Hidden disabilities can really mess with your self-image. Assuming you haven’t had your condition all your life, do you think of yourself as “less” than you were before?
I used to do the Seattle to Portland ride, with my first finish in 2005 and then the following year I got lost and ended up riding my record of 133 miles in one day. The next day I wasn’t able to make it the remaining 89 miles to the finish line, but I felt pretty good about my personal best mileage.
I didn’t enjoy the crowds on STP and I didn’t like putting all my eggs in one basket– if there was bad weather on that one weekend, the whole summer felt like a wash. I decided to quit the STP and planned an 8-day bike ride from my house in Bellingham, Washington to my friend Beth’s house in Eugene, Oregon instead. That summer I was conscious of how strong my body felt. I rode 60-to-80-mile days back-to-back, stopping for one rest day in the middle. When I pulled into Beth’s driveway in 90-degree heat with beads of melted asphalt snapping under my tires, I felt invincible.
I was instantly addicted to bike touring. When I lost my job, I made the most of my involuntary time off, doing the job searches required to get unemployment benefits each week before I took off with my bike bags packed. I rode over mountain passes, I did treacherous stretches along interstate highways where there was no other way to get from one point to another. I learned how to cope with hostels to save money on travel.
When I got hit, I was really just getting started with bike touring. I refused to give it up. That’s where the anger went over what happened—I channeled it into determination that no 23-year-old chucklehead was going to take away what I love, or change what makes me me.
I spent 7 years doing progressively bigger bike tours. My body hurt, but it felt strong, and a constant surge of exercise endorphins helped mask my pain. In the winter, with less access to activity, the pain returned with a vengeance. After an agonizing April and May, the endorphin rush always came back.
My knee injury put me down for a year and a half. It’s been a hard comeback. I put on weight that I’m not losing easily. The long haul began back in the rehab center where I was after my crash. The therapists were almost as horrified to see me back as I was to be there. I was just as grimly determined to recover, though. I love having my mobility back, being able to walk long distances and stand more than 3 minutes without having an anxiety-induced hot flash. I love being able to scramble up my ladder to the storage loft in my tiny house.
The biggest thrill of all came in July when I went to Victoria on my bike, leaving my car behind in Tsawwassen, with my destination 21 miles from the ferry terminal. It was the ultimate test, and I came back shouting “I’m back, baby!” I savor every mile, even just riding to the grocery store.
Last week I visited a dear friend on Vancouver Island. The ashes of my first 3 cats are scattered in the Courtenay River estuary, close to her house. I visit there every year and listen to their songs on my iPod, and talk to them about the past year. I know they’re not still there—the saltwater dispersed their ions in about 3 weeks and they’re part of other living things now—but it’s a grounding ritual. Last year I had to drive there; my knee was so badly injured that I could barely get down to the shoreline. This year there was a large log placed in the path to deter people from walking across the sensitive tideflats.
My healed knee is still fragile enough that I didn’t want to push my luck by climbing over the log. I sat there and did my song ritual, and the peace of the place still sunk into my bones. It struck me as I remembered my journey over the mountains with the ashes in my bike bag, from the Sunshine Highway north of Vancouver, across the Salish Sea to Vancouver Island, how physically demanding that ride had been. Most perfectly healthy people could not make that trip, even after training for it. It was a total of about 135 miles that I did in 4 days, with several climbs of over 3,000 feet. With loaded panniers. That was only 4 years after I was hit. Grief gave me superpowers, but wow. That trip would have challenged me before I got hit.
What I wouldn’t give to set my recovery back 5 years and be there again. It’s easy to see what I did this year as “less than.” But every year I really do give it my all. I didn’t just get back to cycling this year, I moved house and took on two new writing jobs. It’s not like I haven’t been running at full capacity.
I’ll never match my personal record of 133 miles in one day again. My post-crash record is 52, and I threw up after the finish. I understand now that the 52 miles post-crash is probably a bigger deal than my 133 miles pre-crash. It definitely represents more effort and determination.
If you came by your hidden disability later in life, how do you see yourself as “less than” you once were? Is it fair? (Clue: It’s probably not, and you need to quit beating yourself up about it.) Let’s talk about that.