Do you have a dirty secret life as well? Do you do things alone that fill you with shame and self-loathing? Do you have activities and addictions that you want to keep from your loved ones and that if your best friend admitted to them, you would advise that they sought out help?
I used to have a self-destructive habit. I was always looking for an excuse to pop out of the house for a bit to run an errand, do a bit of shopping or fill the car with petrol. I would often end up being out a bit longer than expected and return home lying about being stuck in traffic or having to go to two shops to find the thing I wanted or running into a friend and having been stopped chatting.
My dirty secret was that I was addicted to junk food. Specifically candy bars and crisps. Every time I went out I stopped by at the supermarket or petrol station, bought an armful of candy and crisps and sat in the car alone gorging myself in desolate car parks and lay-bys.
The problem was that I was trying to fill a huge void in my life with some semblance of artificial happiness. I got a massive sugar and comfort rush from the family sized chocolate bars, sharing size bags of crisps and multiple bars that I could devour in one sitting. It was pretty standard for me to eat two bags of crisps followed by a family sized chocolate bar and then three individual candy bars. I could devour this down in well under ten minutes. I then often drove home whilst eating a family sized bag of sweets to save valuable minutes. Mostly it was as if I hadn’t been out of the house for any unusual amount of time at all and I could keep my guilty secret.
At it’s worst this was fairly much a daily event. Maybe more than once a day sometimes to the extent that I lost my appetite for other food or regular meals. I remember the sensation of my distended stomach and the self-loathing whilst at the same time still having the compulsion to eat more. I disgusted myself. I rode a wave of sugar highs and plumbed the depths of the inevitable slumps that followed. I often struggled to stay awake, my speech slightly slurred as I scrambled to try to lever myself out of the black hole as my body frantically put all of it’s resources into trying to process all the crap I’d loaded into it.
I accumulated large bags of discarded wrappers stuffed under the passenger seat of the car. But I was always careful and secretive. I was never out too long without an excuse, I covered my tracks well and discarded all of the wrapper rubbish regularly in public bins to avoid any suspicion by my family of my deception.
I felt, dirty, ashamed, worthless. So I ate more, for the temporary thrill.
It was a feature of my life for a decade or more. Sometimes worse, sometimes better. I deserved to be morbidly obese but luckily I had a job where I was relatively physically active and I have always been blessed with a fast metabolism. I’m also a rather ridiculous 6′ 5” tall and so I can carry extra weight quite well. A pot belly is fairly easily hidden when you are so long!
However, as I reached my forties the years of over eating were starting to take their toll. I was very overweight, depressed, incredibly unfit, unmotivated and struggling through life on a day to day basis. I’ve always been good at covering my inner world and I think I still functioned perfectly adequately as a father and as a worker. But there was an increasingly unmanageable emptiness in my life that I was struggling to come to terms with.
Strangely enough, my salvation was a relatively minor physical ailment. My osteopath recommended cycling to help strengthen the muscle around a knee that had been giving me long term joint pain. It was almost as if I needed permission from someone to do something for my self or just a very gentle nudge in the right direction but, for some reason, I decided that if I was going to start cycling I would do it properly. I bought a second-hand road bike on eBay and some cycling kit and got started.
In the beginning, I could literally go for about ten minutes at a time but I gradually built up, following a beginner’s cycling plan, over a number of months until I could cycle for a couple of hours.
The benefits that cycling brought to my life were unbelievable:
1 – I started to feel physically amazing. Even with my extra weight and cycling for a relatively short time, I would come home and my legs would be tingling. I gained a sense of internal cleanliness, almost like I could literally feel the good that cycling was doing to my body. Over a longer period of time, I gained significant amounts of extra energy, got fewer aches and pains and I no longer get breathless running up and down stairs. I am currently, at the age of 49, significantly fitter than I have ever been at any point in my life and it feels fantastic.
2 – I actually lost the desire to feed myself junk food all the time. Don’t get me wrong I still love chocolates but the craving went away. I think it was as a by product of the inside of my body feeling fitter and cleaner I just lost the desire for junk food. The fitter I became the more I craved to eat healthily. Today I don’t watch calories or avoid “treat” food altogether but food isn’t intrinsically linked to my moods and self-esteem.
3 – I lost significant amounts of weight. Over 50 pounds in fact and to the extent that my clothes were too big and people were commenting on how noticeably better I look. I remember the first time I noticed my ribs again in the mirror. I could feel my pelvic bones again and it was as if my body had been shrouded behind a debilitating layer of fat for years.
4 – I gained a new respect for my body. I can cycle at a level way beyond what my brain believes I could ever do, it’s almost as if my body takes over and out performs itself. There’s something thrilling about feeling your body getting stronger and faster and I would never have believed, ten years ago, what I can physically do now.
5 – My self-esteem, confidence, mood and whole outlook changed. I wasn’t prepared for this at all but cycling has also had a huge mental impact on me. It certainly has a great feel good factor associated with it and it’s fairly much impossible to come back from a ride in a worse mood than you started off in. Longer term, I’ve realised that my clarity of thinking, decision making and sense of peace with the world is heightened on the bike. It puts me in a sense of flow and is one of those activities where time stands still for me and I am both hyper sensitive and completely at ease at the same time. It nourishes my soul and is like a regular oasis of sanity for me.
I cycle three times a week now and it’s become one of the cornerstones of my existence. Cycling has been a major contributory factor in transforming my life. It’s a sanctuary for me, a therapy and one of the few activities that I will prioritise over all others. My cycling time is sacred as it underpins everything and helps me to be a better person both physically and mentally.
I was lucky in that I fairly much accidentally found my physical activity of joy! I instantly loved cycling and all of the other benefits fairly much fell into place once I started doing it. However, I don’t primarily cycle to lose weight or to keep fit – I cycle because I love to cycle and I think this is the key.
We all have some sort of physical activity that we love doing, it might be gardening, running, dog walking or anything! The problem is we are conditioned to think that, for exercise to be good for us, it needs to be tough and unpleasant. We think we have to go to the gym or start circuit training. If our motivation is just to rather vaguely get fit or to lose weight most of us, rather sadly and inevitably, will fall by the way side. Just think of all those unused gym memberships!
However, if the motivation is pleasure and joyfulness, the chances are we will stick with it. We all love to enjoy ourselves and if the by product is better health and fitness then we are on to a winner. We just need to alter our thinking slightly, find our physical joy activity and then indulge as much as possible! Think a little bit outside the box, as long as you are moving and you do it regularly then it’s good for you!
Now, I don’t want you to think that I’m some sort of cycling iron man and that I’m now super fit and muscly! Actually, I am blessed with extremely modest athletic gifts and, in the broad realm of things, my cycling ability is rather limited. However, I’m not in competition with anyone else apart from myself. I don’t actually care how fast or how long anyone else can cycle I’m only interested in my own improvement and ability. Beyond that, I’m far less interested in my physical improvement on the bike than I am in optimising my enjoyment of every ride. Most sportsmen plan each activity in order to get fitter, faster and stronger. I cycle for the sheer pleasure of it. The immense benefits are a by product of that and let’s face it it’s far less damaging a guilty pleasure than sitting alone in the car secretly stuffing my face with chocolates.
If you don’t already know, go out and find out what your guilty physical pleasure is. Once you know, do more of it, book time to do it in your schedule and prioritise it beyond anything else. Put your own pleasure first and reap the benefits.
Did cycling save my life? Well, not literally but it probably saved me from a premature grave, a life of depression and misery and gave me back the energy, self-esteem and clarity of thinking to be able to be a much better version of myself. The compulsion to eat up until the point that I felt like I had to vomit has mercifully gone and I no longer ride the sugar highs and lows gripped in the jaws of my destructive and guilt ridden addiction.
I’m finally free.