I wanted med­i­ca­tion to fix my de­pres­sion but I needed to fix my­self


Llanelli Star - - HEALTH & LIFESTYLE -

VIC­TO­RIA PENDLETON was one of Team GB’s big­gest suc­cess sto­ries in the Lon­don Olympic Games. Dur­ing a hot and sticky sum­mer in 2012, the sports star ped­alled to vic­tory in the velo­drome, tak­ing home the keirin gold and sprint sil­ver, be­fore re­tir­ing with nine world cham­pion ti­tles to her name.

But last year, Vic­to­ria found her­self fac­ing a dif­fer­ent kind of chal­lenge, af­ter an at­tempt to climb Mount Ever­est went awry. She was tack­ling the world’s high­est moun­tain with her friend Ben Fogle for an ITV doc­u­men­tary, but was forced to aban­don the mis­sion af­ter suf­fer­ing dan­ger­ous hy­poxia (oxy­gen de­pri­va­tion).

What fol­lowed was a pe­riod of se­vere de­pres­sion that left the ath­lete – in her own words – “psy­cho­log­i­cally and phys­i­o­log­i­cally dam­aged”, which doc­tors have sug­gested could have been trig­gered by the ef­fects of hyproxia on the brain.

The 38-year-old ex­pe­ri­enced sui­ci­dal thoughts and, at one very low point, says she was count­ing out the amount of drugs she’d need to take her own life.

“To feel that help­less and vul­ner­a­ble was some­thing that was re­ally quite new to me,” she says, re­flect­ing on her low­est point last sum­mer. “I tried to deny it for a long time. I kept think­ing, ‘This isn’t me’.

“My heart would be rac­ing and I’d try to ig­nore it, while telling my­self, ‘It’s fine, it’ll stop in a minute’, but then it’d de­velop into an anx­i­ety at­tack.”

Al­though she’s pre­vi­ously spo­ken about strug­gling with self-harm at the height of her cy­cling ca­reer, Vic­to­ria says her re­cent bat­tle with de­pres­sion caught her com­pletely off guard, floor­ing her when she least ex­pected it.

“The whole episode I went through last sum­mer re­ally blind­sided me. I didn’t see it com­ing,” she ad­mits.

“I al­ways think that I can

mus­cle through any­thing. That if I just grit my teeth and get stuck in, I’ll beat it. But un­for­tu­nately men­tal health is not some­thing you can nec­es­sar­ily do that with – which was hugely frus­trat­ing for me. I had to learn to man­age it a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ently.

“It’s strange, you think: ‘I can win Olympic gold medals, I should be able to beat this.’ But it doesn’t work that way.”

Choos­ing to forgo anti-de­pres­sants, Vic­to­ria turned to sports to help pull her­self out of the dark­ness. Throw­ing her­self against the tur­bu­lent surf of the coast of Costa Rica, she says, was the best ther­apy for her.

“Af­ter be­ing pre­scribed lots of med­i­ca­tion, which I soon re­alised does not suit me at all, I took my­self surf­ing, alone, for a month,” she ex­plains. “I knew I needed to go and do some­thing phys­i­cal and challengin­g, in a dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment.

“[Med­i­ca­tion] def­i­nitely didn’t suit me. I tried it and I wanted it so badly to work

– and to fix me. Ul­ti­mately I needed to fix my­self.”

The for­mer cy­clist found the adren­a­line rush of catch­ing a wave al­lowed her to en­ter a state of hy­per-fo­cus, en­abling her to for­get every­thing else that was go­ing on in her mind.

“When you’re pad­dling and there’s a huge wave com­ing in, you have to get over it – oth­er­wise you’re go­ing to be pounded by the white­wash,” she says.

“Don’t get me wrong, there were days where I was drag­ging my surf board through the sand with tears stream­ing down my face, think­ing, ‘I don’t know why I’m do­ing this’,” she re­calls. “But af­ter 10 min­utes of pad­dling for my life, the world seemed like a bet­ter place.”

A year on, Bed­ford shire­born Vic­to­ria says she feels like she’s found the cop­ing mech­a­nisms that work for her. “I know that for me, be­ing in a place where I can fo­cus and work hard phys­i­cally, in an en­vi­ron­ment that’s slightly dan­ger­ous – to be per­fectly hon­est – helps to re­build my con­fi­dence and my strength in my­self.

“That’s my happy place!” she adds with a laugh.

“The whole episode has def­i­nitely made me more aware of my men­tal well­be­ing and more vig­i­lant to things that make me feel a lit­tle bit out of sorts.

“If I’m feel­ing a cer­tain way, I won’t let it spi­ral. I’ll try and nip it in the bud early, or do some­thing or speak to some­body be­fore it gets into a sit­u­a­tion that could po­ten­tially make me feel re­ally bad.”

Al­though she says she doesn’t miss com­pet­ing as a cy­clist, Vic­to­ria can still be found on two wheels – al­though these days, you’re more likely to see her on the back of a 675cc en­gine, hav­ing re­cently passed her mo­tor­cy­cle test. When I bring up the sub­ject, her voice lights up. “Oh my gosh,” she ex­claims. “I tell you what, this Tri­umph Scram­bler [she rides a Tri­umph Street Triple], the noise it makes when it’s rum­bling in­side my helmet – I love it!

“I’ve al­ways wanted to be a biker chick,” she en­thuses. “Tick­ing stuff off my bucket list makes me happy – so this bike makes me re­ally happy.”

Speak­ing to Vic­to­ria, you get the sense that she isn’t hiding any­thing from the out­side world – her hon­esty is as re­fresh­ing as her bound­less en­thu­si­asm for dare­devil sports.

“I’ve never been closed on any as­pect of how I feel and I think that’s some­thing I take pride in, to be per­fectly hon­est. Just be­cause you might strug­gle a bit with men­tal health is­sues, doesn’t mean you can’t still be an Olympic cham­pion or achieve what­ever you want to.

“It’s not a bar­rier to stop you,” Vic­to­ria af­firms. “It might slow you down, but it won’t stop you, and I think that’s im­por­tant for peo­ple to un­der­stand.”

Olympian Vic­to­ria Pendleton has been open about her men­tal health strug­gles

An aborted bid to climb Ever­est with Ben Fogle was the catalyst for a pe­riod of de­pres­sion for Vic­to­ria

Golden mo­ment: Vic­to­ria cel­e­brat­ing at Lon­don

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