Click. A car door swings open. A cyclist is knocked sideways to the ground. I can’t veer around him – there’s traffic, and the rumble of a streetcar approaching. I jam on the brakes. My front wheel hits the bicycle lying in my path. My right handlebar clips the edge of the car door and my back wheel rears up, stopping at 45 degrees. Aluminum-alloy rims scream as they twist; steel spokes make a popping sound. The asphalt below looks like the dark water of a northern Ontario lake in mid-dive.
At this point I would wake up, shaking, in a cold sweat. Always in the middle of the night, lying uncomfortably in bed, my arms swathed in ice packs.
“What thoughts does that bring up?” asks the genial balding man sitting across from me in a quiet office. It’s March, eight months after the accident. The frequency of the nightmares has slowed considerably, but I’d had one a few days ago.
Pausing, I say, “I’m thinking about getting a new bike.”
“How does that make you feel?”
“I’m not sure,” I reply. “I’d like to think I’m the kind of person who can get back in the saddle, but I don’t know how I’ll feel riding on busy downtown streets.”
In the aftermath of the accident, I’d acquired a physiotherapist, a litigator – and a psychotherapist, Stephane. I told Stephane I planned to retrace the route I’d taken on the day of the accident. He suggested “systematic desensitization” – a form of visualization, often in which another person provides verbal cues to a remembered event. Systematic desensitization is considered to be an effective way to reduce or eliminate panic disorders, chronic anxiety and other stress-related conditions.
At our next session, I gave him a paper on which I’d written the details of the route. Then we began. This is what happened on that sunny afternoon in late July 2007: I was cycling with my girlfriend, Jennifer, along a familiar route in downtown Toronto. She was ahead of me as we rode along Carlton Street, and she passed a slow-moving cyclist as we crossed Jarvis Street.
I was about to do the same, but decided to wait until I’d passed the parked cars ahead. Like any experienced urban cyclist, I always glance ahead at side-view mirrors. A reflection of someone in the driver’s seat usually means that the person is about to pull out of the space or that he’s just parked and may swing his door open. In this case, though, the slow-moving cyclist was travelling too close to the cars, blocking my view.