A couple weeks ago I was driving home after a work event, exhausted by a whirl-wind week and needing to be on it while playing host to about 40 people. I was delirious and desperately wanted to sleep, but instead, I was hit from behind while exiting I-35 at Cesar Chavez in Austin, Texas and crashed into the car in front of me then the exit-ramp guard rail. It was 2 am, my keys were somehow lost in the crash, but thankfully I was OK. The driver in the car I hit was taken to the hospital, and the driver who hit me from behind left the scene.
First-responders asked me if I was drunk–I was acting manic, and was pacing nearly in the middle of a barely-blocked highway–and I said no because I wasn’t, but I was worried about a head injury or whiplash from how hard my airbag deployed. Last December I was clipped by a car while riding my bike and fell directly on my head and sustained a concussion I’m still noticing fallout from nearly 6-months later. In the hours after that crash and over the following days I couldn’t remember what happened, vomited often, couldn’t sleep, and struggled to communicate how severe my symptoms were to friends. I would get frustrated and angry when no one seemed to think it was really that bad but had no way of showing how scared I was.
All I could think about the night of my car crash a few weeks ago was about the complete loss of emotional control I had after my head injury in December. I was terrified that would all happen again, and that the personal relationships my crash in December jeopardized would be ruined now. Because my car was totaled and my keys were lost to the night, I wouldn’t be able to get into my apartment and had nowhere to go, I just started walking.
I was diagnosed with depression in middle school and was medicated for it until college when I decided I didn’t want drugs controlling my cognition. Cutting myself off a fairly high dose of paroxetine and the occasional quetiapine during my first year living in New York while enrolled at NYU was a mistake in hindsight, and on one forgettable spring day in 2006, I decided I’d had enough and tried killing myself with a mix of sleeping pills and alcohol.
The day after that forgettable spring day was the day I decided that I needed to fight for control of my brain. I was unable to quiet my mind down when it would roar with deafening dissonance, I decided to use my body to start to quiet things down and reclaim some control. I started running.
Over the next six years of my life, running was the singular defining characteristic of who I became. I’d still read and do other things, but my weeks were structured around 40-80 mile training blocks, my months around everything from 5ks to marathons, and my years around the continual ebb and flow of depressive episodes that would come whenever overtraining and injury would prevent me from running for a few weeks or months at a time.
Six years ago some friends and I decided to start a cycling team, and that was the point at which I reinvented myself again. I became a cyclist, and Team Yacht Club gave me an opportunity to build something bigger than myself. It gave me external purpose, and a community of like-minded design and bike nerds who liked riding road bikes on gravel, spending 8+ hours together riding on Saturdays and debating Pantone colors and line-weights ad nauseam. I’d still fall into depressive periods, but largely the winds had changed thanks to my team, bikes, and building a culture around a shared love of the sport.
Six months ago, kicked-off some of the worst of my adult life, culminating in my car crash: an uncle I regret not being closer to passed away, I was slowly eroding a relationship with someone I love because I wasn’t letting my brain heal, and just when I was regaining some confidence on the bike again, I crashed while mountain biking and broke 3 ribs and cracked my sternum. My 11-year old cat, Ernie, has also been in and out of the vet with bronchitis and food poisoning, and the added stress of losing my best friend sucks.
When you use endurance sports as a depression windfall, what happens when you lose that part of your life? Because I’ve largely and at times been irrationally afraid to ride a bike outside after my cascading bad luck, I completely cut out the thing I needed in my life that gave me control, community, and some sense of purpose. I fell into the pattern of feeling guilt and shame every time I talked to someone from my team. I became hateful of the valueless throw-away photos on Instagram that I felt obligated to post, and spiraled further after feeling sick at just the thought of riding a bike in traffic.
Depression builds when you repress thoughts you’re ashamed to carry, and when you hide emotion you’re embarrassed to show. You bury the guilt, fear, and sadness that you inexplicably fight nearly every day, and it’s hard to ask for help when there isn’t a “thing” to point to, and when you assume no one else knows how hard walking out your front door can be on the darkest days.
I’ve been afraid to share some of these stories out of embarrassment, inadequacy, and fear of rejection. Sharing all this is like tearing off a bandaid to reveal a gaping vulnerability and insecurity I’d hidden this nearly all of my adult life with those closest to me. I decided to write a largely disorganized mess of too much information because it’s therapeutic for me, and I hope it inspires other people to talk and share.
I’ve made some progress over the weeks since my car crash. I’ve spent more time writing, bought a (slightly faster) new car, and have ridden my bike far less than I have in years. But I’m OK with it. Cycling will always be a significant part of my life, and my bikes will sit still dirty from their last ride, waiting for me when I’m ready. Far more important than my bikes, I know that the people who matter most are the ones who will always be there for me when I need them.
Perhaps, though, the most significant progress I’ve made over the past several weeks and months is my evolving perception of what cycling means to me today and what running meant in an earlier life. It is not a need for control I find through endurance sports, it a longing for discovery and for community. There’s a sense of peace and joy that come from pushing beyond my personal limits, seeing the world through a different lens, and being around a group of people who don’t treat me delicately but support me along the way.
My story isn’t unique, it isn’t any more complicated or insightful than anyone else who has suffered from mental illness and found an outlet in sport. Relying on sport leaves you feeling pushed even further to the edge because of the prospect of losing a connection to the sport that felt like the only answer to inner pain. You can’t track this on a fitness app and it isn’t a form of cultural currency to post and brag about on Instagram. There are countless stories of people who haven’t been as lucky as I, from voices repressed out of fear, or out of a cultural feeling that they need to suck it up and get over it.
Since I’m still dealing with things, I don’t have a significant statement or point to make otherwise. I have found that looking at my life and the lives of my friends through social media–either longingly, out of jealousy at times, or with a dose of disdain–has only made my recovery harder. Life isn’t digital, and value isn’t based on followers, clicks, or vanity metrics. If you struggle with depression, get outside the box and go outside, be with people you care about and care about you. If you don’t have a history with mental illness but are a friend to someone who does, be there with them in real life. Go for a ride, watch old UCI cyclocross race footage together, or just sit there with them–sometimes managing mental illness isn’t all about finding a way to control your mind, it’s about knowing someone else cares enough about you that they’ll spend time to be there with you.
To my friends and to my team, thank you for putting up with me and for being there for me. I don’t know how to capture and express the gratitude I have for you.
Matt DeMartino is one of the founders and a rider for Team Yacht Club. The team is based in Austin, Texas and take part in well-known races like Belgian Waffle Ride, the Grasshopper Series and local events like the Driveway Series.
Reach out to loved ones and seek professional medical help if you are struggling with mental illness. The first step or the first pedal stroke is the hardest, there is help and there is hope.