A Cautionary Tale

On a long bike ride at the end of May, I noticed a strange sensation on my shins and knuckles. The breeze felt much colder than it should for the actual temperature. I had never felt anything like it and even wondered if I was imagining it. Over the next few days, though, it became apparent that I was not imagining the sensations. Washing my hands in cold tap water felt like I was dipping them in ice water. Pulling frozen fruit or vegetables out of the freezer was painful, causing my fingers to sting for several minutes, like I had just come in from playing in the snow. The sun felt absolutely blazingly hot, inordinately so, like the breeze that was too cool for the true weather conditions. For some reason I had become hypersensitive to temperature.

I also noticed that a little bump or scratch was disproportionately painful and that itches were “itchier” than usual. Other neurological symptoms developed. Over the next several weeks, which included Biking Across Kansas 2015, the symptoms became more pronounced. I didn’t tell anyone at first, but after we returned home from BAK, I made a doctor’s appointment, which led to referrals to a neurologist and a hematologist and to several unpleasant tests. Blood work at the neurologist’s office revealed that my B6 level was high, and the doctor told me to stop immediately all supplements containing B6. Another test indicated probable borderline small fiber peripheral neuropathy (SFN). After extensive testing, the best explanation for the SFN is B6 toxicity.

I feel fortunate because there are many scary things that could cause SFN, and I don’t have them. However, I also initially felt deeply disappointed in myself because I realized that I caused the SFN.

Over the past few years, stress management has been an increasingly difficult struggle for me. I think hormonal changes, job demands, parenting challenges, overstimulation of my introvert sensibilities, grief over the loss of beloved animal companions and perceived relational support circumstances are among the contributing factors. My stress is not extraordinary, and I am well aware that countless people face far tougher challenges, but, for whatever reason, management of my stressors has been a bigger problem in the last several years. I share all this, in part, to progress along the road to recovery that I am paving, but also because I think there is important information in this story that may be able to help others.

During a particularly stressful time in 2013, I Googled “mood support” one evening. I think I was looking for online support, but the natural supplement NOW Foods Mood Support popped up. I saw right away that it was a vegan product and thought, “It’s meant to be!” The product contains St. John’s Wort, Valerian root and B vitamins. I take full responsibility for what happened, but I did clear it with my primary care provider, who deemed it completely safe and encouraged me to take even more, which is a good reminder that we all need to be informed patients and consumers who think for ourselves and listen to our wise instincts. I was also taking a multivitamin at the time, as well as a B12 supplement that contained B6. In addition, I frequently included nutritional yeast, supplemented with B12 and B6, in my smoothies. In the spring of 2015, feeling really overwhelmed and stressed, I doubled my dosage of Mood Support. After my neurological symptoms appeared, I stopped my multivitamin and went back to a regular dose of Mood Support. Although I never suspected B6 as the culprit, I think I had a gut feeling that Mood Support might be involved in some way. I continued to take the regular dose, along with the B12/B6 supplement until the neurologist told me to stop. In retrospect, I can recognize that each reduction in B6 dosage has improved my symptoms. In fact, they are almost gone now. Many types of neuropathy are not reversible, but my internet research indicates that SFN caused by B6 toxicity may be. I go back to the neurologist in December and am encouraged that I will have a complete recovery. I am thankful to have had good medical care that got to the root of the problem before permanent, serious damage had been done.

This is not a condemnation of Mood Support, but a cautionary tale of what can happen when we function from a place of desperation, rather than a place of good sense, reason and compassion for ourselves.

I aspire to translate my level of attentiveness to bodily and environmental cues on the bike to the rest of my life. When the wind conditions change or an obstacle in the road appears, I make adjustments to my body position, level of effort or bike handling. When I plan a fast ride, but the wind is blowing 35 miles per hour, I adjust my expectations. I often remind myself to “take what the road will give me.” That doesn’t mean I am always entirely satisfied with my performance on the bike, but I find that I am satisfied, even quite pleased, more and more often because I have learned from my years of cycling, and I have implemented those lessons to improve my performance—and happiness—on the bike. My challenge is to apply this same strategy to the rest of life, in order to manage my stress more holistically, rather than trying to cover up or wipe out the ramifications of the stress, while simply pressing forward and feeling increasingly overwhelmed.

I take such care to eat a nutritious, compassionate diet, yet I took supplements with abandon because my emotions felt out of control. It is my responsibility to practice the same compassion with myself that I try to practice with all human and nonhuman others. This means knowing when to set and implement boundaries and creating time and space to recharge when I feel overloaded. As an introvert, I need more quiet (even if active, on the bike) downtime than extraverts may need. This is not a character flaw; it is just who I am.

I haven’t solved all my stress management issues, but I am trying hard to pay close attention to my needs and to use my bike, journaling, mantras, quotes, reframing and positive psychology to manage my stress instead of pressing blindly ahead and covering it up. Riding and reading are my two major lifelines to mental and emotional health. Right now, I am immersing myself in positive psychology and happiness literature, and I am feeling the benefits of that. I process much of what I read while I am on my bike.

I wanted to share this experience because I know we are all under stress, and the temptation exists to look for a quick fix so that we can keep plowing forward. I have prided myself on not doing that; however, retrospectively, I recognize that my excessive supplementation was just that.

As my paid work enters a particularly intense period again, while the rest of life keeps on coming, I plan to keep these words from Elizabeth Gilbert visible in the physical spaces I inhabit and in a prominent and readily accessible place in my mind:

You do what you can do, as competently as possible within a reasonable time frame, and then you let it go.

Like a bike ride.

I ride as well as I can while I am on the bike, and then that ride is finished. I move on, let go of any disappointments or frustrations and start fresh on the next ride. I owe the world nothing more than that in the rest of my life. I am one person, trying to do the best I can to make positive contributions where I live and work. I choose to view this experience with SFN and B6 toxicity as a gift and a wake-up call. I refuse to let stress, anxiety or depression suck the life out of my life. I will listen to my body and to my heart and do my best to adjust, based on the cues I receive when I pay attention to how I am feeling and what those feelings may mean.

Journey of Strengths

Cycling frequently strikes me as an excellent metaphor for life, particularly when I reflect on life as a journey, which has seemed more and more apt as I have covered more ground, both in life and on the bike.

I recently finished reading The Happiness Advantage (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOGAp9dw8Ac), by Shawn Achor. This excellent book directed me to www.viasurvey.com, where I took a quiz to determine my “signature strengths.” This is not the first time I have taken a strengths test. Naturally introspective, I enjoy taking personality assessments and quizzes that teach me something about myself. I can’t locate my results from some of the other strengths tests I have taken (Strengthsfinder 2.0, http://strengths.gallup.com/110440/about-strengthsfinder-20.aspx, was probably the first.), but I can still recognize that there has been some change. On this Via Survey, my top five strengths are: Honesty, Love of Learning, Perseverance, Gratitude and Judgment. As I recall, some form of several of these appeared in earlier results. I know that Love of Learning, Perseverance and Judgment (although maybe called slightly different names) have been persistent. Honesty may have been represented previously as Integrity, but I am not sure that Gratitude has been in my top five in any past. Of course the survey instruments are different, so that may explain some differences, but I also believe that my journey continues to shape me, and that some strengths have become more deeply imbedded in my character, while others have grown in importance.

Honesty (which resonates more as Integrity for me) is now my top strength. I have long identified Integrity as one of my core values, but I have found more ways to live it in the past year. I have grown to trust myself more, while relying less on input from outside sources. There are at least two ways that cycling has helped me to develop this strength. Although my education and background have qualified me to design training plans, I have not always trusted myself to design my own cycling training plans effectively. I have found some great resources (That will probably be a blog post at some point.), but I sometimes had to force myself to use some of the recommended training plans. While there is value in stepping outside of my comfort zone, I decided to listen to myself and design my own training plan this cycling season. Doing so has resulted in increased enthusiasm for my bike rides, as well as some of the consistently fastest riding I have done in several years. Getting honest with myself about what felt right paid off and reinforced my commitment to integrity, which has elevated honesty as an essential strength for me.

Another way that cycling has increased my strength in honesty is through fostering my courage to leave a group when I found that my participation in the group was increasing my stress, rather than my peace. I joined an online plant-based eating group last winter when I was feeling down. I had high hopes for the group because it originated around a book that I really like and an author whom I respect. Part of the group culture was to track our daily food intake. When I did this early in cycling season, I was surprised to be assailed by several group members with criticism about my cycling nutrition. I am open to learning from others and considered their input, but found that it did not resonate with my experience. I explained this and hoped that the group would adopt a live-and-let-live approach, but it did not. After another round of criticism, I immediately withdrew from the group, even though I had paid for a full year of membership. I felt free and relieved. Clearly, being honest with myself and having the courage to maintain my integrity in the face of criticism was the right answer.

Gratitude has also risen in importance among my character strengths. I believe that a key factor in this has been my commitment to a nightly practice I borrowed from positive psychology (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOGAp9dw8Ac). For several years now, I have had a nightly practice of writing in my journal “Three Things that Went Well Today,” along with the reason they went well and were meaningful to me. This has transformed my life in many ways. When I am feeling stressed during the day, I often remind myself to take a moment to think of three things that have gone well so far during the day. This is immediately uplifting and gives me hope. I ALWAYS finish my day this way, and it makes a tremendous difference. Cycling plays heavily in this practice. One of my three good things is frequently something like, “I had a safe, peaceful 52-mile bike ride.” Then, I elaborate on why it was positive. Sometimes, I will write, “I felt strong and powerful on my bike ride.” Then, I analyze why. I love this practice, and I truly believe that it has moved gratitude into my top five strengths. I believe that I am more grateful for the positive elements in my life and better able to find a bright side in difficulties, in large part, because of this practice.

Love of Learning, Perseverance and Judgment have been signature strengths for years, but my journey has influenced the direction I have taken with those strengths. Reading, right up there with cycling, is key to my mental health, but it also allows me one avenue to continue learning and growing. Perseverance and road cycling go hand in hand. Because I value perseverance, I am drawn to cycling, and cycling reinforces my strength of perseverance more than anything else I do. Kansas wind; unexpected, torrential rain; rough roads and other trials of cycling teach me the value (and necessity) of persevering to finish a ride. I have grown to trust my own judgment, as I have been tested on the bike. When I am alone in the middle of nowhere, judgment is critical to my safety. Practice reinforces our strengths, so I am able to carry this over into the rest of my life.

I will write about journey in other capacities in the future because I reflect on it frequently these days. I believe that our journeys shape who we are, and I am more committed than ever to honoring that journey, both in the past and in my current experience.

Biking in the Radiant Light

I recently finished three months of telephone coaching with Tejashree Chawla (11Tejashree@gmail.com), a co-active coach and workshop facilitator, whom I met several years ago when she lived in Wichita for a short time. We have stayed connected since she moved back to California, and I recently accepted her invitation for coaching. I tend to be very introspective, have kept journals for years, read nonfiction—including a lot of personal development books—voraciously and maintain several reflective practices. When Tejashree invited me to participate in coaching, I did not have a specific goal or need in mind, but decided to focus on finding more tools for managing stress because I feel like I struggle with that more than ever.

Having completed the coaching, I am still not consistently managing stress effectively, but I did experience several benefits and insights, which I want to share here.

A major tool that Tejashree uses is shifting perspectives. This reminds me of the concept of reframing (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_reframing), which I have used both personally and professionally for many years. I struggle with sustaining my perspective shifts when I feel bogged down with worry or overwhelmed with responsibilities. However, if I can remind myself of my desired perspective frequently enough, it does help. When I spoke with Tejashree last Thursday, I had been carrying around a great deal of anxiety and was constantly feeling the nervousness in my stomach. We explored several ways to alleviate the heaviness of that feeling, but the one that was most helpful was her invitation to adopt a “Biking-in-the-Radiant-Light” perspective. I generally feel free, strong, powerful and happy when I am on my bike. When Tejashree asked me to describe a visual or visceral association with assuming the biking perspective, I described it as one of rising power, in the form of light, from my stomach. It then radiated into my limbs and throughout my body. I felt energized, confident and capable. When I stop to imagine myself on my bike, I feel the anxiety lightening, and I feel happier and freer. Although I struggle to maintain the perspective constantly, it does serve as an effective mental stop sign when the anxiety starts to take over.

In mid-August Tejashree and I discussed the sense of foreboding that comes upon me around the time school starts every year. Swimming pools close, and I know that cold, dark weather is coming and will linger for months and months. I don’t want to let the coming winter usurp my remaining weeks of summer weather. Yet, I struggle. I had already decided that I really must maintain some level of winter cycling this year, and not have all bike training relegated to the indoor trainer. Tejashree encouraged me to consider more ways to ward off the cold-weather doldrums. One of the ways I did this was to attach meaning to living in Kansas. For example, I acknowledged that one of the prices I pay for living in a place with so many wonderful, open, quiet roads for cycling is dealing with winter.

I think the most helpful contribution Tejashree made to my personal exploration during our work together was her ability to listen to what I was saying and then articulate her interpretation of it. On one occasion, her expression captured a concept that I had been trying to form fully in my mind. I knew the feeling, but hadn’t been able to find the right words to express it. Tejashree said something that felt just right. I don’t think she realized at the time how significant that single sentence was for me, but it began to percolate in my mind and, within several days, had morphed into a personal mantra that brings me hope and encouragement, peace and empowerment.

The phone is my least favorite mode of communication. I usually cringe when any phone for which I am responsible for answering rings, and I try to use any other medium first. So, I was not at all sure that thirty minutes twice a month for three months on the phone was going to appeal to me. While my feelings toward the phone have not changed, I did find our phone conversations to be useful and meaningful. On our last call, I told Tejashree that it has been nice to have a place, other than my journal, in which to explore ideas and thoughts around personal development. I have been feeling rather constrained because of a very tight schedule. The temporal constraints create mental constraints, and then I create social constraints, trying to protect precious minutes to myself. My coaching calls were short breaks in a busy life where I could bounce ideas off someone who genuinely listened and who posed challenges and inquiries designed to nurture my personal growth.

I feel that I have grown through our calls, and my decision to launch this blog at the time that I did was influenced by a challenge that Tejashree posed. So, I will work to maintain, or at least consistently revisit, the “Biking-in-the-Radiant-Light” perspective—a gift both of my cycling life and of my work with Tejashree. If you are intrigued by my coaching experience, I encourage you to contact Tejashree and find out if you too might benefit from some time dedicated to yourself and your growth.

Here is her contact information:

Tejashree Chawla, MA, MS

Listening for your brilliance & championing forward action!

Co-Active Coach; Workshop Facilitator

PH: 310-514-7137, Email: 11Tejashree@gmail.com

It’s Just Wind

On a hot, windy June afternoon in Holton, Kansas in 2002, I encountered my friend David Blair walking among the unloaded bags at our last overnight school on the annual Biking Across Kansas (BAK) tour. Wind is not uncommon in Kansas, but the 2002 tour had been extraordinarily windy, and I was coming down with a cold after seven days of battling the wind. We greeted each other and compared notes from our ride that day. I was sick of being beaten up by the wind all week, and I proceeded to have a mini-tantrum and complain about the wind. David listened quietly and then shrugged and said, gently and matter-of-factly, “It’s just wind.”

Something about the way he said it really struck a chord with me. It was such a simple, casual statement, but it felt profound and full of truth. In an instant, I knew he was right. I was on my fourth BAK, a ride that I loved. It occurred to me that, if all life’s problems were as simple as fighting wind for 60 miles or so on a ride that I had chosen to take, then I would be very fortunate.

I love quotes and have several volumes of formerly blank books filled with them. David’s words went into my then-current volume, and I began to view life through a different lens. I realized that, not only could I acknowledge how minor an issue a windy bike ride really was in the big picture, but I could choose to see the rest of life’s challenges as “wind” and strive to take them in stride, just as David had taught me to do with the Kansas wind.

That was 13 years ago, but I still remind myself often, when dealing with tough issues, that, in the big picture, most of my challenges are “wind.” Living in Kansas, there is no shortage of wind on the bike. Sometimes I am fighting it head-on, and it takes tremendous effort. It can even feel like I am being pushed backwards at times. Other times, it is a crosswind that threatens to buck me into traffic or push me off the road. Times like these, it can be exhausting to hold my line. My hands and arms get worn out from the effort of staying upright in the vicious crosswind. It can be treacherous at times. My best bet for handling it is to stay calm, use caution and determine the best strategy for staying safe. Sometimes that is tucking low and trying to minimize my contact with the wind. If I am in the hills, I often feel safer and steadier if I sit up and take more of the crosswind, but slow my descent. I am not a fearless descender under any conditions, especially in squirrelly crosswind, but staying calm and reading the conditions allow me to respond as effectively and safely as possible.

These experiences and techniques for managing the wind on my bike serve as informative metaphors for handling what life throws at me. David’s response to my complaining was a wake-up call, and it has contributed to my growth as both a cyclist and a human. It was the beginning of my recognition of the ways that cycling’s lessons could apply to the bigger picture of my life. Cycling became more than a physical challenge; it became a foundation for growth and a source of deep joy. Not every moment on the bike is bliss, but I am now grateful for all of them and for the countless gifts they give me. I am stronger both on and off the bike because I have learned to accept the wind for what it is and deal with it calmly and confidently.