‘I’m going to try my best to squeeze the most out of life”

‘Maybe the drive and ambition which eats us up is the quality which also keeps us alive’

Daniel Stewart ahead of the pack during his cycling days

Daniel Stewart ahead of the pack during his cycling days

 

I still remember my first counsellor’s appointment.

“I’m Daniel, good to meet ya.”

January is Health Month in The Irish Times. Throughout the month, in print and online, we will be offering encouragement and inspiration to help us all improve our physical and mental health in 2020. See irishtimes.com/health
January is Health Month in The Irish Times. Throughout the month, in print and online, we will be offering encouragement and inspiration to help us all improve our physical and mental health in 2020. See irishtimes.com/health

The pleasantry is strange . . . because it wasn’t. I wished I never had to be there, to realise my failure in doing this life thing on my own, without any help or guidance.

“How are you?”

A preposterous query, I thought: “Spare yourself the breath, pal – in about 58 more minutes you are sure to find out.”

With the session taking place at his house, in Belfast suburbia, I’d parked on the street, rang the doorbell and walked up the stairs into his office. I sat down, knowing exactly what I was going to say: I was convinced. My facts, undeniable. Looking at the stranger, from then on known as CounsellorMan, I told him my truth.

“Life isn’t worth living.”

Babies are cute. At least publicly, we can all agree on that. We all were one – spoon-fed attention whenever we wanted and needed. Then, suddenly, it stops.

Toddler then tween, I was soon a late teen: frustrated, angry, anxious; with pressures, fears and loves. I also wanted to be a professional cyclist. In a heartbeat, I was living in a maisonette in Kervignac.

Where?

France. Brittany – which happens to be beside southern England: experiencing the same fogs, gales and rainfall as anywhere close to Cork.

I was an Irish man in an all-French cycling team. In other words, a prick – hogging the lend of the team-car for personal errands, and cosying up to the team manager (and his wife where possible). They thought I was Nicole Ritchie singing All Night Long with her foster-da.

In return, they treated me as you’d imagine Prince Harry was handled when he served in Helmand – a sort-of, “let’s piss in his bejewelled thermos” style of existence.

I yearned for the fairytale cycling life: a little lad on a grandiose cycling holiday adventure, living it large, throwing money to fuel the beach fire, while lounging with my many, many seaside babes; cooling down after a very hot ride.

It wasn’t.

Living in a ghost-town in the arsehole of nowhere, I had no friends, no money, no life; all in the hope of catching a break.

I wouldn’t.

Getting away

The bike has always been the thing to keep me going. During periods of depressed isolation, the pulling on of cycling socks leads to the putting on of the shorts; then the tights, the jersey, glasses, jacket. To get me outside, to get on my bike, and away from it all.

Cycling has saved me, and continues to save me, to this day: bringing love back into my veins, as the earth wraps its sounds and sights around me, taking care of me. The birds sing, the trees chant, my tyres whir on the tarmac, as I yearn for more and more.

Yes, I told all that to Counsellor Man. He soon came to know how I was. Once a week, I’d park on Counsellor Man’s street, ring the doorbell, walk up the stairs, and tell him a bit more about my existence.

With a super power of listening, he would lift a mirror up to reveal, not a man in his early twenties, but a scared young boy – still crawling when he ached for the world to land at his feet. I’d overlooked how I needed to conquer each day, before trying to change the world.

By the end of the year, I did end up managing to rustle up a pro contract for myself. After a pre-season Spanish training camp, I was the leanest, lightest and fittest cyclist I would ever be . . . at the same time, becoming the most robotic. Gone was the kid with his nose stuck in Alex Rider books, absent was the boy gazing at hours of Walking with Dinosaurs videos. I’d become a cyborg who’s job was to race a bike.

I’d never been more terrified.

Old routine

Back in Belfast, with Counsellor Man, once more. Taking on the same old routine: park, doorbell, stairs; plonking myself down after a few hellos.

“I’ve jacked it in.”

“Have you?”

“Yeah.”

“Christ.”

“What?”

“Jesus Christ!”

“Did you not expect me to do that? Did you not see this coming all along?”

“Nope.”

“Oh . . .”

“Oh.” A pause. Turns out he wasn’t a superhero. He was just a bloke with some training who was willing to help – helping me make the decision for myself.’

“So what are ya going to do then?”

Accustomed to French mannerisms, I shrugged.

“I dunno. Maybe move to London?”

So I went and did that. Three years on, I’m now living in Kent, working in London.

“What’s your five-year plan?”

An interview absurdity, I think. “Five years ago, I was in Mallorca training for a cycling season in France that would shape me forever.”

I hope another five years will allow me to free myself from working every day in an office. Those blocks of black isolation still remain, preventing me from ploughing on. Like a sheep, or a pig, or a cow, I’m shepherded on to a train to work, sat alongside everyone else; maybe I’m not special. A part of me just wants to be that doting kid again, with the only world present at my tiny finger tips.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Then again, maybe I don’t. Maybe getting on that train isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe having the chance to represent my country, follow my hopes and dreams until they dissolve, is a privilege, not a curse.

Maybe I am special.

Maybe you are too.

Maybe the drive and ambition which eats us up is the quality which also keeps us alive.

I have things to be thankful for – a roof over my head, food on the table, a family. I come from the developed world, of one of the first generations to live in a Northern Ireland without The Troubles breathing down our neck. I have had no part in these blessings; I was born into them. I was lucky before I even started.

An old photograph of my primary school contains six rows of meddling kids, a pupil count of 955 (it says it at the bottom). We took up the two football pitches out the front.

Over three billion people live on less than $2.50 a day: that’s more than three million school photographs. There is no doubt, I am special. And so is any soul who stumbles upon reading this.

During these sober, dark times of cold, bitter January, I can’t help you with the big questions. I don’t know why you’re here, why it’s always you, why you do or don’t deserve it. But neither does anyone else. We’re a sole grain of privilege in a paddy-field of poverty.

I don’t have a privilege, but I do have a choice. For the three billion or so who don’t, I’m going to try my best to squeeze the very most out of this life.

Let’s hope you do too.

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