In 2018 Leigh Timmis smashed the Fastest Cycle Across Europe record in 16 days, 10 hours and 45 minutes - all while raising vital funds for mental health research.
He spoke to us candidly about his own experience of depression, preparing for the challenge and why he chose to support MQ.
I left University with a first-class degree in filmmaking, and immediately began pursuing everything you need to be “successful”. Then at 25, I was diagnosed with depression.
Since graduating, I’d secured a job in my dream industry, doing animation for short films, and was spending my spare time teaching animation at a number of schools. Although it was hard work, I had everything on paper. So why did I feel so worthless and uninspired? I was beginning to push everyone away.
At the time, mental health wasn’t talked about very much.
I didn’t realise I was going through anything but, looking back, a couple of incidents stick out in my mind. I remember being on a night out with my friends and girlfriend, with everyone but me having a great time. It felt like no one understood how I was feeling - I ended up walking around on my own before just going home.
Another day, while I was teaching a workshop at a school, the kids wouldn’t answer my questions or react to anything. I became really, really angry. The department called a meeting and suggested they take some of the workload off me. That was awful – like they didn’t believe I could deal with things on my own.
When I went to the doctor for a check-up, he asked me how my life was and I started to explain all these feelings. He diagnosed me with depression and I felt mixed emotions. I’d always associated mental illness with people who were outwardly troubled – that wasn’t me. In my mind, I just wasn’t the kind of person who needed counselling. I guess I thought it was a sign of weakness.
But another part of me also felt a weight lifted off my shoulders.
It gave me a reason for these feelings and something to work with. I didn’t know what to expect when I started counselling, but as soon as I began, I felt like I was learning so much. I remember coming out and thinking that everyone should do this - why isn’t there a class in school where you get to learn about who you are?
I began to see I was neglecting so much in my life, not focusing on the basic things that would really make me happy – like spending time with family and friends. That summer I went on a motorbiking trip with two friends across Iceland. It was the catalyst that changed my outlook; I realised I’d been doing everything until that point to please others and suddenly I was pleasing myself. Within a month of returning home, I quit my job, cut ties with all the trappings of “success” and set out on an adventure, cycling around the world.
The more I experienced, the more I discovered what I wanted to do with my life.
Two years ago, after completing my round-the-world trip, I decided to attempt the Guinness World Record for The Fastest Cycle Across Europe, raising money for MQ and awareness of mental health in the hope that research can prevent others from ending up in the same situation as I did.
This challenge took a huge amount of mental preparation; for nine months we worked with a psychologist on interventions so I would know how to cope in the dark times, where you're pushing yourself to such extreme limits.
One of the most significant things I realised is that there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to maintaining good mental health.
For me, what worked was the idea that you can change a mindset. In the past I’ve tended to look at things through a negative lens, or defined myself by other people’s reactions. Something that helped me to see past this was understanding that, with this cycle, the only person I had to justify my finishing time to was myself – nobody else really cared.
This challenge has given me fulfillment in unexpected ways. When I finished and the person gave me the world record, I realised it wasn’t special to them – they’re probably going to look at the world’s biggest hot dog next! It was more about the journey; from having the seed of an idea, to committing to a year’s training, to becoming more self-aware.
At times the ride was super tough and I snapped. I think we’ve all got this mask that we put on to the outer world and that gets completely stripped away at challenging times. But I started to recognise this, apologise to the team and explain that snapping is an aspect of my personality that I’m trying to work on. Another morning I got up and felt so exhausted; I could tell I was going down a negative spiral. After a few miles, I got off the bike and gathered the whole team. I said to them, “We only have a few days left. Let’s stop with all the analysis and the technical stuff, let’s just enjoy it.” Just changing my mindset was a real turning point.
My diagnosis changed my life.
It felt wrong that for so long I didn’t know what was actually going on, or how to do anything about it. If we’re going to deal with mental illness, we need to understand the causes first. That’s what I love about MQ - and why I decided to take on this challenge for them.
In terms of research into physical illness, we’re about 50 years ahead of mental health – probably because for so long we haven’t talked openly about mental health. We need a better vocabulary to explain what we’re going through. So much of mental illness begins in the formative years of our lives – for that reason I’m really interested in the projects MQ is funding on young people and also their work looking at the way our brains develop.
This journey has helped to show me that I can offer something unique to the world – I wish I’d embraced it earlier. If I could speak to my 25-year-old self, I’d say that being vulnerable isn’t being weak - and neither is talking openly about mental health.
So much of life is about the way your mind works and how you react to situations – but thankfully, I know now that I can work on that. It’s a long process, but it’s so rewarding.
Since returning from his world record, Leigh is sharing his experiences in schools and businesses, using his journey to inspire others to help raise awareness of mental health. If you want to learn more about Leigh, visit his website at www.leightimmis.com or to donate, check out his fundraising page here.
Last updated: 22 January 2019