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It’s okay not to be okay

Keir Plaice Tekst Keir Plaice Gepubliceerd 27 August 2019

Ultracycling legend Jack Thompson has accomplished some of the most difficult cycling feats on record. Last year, he completed four ascents of Taiwan’s monster Hehuanshan in succession. Earlier this summer, he rode three ‘Everests’ in a row on the highest cols in France, Italy, and Andorra. Such challenges pale in comparison to the challenge he has faced since he was a teenager though. From a young age, Jack has had troubles with his mental health. Cycling can be both a remedy and a menace to him. I sat down with Jack at Fixed Gear Coffee in Valkenburg to ask him about his experiences. Jack hopes that his story might encourage others to talk about any troubles that they might be going through.

Photo: Keir Plaice

__EARLY SYMPTOMS__ I initially noticed that I had these little twitches. If I saw someone I liked, as silly as it sounds, I would have to wink at them with my right eye. If I didn’t like them, I’d do it with my left eye. I was about 13 at the time, and it started to become more and more controlling. I remember we went on a family holiday, and we were in Hong Kong in a taxi, and I was just doing these rituals. I was doing them nonstop. I was just going crazy. My parents said to me—they noticed and said, you need to go and talk to someone about this, because it’s not normal. To begin with, I thought, ah, I don’t want to talk to someone about it, because there’s nothing wrong with me—I was just going through a difficult patch. But it kept on getting worse. So, I ended up talking to someone.

__FOCUS__ It just so happened that it started about the same time that I started doing triathlon, and, for me, I found that triathlon allowed me to focus on something else. I still had these twitches, but I found that the more I was training, the more I could put the twitches aside and concentrate that energy towards something else. I did triathlon up until my final year of school, and I felt that things were pretty under control. I still struggled with school, because I didn’t like having to be there and having to do things. I don’t like being confined. Finally, we decided that I was going to have to stop triathlon and concentrate on my studies, and I noticed that my mood dipped again. 

__LOST__ At the time, we didn’t think much of it. We thought I was stressed. It was my final year of school. Studying—it was pretty hard work. So, I got through my final year, got into uni, and I decided, when I turned 18, I wanted to become a man. And for me, becoming a man was going to the gym and getting bigger and stronger and looking like a man, because I still looked like a young boy. So, I went to the gym. I put on a swag of muscle. At the time in Australia, there was a construction boom, and I was studying within the construction industry. All of us students managed to get a job where we were getting pretty well paid. I was still living at home, and I was basically partying hard. I ended up dabbling in illicit drugs. Party drugs sort of became my life. I was gymming, and I was messing around with the wrong crowd. I was just an angry guy. The turning point for me was when my parents found the drugs in my room—pills and all sorts. They basically said, unless you come off cold turkey, we are going to kick you out of the house, put you on the street, and we are going to cut you out of the will. I remember thinking at the time, like, fuck, I could not survive that. Home—I didn’t know any better. So, I came off cold turkey and immediately went into a black hole. I was addicted, came off cold turkey, and just lost my mind. I found myself in rehab for a little while. When I came out of rehab, I was a bit lost.

Photo: Zac Williams

__BACK ON THE BIKE__ I went back to work, and my dad said, why don’t you get back on the bike? I thought, I don’t want to get on a bike. I’ve been trying to put muscle on for years, and I don’t want to go and do all this cardio and lose it all. But anyways, I did it, more so for him than for me, because he was pissed. I got on the bike, and, after the first ride, I was hooked. I loved it. I felt at home again. Admittedly, I’ve got an obsessive personality, so when I do something, it is always 100%, so I started doing more and more and more on the bike, and I noticed that my mood improved. I found that when I was down, I could jump on the bike, and anything that was causing me grief would disappear. I started doing longer and longer kilometres. I started racing. It was 2013;I did a bit of racing in Belgium and Holland and basically overdid it. I was trying to lose weight and become a skinny racer. I was training hard, but not eating enough, and got diagnosed with chronic fatigue. So, I then had to step off the bike again for six months, and I noticed again that my mood just dipped right off. When I eventually came back and was good to ride, I decided that I didn’t want to race anymore. I thought, I’ve done the racing; I’m never going to become a professional rider, but I enjoy going exploring. 

__EXPLORATION__ Growing up, my dad had, when he retired, decided that he wanted to ride around the world. So, we grew up with a dad who was always off adventuring, and I thought, you know, maybe I’ll do some of this adventure-style stuff. So, I started going on long rides on weekends, and they got longer and longer and longer, and I was doing silly, crazy things at night time. I entered the Transcontinental Race in 2016 and didn’t really know what I was getting into, but went over there and raced from Belgium to Turkey, and I remember the first night that we set off I thought, like, fuck, I am alive. This is insane. I love this. It was an awesome time. And I finished up in Turkey, and I just remember my boss calling me, saying, when are you going to be back at work? I thought, I don’t need this. I’m on holiday. I don’t want to be answering to my boss when I’m on holiday. So, I decided that first day at work I was going to quit cold turkey. I was not going to do it anymore. I was going to pursue the bike.

Photo: Zac Williams

__NEW PATHS__ I found it difficult to come back and quit and have no income, but I found, having done that, I sort of opened a whole new pathway. Over the past couple of years, cycling has become my full-time work. I am now chatting with other people and using films to encourage people who have mental health issues to speak out, because I found, for me, it was when I initially started talking to a psych and trying to overcome the illness that I did overcome it. Although I still suffer from depression and take medication, I find, so long as I can get on a bike, and I am exercising, I’m in a really good headspace

__OVERDOING IT__ There was definitely a stage in the beginning when I was overdoing it, just because I was using the obsession. At the time, it was almost to my advantage, but I was overdoing it. Whereas it might be healthy to ride 600 or 700 kilometres a week, I was doing 1000 every week, because I just told myself I had to, and it has taken a little while to adjust. That’s why the chronic fatigue was an issue. I’m slowly learning to—if I wake up and I feel shitty, I will no longer ride. I have a voice now that’s more sensible, and it’s taken a little while to develop that, but I think it’s through things that happen, like getting sick or getting an injury, that you learn.

__EXTREMES__ I think that extremes can be unhealthy. I personally don’t think that what I am doing at the moment is unhealthy, but there is a limit where it will get to the point where it’s not healthy, and I think that’s something I need to be careful of, because I could easily get there without thinking about it. Having a team around, whether that’s my old man or a bunch of mates, even sponsors to chat to, having that support network around will hopefully stop me from ever going to the point where I’m beyond safe, where I’ve gone over the edge.

Photo: Zac Williams

__FITNESS AND SANITY__ I find when I’m physically fit, I’m in a good headspace, but I find if I’m, for whatever reason, and this is where I’d say it’s probably not healthy, if I have to have two weeks off the bike, I really notice that my mental headspace takes a bit of a dip. I don’t know if that’s a lack of the endorphins that I’m used to or if it’s that obsessive personality on an unhealthy scale, but it’s definitely something I notice. My family notice it as well, and when I come back from a trip or something, we all know that I will go into a bit of a slump. My parents often remind me. They say, like, you are going to come back from this trip and you are going to feel shitty, but just remember that that’s not forever. The physical activity keeps me sane, but I need to be able to stay sane without the physical activity. I’m still working on that.

__UPS AND DOWNS__ While we all have ups and downs, I feel like my ups and downs are far more level than what they were. I’m no longer on a rollercoaster. I love the riding and the extreme things and get a lot of enjoyment out of them, but I get a lot of satisfaction out of chatting with other people about their own struggles too. What I want to do is use the bike as a vehicle for delivering a message, and that message is, essentially, that it is okay not to be okay and that, especially as males, we should talk about our problems. I want to remove the stigma. Guys often—we don’t want to admit that we are feeling shitty, and I think that if guys could admit that they were feeling shitty, then they could help one another. That’s what I want to do.

Photo: Brian Megens

__COMMUNITY__ The people I’ve spoken to locally in Australia and here in Europe, a lot of them have said that they can relate to what I have to say. Even Dave Millar said that he can relate, that when he’s exercising, he’s a far calmer, more controlled, and happy individual. When he stops exercising, he almost feels as if he lacks purpose. It’s almost as if exercise can provide purpose for people, whether it’s a 30-minute jog each day or a 30 minute ride, just being able to tick that off the list. You’ve done something. I think that’s quite powerful. The people I’ve spoken to in cycling, a lot of them say that they have suffered from mental health issues. I think the cycling community, the fact that you ride with a group, that helps people. You might have your work friends, your school friends, and then you have your cycling friends. Having that group of people who you can share cycling with, especially those who have been in a dark space, it’s a nice relationship that we, as cyclists, have. The people I ride with still suffer. It might not be severe. It might just be that they are out of a job and are struggling a little bit. Most people struggle with something at one point or another, and I think it’s nice to have that group in which you can share things and not feel judged.

__IT’S OKAY NOT TO BE OKAY__ The message that I am trying to spread is that it is okay not to be okay, and you don’t have to feel silly or weak or like a boy. You can still be a man and not be okay with the thoughts in your head. You can still struggle, and it does not reflect you as a man. I think, as males especially, there is a bit of a stigma about talking about it, because there is that need to come across as macho, but I think that if we can talk about it, we’ll all be better off for it.