27/08/12 So you want to walk a mile in my shoes? Just follow the psychopath…er cycle path

The Sustrans route 75 cycle path is a delight that takes the traveller from Paisley, a built up and, until the 70’s, industrial town close to Glasgow, nearly all the way to Wemyss (pronounced Weems) Bay, a small settlement on the West coast.

I’d been a little concerned that now I’d hit the big city people would be less forthcoming with their kindness and stories and general walkamiliness. It’ll come as no surprise, I was wrong.

The first person I met was Ian, a local man pushing his bike. His bike had an interesting attachment bolted onto its rear. He’d made it himself and it was an interesting combination of a piece of bike frame, an old cycle pedal and a plank of wood. He used this to attach his trailer (home made and at home) to his bike.

I did feel a bit of envy as I looked at Hubert – crafted by the hands of another, my shoulders sank as I accepted the miserable truth that my DIY skills were limited to flat pack furniture.

His creation had been borne out of necessity – realised on the day his Morrison’s bags ruptured while he walked in the rain…

I walked on, looking at the contrast of the parks and houses alongside the local tip.

I fell over (rule number 1 – always look where you’re going) and looked around to make sure nobody had seen it.
I bumped into Debbie – a very open and vibrant woman – who told me about her work with young folk who’d lost their way in the education system – how she tried to give them hope and some notion of a future – she told me about her own struggles with depression and about someone she knew who’d suffered sexual abuse.

She told me about that persons subsequent anti social and apparently bizarre behaviour – how they’d become withdrawn and how they now questioned their own sexuality.

She asked me how could she help? The best thing I could think of was to keep loving them – and keep letting them know they’re loved as they begin to work their way through it all. And get professional help – and don’t expect it to be done and dusted in a couple of weeks.

This is a tall order – it can be hard when the person you thought you knew starts acting in ways you’ve never seen before.

Debbie hugged me. This woman I’d only met half an hour ago hugged me in the middle if the cycle path.

She donated £20 online too.

Further along I met Ross and Geraldine. He was mending a puncture while she asked me what on earth I was doing.

They were both very friendly – interested and interesting – I was telling them about part of my motivation to walk – that men tended not to speak about their mental health – that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 35 – that each year over 5000 people in the UK take their own lives – that’s more than in the 911 bombings and yet we don’t make a noise about it.

Geraldine told me she knew this – both her brother and her nephew had committed suicide.

It is always shocking to hear this – no matter how often I’m told about it – it takes my breath away.

She explained that with her brother it felt like it had been expected – he’d suffered from chronic depression for many years; her nephew’s death had been a complete shock – he’d been a straight A popular student who was looking forward to his place at medical school.

Shocking.

Great that she could talk about it – but as ever there’s the head spinning that follows it.

Well managed, depression need not lead to suicide – although it still does. And what about this significant group of folk who appear to take their lives out of the blue?

Will talking help? Not just 1 to 1 conversations with health professionals – but if mental health is at the forefront of everyone’s minds surely that can only help dispel the isolation, the myths and the negative ‘pull yourself together’ attitudes that abound in our society.

Near Greenock I met a couple – James and Elaine. They were homeless, a bit younger than me, and they looked travel weary.

They met me with a warm smile, ready chat and were quick to laugh – see below –

Jim told me that as a child of 5 he’d been diagnosed as having schizophrenia. He was passed from pillar to post, from abusive foster parents to different homes until he finally settled in one that gave him the stability he craved.

It transpired he didn’t have schizophrenia – his symptoms, regular absences mainly, had been caused by epilepsy – in his case a completely manageable condition.

At the age of 23 he had, what he described as, a breakdown. The instability and abuse of his early life consumed him. He ran away from everything, seeking solace in travelling around Asia – he learned to be a street performer on his way – juggling flaming clubs – he took on the mantle of eco-warrior when he returned to the UK – fighting for what he believed was right, protecting ancient woodlands and the like.

Threaded through his life though, was the spectre of abuse – he self medicated with class A drugs in an attempt to alleviate the pain.

And now, here he was with his wife, Elaine, trying to get back into society. He’s gone from town to town looking for a place to stay – but because of his lifestyle he isn’t on any computers – he’s a ghost.

Why don’t you get a job you fucking druggy?

I took a photo of them, smiling their friendly smiles. I left them in the knowledge that they had no idea what their next step was.

All these people touched and battered by mental health issues, ready and willing to talk about it as long as there’s a listening ear.

Was it easier to talk to me, a wandering stranger, about their lives, their trials and tribulations – or do folk really want to talk, but they don’t know where to go – they don’t know what step to take?
I was shocked, saddened, moved but above all privileged to meet these wonderful people from a variety of worlds who saw fit to share their stories with me.

Walk a mile

Chris

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