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How cycling saved my life: Lee Stephenson Q&A and podcast

In-depth
2 Sep 2021
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After two decades in the police as a firearms officer, Lee Stephenson suffered terrible mental health issues. In today's episode, he speaks to Joe and James on how cycling – and talking – helped to get his life back.

For more on the issues discussed in today's episode, visit www.mind.org.uk/

Words James Spender Photography Lisa Stonehouse

Cyclist: Lee, you’re a keen cyclist, but cycling to you means more than just fitness and miles. Can you explain why?

Lee Stephenson: I’ve been a police officer for nearly 22 years and was recently diagnosed with complex PTSD, OCD, depression and anxiety. This is why I want to talk about it now, because cycling has helped me so much. I’m hoping that people can relate to or take something from my story.     

Cyc: Where does the story begin?

LS: I was five years on the beat from 2001, then I progressed to the specialist ops – the firearms department, which deals with the more violent incidents, not just gun crime. One minute you could be dealing with somebody for speeding, the next you’ve received a call that somebody’s brandishing a firearm, a crossbow. Then we also deal with people who want to self-harm, with road traffic fatalities, suicides and so on.

It was 2015 and I was called to an incident of a suicide involving a female. We recovered the firearm for forensics and everything’s done properly – it’s horrendous of course but it’s no worse than usual.

But as the months went on, nightmares started, graphic nightmares. I knew I was changing; I became less tolerant. I’d take it out on my family, my kids, overreacting and shouting because they’d knocked over a glass of water.

I’d go to the garage and cry because I knew my kids were scared of me. I was exhausted, going to work pretending everything was OK because I had this fear of losing something I’d worked so hard for. One day I was sitting in the toilet at the nick and I thought to myself, ‘I’m carrying a sidearm here with rounds in it. I’m struggling big style and I could quite easily sort this out.’

I gave up drinking, but that meant binge eating and I put weight on. I’d always kept myself fit, but I started feeling lethargic so I went to the doctors – I wasn’t going to tell him anything, just the physical side. He did tests and it came back I was at risk of type 2 diabetes, which was a massive shock. Then the doctor rang me a few days later and said he had a feeling I wasn’t OK. That’s when I coughed everything up, and he got me emergency assistance.

My close colleague and best mate Mick said to me, ‘Shall we get some counselling sorted? You’ve changed.’ Mick helped me get counselling through the Police Firearms Officers Association, this unbelievable charity organisation set up by a great guy, Mark Williams, an ex-firearms officer with the Met. I was embarrassed, but I did attend.

Cyc: That might sound strange to some people, feeling so low but also feeling embarrassed and unable to ask for help. Can you explain a little more?

LS: It’s the risk of losing the job, the firearms licence, getting chucked into some other role. The stigma of it. It’s a male-dominated environment and not coping – asking for help – is weakness.

Cyc: But you did ask for help…

LS: That was the biggest step for me, seeking that help. I went through emergency interim counselling and then occupational health from the police, where my therapist, Karen, was unbelievable.

She got me to talk about things I’d never spoken about; it was like the floodgates opening. Everything came out, how I was feeling. Then I had a session with a psychiatrist and he diagnosed me with complex PTSD, anxiety, OCD and some depression. Now I’m on medication.

Obviously I had the scare about diabetes too. I’ve always known I was a little OCD – it’s a running joke with the kids and the missus – so you know what happened as well? I got back into cycling.

I bought myself a turbo trainer and because it was winter I became obsessed. I was thinking I don’t want type 2 diabetes, not on top of my mental health problems. So I was hammering cycling, and things changed.

I lost two stone in three months – that’s how obsessed I was. At first it was more about medication than enjoyment, but now I’ve reached the stage where cycling is the time I can go out and not think about anything. I’m probably covering 300km a week. As well as the tablets, cycling is my medication.

Cyc: Do you always ride alone?

LS: Not always. Back in 2018 we lost a colleague who took his own life as a result of work-related mental health issues, and there’s now a cycling group for him called the Tour de Acky – Mick Atkinson was his name, a fantastic bloke. We meet up and once a year we do 106.6 miles because that was his badge number: 1066. And we talk.

I keep going on about talking, but it’s massive. The Acky rides are great as I know I can talk to people without any stigma, and it’s impossible to come back from a ride and not feel upbeat when your daughters have drawn a big banner with ‘We love you Daddy’ in the window. Those are the points that pick me up.

The advice I’d always give is talk to somebody, whether that’s your partner, your doctor or a mate. Tell someone how you’re feeling. It’s nothing to be ashamed about. This macho thing we carry around with us, it should have gone in the Dark Ages.

The pressures are different now too; it’s not just if you’re in the police, it’s running a family, having a job – they’re all relative to you as an individual.

Cyc: So what’s next for you?

LS: It’s unlikely I’ll return to being a police officer, but things are getting a lot better. I’d like to crack on, do something different, tinker with bikes, do a Cytech mechanics course. I’d like to look at setting up groups around the country, like the Tour de Acky, where anyone can ride and if they need to, have a chat. Without being dramatic, cycling is one of the reasons I’m still here.