by Audrey Wick
The hardest thing about bicycling is gaining momentum when pedaling uphill. I found that out one late summer afternoon.
I was new to bicycling. After surviving a brain aneurysm rupture and emergency surgery the previous year, I was continuing to deal with muscle weakness and pain in my right leg. That’s what no one ever told me about surviving a traumatic brain injury: that when the brain bleeds, it short circuits everything for months.
Though I had graduated from my rounds of physical therapy, my body wasn’t the same as before. Would it ever be?
The therapist suggested bicycling.
I looked completely capable of sitting atop a bicycle. Ten months after surgery, my scalp scars were healing, my hair was growing back, and my cognition was clearing. But stamina was a challenge, and weaknesses made me feel not only older than I was but more unsure of myself than ever before.
Those around me told me I was so strong. But the secret I was keeping was that I felt so very weak.
Brain trauma manifests in complicated ways. My recovery wasn’t linear, as some months were better than others. Still, I measured progress where I could: at the one-month mark, I wasn’t using a walker; at the two-month mark, I could drive short distances; at the four-month mark, I got rid of my assistive shower chair.
Now, at this ten-month mark, I was teetering atop a bicycle seat, trying to stay balanced as I pedaled not only for strength and flexibility but also to flood my brain with oxygen. It felt empowering to be outside the walls of the therapy gym, though I missed the aid of human hands and safety rails.
But I needed to put one foot in front of the other—and keep pedaling—in order to get better.
Still, it wasn’t easy.
As sunlight streamed heavy on that afternoon ride, every pedal rotation was hard-fought. I leaned into the wind, but it pushed me into unsteady wobbles, rocking my confidence. I clenched the handlebars as well as my teeth just to stay upright.
The previous week had been a good week. I had returned to work one month prior and was folding myself back into a professional routine. A teacher by trade, I was relearning how to manage the classroom as well as my own schedule. Maybe those demands were finally catching up to me.
I eased onto the shoulder of the county road where I was pedaling. As a few cars slowed but eventually passed me, I wondered what they saw, and at what point a driver might ease next to me in my state of pausing, to inquire if I was okay.
Because most days I was.
But there were times I wasn’t.
During that period of recovery, people stopped asking about my progress either because they had no idea I was still “in recovery” or perhaps because they thought weakness was contagious. There was no manual for survival of brain trauma, so I was having to write my own. Doing so involved a great deal of trial and error along with persistence.
So I stared to the top of the hill, my focus absolute. Determined, I willed my legs to work harder and kept pedaling.
And when I finally did crest the top, the feeling of accomplishment was overwhelming. I turned my face to the sun, soaking up its radiance and realizing that, for every challenge, there’s the possibility to push through it.