Guest blog from Charlotte Broughton – an incredibly talented cyclist who I have always looked up to and an open, honest and kind human being who is passionate about mental health and supporting young female cyclists.
My name is Charlotte Broughton, I’m twenty-two and I live and breathe cycling. I’m a semi professional road cyclist racing for a London based women’s team and a 10 times British Champion. I also unfortunately live with pretty bad anxiety and depression too. This makes my life as an athlete a little tricky from time to time.
I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression after hitting rock bottom – thus ending up in A&E back in August. This isn’t a romanticised ‘mental health story’ that you hear in films or books, it’s not fun, it’s not a personality trait and this illness has robbed me of far too much in my life so far.
Fortunately however, just knowing that I now have a name for the stomach dropping, muscle aching and mentally paralysing illness that I suffer from, has made a huge difference. Ironically the not knowing what it was made my anxiety worse, at times I’d believe I was bipolar maybe suffering from psychotic episodes or maybe I was fine and just a bad person who was making it all up – as I was often made to feel. I saw so many people just being able to deal with things and not sweat profusely or runaway, I’d never felt so envious of this ability I saw displayed in others. I felt so alien, especially within cycling.
In retrospect my anxiety and depression has effected my cycling more than I think I’ll ever fully appreciate. Just thinking about it now I feel myself welling up. By the age of 16 I seemed to have everything set, I’d won silver at the European Youth Olympic Games road race, I was current national record holder for the individual pursuit and I was already talking about the bigger picture with my British Cycling team coach. I wanted it all and I was so driven and focused.
Then I suffered a loss in my family among other issues and all of this triggered something in me that at the time I could not explain. I felt so scared, fragile and confused. During this period I would cry a lot: I remember being at a national programme camp and bursting into tears in front of my coach. I would often cry in the shower of my hotel room to ensure no one could hear, but I hated crying in front of others, and still do as a matter of fact. The rest of the time I was brave faced and either serious or angry; I didn’t want weakness displayed to my competitors. During this period I couldn’t see the meaning in what it was to be alive if everything could be taken away so easily. I also had such a deep guilt for feeling somewhat selfish and shallow for focusing my life up until then on winning and being the best, at the detriment of my own mental health. Winning didn’t seem to mean as much during this time. I was also in a pretty volatile relationship which didn’t help me mentally either. I seemed to attach myself to negative people.
Throughout the years I had my moments, which mainly consisted of sheer anger, where I was so incredibly scared. I always felt weak in showing this, therefore I would be enraged with an anger fuelled by desperation. I had nothing, only winning. To me I was nothing without winning, I didn’t have any stable friendships, I felt overwhelmingly alone constantly and I couldn’t turn my brain off. Throughout the years I also had teachers taking me aside after classes to ensure that I was ok as I seemed ‘distance’ and ‘defeatist’.With training whenever I felt as though I wasn’t doing as well I would completely and utterly loathe myself. The voice in my head growing louder and louder. The self doubt was unbearable. My association with training became that of disappointment and pain, subsequently during my junior years onwards my racing suffered. I was already restricting my diet and had been for a couple of years or so: throwing food in the bin at school that my mum had packed for me, skipping meals and riding without food and just water in my bottles. I would always ‘blow’ on long rides. My coach even once refused to let me leave dinner without finishing, parking himself down in front of me. But still a professional was not brought in to intervene. I knew I was my biggest critic and I just felt so deeply unhappy. I was then refused help from British Cycling which I said I needed in order to accept an offer to progress onto the next stages of the pathway, so I left.
I spent more time working on me through the following years while working part time after finishing my A Levels. Now I feel more aware of myself. But don’t be fooled, my progress was not linear and I’m not fully there yet. I had a lot of set backs. I worry to think what would have come of me if I had chosen to stay on the pathway without the correct support. I sometimes wonder if I
would still be here, but I try not to dwell on these thoughts. Now I do a lot of high intensity training which I find easier to complete mentally – I also enjoy the short sharp pace of intensity based training. I think it’s very important to create training with your coach that you enjoy and of course feel you gain a lot from. I also feel that if you suffer from anxiety being proactive in planning training with your coach can help you to feel a little more in control and therefore less anxious as it were.
Of course I still sometimes struggle to motivate myself when going through a rough patch with my mental health and somedays I’m incredibly motivated. The bad days seem to be getting less since I hit rock bottom and after my near death car crash on the motorway last August, I feel thankful to be alive. Near death experiences for sure make you see the world and yourself differently. I walked away from that crash vowing to myself to make the most of my life and the opportunities I’m so incredibly privileged and thankful to have in front of me. I’m truly blessed.
Additionally, with regards to training load I try not to cram too much training in when I’m feeling better (as tempted as it is to add an hour on here and there to a ride) as I have learnt the hard way that this really isn’t the answer and often leads to a prolonged periods of fatigue: this method is definitely counter-intuitive. Consistency is key. So whether it’s riding on the turbo, outside, on my mountain bike or even running (sometimes even doing a Joe Wicks video off You Tube!). I make sure I just get up and get moving and keep everything consistent. I also now try to keep consistent with eating as well. Strong and powerful is best, not underweight, injured and unwell. If I’m not eating I don’t train, that’s my golden rule. Unless of course it’s part of my training, but I would only do that under supervision. It’s so important for my head to know that I am trying my hardest with regards to all that I can control: it keeps me feeling confident and prepared. There’s only so far talent can take you.
Throughout the last few seasons I have gone weeks and months without training consistently hence I’ve unfortunately had so many DNFs. I know this isn’t something athletes ever really admit to but I think the transparency is key and I should address it however taboo it may be. I was very unhappy and had a lot of emotional turmoil within. Last season I didn’t go a week without a panic attack, I was so worn out. I didn’t feel present at all. I now have a diagnosis and therefore a name for this and I know that this too shall pass. I also know that I am not my anxiety nor my depression.
Now looking forward I’m very much excited for the prospect of the future, before I found the idea of my future painful and impossible to contemplate. Sometimes I torment myself with what could have been if I had stayed on the British Cycling pathway in terms of success but instead I’m focused on being a good person and staying focused. I now volunteer as a coach on Youth Girls national training sessions run by British Cycling. I want to be the person that I needed when I was their age. I know how difficult it must be for coaches and parents to get young females to talk about their internal issues and thankfully many have come forward and messaged me after sessions asking questions surrounding such issues.
Next year is looking very promising (I have some exciting news to announce very soon). I hope to compete in more UCI road races as well as the National Series: hopefully here I’ll gain some podium positions and top tens along the way. I want to make this dream finally happen. The dream is still very much alive, I just lost myself somewhere along the way. I’ve never wanted something more in my life and (as awful and corny as it sounds) COVID has really given me the clarity I needed to confirm this. If you would like to follow my progress and keep up to date with my training and racing as well as some honest posts about my mental health and training be sure to follow me!
A huge thanks to the lovely Dr Laura for giving me this platform to tell some of my story. Another huge thank you goes to Laura for always being there to listen and for all of the deep heart to hearts we have had about MH and general life. From me, as always: if anyone needs someone to talk to with regards to the above, my DM’s are always open. Please all know how you feel is valid, it’s ok to not be ok and you are so incredibly loved. Sending love and healing to you all x