How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Bike Again
How a cyclist trained his brain with systemic desensitaization to not fear biking after a terrible accident, and got himself back in the saddle again.
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.
Seconds later, passersby on the sidewalk would have seen a cyclist in shorts, a T-shirt and a Giro helmet fly like a projectile over his handlebars and onto the street, landing on elbows, forearms and wrists before somersaulting onto his back.
In the aftershock, I ran through a mental checklist: Am I alive? (Yes.) Have I landed in front of speeding cars or on the streetcar tracks? (No.) Can I move? (Painfully, yes: My arms are numb, but no bones are protruding and I’m not leaking blood.)
Rising unsteadily to my feet, I saw the slow-moving cyclist, also badly shaken, picking up his bike. He had a nasty scrape on his lower back, but otherwise appeared to be uninjured. My bike lay in a heap, its front wheel deformed. The vehicle driver, offering no apology or concern for our injuries, insisted loudly that we were to blame. The police arrived and, after investigating, issued the driver a ticket.
After a trip to the hospital for X-rays, I returned home in considerable pain. I had fractured both elbows and sprained both wrists, and I had soft-tissue trauma in both forearms. I couldn’t move my hands closer to my face than book-holding distance. I could only lie on my back, my throbbing arms cushioned by towels and ice. For almost two weeks, Jennifer spoon-fed me, brushed my teeth, washed my face, helped me dress and performed myriad everyday tasks for me, while I lived on a diet of pain relievers and tried to sleep through the night.
I was unable to do any work for three months, and it took more than twice that for me to perform most work-related tasks without assistance. For months, Jennifer helped me complete short assignments and friends took me shopping and took out my recycling and garbage. I’m still getting physiotherapy nearly two years after the accident.
And I consider myself lucky; I could be in a wheelchair.
Realizing that even after the fractures healed I could end up with chronic problems, I retained a lawyer to pursue a settlement from the driver’s insurance company. The lawyer sent me for a psychological assessment and I ended up seeing Stephane because of the nightmares and other concerns.
As time passed and my arms gradually improved, the question so many people asked me – and I asked myself – was whether I would ride again. I always said yes with a certainty that was meant to cover up the truth: I wasn’t sure.
That’s why, even though I’m not a New Age kind of guy, Stephane’s suggestion of systematic desensitization appealed to me. After doing deep-breathing exercises to get into a relaxed, meditative state – I would describe it as being close to the Zen-like high experienced by runners – he provided me with verbal cues to guide me along the route. (“Now you’re riding through the intersection at Jarvis. There are some parked cars ahead on your right.”) To my surprise, I felt my body involuntarily tense as I mentally “rode” towards the parked cars. Then, like an air traffic controller gently guiding a plane to a landing, Stephane took me past the parked cars and to a stop. And after doing it a second time, I felt ready to do the real thing.
A short time later, I bought a new bicycle and began riding around my neighbourhood. I was excessively cautious at first, feeling slightly panicky any time passing traffic squeezed me too close to parked cars. The first time I heard the telltale metallic click of a driver-side door being opened, my body surged with adrenaline and I veered abruptly to my left. An approaching car swerved and its driver honked angrily.
On the first anniversary of the accident, at precisely the same time of day, Jennifer and I retraced our route downtown. At the intersection of Carlton and Jarvis streets, Jennifer rode in front of me, passing a cyclist. The intersection, the parked cars ahead, even a slow-moving cyclist: They were all eerie reminders of what had happened a year ago. Coming alongside the cars, I felt a chill. Jennifer and I stopped and took each other’s pictures, memorializing an event that neither of us would forget.
Soon I was riding much as I had before, with one significant difference: I was aware that instead of not being afraid or of feeling I had to conquer fear, I embraced fear. There will always be chance and fate, and these may sometimes lead to calamity, but make fear your friend – as pilots and race-car drivers must – and it will provide the source of pure attentiveness, of being in the moment, that increases your odds of staying alive.
The moral of the story: Slow down, be more alert – but don’t stop riding.