For most of my life, my bicycle was a source of joy and freedom. That set of wheels provided me with a sense of autonomy and fed my curiosity and need for adventure. As a kid, I rode my bike for hours up and down the street in front of my house. Even though it was less than a full block, the freedom of movement made my small world feel big and full of possibilities. As I grew, so did the distance I was allowed to travel on my bike, and my world continued to expand: up the street to the church parking lot, two blocks over and three blocks up to Grandma’s house, and then a whole mile up to the high school parking lot or Nana’s house. I zipped up and down the streets and sidewalks of my small midwestern town, feeling infinite and fearless. In high school, I traded in my hand-me-down bike for a more serious road bike and started racking up 20, 30, and 40 miles with my dad on country roads, working our way past corn and soybean fields as we solved the world’s problems together.
When I moved to South Africa in 2015, I didn’t own a car (nor was I very adept at driving a stick), so I walked or took public transportation everywhere. These were perfectly fine ways of getting around, but I was overjoyed when a coworker offered me their old bike to get myself to and from work. I once again felt the freedom of racing around on a bike, my views of corn and soybeans replaced by sugar cane and fever trees. Everything felt possible again on that bike. Until it didn’t. One night, I was cycling home, and an unfortunate series of events led to me flying over my handlebars at a speed that could be described as much too fast. Long story short, I broke four vertebrae in my back and my right clavicle was in pieces. I underwent major surgery and was in a back brace and sling for weeks. My recovery period took a few months, and some pain and soreness remained in various parts of my body for over a year after the accident. It took time to rebuild strength, and it took even longer for me to feel courageous enough to get back on a bike. Even though my bones were healed and the road rash was long gone, I still felt unsafe and fearful. There was (and to be honest, still is) a hesitancy that didn’t exist before. My body remembers the moment of breaking more easily and intensely than it remembers the years of freedom. This is often the case when we experience trauma.
Sometimes, when we experience something that feels really scary or harmful, physically or otherwise, we start to respond to the world differently. Things that once felt safe can feel dangerous. Positive experiences turn into distressing events. We might be frozen with anxiety, respond out of fear, or avoid experiences entirely. And I get that. The body is trying to let us know that it feels unsafe, even if that is no longer case. It takes a lot of time and hard work to trust ourselves and the world enough to get back out there and try again. Every year, I’m scared to get back in the saddle. Every year, I do it anyway. It is getting a little bit easier with time, and I never regret it. There are moments of pure joy and freedom still.
When we are working on healing from trauma and returning to ourselves and the things we love, we need safe spaces, safe people, and safe tools to help us get there. These things depend on the person and situation. Safe space for me meant starting small, tooling around on a two-speed on quiet, flat trails where I could go as slowly as I needed to. I eventually worked my way up to feeling confident enough to dart through the chaotic streets of Chicago. Safe people included my partner and my dad, both of whom supported me on rides and played a huge role in reminding me of how much fun cycling can be. Safe tools included strength training, grounding techniques for when I was feeling panicky, encouraging self-talk, and a bicycle helmet (rule number one: always wear a brain bucket). These resources were vital to the mending of my adventurous spirit.
A few weeks ago, I tried mountain biking for the first time. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. I had to talk myself down from a panic attack at one point, but the experience was overwhelmingly positive and full of joyful moments. I was free! It was such a pleasant experience that I decided to do it again the next weekend. The second time ended up being slightly more eventful. I was zipping down a long and windy hill when I hit a bump, lost my grip, and once again went flying. Memories from my previous accident flashed through my mind as I made contact with the ground. For a moment, I thought things were going to be bad, but then I stood up and realized I didn’t need surgery. I couldn’t believe that I fell off my bike and was okay. I had forgotten that it was possible to fall and still be okay. That experience of falling, while painful, was incredibly healing. My world got a little bit bigger and my story shifted. I can fall off my bike, and I can be okay. Even now, I am still healing and rebuilding trust.
Sometimes terrible things happen to us, and there comes a point where we have to decide if that thing is worth the risk again. If you are struggling to get back to an activity or experience that the body remembers differently now, I see you. The fear is understandable and valid, and you also deserve the delight and satisfaction that come with being fully alive. Healing takes the time it takes, so take the time you need. I hope you are able to discern when the risk is worth it. I hope you arm yourself with dependable spaces, people, and tools. And I hope that you do whatever helps you feel most safe, whole, and free.