It’s been five weeks. I was putting away a freshly folded cycling jersey and it became clear how bad things were. I had been “staying positive”, constantly telling myself how lucky I was, how things could have been much worse, that I was fine and I would power through whatever I had to—and all of that was true—but suddenly I could see past those coping lines. Holy shit.
I was just going 800m. I jumped on my city bike and I remember consciously deciding to take the back road because it was quieter, a road mostly used by cyclists and pedestrians. I came up to an intersection and deliberately went on the far left of my one-way way. I had the right-of-way but I slowed down just in case. I looked and continued but then there was a white SUV almost on top of me. Given her speed, she had blown right through the stop sign. I remember my eyes widening as I tried to turn left and go with the car, the bike wobbling. I remember the loud slam as my ribs smacked into the side of the vehicle just by the front wheel. I remember laying on the ground and the incredible hot sting of pain throbbing through my whole body.
I didn’t cry. I took charge of the situation as I directed strangers to call the ambulance and call Edward. Call Edward. Call Edward, I kept repeating. I could hear the driver uncontrollably sobbing and I could see what I thought were her feet. “Don’t touch me. Don’t move me,” I sternly instructed everyone. My back and head were in so much pain I kept wiggling my toes to convince myself my spine was okay. I could feel myself drift into shock as the kind stranger who called Edward held my fingers. After what seemed like a long time, the police and firefighters arrived and took over my care and the scene. It was only when Edward arrived that my eyes filled with hot tears. I was scared and I told him so.
The paramedics finally arrived, put a neck collar on me, and rolled me onto a spinal board. I screamed in agony. It was the most painful moment of my life. The sirens wailed on the way to the hospital where I had 2 rounds of x-rays, 12 in all, was fitted with a neck brace, and given a mega pain injection before I was cleared to go home. It took me 40 minutes to sit up and make it to the wheel chair and another 20 minutes to walk the 50 meters to the car.
The following two weeks were a blur of pain. I couldn’t sit down. I couldn’t stand up. I could barely walk. I couldn’t turn my head, lift my arm, or bend in anyway. It hurt to lay down so I could barely sleep and I couldn’t get out of bed by myself. I was in constant pain—that alone has changed me forever. My back pain proceeded to get worse so it was decided I needed a follow-up MRI. The worry my back was actually broken was a dark heavy cloud of fear like no other. On top of that, I kept hearing the accident and reliving it over and over. I was on the edge of sleep and tears the entire time and just felt alone and scared.
Week three was the fork in the road and I knew it. Google translating my MRI results on the noisy sidewalk outside the medical clinic in Girona was equal parts in-body and out-of-body experience. I fumbled with the medica jargon and even when I thought it was a good prognosis, my distrust of Google translate meant I had no relief. When my trusted physiotherapist instantly translated a photo of the results, his happiness cut through my pain and for the first time since the accident I had a sense of my bearings.
My body had slowly started to come out of pain but knowing I couldn’t do more damage to my spine gave me the freedom to start moving. I stopped shuffling and started walking. I walked more and more every day, each followed by immediate icing and a lengthy nap.
I also started baking, my favourite stress-reliever. I couldn’t use my dominant right hand so I got good at mixing with my left hand. As I started to move, I realized I had a chronic case of butter fingers and, since I still couldn’t bend down, I seemed to leave a trail of household items wherever I ventured. Pillows, socks, carrots, shampoo bottles, keys…each drop accompanied by a defeated sigh. Still, I became the master of the vertical non-spine-bending squat and even better at picking up things with my feet.
Somehow, I had muddled through the worst of it but when I opened my closet to pack away that cycling jersey the mess inside was overwhelming. My closet had become a chaotic pile of fabric. I hadn’t been physically able to put my clothes away properly for weeks. It looked like a garbage bag of clothes had just been dumped on my shelf. My running shoes lay jumbled, forlorn, in a pile at the bottom of my closet. Across the room, my Garmin sat patiently in it’s charge cradle. My bedside table was still strewn with arnica, tiger balm, anti-inflammatory creams, turmeric, and pain tablets. My life revolved around physio, napping, and rehab. Standing up and walking felt like big achievements. It was completely manageable but I still had a nagging dull ache of pain that didn’t shy away from reminding me what had happened. I was so happy to ride my bike again, even if it was just for a little while, but being closer made me see how far away I was. That messy closet made me think:
I could’ve died.
I wrestled with that for a while. It seemed ridiculous and hyperbolic yet it wasn’t an opinion, it was a fact. If I compare to other athletes, other accidents, I was even more lucky and really I couldn’t not be positive; but, staying positive isn’t about ignoring reality or hiding pain, it’s about choosing gratitude. Over and over and over again. I wasn’t fit to reorganize my closet so I just placed my neatly folded cycling jersey on top of the messy pile, smoothing it out with my hands. It didn’t make my closet any cleaner but I knew in time the mess would be replaced, one jersey at a time, and for that I was grateful.