Experiment #22: Recovery (Part 2)

 --- Recovery from Getting Hit By A Car --- 

    At some point, I can walk again without the crutches. I hobble around in my walking boot and can feed myself again. Every day, my leg hurts, but it's not all the time anymore. Things start coming back to me as my head clears - that the lawyer I've been talking to is a charlatan, that I need to contact the car insurance company, my work, etc. I start to make plans to go back to work - I ask for help because I can't get to work without a carpool, and a very nice coworker offers to pick me up. I start trying to work again over two weeks after the accident. It's March now. 

Only, I still can't do math and I feel exhausted after an hour or two of work - my brain feeling like a sponge that has been squeezed out. I try, there are complications and drama at work I can't follow. I'm not doing a good job, I know my team needs me to do a good job, and I can't fill the gap. I put head down at my desk work and cry. It feels like I claw my through the simplest tasks. My leg hurts and I go to PT, which isn't as horrific as I thought it would be. She tapes my leg, and it almost feels better for a few hours. 

Also, I begin the year plus journey of battling with insurance. I was lucky - my driver admitted fault, I had witnesses, and within a week her insurance admitted 100% fault. But, omg the lies that followed, the battering down, the excuses, deliberate delay tactics, and contradictory information. I think I have spent over 100 hours on the phone with Allstate insurance. 

In movies, the recovery part is a montage. You see the person recovering gritting their teeth as they fight for their first steps. You see snapshots of the agony but also the victories, with their support cheering them on. The problem with real recovery is that it's not a montage, it's every day, never ending and the pain chews away at you. You look at your leg and beg "please, can you stop hurting, please". You count how many tramadol (reduce pain + swelling) pills you have left and barter with yourself if it's bad enough for you to take one. You stare at the ceiling and wonder if a day would come that this wasn't routine. 

Recovery Montage
More days pass, every day is a few more small gains. Being able to take stairs normally instead of two feet on a stair and using my left leg to support both. I celebrated each of these small wins, even if it was just a smile to myself. My biggest cheerleader in my recovery was me, focused on winning this war. 

My scars are pronounced - my hands look like I am a prize fighter. The back of my left leg has 3 scars that look like I have been clawed (where the spokes punctured skin). It takes weeks for the bruises to recede. Scars up my back. Eventually, I stop using the walking boot. I walk with a limp, but I walk. The pain catches me off guard, sometimes it's OK and sometimes it's crippling.  

I never had bruises that lasted weeks

I decide to try an indoor trainer ride - my PT said cycling would be OK. It's awful. I hurt everywhere, I started sobbing as soon as I started pedaling, and it felt terrible. I don't think I have ever enjoyed a ride less. I go back to sitting on the couch and staring at the ceiling. 

I think it's mid March now. I am finally brave enough to go downstairs and look at what is left of my helmet. It's traumatic, worse than looking at what was left of Tuna. The helmet is clearly destroyed, the foam and plastic shell cracked in multiple places and dented in. 

This is the point where recovery became a choice. 

I was laying on my couch one day, another day of failing at work all day and my calf throbbing, staring at the ceiling. I realized that no one would ever judge me if I never rode a bike again -- in fact, many would commend my choice as being the wise one after the trauma of almost losing my life. I pictured commuting and felt this panic seize me. I still had nightmares filled with headlights, and the idea that this could happen again brought me to tears. It would be easy just... to disappear from cycling, and I kind of wanted the easy road. 

I was at a crossroads and this was a choice. On the left, I heal, try to salvage what I can of my job at work, and I find new, safer hobbies. On the right, I have to overcome some really awful memories, work to regain my fitness from nothing, and I know that I will always have this dread of this happening again. I'm not even that good of a cyclist - is this worth it? Everything in our bodies is engineered to train us to stay AWAY from physically devastating activities, especially when we've experienced it before. 

But I thought of what biking had brought me - the joy (!), the ability to take any bad day to a good one with an after work ride, and all the friends, experiences, and memories. Did I want to walk away from all the good too? The battle I had to face seemed worth it for another shot at this life - of being able to bike with friends for coffee and to see the world. I took a step down the path to getting back on my bike, and I refused to look back from that moment

I order a new helmet, a Lumos helmet with built-in lights. I never want to be hit by a car again and, already, I crave any sort of extra safety I can give myself. Weight penalties be damned. March 11th, I tell Daniel I am going to commute to work by bike. My calf muscle still hurts most of the day and I have just started to walk without the boot, and he looks at me like I'm insane. We have a squabble I think, him saying that I am not ready and risk re-injuring myself more. I remember being close to tears and telling him that if I wait any longer to ride my bike, I'll be too scared to ever ride again. Already it seemed like a  daunting monster.               

 I go for that first ride alone with my new helmet and a down jacket because it's cold. It hurts to clip in and clip out. Less than a mile into the ride, I have a left hand turn to make, and it's earth shattering. I am waiting in the turn lane (it's one lane each way and then has a turning lane) and a car goes by me on my right at about 30 mph. It cuts me to the core and is like I am suddenly in an alternate reality -- my entire body goes rigid and it's like being thrown into an icy lake. I start hyperventilating, unsure of what is happening. I make my turn and get out of the road, pull over, and am now scared, very scared of what just happened. As John Weller explained to me later, this was my first sample of PTSD. The rest of the bike ride is uneventful and slightly painful (poor right calf), I made it to work, lock up my bike and try to sit down and do my job. 

I bike home. I bike to PT. I commute the whole week. It's less painful every time. I find there is a sound cars make when they go a certain speed (about 28mph) that triggers that icy-lake-dunk visceral reaction in me. It is never as bad as that first time, but it sometimes rips through me when I least expect it. I try to pretend I am normal, just a commuter going to work, not this broken and fragile thing that is scared and in pain. 

New Helmet!

The next week I commute again and do some bonus miles. My friends cheer me on for my slow build and personal fight. A friend of mine is hit by a car (and survives but with severe injuries), and it knocks the breath out of me when I hear. Why does this keep happening? Will this happen to me again? Will this happen to all of my friends and everyone I care about? Dark moments. 

But I fight. I make sure I ride every day, as safe and as slow I want. People invite me on group rides - I say no, I am scared I will overexert and not be able to keep up. Txomin promises he'll ride slow ("I am out of shape"), and I decide to trust him. I am vulnerable, weak, and barely clinging to this mental/physical path to the bike. Txomin and I start doing a weekly coffee gravel ride together to hold each other accountable but also to re-grow. The rides are agonizingly slow and I feel like I am clawing my way to marginal improvement, but we do them every week. Our legs and friendship grow stronger. 
Best Recovery Buddy

At one point, I tell Txomin about Tuna's death and thinking about a replacement travel bike. Txomin offers me a bike he's kept in his garage, unridden for several years, a titanium Litespeed road bike. I name him Kiwi, and although he's not Tuna, he's a happy bike ready for adventure. I take him for a ride on the road and can see the future I will have with this bike - traveling and climbing mountains. Kevin at the FB bike shop helps me put a triple (:D) on Kiwi, and it's smiles all around. 

The rise of Kiwi
By late March, my job at work changed (for the better) and I am now commuting to downtown Seattle some days of the week (when the weather is nice). The cars terrify me and I find myself being extremely risk adverse -- if I feel at all uncomfortable, I ride on the sidewalk. A ticket is better than dead. My PT says I am healing at an outstanding rate and to keep it up, same with the orthopedic doctor. The orthopedic doctor says where I am at 1 month is where he was expecting me to be at 3 months. There's a silver lining in sight, and all I see is that sparkle. 

March 30th. I do my first bike race back, with no intention of doing well. I do very poorly, actually, and have to drop down to a shorter distance after my head swells and my leg also starts hurting. People try to push me to continue -- they want me so badly to do well too and want to help me recover and be stronger than ever. But I take the failure here and live to fight again. 

Two weeks later, I complete Gran Fondo Goldendale (90 miles). It's my longest ride 2 months after the accident. It's my slowest time ever, but I take my time and enjoy it. The goal is to finish, and I succeed. A win this time. 

I am exhausted though, thoroughly. I am supposed to be racing in Bend, OR in two more weeks. I cancel, not sure I can handle the stress, the flight, and knowing I am in no shape to do that race. Another failure. 

I start to falter. Where is this going? I am healing, and I had lots of goals/plans for the year that I now have to re-evaluate. I was supposed to the Cent Cols Challenge in September, which was going to massive amount of training and prep, regardless of the fact that I've just had this massive setback. I email Phil, the director, and he, in the efficient way he decides these things, said I shouldn't quit and come back stronger. It feels insurmountable but also like a sparkle on the horizon. The other is the Coast to Coast race in Michigan, 210 miles of gravel on June 21st which was supposed to be my comeback from failing at Dirty Kanza the year before. I didn't cancel these events in March because... I still wanted to have this hope. 

I visit Tim Thomas at the hospital; he's post-op of tumor removal and undergoing chemotherapy. He asks me how my recovery is going and I tell him I don't know what to do about my big Italy trip in September - all I have had is hurt and pain for a month and this would be more, and probably result in me failing anyway. He looks at me and said I had to do it, for him, for us -- I have been given a chance, however small, to achieve a dream we both had. He told me to live, and he was right. 

Now, it is time to not just recover, but to grow stronger. 

I asked my co-worker Dan Lau if he wanted to make a move to win Bike Everywhere month with me. Bike Everywhere Month is a challenge in the PNW (and elsewhere) to bike as many miles as possible as a team of 10 against other teams in your area. It is super competitive in Seattle, and last year my Microsoft Team had come in 4th after an incredible rally.  This year, Dan and I were both unsure about our bike futures, for him it was whether to fight after on-off injuries and getting out of peak fitness. For me, I needed to jump in without hesitation to achieve what I signed up for. Together, we decided we'd take this seriously together. Let's do it. 

It's a testament to the bike community the team we built and the people who came when Dan and I called for help. The message was clear - I need people who want to be 100% in because I needed that focus. I promised vegan cupcakes to my team mates :) Yee Feng came and brought the best of the Audi Book Club. Mick Walsh joined and brought the legend John Cacabelos. Paul Read answered the call. Shaun Ivory, although on a bike tour, said he was in. My heroine Jamie Van Beek joined. We were going to do this -- this was an all-star team. 

And... omg, we delivered, together. I went from the woman who could barely walk to a 1600 mile month in May. I fought for every one of those miles - so many doubts, so much lost fitness, and my legs rebuilding and hurting in ways they never have before. I tried doing group rides and had to drop out because I couldn't keep up and my head would swell. It was all about endless slow, steady miles. We didn't win, but we were damn close. I am proud of that team and what we pushed each other to achieve (500+ mile weeks while full-time working). I left the month of May feeling strong and turning my attention to Coast to Coast, 3 weeks out. 
Coast to Coast Surprise
I delivered again at Coast to Coast, getting 3rd for women overall and finishing the 210 miles in 13:45. My goal was only to finish, to prove I could do it. My longest ride this year since getting hit was 130 miles. For the first time since February, I really tried and laid everything I had on that course. It was my best finish ever, even before getting hit by a car. My leg only twinged a few times and my brain didn't swell. Now my attention turned to Cent Cols Challenge. 

Training for Cent Cols was much harder. I was both exhausted from May + June efforts and trying to push myself even harder. My brain was still fuzzy but it was back about 95% at this point. My calf was mostly recovered (I still didn't like people touching it), but I had some back of knee pain (bursitis) that ended up lasting significantly till July 2020 and to some extent presently. 

Graduating from PT

I sunk into a weird sort of focused isolation. I really feared group rides - so much noise and potential for problems along with the pressure to perform. I was vulnerable to failure and just so sick of it. If it was just me then I only had to live up to my standards, and I could handle my own disappointment in myself but not others' disappointment in me. I spent my weekends climbing endless hills alone and telling myself we were going to get there one day at a time. 
Earning those lattes  

September came and I wasn't ready for the Dolomites, but I was on a plane with my friend Erika and... I was going to try my best. I can't say I succeeded; again, I failed more than I succeeded. But I fought, I wouldn't quit, and even failure after failure, I tried for a complete day and finished. And then I did another one. I had a taste of success and of "next-leveling" myself - I could officially declare that I was back and not only back, but stronger. Sometimes it may feel like you're just fighting the same losing battles, but resilience wins the long game. 

I came back from Italy with a different set of problems unrelated to getting hit by car that became my focus. Eventually I settled with insurance in April 2020. No, I really don't want to talk about that process more or how deeply unpleasant it was. I need at least another year before I can write about that trauma. 

A few weeks before the 1 year of getting hit, I woke up in the middle of the night from nightmares filled with headlights. It took me a while to realize how much anxiety I had around this day and what it would mean to me. On Feb 13th, I did not ride my bike to work (once again, people asked. People wanted me not just to beat getting hit by a car but to utterly destroy it), and I am glad I didn't. I was upset the entire day and would start crying intermittently (I'm sure my co-workers thought I was having a nervous breakdown). But after February 13th, life resumed. 

I guess somewhere in this year, I became a trauma survivor. I also went from announcing on every bike ride that I had been hit by a car to subtly mentioning it at some point in conversations. People always look at me when I tell them and say something so silly like "Oh, but it wasn't bad?" -- we want people we like to be OK so much... "no, it was very bad".  It's no longer my core identity, though; I am probably still healing in ways that haven't surfaced yet. 

How I have I changed in this process? Well, I can't make left turns in neighborhoods with 30 mph speed limits and two lane traffic. I actually go to the side of the road and cross perpendicularly or will make 3 rights. I start to have a panic attack if I try to make the turn normally. 

The top of mind is that I don't know if I could do this again or would to choose to do it again. It's really hard to get back in the saddle. It's even harder when you know it's just going to happen again. Healing takes playing the long game and absolute, relentless positivity... you are your biggest cheerleader. 

Have I showed what I am made of? Sure. But if anything from getting hit by a car, the way I have changed as a cyclist is that I no longer seek validation for my accomplishments from others. Back to the recovery montage... of walking normally up stairs for the first time and the smile to myself -- this is what I am made of -- Finding joy in my own challenges to myself and my teams. 

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