23 Jul ROAD TO RECOVERY: ON RELEARNING HOW TO RIDE A BIKE
CW: Mental Health, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Anxiety
Last summer, I worked as a camp counselor at a community centre a few blocks away from my house. I’m an incorrigible late sleeper, so I preferred to bike over rather than make the trek on foot; I’d skid, breathless, into the parking lot seconds before I was supposed to clock in.
Despite the rush, though, I loved biking dearly. On the pain scale, being a camp counselor lands somewhere between getting your teeth cleaned by an angry dentist and being tortured on a medieval rack. Kids love to throw tantrums, litter, fall on their faces, and occasionally vomit—it’s not always their fault, but dealing with dozens of them daily really does a number on one’s psyche. Biking to and from work was my outlet that summer. I’m not exaggerating when I say I genuinely yearned for my daily rides—after looking after six-year-olds all day, cycling was the only thing that was truly for me.
After all my campers were signed out, I’d sprint to my bike as fast as my tired, paint-stained legs would take me. I’d put in my one working earbud (road safety, y’all!) and blast some music—usually girls yelling, it’s very cathartic—as I coasted home. Sometimes I’d make a detour and head over to a nearby park, furiously pedaling circuits, while I pictured leaving all the day’s frustration in my dust.
It felt like the cruelest joke that the one thing I really loved was what ended up hurting me.
Making a left turn on a bike, especially on busy streets, is terrifying. I relied on the kindness of strangers in order to get home safely, signaling wildly and praying that I wouldn’t be pulverized by a soccer mom in her 2007 Toyota. Intense, pleading eye contact with approaching drivers was super effective—until one day, it wasn’t.
The woman who hit me was very nice and apologetic. She even drove me the rest of the way home, promising that she’d pay for any damage done to my bike. When I saw her car bearing down on me, though, my gut instinct kicked in. I howled several expletives at her about a millisecond before she slammed into my front wheel and sent me sprawling across the road. To this day, I don’t remember much about the accident itself except for that my boss, as well as several of my campers’ parents, witnessed the entire thing.
A group of kind strangers peeled my bike off of my body and dragged me out of the road. As I hyperventilated and held an ice pack to my face, someone called 911. The paramedics checked me for a concussion, someone else carried the bike back to my house, and I was unscathed except for a sore neck, a bloody knee, and a fat bruise blossoming where the pedal had dug into my thigh. I came home in one piece; all was well.
Later that night, my father told me to get back on my bike (lopsided, but functional) to help calm my nerves. I took it out for a spin, carefully avoiding the general area where the accident occurred. Convinced that I was still a pro behind the handlebars, I set out for work the next morning with confidence.
I was wrong, of course.
The second I reached the corner of that intersection, my mind shut down. All I could think about was the car slamming into me; I watched myself get hit over and over again. Each time the accident replayed in my mind, new horrors were added. This time my bike was totaled, this time I went through the windshield, this time my skull cracked against the concrete. When I finally snapped out of it, I realized I couldn’t breathe.
Having dealt with severe anxiety for years, I’m pretty well-versed in breathing issues. These symptoms, though, were on a whole new level. It felt like I’d been sucker-punched in the stomach. Somehow I managed to haul myself over to the sidewalk before I started sobbing. I sat there, wheezing and crying for about ten minutes, before realizing that I was going to be late for work. It took about all my strength to get back on my bike and go hang out with screaming children, but my pride (and my need for money) finally got me moving.
After that, I would have anxiety attacks on my ride to and from camp almost every day. Alongside the panic and graphic flashbacks, I started to struggle with psychosomatic headaches and dizzy spells. I did my best as a counselor and hid how I was feeling from the kids, but the last month of that summer was probably the lowest point in my entire life.
I hated feeling so terrified of the one thing that used to make my day. I even hated talking about the accident because of the pity I’d get in response. Since I didn’t have any injuries to show for it, I felt like I didn’t deserve people’s sympathy.
You might ask why I didn’t just ditch the bike and start walking. I could have easily done so, but I think I was trying to prove to myself that I could overcome this trauma as fast as possible. I didn’t want anyone to think that I was some fragile flower who wept every time she saw a moving vehicle. In reality, it took me ages to feel safe on the road again. Once, someone opened their car door into the bike lane only a couple metres in front of me; I immediately burst into tears. Even now, my palms start sweating at that cursed intersection.
I chose to make this summer different. For the past couple months, I’ve gone biking nearly every day. I’ve learned—well, re-learned—to love the wind whipping at my face, as I coast downhill, the way my city looks while I’m speeding along the waterfront trails, the euphoria of knowing that I’m able to go faster and farther every single day. I don’t even mind the sunburns and occasional grease stains.
Last week, I was turning onto a notoriously steep hill near my house when a truck screeched past me, nearly clipping my back wheel. I thought I could shrug it off, but my body decided to rebel against me. Again, I began to panic. Again, I pictured my own body sprawled motionless in the road.
This time, though, I refused to let myself cry. The truck had already disappeared, but I thought to myself, let’s catch up with that asshole. I geared down, took a couple deep breaths, and put my feet back on the pedals.
I’d never been able to get up that hill before without admitting defeat and walking most of the way. That day, I finally did it. I was soaked in sweat and gasping for air, but I felt glorious. For a brief, brilliant moment, there was nothing stronger than me.
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