Stuart Potter, when I met him, had just cycled from London to Edinburgh, the longest journey he has ever undertaken in one solo ride, for the charity Mind. He had along the way been taking part in conferences hosted by his employer 4Networking to talk about some of the issues raised by Mind and his own motivations for his biggest journey. First and foremost, how did it go?
“The cycling event really well, it was 400 miles over three days, a huge challenge both physically and psychologically. Not only was I riding for ten hours a day but getting up in the morning to give a really personal and emotional talk as well!”
Stuart has been a cyclist all of his life, and it has been this focus which allowed him an outlet for his emotions. After a cycling accident at the age of 17 left him with PTSD, Stuart found himself creating coping mechanisms. By the time he moved to university, without his previous network of friends and family, he had hidden his depression. “At uni I learnt to put a face on among all these people I didn’t know, and then the face became the norm. So the more I hid it, the more I felt afraid to let anyone see it. The only place I showed it was on my bike.”
He felt that cycling was the obvious choice for his challenge, but originally wasn’t sure which charity to support. “I’ve been fortunate enough to not need the support of any charities, I’ve got a great GP and supportive work colleagues. I spent two weeks agonising about what cause to do it for. Then one day I’m on the bike and realised there’s only one reason I can do this, because it’s why I cycle, for my mental health.”
“Mind are an umbrella for a number of small projects and campaigns, they train a lot of mental health nurses. The reason I did it for Mind is that they’re trying to break the stigma.” Stuart soon realised he had found a topic truly important to people. “I hit 100 followers on the first day, and then it just kept going up and up.”
“I realised that people just don’t talk about it. When I was diagnosed I did lots of research, and what is so hard to find is real stories of real people. You can’t work out if what you’re feeling is normal, if other people are going through what you’re feeling. And then to find out it isn’t normal, or you are going through a crisis… you start to think ‘who am I?'”
He has proved increasingly inspiring towards those who had never previously shared their experiences of depression:
“People don’t know what to say when you say I’ve got a mental health problem. Talking about the medication, there’s so much stigma, and people are ashamed, and more and more people have come to me and said ‘I’m so glad you’re talking about this.’ And if they can’t relate, they want to ask questions.
Through this project my wife has been talking to people online as well, and wrote a guest post for the blog about living with depression. A lot of people feel guilty because they don’t think they’re helping with their partner’s problems. And a lot of the time they just need to recognise when someone needs to be treated normally or given some space. People have spoken about how their partners changed their perspective once they read this.
If nothing else comes of it, that’s enough: I’ve helped someone.”
The journey itself, after three months of build up, was the straightforward part.
“Day one was 2 000 meters of climbing, which was the most I’ve ever done, and it was 135 miles, so those hills at the end started to hurt. The second day was flat for the first 90 miles, and it was really monotonous. The roads are flat, the scenery was flat, all I could see were hedges. Then yesterday (Thursday) it was all about the finish, I was really focussed.”
“But the last 20 miles I completely underestimated the traffic in London. I hit the outskirts and suddenly was stop, start, stop, start. I wanted to be at the finish point (the Look Ma No Hands café) by 8pm, and it closed at ten. Then there was a torrential downpour, and it was getting dark, and London drivers are just nuts! So getting there was this huge release. I got there at ten to ten. My pal Gav handed me a beer and I burst into tears.”
This is the first ride Stuart has ever undertaken for charity. “When I’m on my own, the only thing I’m aware of is my own will. But with this, people were watching me on Satnav. My driver Sian was reading me tweets and telling me when people were coming out to meet me. A mental health nurse I’d been chatting to online came out and joined me for 20 miles. Every time he saw me slowing down, he encouraged me. It was like every word he said was from the 1400 Twitter followers I had. That meant so much.”
His pledge of four thousand pounds is nearly reached, as the total on the site doesn’t yet show business pledges that he has received. He also is beginning to think of the future. “This is bigger than I hoped it was gonna be, so I now can’t stop. I’m not doing another challenge this year, but I want to do something next year. If I can help someone attempt something they wouldn’t have had the confidence to do beforehand, that would be fantastic.”
“The money’s important, Mind need it, and it never ceases to amaze me Britain’s capacity to give. But because this is such a hard subject, people are uncomfortable about listening. People are still asking ‘Why are you doing this?’ So what I’m focussed on is talking about it.”
And how does he feel right now? “Physically I feel a lot better than I thought I would: I’m gonna hurt tomorrow! I’m tired, and looking forward to getting back home.”