Cycling to work is my form of self-care — something I lost while working from home
Without my bike commute to work during the pandemic, I became lethargic and irritable
This First Person article is written by Amy Thai, an environmental scientist and writer living in Richmond, B.C. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
I was doing dishes one spring morning in 2022, and suddenly had the urge to cry. I had heard about worsening mental health during the pandemic, but I felt I wasn't allowed to be sad. I had a secure home, a loving and healthy family, and a stable white-collar job. Still, I couldn't shake the crushing emptiness in my chest and I had a little cry.
It took me a few months to realize that what I had readily discarded during the pandemic was what I needed to get through it: my bike commute.
I've been an avid bike commuter my entire working life, and have ridden through rain, hail, and snow.
When I moved from Vancouver to Richmond, B.C., and my commute grew from seven kilometres to 21 one way, I invested in an e-bike because I was determined to continue cycling to work.
But as much as I loved bike commuting, the distance tested my dedication. Sometimes it was hard to crawl out of bed before sunrise, wrap myself in Gore-Tex, and pedal into the darkness and bucketing rain for an hour.
When the pandemic presented the opportunity to work from home, I happily traded my gruelling commutes for an extra hour of sleep. However, the novelty of taking video calls in sweatpants quickly wore off and the uneasiness crept in. My idle mind wandered, dwelling on minor problems and insecurities that I would normally shrug off. I became lethargic and irritable, unmotivated to do things that I used to enjoy.
I didn't bother reaching out for help because I figured I could tough it out. People all over the world were losing their lives and livelihoods. Feeling a bit sad paled in comparison.
I thought I could ignore it and it would go away, but despair hovered around the periphery, pouncing when I thought I was fine. It was only when I started returning to the office that I felt a shift.
Cycling along my familiar routes, I wondered why I had been so sad. Here on my bike, I felt light, energized, and invincible. I was alive again.
Being deprived of my bike commute made me realize how vital it is to both my physical and mental well-being, but it's hard to pinpoint what makes it so magical. Maybe it's the laser focus that's essential during a lengthy commute, often on busy roads, that clears my mind of everything except for avoiding being hit by a car and gives me a mental reset each morning. Or maybe it's the pure joy of zipping through the city on a bike and feeling the crisp air rush past.
In university, my animal welfare professor helped us understand caged animals' neurotic behaviour by imagining how we'd feel if we were prevented from doing something that was the essence of who we were.
Bikes are part of who I am figuratively and literally: the flaming bike wheel tattooed on my ankle is a lifelong reminder, if I ever needed one. So maybe when I lost my bike commute, it was as if my mind atrophied along with my cycling muscles, and I was doing the mental equivalent of gnawing on my cage bars.
I now approach my bike commute with a new sense of awe and gratitude for all that hunk of metal and rubber offers me. I realize it's OK not to be OK, no matter who we are, and we find different ways of coping.
Although it might not fit with the typical suite of self-care practices like hot baths or yoga, bike commuting is my form of moving meditation. It refreshes my lungs and my spirit and gives me the resilience to feel like everything will be ok.
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