What a solo cycling journey taught me about mental health

This blog post is part of a series on men’s mental health for Movember. In this series, different men give their perspective on male mental health. What does it mean to deal with mental health as a man?

In certain cases as with the interview below, people have had the courage to reveal their identity. This is both brave and vulnerable, congratulations to them!

What made you want to share your story? Please introduce yourself

Dirk Spits

My name is Dirk Spits, 39 years old. Between September 2013 and May 2015 I solo-cycled from the northern tip of Alaska to the southern point of South America, an expedition of over 30.000 km that took 20 months. I did this for my foundation called 99%RIDE, raising funds and awareness for small NGOs concerning children’s and educational projects.

During the expedition I experienced the most difficult (mental, physical and emotional) situations I have ever come across. The mental component has always fascinated me, and now I am always pleased to be able to share my story and experience with others.

Have you ever experienced a mental health or wellbeing issue? If so, when was the first time you became aware of it or experienced it?

Prior to the cycling expedition I was already making preparations for certain things like gear, routes, diet etc. The one thing I couldn’t prepare for was my mental well-being and how I would cope in certain situations. Extreme loneliness was one of the mental and emotional aspects I did not anticipate.

During your cycling expedition you experienced some difficulties which affected your mental health/wellbeing. Can you talk a bit more about that?

During the expedition I was continuously on the road, I never really stayed in one place for long. Especially when I visited a project, it really brought home the fact that I was so alone the rest of the time I was there to help children and show people where and how their donation was being used, there was a lot of love and understanding, a feeling of pride and achievement. 

Yet every time I left a project, I had grown attached to the people and children and immediately felt completely alone. There wasn’t ever anybody who was physically there to just pat me on the shoulder or give me a hug. It was always back on the road, looking for water, food and a spot to pitch your tent. Once in a while I would be in a hostel to take a quick shower and use the Wi-Fi to upload videos and blogs, but that was it. There wasn’t any real connection with people.

What did you experience that made you aware of it, and what did you do about it?

After having visited a few projects and had time to think about how to handle certain situations (there was enough time for thinking 😉 ) I realized I was surrounded by a protective barrier I had put around myself. I was still open to people, but never really letting too many things come in, it was a kind of a shield that I needed. I now knew how to prepare myself, how to act and how to bounce back stronger from these setbacks. My mind was oriented more on the final goal (reaching the end and having raised enough funds and awareness), and I was now breaking the entire project into smaller chunks, eventually taking things one day at a time, sometimes even into smaller chunks consisting of morning, afternoon and evening. It was a very pragmatic way to work, live and generally move on.

What did you learn about mental health and resilience during this solo trip, that you have carried with you into life? How has it helped?

It has taken me quite a while to see exactly how the expedition has helped and what it taught me. It’s definitely taught me more than I could ever learn during school or my studies. I have a very calm approach now, can endure pressure in different ways and have learned to be even more in touch with my body, mainly my gut instinct and my intuition. 

I already knew that these were powerful tools, yet I was always (too) late to recognize what they were saying to me. I am now more in touch with myself and understand what I want and need. Everybody has certain skills, these are always present, it’s all about figuring out how you can best use them and know what they can do for you. 

I have started to work with several people to turn this into a clear and very down-to-earth program I use during a (relatively) short Mental Resilience training. I have started to offer this to cyclists, as I still believe that cycling is a powerful tool and can benefit your resilience in many ways, not just physically.

What are your next steps for your own mental health/wellbeing?

About a year ago I had a few difficult decisions to make. Again, my gut instinct  was telling me something, and this time I acted upon it earlier. Eventually the decisions I made were the right ones. Yes, it was difficult, but they were correct, and together with some logical reasoning it was the right thing to do. 

Now, next to making a big switch in my personal career I was more confident I was able to make the switch, do this on my own terms and was better at listening to myself, trusting myself with the controlled decisions I was making. To this day I am still looking to develop myself, on my terms and at my pace. Everyone has the capability to make radical changes and/or adjustments, sometimes we just need a bit of guidance and a good push.

Can you talk a bit about society’s perception of male mental health?

This is a very interesting question. I think men are still portrayed in a very conservative way: the strong man with a good career, making the money, being fit, good-looking and also being the loving husband and father at the same time. 

Success is something that we have to thrive for, work hard for and without it, we are not good enough. This is what society is telling us, or at least, it feels that way. And that puts a lot of pressure on men. 

But what is success? Define this in your own words. For me, success is about being happy with what I am doing, gaining energy from work (balance from input/output), people who are close to me and having a healthy family and lifestyle. This is, at the end and beginning of the day, what counts the most.

According to you, why is it important for men to speak up about their mental health, and for society to address it as a whole?

To me, a strong man (or woman!) is someone who isn’t afraid to call for help, or afraid to fail at something. Making mistakes is the best way to learn something, just being able to realize that and not being afraid of this will change you in a positive way. It’s in the discomfort where the growth lies. Try to be more vulnerable, open up and learn by doing.

What would you like to say to other men who might be suffering in silence from a mental health or wellbeing issue?

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. People are there for you, it takes a lot to reach out to someone, and also a lot of time. Don’t expect a “quick-fix”, this doesn’t exist. Things need time, care and attention. Don’t lose focus and keep your end goal in mind.

Where can people find you?

Visit my website for more information on my cycling and resilience program or just to find out more about me. You can also join me for a morning class of riding at Amsterdam gym City Alps, you’ll probably find me in one of their awesome ride classes!

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Currently working in marketing and comms in Amsterdam. Passionate about all things digital, writing, dancing, travelling and much more. Mental health blogger and advocate.

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