Like millions of others, Bricycles volunteer Aandy Natarajan turned to cycling during the pandemic. For him, it hasn’t just been about keeping active during lockdown – it’s literally been a lifesaver.
With his warm smile and calm demeanour, the 44-year old founder of mental health project The Acorn Project doesn’t look like the kind of person who might struggle. But in July 2019, following a series of difficult life events, Aandy hit rock bottom.
‘I basically couldn’t function. I ended up on a psychiatric ward for a month and when I came out, I’d lost everything, including my home. I went to stay with some friends in Portugal and reconnected with nature and started running, which really helped. Back in Brighton, I found somewhere to live and slowly began to rebuild my life. It wasn’t easy – I nursed my dad through the end of his life, and he passed away in early 2020.
‘I live in a hilly part of Brighton, and when we went into lockdown in spring 2020, you could exercise for an hour, but I couldn’t run up and down hills for an hour. So I borrowed a friend’s bike and cycled for the first time in 15 years and instantly rekindled my love for cycling. In my early 20s, I’d worked as a cycle courier in Portsmouth, and had been on tours around the UK and France. My bike had been sitting inside a barn ever since, so I got it back and did it up. Working with my hands and being creative with the paint job kept me busy during lockdown, and gave me a sense of purpose. While I was stripping it down, I discovered that when I was eighteen, I’d written ‘My Little Baby’ in permanent marker on the chainstay. It made me cringe but that’s its name now. It dates from 1991, and I’ve sourced 1990s components for it. I know every single nut and bolt so if anything goes wrong I know what to do. Like me, it’s survived the trip.
‘Looking through photos of my old bike trips made me nostalgic, and I decided to embark on a tour on my newly-renovated bike. I wanted to go to Portugal, but the Covid travel situation was difficult, so I toured the UK instead. Not only did I raise money for mental health charities Grass Roots and Rethink Mental Illness, but the cycling helped with my recovery. The rhythm of pedalling and breathing somehow puts you into a meditative state. During my tour, I visited friends around the country, stayed in retreats and had lots of conversations about mental health, some of which I’m putting into a film about mental health. It was hard at times, as I was mostly on my own, and lockdown conditions varied.
‘My longest stretch in the saddle was fifty days, but I took rest days here and there. I’m not particularly fit – I was mostly just pootling along, and often had to push up the hills, but going slowly is good as you get to see more. I managed to get to northern Scotland and back down to Northumberland in November 2020, before having to take the train home due to another lockdown. In May this year, I went back and finished off the tour.
‘The tenth of July was the anniversary of my hospital admission. I wanted to reframe it as the beginning of my recovery, so I got a bunch of people together and we cycled from Brighton Pier to Beachy Head. Some did the whole thing, others did just one leg. Some had never cycled out of Brighton before, and helping them discover the natural beauty on their doorstep was the pinnacle. It showed me I could help others while helping myself.
‘My life’s starting to settle now. I still have peaks and troughs but my go-to is to get on my bike and ride. It’s not a saviour – I have therapy too – but as a way to regulate myself it’s brilliant. I love everything about the bicycle: it’s such a simple machine and can take you on amazing journeys.
‘Since I got back, I’ve carried on raising money for Grass Roots – they’re a Brighton-based charity that provides suicide prevention training for individuals and corporations, and are leaders in their field. I’ve also been writing short stories about cycling, which will soon be published in Cycle Shorts magazine.
‘I’ve just had the amazing news that I’ve been awarded an Ultra-Distance Scholarship, which supports BAME (black and minority ethnic) people, who are currently under-represented in cycling. I’ll get a custom-made bike, coaching and mentorship to help me through next year’s GBDURO – a gruelling endurance race from Land’s End to John O’Groats. The race is both on- and off-road and only a third of competitors reach the end. It’s a huge challenge, but I’m ready for it.
‘My experience of the mental health system has shown me how stretched things are. I’m passionate about de-stigmatising mental health and helping people to start talking. Going on a bike ride is a good way to do this, as physical activity helps engage a different part of your brain, which allows you to to talk. I’m doing up a mountain bike at the moment, to use as a ‘buddy bike’ so I can take people for rides on the downs. You don’t have to talk about mental health – there’s no obligation to talk – but you can. I’ve travelled the whole of the UK, but I’m still amazed by the views from the South Downs. I’m not a mental health professional but I can listen and signpost people. I’d like to get more involved in community cycling projects and that’s why I help out with Bricycles. Cycling is not just a form of transport. It can do so many things. There’s a link between art and cycling but I haven’t put my finger on exactly what it is. It allows you to think, get into a creative, meditative headspace. I get some of my best ideas on my bike.
‘When I was ill, a friend visited me in hospital and gave me an acorn pendant that someone had given him when he’d been struggling. I wore it around my neck and it was a reminder of strength and starting small. I was like the bike, being stripped down to bare metal and being built up again. From tiny acorns, mighty oaks grow.’
The Samaritans is a charity that’s available 24 hours a day, to give online or phone support to people who are feeling depressed, anxious or suicidal. Tel: 116 123.
The Mental Health Rapid Response Service (MHRRS) is an urgent response NHS service for the people of Brighton & Hove when they feel they are in a mental health crisis and are at immediate risk of harming themselves or others. It’s available 24 hours a day. Tel: 0300 304 0078.
The Sussex Mental Health Line is an NHS service that gives 24/7 telephone support to people experiencing mental health difficulties. Tel: 0300 5000 101.
Mind in Brighton & Hove is an independent charity that provides mental health support. Tel: 01273 666950.