Our Partner Peer Support Co-ordinator, Simon O’Mara, has been incredibly busy raising awareness of postpartum psychosis and raising lots of money for APP by cycling 851 virtual miles.
Here he talks about why cycling is so good for his mental health.
When I get on my mountain bike, riding through narrow tracks at speed, tree branches within an inch of each handlebar, I can’t afford to think of anything else. It’s impossible, in fact. Mountain biking for me, requires technical focus, care and attention, and to let my mind wander elsewhere would be dangerous.
It’s the same with motorcycling, another passion of mine. It’s so good for the soul because when you’re out on the road, you can’t focus on anything else. You need to be acutely aware of the conditions of the road, the weather, other traffic – and of course every move you’re making; it’s critical to keep you safe.
But this need for focus is also why it’s so good for my mental health. The escapism and mindfulness that cycling affords me is invaluable. The fact that it’s good for my physical fitness is merely a by-product for me because, first and foremost, I enjoy it – and that’s why it has such a positive impact on my life and my health – both mentally and physically.
Fifteen years ago, after the birth of our son, my wife was diagnosed with postpartum psychosis (PP) – a severe and debilitating postnatal mental illness. It was a frightening time for the whole family not least because, at the time, we had no real understanding as to what PP was.
It all started in the first couple of weeks after my wife gave birth, I had noticed subtle changes in her mood, but, as a first-time father, I didn’t really know what was ‘usual’ or ‘unusual’ after birth. A few weeks later and these changes took a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse, things became very scary, very quickly.
Over the next few days, she woke in the early hours ‘ghost like’, her mood had plummeted, she was anxious, confused, pacing around the house, having delusions and hallucinations, ultimately it all ended in a 999 call. I found myself in complete turmoil and throughout our journey with PP, had times where I went through every emotion possible - from being terrified, to feeling isolated, worried about the future and even feeling guilt-ridden for decisions I’d had to take; with little sleep, the pressure I felt was enormous, however, the support we received from family, friends and eventually specialist health professionals treating my wife was vital.
Postpartum psychosis as a father or partner, feels very much like a journey with a number of possible stages, from the initial crisis, potential admission to hospital, returning home and recovery - all of which bring different feelings and concerns to the fore. Just holding it together, having to keep strong for your wife or family members can sometimes see you not considering or letting on how worried you are, which in turn can lead to fathers suffering with their own mental ill-health.
It goes without saying that, whilst in the midst of the illness, mountain biking wasn’t really an option. I did give it a go while my wife was in hospital, but I couldn’t concentrate and was too acutely aware of everything that was going on at that time, so I wasn’t able to give cycling all my attention and I wasn’t able to get the enjoyment and mental health benefits from it.
When my wife came home, as her partner, I still had real worries about whether she might relapse and how we would cope if she did. I wondered if things might be drastically different for us and how life might be in the future. So it wasn’t until she was firmly into her recovery journey that I was able to stop and think about how I was coping, how I was feeling. It was during this period of my wife’s recovery that mountain biking became a significant part of my own recovery from the stress and trauma that PP had on our family.
But it isn’t even just the time that I’m on my bike when I notice a change in how I’m feeling. Even when I’m putting the bike back on the car, ready to head home, I feel refreshed, ready to deal with anything that life throws at me. It not only gives me those moments of mindfulness, it re-sets everything and helps build longer-term resilience.
This is why I was so keen to combine my learnings from our family’s experience with my love of cycling to raise awareness and funds, and to campaign for specialist services for postpartum psychosis. Since October, I’ve been cycling a virtual route of 851 miles to demonstrate the gaps in service provision around the UK and the miles many families have to travel to access this care.
I’m cycling on behalf of APP. If you’d like to sponsor me, visit my JustGiving page for more information.