Stephen Heap

Early in 2004 I was living a reclusive life in my unit, struggling daily and painfully with my mental health. The only time that I would leave the unit was for a fortnightly shop accompanied by my brother, and the occasional visit to see my case-manager. To venture out into the front yard to collect the mail caused me pain and stress and required a great summoning of strength and nerve. Using public transport was a huge challenge and travelling invariably caused me major panic attacks (I would need to get off the bus way before it was anywhere near reaching my destination.)

I first met Neil Barringham, organiser of the Go the Journey Together, Brisbane to Cairns Bike Ride 2005, when I was considering a bike ride to Sydney to support Brook RED. The Brook RED Centre is a local mental health facility where I am involved. My case manager had linked me in with Neil when he realised how serious I was about going on a long bike ride. After meeting with Neil, I started training. I was commuting up to 30km a day beforehand but now increased that distance. Neil linked me up with Bill Webb, a Community Resource Officer with Disability Services Queensland, who was also interested in the Brisbane to Cairns bike ride. We started training at the Murarrie Bike circuit; Bill was so inspired that he decided to also do the ride rather than simply be one of the support team.

The Go the Journey Together, Brisbane to Cairns Bike ride gave me the incentive to get out and train almost every day of the week. Whereas previously I was commuting 30 kilometres a day, I now found myself training up to 50 kilometres a day. Towards the latter part of preparation I had covered 150 kilometres in one day. I was diagnosed with stomach cancer and operated on 5 months before the ride. This set my training back – I was unable to stand for a week and ride for another month. Because of the regular training and increased fitness, I found myself a lot more capable in what would have once been stressful situations. My confidence and my self-esteem improved and I was able to maintain my composure in social activities. I was able to meet up with some of the Go the Journey Together riders to train and to talk about the ride. Towards the end of my preparation, I rode 20 kilometres to Mt Gravatt, scaled bottom to the summit 8 times and then rode home; it was at this stage that I began to feel confident I was able to participate in the Go the Journey Together bike ride.

We left Suncorp Stadium on Saturday the 16th of July, riding first to Pelican Park, Redcliffe with other invited groups of riders, including Anna Bligh – Deputy Premier of Queensland. From here, the core group of 8 riders continued on to Caloundra As we traversed back East and crossed the Gympie Highway to Caloundra, it hit me: here I was actually riding a bicycle with a group of dedicated people, fellow riders, support crew and other awareness raising people, all the way up the East Coast of Queensland from Brisbane to Cairns! It was such an emotional moment for me and it brought tears of joy to my eyes.

The following morning I awoke early to find the support crew folding our laundry in preparation for the days ride. We rode Caloundra to Gympie (135+ kilometres) and camped in a small church hall. On the Monday of the 18th (my birthday) we continued on to Maryborough. It was very cold as we left, about 3 degrees, and it was difficult for me to get into the riding that day. On the Tuesday, riding from Maryborough to Bundaberg, I really began to feel the effects of the ride in my legs. It didn’t help that we had a fierce crosswind for the final 30 kilometres. The latter stages of the next day’s ride to Gladstone (195 kilometres) were tremendously difficult to finish, but I was able to. I made full use of our support crew by pulling out 30 kilometres into the ride from Gladstone, becoming a spectator until lunch. I rejoined for the last part of that day’s ride into the central Queensland town of Rockhampton. I was part of a live ABC radio interview late that afternoon – something that I could not have done before the ride.

The following day was to be the longest I would ever have ridden in one day: 190+ kilometres, and we averaged almost 35 KPH. At this stage I was having difficulty walking. My legs were stiff and sore and I had open sores from the hours spent in the saddle. The following day we rode from St Lawrence to Mackay. That evening I began to apply ice to my right knee. The following morning I departed in a support vehicle and was only able to ride the final 87 km into Ayr. Tuesday I rode from Ayr to Townsville and finished some time behind the other riders. My legs were simply shot after that day’s ride. The following morning I attempted to ride but disappointingly had to pull out only 10 kilometres into the ride – the longest of the whole trip, 208 kilometres. That night in Tully, I was able to share my story and speak a little more comfortably. After a wonderful sleep and a hot breakfast in Tully, I rode the final 166 kilometres into Cairns with all of the other riders, where a very warm public greeted us. What a huge achievement.

During the ride I was able to share the following story at community events:

As a person with a mental illness, I have had periods in my life when I could see no hope for the future. I have spent long periods of time in hospitals undergoing treatments, and I had isolated myself as a result of my feelings. There have been times in my life when I, for whatever reason, have felt that my only option was to give in. In a way I had folded to the stigmas and common misconceptions of the vast majority of the population.

I now take full responsibility for my illness. And with my own coping strategies – my bike riding, diet and physical health, my peer support network, my relationships, my doctors, my medication, I am able to honestly say that I am just as capable of achieving my goals as is anyone else.

There are no barriers to achieving your goals just because you have a mental illness. We have wants and needs, as does anyone else. All that it takes is some commitment. Never underestimate your own potential, simply get involved in something, however small or trivial it may seem – this is a key to wellness. I can assure you, that only 3 years ago no one, least of all me, would have expected that I would be riding a bicycle to Cairns, but here I am. It wasn’t easy, I needed commitment and dedication but I got there. Follow your dreams whatever they may be.

I have now started to train in preparation for the Go the Journey Together Brisbane to Cairns bike ride 2006.

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