30 Mar 2016

Cycling to Wellness

From New Zealand Society, 3:20 pm on 30 March 2016

By Katy Gosset

Leisa McNaughton may still have hundreds of kilometres to cycle.  But the Christchurch woman has already faced a long road to recovery, fighting her way back to wellness after a period of depression. Now she is touring the country with her travel companion, Indy, building awareness of mental health issues and raising money for 13 different regional charities.

'A Big, Black Cloud'

It was in late 2011 that Leisa McNaughton first experienced an episode of mental illness.

"I spent a couple of years on the couch having suffered, basically, a mental breakdown and depression."

It was brought on by a decision to leave her place of work and strike out on her own. But she says she tendered her resignation before she had everything established for her new business. As a result she became "very wound up and very stressed" and found she wasn't thinking clearly.

"When it came to the crunch I just couldn't see any way forward and I ended up in a position with a big, black cloud."

During this "really dark time" she attempted suicide and ended up in hospital. When she returned home, there was a period where she "just needed to be left alone - I just had to shut myself off pretty much from the world."

She lost her house as she couldn't sustain her mortgage payments but a good friend bought the property and enabled her to keep living there. During this time Indy remained her constant companion.

"He never left my side. I was home bound and he was just there with me the whole time."

A photo of Leisa and her constant companion, Indy the dog

Leisa and her constant companion, Indy Photo: Katy Gosset/RNZ

By the end of 2014 Leisa says she had forgiven herself for what had happened. "There was a huge amount of self-acceptance." 

She felt ready to re-engage with mental health specialists, who, she believed, had the empathy and experience to help her.

“I just blossomed but it really came from being prepared to go forward, alongside the expertise of those people who I will be forever grateful for."

"My Best Mate"

Leisa is the first to admit that her seven year old border collie/bernese mountain dog has played a key role in her recovery.

"The trip really started because I was going nowhere without him."

A photo of Indy who has seen most of the country from his wagon

Indy has seen most of the country from his wagon Photo: Katy Gosset/RNZ

Leisa had decided that she wanted to make a cycle journey to raise awareness of mental health issues and to assist some charities along the way.  An earlier mission from Twizel to Oamaru had offered a chance to test Indy's covered wagon although Leisa found he was initially reluctant to get in.

"Eventually I said ‘Sorry mate, you're getting in’ and I manhandled him into the trailer.

She kept her hand on him as he shook with fear but eventually settled down. Now she believes he loves travelling by trailer.

"He gets to see everything, smell everything, yeah, I think he's having a blast."

A photo of Leisa and Indy. Leisa says she was "going nowhere without Indy"

"I was going nowhere without him" Photo: Katy Gosset/RNZ

The current trip began in Cape Reinga in late 2015 and will finish on Stewart Island in April. Along the way Leisa has been blogging about her experiences and visiting schools the length of the country to share her story, including her "…journey, Indy and, depending on the age of the children, we will talk about the mental health aspect."

Leisa says while everyone is facing different health issues, she is prepared to help others in any way she can.  And she believes it is possible to overcome mental illness.

"There is always a way through it and there is always a brighter world - it's just a case of hanging in there."

And she urges others to find the right help, including medication and mental health specialists to talk to. "I appreciate that times may be tough but somewhere out there will be somebody that can help you and it's just a case of finding that person."

She says it's possible to rediscover things to enjoy like walking beside a river or beach or the company of others.

But she believes it's also necessary to be willing to recover.

"If you really want to make the most of what you have and of your life, you will find a way forward."

A photo of Leisa in the centre of Christchurch, her adopted city

Leisa in the centre of Christchurch, her adopted city Photo: Katy Gosset/RNZ

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