Cycling Alongside Grief

My inner child has joined the party.

John Walter 📣Jun 3 · 5 min read first published on Medium by Invisible Illness.

The author took the image.

Grief is not singular. In 2 years grieving my daughter, I have begun to realise how much grief I have accumulated in my body and soul. The trauma of Holly’s suicide has triggered all the other pain and loss I have been holding for many years.

Regular counselling has been a vital resource to get me through the last two years, but I soon realised that although my grief around Holly was close to the surface, there were many other issues that very often took over our sessions. My relationship with my father soon came to the fore, prompting an exploration of my gender identity and sexuality.

My inner child has been surfacing in the last couple of weeks. He was calling out to me from 54 years ago when I was a tall 11-year-old who loved being outside, cycling, swimming in the sea or just mucking around on river banks with other kids.

From the Author’s archive. John Walter — back row centre.

At this age, I was the tallest in the class, the fastest runner and ranked amongst the first three in most tests. But 1965 is the year all sorts of things changed.

Childhood wounds began to accumulate. The owner of a local sweetshop caught my best friend and me stealing a Mars bar each from her shop. The local policeman arrived at our door, and my parents banned me from seeing my friend ever again.

My parents decided to enter me for a scholarship exam to a prestigious boarding school which involved a weekly visit to a local maths teacher for booster lessons. Perhaps due to the pressure to succeed in this exam, I became very anxious. I was conflicted, between the desire to please my parents and pass the exam, and a fear of being shipped off to boarding school. The anxiety caused crippling stomachaches, and my doctor prescribed phenobarbitone which is a powerful barbiturate. Luckily I managed to do well in the exam but not well enough to secure a place.

A toddler who I used to look out for and who was a family friend, was murdered. Irrationally I have blamed myself for this.

The list could continue. What I recognise is that the age of 11 was a turning point. I lost interest in education. I adapted in various ways so as not to feel the wounds.

I created survival strategies that served me well for a time, but now I need to give some space to my inner child. The surviving child has hit a crossroads; the adult I have developed into is failing to cope.

Connecting with my inner child.

With lockdown in place, I have had the freedom to connect with my inner child, the 11-year-old boy, happy in his idyllic childhood world.

I have found myself back in my hometown. Everything about the town feels like I have gone back in time to the ’60s. This is helping me make the connections. I have very few responsibilities and can focus on whatever creative work or activities I feel drawn to.

The only bakery in the town which is remaining open is the same one I walked to as a child to collect a still-warm loaf in a brown paper bag. In 60 years it has changed very little. The chain bakers and cornish pasty shops have all closed for the duration of lockdown, but this tiny shop continues. Even in normal times, a maximum of 3 customers at a time could enter.

Image taken by the author.

As I stood to wait for my loaf of bread, the door to the garden opened and a young man brought in a tray of steaming loaves from the bakery behind the shop. As a child, I knew the times that the fresh bread would be appearing and would offer to make the daily trip for my mother. As I returned from my errand I could never resist picking off some of the warm fresh crust and eating it. My mother did not approve but it was a small sacrifice to get the errand done.

I am also using the local grocer rather than supermarkets. The family business stretches right back to before I was born. The pace of life in the town is sleepy and slow as it usually was at off-season times.

Part of my grief has been my grief for my inner child. He is creative and imaginative and cares nothing for practicalities and doing the sensible thing. He knows what he needs and finds ways of fulfilling those needs.

The cycle rides.

I had my bicycle repaired and have started daily cycle rides along the cliffs and through the narrow lanes and cycle paths of North Cornwall. It is my inner child that is leading and directing these rides.

The first morning I awoke with grief sitting on my chest like a weighted blanket. Young John slipped out from under the duvet, and I found myself standing in the kitchen at 5.30 AM looking out at the glorious day. Young John packed a bag with a swimming suit, towel, a bottle of water, a cheese sandwich and an orange.

With no plan, I cycled down the driveway in shorts, T-shirt and sandals. Young John decided to turn left. The ride continued in this way. At each junction, I either turned left or right, but it was all spontaneous with no thought of the destination or the return route.

There was no pushing. On some of the steepest hills, I got off and walked, or I rested in a gateway and took in the view. At one point, I went into a field, took off all my clothes and lay in the sun reading my book. Along the way, I rested and ate my lunch. In the heat of the day, I found a deserted beach and swam in the sea.

I arrived home refreshed. Able to get on with creative projects for the rest of the day.

I now have a similar cycle ride every morning, conscious that this is when my inner child can come out to play. My thoughts on these rides bounce around all the losses and trauma of the last 54 years. I am carefree and free of all responsibilities. I am cycling alongside grief, and I am allowing my inner child to take the lead.

We don’t talk enough about mental health.

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