, thank you cycling! I I’ve had occasional excesses (cookies &cream) but I felt really good.
During the summer, I came back to France (the academic semester had ended), enjoyed a couple of strong races — even winning one. This had been my plan: take my good shape, the result of solid training and demanding racing, back to France and make the best of it. I was a rider who came back strong from the US, and it made me proud.
But later in the summer, I soon felt my motivation for sports vanish slowly. It was the first time that happened to me. I always wanted more; suddently I felt unmotivated and driveless. I had less desire to go out and ride, to follow my training schedule to start and/or win races. It was a bit destabilizing.
I moved to Paris for my final year of studies and, given how incomparable Paris is compared to Florida or Brittany… started running instead of cycling. It was a good idea to change sports, but I think that I hadn’t really made peace with the concept of performance.
I believe the actual “unbalance” started with the dedication I gradually put into cycling and, more importantly, my inability to switch it off and the consequences it had in the years after. I have only realized this gradually.
Not feeling fit and struggling with it
When I came back from Florida, my physical fitness was a its best. As far as I can remember, my mental health was also top notch: I felt alive and successful in what I had been doing.
But during the summer in France, with eroding motivation, less practice, unchanged dietary habits and (subsequently) increasing belly fat, I discovered a different way of seeing and perceiving myself.
It’s not just about looking at the body and not liking it; this just a minor part of it. It’s about not finding a new balance between exercise and rest, between working and chill, between being competitive and taking it easy, between self-identifying as an athlete and/or a sedentary student or office-worker.
Between eating a lot and not working out (as much as before).
Sometimes I found myself overeating to compensate a missed workout. Talk about inbalance. I started feeling increasingly guilty for not having the same activity as before, for being to lazy for sports, for not attaining goals I set to myself. The saw everything as less than before rather than something else or something different.
In the past decade I’ve had some pretty rough patches, like the years I regularly binged & purged, unable to find a reasonable dietary balance and losing myself in unhealthy foods just to expell them when I couldn’t eat any more. When food becomes painful. Bulimia nervosa.
I’m ashamed to write it, but I think it will help me accept this part of myself. This has not only harmed me, but also continuously blurred the lines between good and bad behavior, acceptable and unacceptable nutrition, reasonable and unreasonable quantities, satisfying and unsatisfying fitness, lying to myself and to others.
Depression and the need for balance
I once told my doctor about my bulimia and she warned me to be very careful, not just because of the irrationality of it, but because it can be a symptom or a weak signal of depression.
That was a tough one to swallow. I laughed it off because I felt far from depressed (it’s just an occasional food excess, right?). I didn’t think I was close to depression, and frankly I wasn’t.
But the word stuck with me and helped me realize. Bulimia is a serious problem, one that not only damages the body (lack of iron, dehydration, tooth decay…) but also takes a toll on the mind (loss of self-confidence, distorted body image, wrong perception of food…). Whether it was a symptom of depression or not, it’s definitly a sign if imbalance.
Since then I attribute food a much higher importance and attention than most of us (you?) do. I think it left a permanent trace in my brain. I’m more prone to overeating after swallowing “trigger” foods like sweets, chips or other snacks.
I feel guilty every time I don’t eat healthy. I still overeat at times, in reaction to small or big contrarieties. But I’m getting better at not overly categorizing “good” and “bad”; I learn that all food is acceptable. I try to accept every sub-optimal meal and not let it pervade my mind. I accept a heavier body weight (more than before) as a logical consequence of my lifestyle.
Attitude towards food is just an example, albeit a painful one based on my past. It’s what takes up most mental space. It’s revelatory of a tendency to overdo and overthink things, often unnecessarily, and reminds me of the importance of balance.
Another example is the desire to always push myself harder and go for the next frontier: a friend told me a couple of months ago, after a short jog on a beach: “You’re unable to enjoy a simple run without thinking about preparing an Ironman.” He was right: during our casual run I did think about it, both literally and figuratively.
I sometimes wonder if this tendency to go to extremes is a cause or a consequence of my fragility: Is this difficulty to find the right “middle-ground” (in things like food or training) a consequence of previous excesses ? Like a switch in my head that gets flipped more easily than before?
Or was it always “baked into” myself and revealed itself after the “emptiness” that I experienced going from performance to leisure sports? Is there a risk for me to reproduce this behavior in the future, in sports, work, or other domains? Should I be cautious about excellence, passion or performance?
I don’t know.
A couple of years later, bulimia being behind me but still unsatisfied with my nutrition, I resumed counting calories, “check-marking” every meal (“OK” or “not OK”) in my diary, three times a day. I thought it could give me back a sense of control. But it didn’t, so I stopped. The desire for control is typical for people like me.
I had to find a whole new balance, I had to redefine goals and pleasure, motivation and drive. It’s precisely what the athletes mentioned above are — or have been — struggling with. I’ve struggled with varrying levels self-satisfaction ever since, and still do. This post is not about a success story, it’s about permanent doubt.
Redefining pleasure and motivation
Fast forward a couple of years. Today, I have accepted that having been — and sometimes still being — “fragile” and asking myself all these questions doesn’t make me weak. I actually feel stronger now that I have found words and some root causes of a malaise.
I enjoy questioning the sense of my efforts. I now like to find happiness in things other than an intense workout or a successfully completed race. I’m grateful to having had the opportunity to be an elite athlete, and even to go through the problems that followed.
In hindsight, I totally identify with Adrien Costa’s commentary about puting his career on hold to live more than sports. “I’ve learned a lot about myself and realized how big, and unbalanced, of a part of me was cycling. […] I wasn’t able anymore to have the single-minded, razor-sharp focus for training and racing that I once woke up with daily. I knew I had to lean on other things in life to provide me more balance and more happiness overall.”
He had touched on something universal, and had done so very early in his life.
A couple of month later he lost his leg. But it obviously hasn’t changed his worldview. He now explores new things, takes pleasure in short bike rides, he meditates, domesticates his new body and explores (his) new limits. He is trying to find his balance and he doesn’t know if it is realistic to always be happy.
I, myself, feel fulfilled. I ask myself a lot of questions and am not always happy, but I feel fulfilled. To remind myself of that, I ask myself 8 questions every single day:
- S — did I sleep well? Do I feel rested and refreshed?
- W — did I work out or did I at least go out for a walk?
- A — did I show the right attitude? Was I a good person?
- L — did I show love to the people who are important to me?
- L — did I enjoy life and its pleasures, even the simple ones?
- O — did I organize myself well? Have things been orderly?
- W — did I enjoy my work? Am I happy with my output & projects?
- S — did I eat & drink well? Am I happy with what I swallowed?
As long as I adopt a subjective and loose definition of these terms, without falling into overly tight definitions and normative thinking, it helps me point out what matters for me at the moment. I’m not obsessive about it, it’s not restrictive, it’s positive. When I’m not happy with parts of my day, I try to focus one what been going well.
- If I have slept too little or woke up tired, it will be a ❌.
- If I didn’t work out but had not planned to, then it’s a ✔️.
- If I have been unfair or mean towards someone, attitude will be a ❌.
- If I haven’t worked but it was sunday and I didn’t need to, it’s a ✔️.
It’s a highly personal approach but I find some peace with it. You could also add health or money to it, but I like the bird acronym and stick with it, for now.
Of course, one swallow doesn’t make a summer: this is not a recipe for happiness or a solution to negative mind-wandering. I have shitty days and I will always have them. I’ll always be a bit of an obsessive perfectionist.
But for me it’s just a way to remember what a fulfilling day can be made of. It allows me end a good day with a sense of satisfaction. It’s a reminder that every day is a new day, and that it’s OK not to be OK.
For the past years, it has helped me to put words on the things that offer enjoyment in life. You can call it obsessive but I wouldn’t care. It’s my daily way to take care of my mental health and find my balance.
❤ Thanks for reading ❤