Monday, January 22, 2018

Depression, parenthood, and thanks to WORD

This is not a balanced post.  But, please bear with me.

I live in a love-filled household.  Our "good morning, did you sleep well" embraces are a daily highlight, and I sorely miss them when schedules enable a late start for one or other of us.  

It's nonetheless true that my best moments are usually out of sight of my family - whether that's at work or at play.  The relatively complex home environment lies somewhere in between the energy-drain that is work, and the battery-charger that is my bicycle.  Home can be in either camp, or neither.

Becoming a family of riders was not just about individually becoming riders.  A great deal of care, and investment of both time and money, has been needed to ensure everyone's having fun - choices about when and where we ride, for how long, and on what, have all helped us get to where we are.  I'll take some credit for that.  

Whether you have kids or not, or suffer from depression or not, there may yet be something here that resonates with you.  How we conduct our every-day lives has changed dramatically in the last few decades, largely technology-driven, I guess.  One open question is "who sees us at our best?", followed by "who deserves to?"

I'm going to be unnecessarily hard on myself, because I think it helps make an important point.


I can confidently say that I'm not an easy person to live with.

I'm a creature of habit, which generally means I do the same annoying things every day (e.g. dumping my clothes on the bedroom floor).  I'm also fussy, and that means I tend to get annoyed at the same things every day (e.g. others loading the dishwasher with things touching one another).

When I ride, or write, they chomp through already scarce time at home.  When I'm not doing either of those things, I'm almost always distracted by something else.

While I really enjoy my job, it's mostly about solving problems.  Some are easy, but these tend to be numerous, and I struggle to avoid the temptation to deal to them at home in the evenings or weekend.  Others are not so easy, and while they're still on the to-do list, I find it very hard to not think (and fret) about them near-constantly. 

I rarely have time to interact with friends unless I'm at home, and in the smart-phone age, perusing social-media has an ever-present allure.

I'm trying to learn French (on my phone, using Duolingo), and that takes time.  And I'm also following the Trump train-wreck closely - it's both horrifying and fascinating watching history be made in real-time.

I'm introverted, yet am often surrounded by people at work, and sometimes my need for a bit of solitude makes it all the way home with me.

I also have depression.

The way it articulates itself in me is as an energy black hole.  Sometimes I liken it to gravity not being 9.81m/s2, but something more.  On a good day, 10-10.5 would be about right, but on a bad day, simple tasks seem to require more energy than I have to offer. 

The medication I'm on - the 8th or 9th combination, from memory - does a good job getting my usual level close to where it should be, but unless adult life simply is hard and I'm not well-equipped to deal with it, my hunch is my mood is pretty much always abnormally low.  Tolerable, but low.

The sense of fatigue I almost always live with, both mental and physical, affects the way I act.  And, I suspect the outward appearance could easily be confused with displeasure, or a lack of love towards the observer.

The killer is that none of it makes any sense, and so logic does not apply.  While I clearly have depression, I have very little in my life to be depressed about.  I have an incredible family, talented on just about every dimension I could name, and we live a very good life.  My job is rewarding and while stressful, is really enjoyable, and, depression aside, I'm in fantastic health.

I know how excruciating it is that the actions of those who care about me cannot pull me up - I experience that same frustration, while it's all in progress...  "How come he can be like that when I show him so much love?" is a folly.  But, that it is, is not immediately obvious, and I suspect that coming to terms with that fact can actually be harder than being depressed.

Luckily for my family and I, the periods when I'm really down are rare - maybe 2-3 days every month or so.  But when they hit, they suck.

Depression is a bastard.


My two beautiful daughters were born a couple of months apart.  Kaitlyn, in August 2000, in Wellington Women's Hospital, and Khulan 8 weeks later in Darkhan, Mongolia, with no help from me whatsoever.

Despite being undiagnosed for the first half of Kaitlyn's life, my depression was nonetheless hovering.

As a PhD student initially, and then as a junior academic, getting paid much more but doing essentially the same stuff (teaching and research), pretty much all of the gripes above applied (well, except for the medication).  I was only ever incapacitated on Saturdays - in hindsight, that was the only day of the week I could afford to be depressed - there was far too much stuff to do at every other time.

The lack of energy, and I think to some extent, personal inhibition, meant I was never a very "fun" Dad.  Kaitlyn and I didn't play much - but I found other ways to be an active and engaged parent.

When she was really small, we went for regular walks.  Often these would be at the Karori Sanctuary, as it was then, and I also discovered the mountain buggy fitted on Makara Peak's growing network of singletrack perfectly well.

At home, I'd bath her every night.  We'd often spend an hour in there together, playing eye spy ("with my little eye, something the colour of...", pre-alphabet) or just splashing one another with increasingly cold water.

Long after that routine had ended (I often wondered when we'd have our last bath together, but have no recollection of when or why we stopped), I made up for shortcomings in my own imagination, by taking advantage of the imaginations of others.  Roald Dahl, J.K.Rowling, Philip Pullman and many others kept us both entertained, and over the years, despite Kaitlyn being capable of reading them alone, I'd spend sometimes 3-4 hours between school and bed-time reading to her.

No matter how freaking depressed I was, I could always deliver on the reading-aloud front, and to a large extent, that was where I found my relief.

The Phillips trailer-bike gave us new opportunities, and I was able to supplement my daily 12km round-trip commute and occasional MTB ride, with regular forays into Makara Peak or the Skyline.

At a PNP race on Mt Vic

At least once a week, I'd leave the trailer-bike with Kaitlyn at school, and we'd hitch up at 3pm and head to the Skills Area for afternoon tea and story time.

We had a few good years on it, culminating in the Karapoti Challenge record (which still stands), and the most fortuitous simultaneous photo-snapping that I'm ever likely to benefit from...

Two faces in the moment, and what a story they tell...
Once Kaitlyn was too big for the trailer (well, too heavy for me to manage), the transition to her own bike seemed a tough one that at times made me wonder if the tandem had been a mistake.  She'd become accustomed to our access to some fairly technical and remote tracks, and an absence of responsibility for things like gears, braking, steering, and to a large extent, power.  On the other hand, she new how much fun MTBing could be, and had been around the large and happy community for as long as she could remember. 

A big leap forward came when our paths crossed with Ashley, and the pre-loved "Montana Judy" made a huge difference to Kaitlyn's riding.  Wellington's trails remained steep and narrow though, and I was not a great teacher.  So much of mountain-biking becomes as simple as the fellow imploring you to try it says it is, only after a successful attempt.  For whatever reason, my urgings were not compelling, and the Koru-Lazy Fern lap continued to be a stressful affair, for both of us.

And thanks to WORD...

I'll get rid of the elephant in the room right up front.  We're a WORD family in an unusual sense - Sarah and I may well have met and married if our two daughters had not been on the first WORD holiday programme, but certainly the kids knowing one another (and getting along in a fashion to rival the parents') sped things along nicely.

The Wellington Off-Road Riding Department opened its doors (or more specifically its outdoors) to a group of seven young women on 22 January, 2013.  The 3-day holiday programme included riding at Karori Park and Makara Peak, Wainui and Miramar, and concluded with a spot of trail-building in Polhill.  At the time, WORD was Ashley Peters (then Burgess).  Not content with giving Kaitlyn a bike, she was determined to "build confidence, encourage new friendships, and foster a lifelong love of mountain biking" in as many kids as she could find.

I remember Kaitlyn being incredibly pooped after those three days, but also that when she'd recovered, she was a different rider than the one I'd dropped off on the first day.  In some ways it was astonishing how much had been achieved in such a short time.  But I knew too that mountain-biking can actually be easier than it seems, and Ashley had clearly created an environment where Kaitlyn was prepared to give things a go (to hell with the consequences).

I don't take that particularly personally.  I'm sure the peer pressure was helpful - seeing someone your own size doing something is surely more compelling than seeing your old man (who's been riding for aaaaaages) do it.  But Ash also has the sort of personality that draws the best out of people, and it couldn't have been more perfect that her first clients were a group of young women keen to emulate, if not impress, their hero.

Team WORD at Revolve's Women of Dirt event, 2013.

When I got home from France that July, Kaitlyn, Khulan and I went riding together - not the first time we'd done so, but the first time without Sarah and the Waghorn and de Mayo families.

Top of Hawkins
We were getting used to one another, and the riding provided a very nice context in which that could happen.

Five years on, the girls have become incredibly talented riders - both have incredible fitness and skill, exceptional not only among women of their age, but exceptional among any group of 17-year-olds, or adult cyclists for that matter.   Their prowess, and the way their progress motivated Sarah to also master the fine art of hooning down a rough track, has enabled us to do some wonderful things together as a family; most recently, the gnarly Moerangi Track, a tough but stunning ride in the middle of nowhere.

Yes, seeing them be awesome is cool.  And yes, doing things as a family is cool.  But, for me there's a another reason I'm so glad we can ride together. 

What I really feel thankful for is that they get to be with me when I'm riding my bike - and not as a bystander, watching me compete, or welcoming me at the end of a ride.  I truly value them seeing me do it.

I was very critical of myself at the start of this blog, bringing attention to some of my worst qualities.

What balances me out, and in many ways is one of the single biggest factors in my wellness, are the moments of complete calm and freedom I feel when I'm riding my bike.  But these best qualities are mostly hidden from view.  They sure as hell help me, but it tends to happen when I'm on my own, giving onlookers a systematically incomplete picture.

If it weren't for the rides we do together, its a part of me that they might not know existed.  Or, worse, they might confound me being on my bike with me being away from them, and figure I'm only happy when I'm alone.

My kids being able to ride with me allows them to see me at my best.  They see me free from stress, self-doubt, or distraction.  They see me fully in the moment.  In the context of my life, that genuinely feels like a small miracle. 

* * * * *

WORD's beginnings were far from easy, and whether or not that first camp would go ahead hung in the balance until a few days before when the Ariella, Mili, Lucy, Sophie and Khulan signed up en masse.  When you look at it now, it's hard to imagine how easily it might not have happened - all it needed to go that way was someone less passionate, committed and confidence-inspiring than Ash.

These days, there are 25 instructors and 15 assistant instructors involved, with around 800 enrolments per year (about 180 per term in after-school programmes, and 100 in each holiday) - seriously heart-cockle-warming stuff.  Kaitlyn's spent four days last week instructing two holiday camp groups, and I've every confidence that the young people lucky enough to be in her groups responded to her in the very same way that she did to Ash.

The future is bright.

Thumbs up indeed, daughter!

* * * * *
  • Nearly 50% of New Zealanders will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime, and one in five will have experienced a mental illness this year.
  • Depression is set to overcome heart disease as the biggest global health burden by 2020.
  • The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) is a charity that works towards reducing stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness. We provide free support, training, and resources for anyone who is going through a difficult time, or for people who are supporting loved ones.


  1. I stand in awe, on so many levels and for so many reasons, of what I have just read. Johnno, if you never wrote another word in the rest of your life, this would still put you there in my all-time Best Writer list. I am sure you are not seeking personal praise for this, so that sentence might be entirely the wrong way to have expressed my deep appreciation of your sharing everything you expressed here. Wishing you and your beautiful family a lifetime of happiness, even if it has to come with some shadows from the depression you have had to come to terms with, and which you describe so graphically. The biggest hug to each of you, Jax xxxx

    1. Thank you for this generous comment. I'm realising more and more that the circumstances I'm describing are not at all uncommon, but the willingness to write about it is much rarer. Getting it out in the open seems like a good step to take.

    2. Couldn't agree more ... xxx

  2. The Black Dog,as they call it,sits on many a shoulder.
    Riding a bike helps many more than it is credited for, and it is good that mental problems are at last being recognized and admitted.

    You're doing a marvellous job and you write so very well...more power to your pen.

    1. Thank you gz - you're absolutely right about the scale of this problem, unfortunately.

  3. Having observed you at close quarters over many years I have zero hesitation in calling you an inspirational father, despite the Battle Against Darkness you are forced to fight. It's very cool that you've ended up fostering this love of shared experience with your beautiful wife and daughters - and it's fantastic that they've so willingly helped you do so. You are a fortunate but very, very deserving man.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thanks Oli. You've been not only a huge support to me on the mental health front, but also a wonderful role model as a father.

  4. Humble, self-aware, and every bit as loving as he is strong (and vice versa!). Legend. Ka pai, brother.