How Craft And Cycling Saved My Life
Written by Guest Blogger: Rebecca Armstrong
Depression hit me hard and fast. When it happened, I had no idea it was depression. Yes, I was tired and stressed, but I put that down to being overworked.
I was freelancing at the time. The job was meant to be editing and proof-reading an English as a foreign language (or EFL) newspaper and supporting an editorial team. It turned out that there was no team, just me. My job turned into an exhausting cycle: write, edit, layout and sign off the entire publication. To make matters worse, I was to do this all in a windowless basement flat they called an ‘office’. It's no wonder I didn't feel so good.
That's when I had a breakdown. This was simultaneously one of the worst things I've experienced and about the best thing that could have happened, because it forced me to get help. The doctor put me on citalopram, an antidepressant, and signed me off work.
This was back in May 2007, and nine years on things are quite different. I’m no longer on antidepressants; over the years I've come to recognize the warning signs of my depression. I know that if I’m feeling tired or drained, I need to take some time out to recharge my batteries, or if I’m feeling lonely I need the company of a good friend, or if I’m feeling down I need to get out and do something physical.
There are two things that I’ve found really help when things start to look dark: knitting and cycling. An odd combination, maybe. But then again I don’t really combine them - that would be dangerous.
Like many women of my age, my mum tried to teach me to knit when I was young. It was a disaster - a holey mess of added stitches, dropped stitches and split yarn. I gave up and never thought of it again.
Until I got signed off work. I knew I would need something to occupy my mind, but I didn’t know what. Several of my friends were Knitters with a capital K - they’d been doing it since they could hold the needles. They suggested I give it a go. So I bought a book and haven’t looked back since. The ability to create something - a hat, a shawl or a sweater - just with two pointy sticks and some balls of wool, to be able to accept that I had a talent, was, quite frankly, a revelation.
Since then there have been all kinds of research into the health benefits of crafting. Knitting promotes a feeling of well-being and can reduce anxiety. My theory as to why it might help is simple. First, crafts like knitting occupy your hands and your mind enough to distract you from what you were thinking about. And one thing that depression does is trap you in those negative thoughts stuck in your head. At the same time, it’s not complicated enough to cause you stress. Second, it helps counteract those feelings of worthlessness because at the end of your knitting session you’ve produced something - often something beautiful and practical.
We all know that exercise can help counteract depression. Indeed some research suggests that in the case of mind depression, exercise could be more effective than antidepressants alone. The irony about this is that when you’re depressed and can’t even get out of bed, the last thing you want to do is go out and exercise. I think the way around this is to find an activity you really love doing. For me, that was cycling.
I took up cycling a couple of years ago when I moved in with my boyfriend. Until then, I’d been walking to work - a huge luxury in London - to save money on commuting. Then my birthday came around and he decided to buy me a bike. In those early days the bike was just a mode of transport, a cheap way of getting to and from work. But that soon changed.
"The bike gave me freedom, it meant I could ride all over London, and so I did. Close by places at first - Stoke Newington, Epping Forest - but slowly, I ventured further until I cycled all the way from Walthamstow in east London to Richmond in the west. It was wonderful. I’d pick a destination, find a route on Google Maps and simply set off, have lunch when I arrived, and then cycle back."
But there’s so much more to it than this. Cycling makes me happy. If I’m off the bike for more than a couple of days my mood deteriorates, while if I’m feeling down getting on the bike improves things so much. Just a short ride can make all the difference. In fact it’s probably not overstating the case to say that my bikes have saved my life.
There’s also one huge added bonus: at 40 I’m the fittest I’ve ever been in my life. I completed two 100-mile events last year and in September I’m cycling from London to Paris to raise money for the Cancer Research Institute (you can read more about this challenge here: https://www.justgiving.com/Rebecca-Armstrong8).
It isn’t easy to get out and do things when depression is bad, but we all have good days and bad days and we can make the most of the former by doing something we love. Think about the kind of things you enjoy doing: taking a walk in a park, or reading a good book, maybe. Find something you love and do it - whenever you can. Each time you do something you love is a little victory. It’ll make you a happier, healthier person, and isn’t that what we’re all aiming for?