Predictably, it being Friday, everyone I spoke to yesterday was exhausted. Ran into W. outside Channel 4 in the morning, and he told me he was going to spend the whole weekend in his room, doing nothing. Someone I don’t know on Broadwick Street said that by the end of the week he feels like he’s lifting weights rather than pedalling a bicycle. A couple of people I saw at the Duke later on cheerfully told me how little sleep they’d had recently, and how much harder work had been as a result. I bought S. a pint and we discussed how couriering in the summer is actually much more difficult than anyone remembers, and that dealing with the heat, and the sunburn, and the dehydration, is really tough on your body. (I’ve been thinking this all along, but trying to restrain myself from complaining, because everyone looks forward to summer as the promised land when freezing their arses off in January. But actually I think April’s my favourite month. Post-winter, pre-plane-trees, blossom everywhere, and the scent of summer just round the corner, before you remember how painful the hot weather is.)
And god yes, my body is really feeling it at the moment. As I seem to be mentioning with increasingly frequency, it needs a holiday – preferably one where there is no bicycle, no traffic, no pedestrians, no roads, no need to go anywhere fast, and plenty of shade. Thankfully, I’ve just been thrown a lifeline in the offer of a week or two of desk-job work, so with any luck I’ll be able to rest and recuperate without bankrupting myself. Lucky me.
And in the meantime, I thought it would be interesting to do a mid-year inventory of my engine – because that’s what my body is, and I really pay far too little attention to it. As do most couriers, I’d say. We all worry about our bikes, and happily spend three-figure sums fixing, maintaining and upgrading them. And yet we’ll happily ride them on four hours’ sleep, with bad backs and dodgy knees, without stretching or warming up, and fuelled by the cheapest, bulkiest combination of sugar and carbohydrate we can find – and never enough water. When I was talking to people about this at the Duke last night (over Chinese takeaway and cheap lager), it occurred to be that our job has two opposing effects on our bodies – it makes them constantly stronger and fitter and tougher, yet it also grinds them down, and exhausts them, and puts them under a constant repetitive strain that, after a few years in the saddle, is likely to result in chronic long-term health problems, unless you’re very careful, or very lucky.
I often flippantly remark that, once they’ve been on the road a few years, couriers have the face of someone ten years older (because it’s your windscreen, and being battered by the sun, rain, wind, heat, cold, fumes, insects, etc. all year round), yet the body of someone ten years younger (unlike all your desk-job contemporaries, who are mostly running to spare tyres and lapsed gym memberships). It’s true, in a way. But I think there must come a point – after 15 years? 20? – when the constant strain and lack of recovery time starts to accelerate the aging process, and little niggles are magnified into major injuries, which mean the rider has to take so many days off work that she never has enough money for a proper holiday, so is constantly piling exhaustion on top of exhaustion, and exacerbating her injuries, and wearing herself down to nothing.
A friend of mine, who’s been doing this for the best part of two decades, says that it doesn’t get easier as you get older – it gets harder. And I always wonder – when it gets to the point where you’re beyond knackered, and in constant pain, and feel unable to carry on, where do you go from there? Answer – you carry on. Because you can go on a lot longer than you think. Perhaps indefinitely. It’s one of the lessons I’ve learned from exhaustion. You can always go on. Especially if there’s no other option.
But at what price? Compared to someone who’s been on the road 20 years, and is still bearing the scars of last winter as we go into the next one, my tiredness is peanuts. But nonetheless, this is what I’ve learned over the last month or so. You can always find the energy for one more day’s work, but it’ll be at the expense of other things.
The obvious effects of tiredness:
Finding it difficult to get out of bed in the mornings. Your body feels heavy and achy and sore, and every instinct is pulling you back into the mattress. It’s an enormous act of willpower just to sit up. I suppose this is normal for some people, but I’m very much a morning person – usually I spring out of bed an hour before I really need to, and potter happily around, enjoying having the world to myself before everyone else wakes up. My low point is post-lunch/early afternoon, and that too is exacerbated by exhaustion. Ordinarily I’m just a bit grumpy and unproductive, but yesterday I spent an hour trying very hard, and not entirely successfully, to keep my eyes open.
Aching all over: by Thursday my arm and leg muscles are usually pretty sore anyway. Sometimes this is fairly satisfying – like the feeling you get after a good massage. And, within reason, it’s the sign of a healthy cycle of work-eat-sleep. But when work starts to overbalance eating and sleeping, the ache gets worse, and starts to collaborate with the body’s attempts to put itself to sleep every time you sit still for more than a few minutes. Getting back on the bike after 20 minutes’ standby is like pulling yourself out of deep sleep, over and over again. You have to push your legs harder to get the bike moving, and it sometimes really hurts. It’s probably something to do with certain chemicals building up, or lack of oxygen or something. I don’t know exactly, but it’s not nice.
Lack of energy for anything else. Obvious, I suppose, but a bloody nuisance. You get in from work, breathe a sigh of relief, eat, shower, and fall asleep. That’s it. No time to do housework, no energy to hang out with friends, no inclination to deal with your to do list – let alone to address any of the more interesting facets of your life that might exist outside the job. I keep putting things off, vaguely thinking “oh, I can sort that out tomorrow”, when I assume I’ll have more energy. But the next day I’m just as tired – more so, in fact – and sit around in a daze all evening, before falling into bed at 9.30, when it’s still light outside. Exhaustion progressively narrows your horizons – eventually you’ll only be able to muster the energy for the bare minimum of what you need to do – get up, work, eat, sleep. You won’t even be able to think of the future, much less plan and prepare for it. And what sort of life is that?
The less obvious effects of tiredness:
Bad moods. I’ve been grumpier than usual for the past few weeks, and have had a much shorter fuse where dozy pedestrians, bad drivers and lecherous postroom guys are concerned. I’m smiling at people less, and have a much lower tolerance for other people’s faffing around (i.e. the several receptionists yesterday who took more than five minutes just to find the bloody package, and the lunchtime controller who will umm and aww and change his mind three times before deciding which jobs to give me). I spend more time complaining about things that go wrong than I do thinking this is the best job in the world (which it is). I feel depressed and miserable a lot of the time, and worry that I’m wasting my life, and wonder why I’m still earning below the minimum wage when lots of my contemporaries are buying houses. It’s only occasionally that I remember that this is not actually how I feel about my life – it’s just that tiredness makes me more negative. And I imagine that if I went on like this for long enough, eventually the negativity would be imprinted so heavily into my mind that it would become the norm. It’s no secret that a lot of long-term couriers are clinically depressed – and the high you get from riding your bike gets less and less effective the more knackered you get.
Slower reactions, and impaired judgement. I’ve talked about this before, in relation to sleep deprivation. It’s more dangerous than you think, and of course, because you’re sleep deprived, you’re not really thinking that much anyway. In the past couple of weeks I’ve had many more near misses than usual – as well as countless moments of public stupidity, failing to unclip and falling over, missing the pedal as I push off, that sort of thing. And just general clumsiness – I keep tripping over my feet, stubbing my toes, bashing my elbows, trapping my fingers and biting my tongue. None of which is contributing to my good mood, positive outlook or general sense of wellbeing.
No longer enjoying the job, or even enjoying cycling – which is really sad, because usually it’s the thing I love most, and if you took it away, my life would be a sadder and smaller place. Last night, as I left my bike by the front door, I thought, with a certain relish, that I wouldn’t have to even look at it until next week. And, although I’m usually ready to do it all again by Monday morning, the last few weeks I haven’t fully recovered over the weekend, and still regard the bike as an instrument of torture by the time I have to get back on it. And thinking about this from the (imagined) perspective of someone who’s been doing this for years and years – well, loving cycling is the linchpin of this job, is it not? It’s the one substantial thing that makes up for all the rest of it – the lack of job security or career progression, the pain and exhaustion, the stress and the danger, the low pay and the lack of social standing. Once you’ve stopped loving cycling, what’s the point of it all?
So this is what tiredness does to you. It doesn’t stop you – if only it would! It just grinds you down and down, slowly stripping away all your resources apart from the most vital and necessary impulse to get out of bed, work for ten hours, and then eat and then sleep, gradually turning you into a cipher, who doesn’t have the luxury of being able to imagine a life beyond this, much less aspire towards it. I’m thinking again about toughness – which I previously decided boils down to just carrying on when something awful happens, because you don’t have the time to worry about it, or because you know no one would care if you told them about it, or because this kind of thing has happened often enough that – even though it might be horrible – you know that within a short while it’ll have passed. And now I’m beginning to think that toughness isn’t so much about strength or agency – because if you had those resources, you’d probably find a way of avoiding the problem in the first place. Toughness, I think, is more akin to weakness and despair – there are times when your body, with all its reliable instincts, screams at you to put a stop to this. But it’s gone so far that you can’t muster the energy to escape, so you go on. And on.