I am scared of riding a bike.
Here are some other things of which I am scared:
– public speaking
– small spaces
– drowning/ being underwater
But today I am focusing on the bikes.
I have been thinking about fear a lot over the past two days. That is because two days ago, something very strange happened: I got scared. Like, really, really scared. I’ll tell you all about it in a minute, but the whole experience got me thinking about fear, and how strange it is as a concept, particularly in adulthood.
In childhood, it is totally normal to be scared of all sorts of things. Then, as we grow and learn, we get over a lot of it, or at least learn to repress those fears and pretend we’re fine. In adulthood, I think most of our fears are more existential and emotional than they are tangible. We are constantly scared of losing loved ones, of getting sick or hurt, of facing rejection, of handling financial burdens, of being crime victims, or of the general state of our messed-up world. Depending on how fortunate we have been in life, some of these fears may be more pressing than others. It is completely assumed that we all live with a certain degree of dread over these things at all times.
But we do not by default assume that people are scared of everyday physical items or situations. Most adults either never had these fears, got over those fears, have learned to control those fears, of just avoid situations where they would be forced to encounter these fears. As a result, I realized, there is an added level of complexity to these types of fears, and that level is shame. When I get scared, but everyone else around is not scared, I feel like a failure. I am embarassed. What is wrong with me, that everyone else is completely fine right now, but I am not?
I think that, naturally, we tend to avoid fearful situations when possible, so we don’t have to think about them too much. But I, personally, have a life motto. It’s advice my sister gave me a couple decades ago (I don’t remember the context), and I have never forgotten it: the only way to conquer your fears is to face them. So that’s what I try to do in adulthood. Face those fears.
Which brings us to my fear of bikes, and the incident two days ago.
When I was a kid, I was pretty fearless on my bike. I rode it all over the place. I loved to pop wheelies. You know, typical kid. But one day, I was attempting a cool new trick- popping a wheelie while turning a corner. If you think this was a stupid idea, you are correct. Somehow, no clue how, I managed to land it on the first attempt. But on the second attempt, physics and gravity kicked in, and I went crashing to the ground. The momentum kept my bike moving and skidding along the asphalt, and the side of my face was right there with it. It hurt like a bitch, left me bloodied, and gifted me a couple bitchin’ scars. This was right before soccer practice, so I went inside, got cleaned up, got driven to practice, and then never got back on that bike again. It’s the textbook “get back on the horse after a fall” scenario, only I failed and didn’t get back on. I was an older kid at that point, where biking was no longer “cool”, and we were not far off from getting our learner’s permits and graduating on to cars. My fear of biking was born.
I think I could probably count on my fingers every time I have attempted to ride a bike since that simple fall. In all of these events there has been a consistent factor at play: no other riders being scared, and people not believing me when I told them how scared I was. Still, I had to face those fears, so I tried and failed over and over again.
My most earnest attempt came in grad school, when I was living in the UK. Biking was the main mode of transportation for most people over there, especially for students. This seemed like the ideal situation for getting over this fear. Biking was essential for survival. So I bought a bike from a friend, and decided to ride it to class. This first ride was like the bunny hill of bike rides. My class was very close to home, along one of the few bike lanes in the city that was super wide and separate from the road (unlike the narrow High Street where I don’t understand how bikers weren’t getting decapitated by the rearview mirrors of all the double decker buses). The trip was only a few minutes long, but I arrived at class shell-shocked, but to my classmates’ amusement. I was sweaty and trembling, and my knees hurt SO BAD. I wound up pushing the bike home and never got back on it. When another friend needed a bike a couple months later, I said I would sell her mine and I commenced with pushing the bike across town. But there was a problem- I was running a little behind schedule, and I take punctuality seriously. Oh, if only there was some sort of way that I could just move faster! Then I looked down at my bike, tried to convince myself to suck it up and get on that bike, and just… couldn’t. I couldn’t work up the nerve. I was disappointed in myself. The experience not only made me feel like a failure; it made me realize just how deep my fear actually ran.
A couple years ago my then-boyfriend, now-husband and I were visiting my sister in New York City. We were in Tribeca, and had theatre ticket on Broadway. It was a beautiful day out. And there is a bike path that runs along a park along the western edge of the island, with CiTiBike stands conveniently located pretty much right at our current location and our destination. This was the fastest, most direct, most scenic, most economical way to get where wanted to be, plus it would be fun! I was, of course, scared. But I had been facing other fears left and right (skydiving despite a fear of heights, giving speeches despite a fear of public speaking, white water rafting despite a fear of drowning, owning a dog despite a fear of dogs, etc) so I gave it a shot. My sister was, I think, nervous for me, having known me longer and having seen my earlier attempts. I don’t think my now-husband realy believed me. But the fact that the path was completely away from traffic, wide, straight, in a pleasant setting helped me build up the courage, and I did it. I was scared shitless, but I did it!
On that day I learned two things.
1. Whoever said “it’s like riding a bike!” suggesting that the skill comes right back was completely full of shit. Riding now did not feel anything like riding as a kid before my fall. Like, yeah, technically I managed to propel this thing forwards, but everything just felt much less controlled. Still, I figured that was just rust, and the ease could return in time.
2. I could see myself enjoying this again. Yes, I was scared, but it was a FUN scared! It was a good kind of scared. The kind of scared that makes you realize that maybe you can do this after all! Maybe this fear is conquerable!
The turning point came last fall, when I friend invited me, my (by this point) husband, and several other friends on a group bike ride to celebrate his birthday. To my own surprise, I was excited for this idea. I get uncomfortable with parties, bars, and group dinners, much prefering to engage with friends through activities, so this celebration sounded great. We rented two bikes from a bike shop, then drove off to meet our friends. I felt a lot better about the experience when I realized that most of our other friends hadn’t really ridden bikes in years, either. We could all bond over our inexperience! I rode my bike around the parking lot while we waited for folks, and things felt pretty good. This might turn out ok.
Then we took off on the trail, and I instantly fell behind. Everyone else was moving so fast, and with so much ease! Meanwhile I was absolutely dying. My quads were seriously burning within the first minute, and it was taking all my strength to move this thing. I was huffing and puffing like I’d just run a marathon. I was frustrated, yet again, at my failure, and particularly disappointed in myself for having to give up so early. I explained my frustration to a friend, one of the few who was alread an avid cyclist. He said he’d take a look at my bike and… lo and behold, it turns out my break line was kinked, and I had been trying to pedal the whole time WITH MY BRAKE ON. He unbent the line, the break released, and WHOOSH! Suddenly this was SO MUCH EASIER! From that point on I could mostly keep up just fine, though I definitely hadn’t yet mastered the art of switching gears or going up hills. But, much to my own shock, I had a really, really good time. Huzzah!
On the way home, my husband and I both confided that we were now inspired to get bikes of our own. We’d enjoyed it so much that we were envisioning long bike trips together in the countryside, etc. I was stoked.
Early this year, we bought our bikes. My husband and I, it turns out, are very different bikers. He took to it like a fish in water, bought a bike for speed, and has already gone out on crazy long rides out into the middle of nowhere. I, however, have been stumbling. I thought the steadiness and confidence of childhood would return, but it has not. My knees stil hurt, despite this time having a fancy bike that was fitted for me. I am incredibly slow. I’ve finally figured out how and when to shift gears (thumbs for uphill, index finger for downhill), but they still never feel quite right. I have trouble staying straight, particularly in narrow lanes. I have no idea how kid-me used to take her hands off the handlebars, because every time I lift one hand for half a second to ring my bell or signal a turn I feel like I’m going to go flying out of control. My turning radius is complete shit. And any time I go downhill or try to pick up speed even a little, all I can think about is how bad it will hurt to fall, and the high likelihood that I will fall.
All that being said, I am loving my bike, and riding it all the time. I’ve been sticking with it, and keep practicing, though at times the frustration at being so bad at it really does get to me. I’ve turned into a city-biker. I bought a basket for the front and head off across town to pick up carry-out food orders. Recently I’ve loved throwing my volleyball in there and heading down to the sand courts by the river. And for fun I’ll just ride around town, either through the nearby suburban streets like a kid again, or picking less-busy times and days to hit the trail along the river.
When my husband suggested that we celebrate our two year wedding anniversary with a nice bike ride together, I was excited. Unfortunately our very mismatched skill levels means that we haven’t yet been able to go on crazy biking adventures together, but we’ve managed to each pack our patience and go on smaller errands together. His suggestion was a midday, midweek trip along the Potomac River to Mount Vernon, roughly 10 miles south. We would pick up food along the way and have a nice picnic. This would be a big tough ride for me, but a short easy one for him. Still, I had been riding and practicing enough that, though I thought the distance would be tiring, it would be a doable, fun trip.
This particular trail tends to be very, very busy with cyclists, runners, and walkers. It is also narrow, with lots of sharp windy curves. We tried another section of this trail months ago on a Saturday afternoon for one of our first rides together, and we both emerged miserable and shell-shocked because it was so nerve-wrecking to navigate the crowds. But we had each returned since at less-busy times and had grown comfortable and patient enough that, as long as we were mentally prepared, we would do fine.
Things started out normal. I was slow, tired, and sore from the get-go, but that’s not out of the ordinary for me. I stopped us for a water break about 4 miles in, at a scenic boardwalk bench that marked the usual turn-around point for my longest rides. After that stop, though, things went downhill. Or rather, uphill. Very, very sharply uphill. With the trail still windind and narrow and covered with people. It wasn’t too long before I was completely exhausted, physically and mentally. And, as my cofidence dropped, my repressed fears crept back in. Each uphill had my legs screaming and my lungs heaving. Each downhill had me terrified of falling. And all of this was compounded by the knowledge that I would have to face those same hills and turns on the way home. I was getting frazzled and nervous, and at some point I realized that we had moved past “good fear.” I was no longer having fun. I was just worn out, and feeling terrible about myself for sucking so bad at something that nobody else seemed to be remotely phased by.
Still, I tried to calm myself. I tried to tell myself I was doing myself no good by getting frustrated. Just keep going. You’ll be so proud of yourelf when this is done! Nobody is judging you. Baby steps. Etcetera, etcetera. All those things we do and say to feel better. Thus far, I wasn’t surprised by my reaction. So maybe I pushed a little farther than I should have. No big deal. But it was too late. The real fear was back. Not just nervous fear, but fear fear. The trail at one point ran along a hill above a parkway, and I freaked out a little. “If I fall, I fall onto a highway. OhmyGodohmoGodohmyGod…” The number of tight turns and sudden inclines and declines felt non-stop, and I was on edge and panicing. Fast bikers were passing me right at the points where I was most nervous. There was nowhere to pull over and take a breath. I was now full-on freaking out, but concentrating with all my might on keeping my shit together so I could make it through to safety.
And then, finally, I just completely broke. The trail suddenly dropped straight down into a slalom that dodged ominously through the trees, then suddenly shot straight up. I’m sure that, if I went back and looked at the bit of trail now, it would seem like nothing. But in my agitated state, it was the most terrifying thing I had ever experienced. I stopped pretending that I was okay. I was definitely not okay. I was crying like a baby.
Soon after this canyon of death, the trail came out into a little clearing, and there was finally a place to pull over, complete with a couple benches and a trash can. My husband was there waiting for me. I think he smiled and said something encouraging like “There you are! We’re almost done! Let’s roll!”
All I could squeak out was the word “no.” And then I completely broke down into a sobbing, panicking mess.
I think I heard my husband start to say something in reply, maybe something like “Aw come on!” I don’t know if it was encouragement or disappointment. But whatever it was, he dropped it quick when he saw me.
This was the part of the experience that completely caught me off guard. I had been expecting fatigue. I had been expecting frustration. I had been expecting some nervouseness. But I was absolutely not expecting this irrational, all-emcompassing, full-body, uncontrollable terror. A terror so real that I am now sobbing at my laptop as I recollec it. I was leaning over my handlebars and hyperventilating. And I just couldn’t stop. It was so irrational, and I knew this, and that just made me feel even worse. I thought about how easy this bike ride was for most people, and then I felt even worse still. And I thought about how my husband had come up with this thoughtful plan for us, and I was ruining it, and I felt even worse. I was just caught in a cycle of panic that wasn’t breaking.
I don’t know how long I was frozen like that, gasping and sobbing. I think that, when I finally spoke, I said to my husband, “I don’t think you’ve ever seen me scared before.” Nervous or antsy? Sure. But honestly, truly, fully scared? No. So that was our reall anniversary gift, I guess. Bonding over my moment of extreme vulnerability.
Eventually I calmed myself down enough to at least set my bike down and sit down on the bench for lunch. On the bench it still took me a while, but I could eventually start talking and eating. But then I would look up at the mouth of the trail, back where the panic had set in, and my vision would get all blurred and the freak-out would start creeping back in. “I don’t want to go in there! I don’t want to go in there!” It might as well have been a haunted house with Pennywise the clown beckoning, that’s how scary the entrance was. And I knew that was it. I had failed.
I’m not a doctor. My knowledge of panic attacks and nervous breakdowns is based on TV and movies. I won’t venture to diagnose what happened to me. But what I do know is that it was a total, uncontrollable, physical reaction. And that’s about when I started to think about how strange fear is. We seem programmed to save ourselves from these situations. We either avoid them, or we prepare for them. Escalating to point where we actually panic and can’t stop seems so rare. I can’t think of any other time it has happened to me.
I can think of other times in adulthood when I came close, but have always found some way to keep my shit together. I decided to take a ride down a “natural waterslide” (literally white water rapids) where I couldn’t breath, got smashed into rocks, and told myself “well, I guess this is what it feels like to drown to death. Just try to hold your breath and eventually your body will get spit out downstream somewhere for some hail-mary mouth-to-mouth.” I went on a caving trip once where the guide (who was a total asshole) had us all turn off our headlamps and told us to just follow his flashlight, then he ran away. I was about to be the one fraidy-cat who turns on her light and ruins it for everyone until I managed to grab my brother’s shirt and calmed down.
Still there are other fears we know we do not have under control and we program ourselves to avoid. On those caving trips I avoid the stream crawls because I know I can’t handle being feeling trapped. I will brace myself for snorkeling but will never risk scuba diving because I hate putting my head underwater. And, after coming very near a panic attack in my one previous experience, I don’t think I will ever be able to place my head in an MRI machine again.
And in the best cases, we can work on our fears. I am scared of dogs. But right now there’s a 120 pound rottweiller mix, who could rip my throat out if he felt so inclined, sitting right behind me. I snuggle with him every day and woudln’t think twice about shoving my hand in his jaws.
Part of what has me really shaken about this week’s incident is just how badly it blindsided me. I have been riding my bike so frequently. I had been working so hard. I thought I was finally there, over the hump. But I was apparently not. Which has me wondering how strong our defenses really are. Could I turn around, look at my giant scary dog, and be reduced to a sobbing mess even though I think I have that fear controlled? And how good of a grasp do we have on our own limits? Before my MRI, I had a vague idea that I was midly claustrophobic because I wouldn’t do stream crawls, but I never would have thought that the MRI would have scared me so much.
I don’t really know what to make of any of this. But as we sat there eating our not-so-romantic-after-all picnic, a million happy smiling assholes whizzed by on their bikes, tackling the same trail that had destroyed me as if it were nothing. And I think maybe that more than anything reminded me just how REAL fear is. Because if you know me, you know I like to think of myself as being pretty tough. If I had any ounce of ability to try to seem tough and not get shown up by these people, I would have used it. But the fear was just that paralyzing.
Even with that, I was determined not to give up. I thought back to that fall off my bike when I was a kid, and how long the process has been to try to get back on that horse, and I refused to let that happen again. I couldn’t do the ride back home. But I could keep practicing. So my wonderful husband got back on his bike and rode back home. I, meanwhile, got back on my bike and headed in another direction. Our unplanned panic stop happened to be at the entrance to Fort Hunt park, just a couple miles short of our intended destination. It’s a park with a mile-long loop road that is wide enough to easily accomodate walkers and bikers. “It’s wide and flat and empty. You can do this,” I told myself, as I struggled to replace all the careful fear-controls that had just shaken loose. And though my muscles all ached and my hands shook on the handlebars, I spent the next half hour taking laps around the park until my husband arrived with the truck to drive me home. I would not give up.
I am not giving up.