In Our Own Words Gaimon
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In Our Own Words

“It’s true that I was sick. I was depressed”.

By: Phil Gaimon  November 12, 2019

Phil Gaimon, former professional road racer, speaks candidly about dealing with depression, the bike as therapy, and why USA Cycling members should prioritize mental health and ask for help.

***This is one individual's experience and not meant to represent a broader population***

In 7th grade I told my parents that I had headaches, missing 30 days of school. I did it again in 9th grade. I would stay home and watch TV or play computers, or if my parents were both at work I would walk to a park nearby and go fishing. Mom took me to all kinds of doctors, fearing the worst. I knew at the time that I didn’t really have headaches and I felt bad for lying, but it’s true that I was sick. I was depressed and unable to understand or communicate it, afraid that someone would think I was crazy.

When I did go to school, I was the first stop for the school bus. They’d pick me up at 5:45 AM and wind through what seemed like every neighborhood in Atlanta before I’d get to school, with the same routine in reverse to get home. One day I missed the bus and jumped on my Huffy mountain bike, racing to another stop that was later in the bus route. I made it with plenty of time and gradually started to leave later and later, eventually riding the whole 12 miles to school. Soon I found myself taking the long way home, or riding on weekends, just for fun. Something about it felt right, I lost 30 lbs (I was obese at 13), and I stopped getting “headaches.”

I think a lot of people gravitate to cycling for emotional therapy. Exercise is good for your body and brain, and cycling can be social and intimate if you need to talk to a friend, or solo if you want to get away and deal with your demons for a few hours.

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It turned out that I was good at bike riding, so after joining the cycling club in college I spent ten years down the slippery slope of validation and winning and being a pro, tying my happiness and value to my latest result, dealing with pressure to be fast and skinny, traveling year-round, on one-year contracts for low pay. It was an insecure and stressful way to live, and the thing that had brought me mental health was taking it away. Finally a major outside trigger (my father was diagnosed with cancer) put me over the edge, with unmanageable anxiety that affected my sleep, training, racing, and relationships, and I sought help from a psychiatrist.

Medication didn’t help me, but talking did. It took me a few tries to fit the right therapist. Starting with google, I just looked at who was nearby and had a PhD in psychology. She helped me develop healthy sleep routines, fight my anxiety, coping and communication strategies, was a great sounding board for ideas and feelings, and just provided general catharsis from someone you don’t feel bad unloading on. Weekly sessions taught me a lot and made me feel better. I didn’t choose a sports-specific therapist as I was looking to tackle mental issues more than performance ones, but a couple years of weekly sessions improved my racing performance, evolving into monthly sessions to keep me on track. After a few years, now I only see her when I have a major life trigger or an important decision to make.

My life is literally an open book (actually three books), so I don’t have any secrets, but people still seem surprised that I’m willing to admit I got psychological help, or they call me “courageous” for writing about it. I don’t see anything courageous about saying “I have a broken arm and I need a cast,” I don’t see mental health as anything different, and I haven’t experienced any of the stigma after the fact that people seem to worry about. I’ve been made fun of and shamed and attacked for many parts of my books, but nobody’s called me crazy for seeing a therapist. Brains are complicated, life is hard, and if you say you have it all figured out you’re lying to me or yourself. I would argue that whoever claims they don’t ever need mental help is the one who needs it the most, and the only thing that’s crazy is how long people wait to take care of themselves.

Ask your friends and you’ll be surprised how many have experience and someone to recommend. Call your health insurance and ask who they cover. Or just google it and try some out like I did. You wouldn’t walk around with a broken arm and you shouldn’t ignore your brain, either.

About the Contributor

Phil Gaimon was a professional cyclist from 2009-2016. He’s an author, ordained minister, amateur comedian, podcaster, Fondo host, and creative marketer. Phil is retired from racing, now riding bikes for fun and chasing hillclimb records around the world for his YouTube show, “Worst Retirement Ever.”