I developed PTSD after the accident, but at first it didn’t feel overwhelming or permanent. I figured I’d tackle it like every other part of recovery, eventually solve it, and move on. There’s so much I didn’t know about PTSD. My eyes are wide open now.
My accident was over 4 years ago (I wrote several posts about it in 2015, and this one-year-anniversary note summarizes it well). In that time, my PTSD has been like a roller-coaster. I have a conditioned fear response to losing control of my vehicle, so it affects me mostly when I drive in the wind and the rain, and it has bled into my cycling, but there it has been much more severe. I basically avoid riding in the rain, but it affects me in any kind of wind, even the kind I call fluffy kitten wind. It affects me on every descent, and sometimes even on flat roads if they’re very exposed. I have no choice but to put myself through immersion therapy. I’m not going to stop driving, and I’m not going to give up my bike. The accident took a lot from me, I’m not going to let it take these two things I absolutely love. After a whole lot of immersion therapy and learning better bike handling skills, my PTSD started to improve to the point that I thought it was nearly gone. On the worst descents I felt it lingering like a ghost in the back of my head, but it was staying under the surface. I felt like I was flying down the hills, and I could drive in the rain on the freeway over the pass at normal speeds. It was a brief reprieve before it all came back.
So I started over. I learned about cognitive behavioral therapy and started to do relaxation exercises and worked on it while I rode and drove. I started to track how I felt on each ride, documenting my subjective units of discomfort as the psychologists call it, and figuring out my triggers. And I started to make progress again. I never quite got back to that same feeling of being healed as before, but I started to understand this might be a long process. I had ups and downs but felt hopeful.
And then several weeks ago I had a massive relapse. In the days and weeks that followed I could barely ride my bike at all. I was having trouble riding on flat roads, and just being on the bike even on our local protected Class 1 bike trails. I couldn’t descend at all, I had to go slower than I did riding uphill, and sometimes stop several times. I started to have trouble driving to work in perfect sunny conditions. I tried to connect the dots and figure out when and why this happened and couldn’t quite pinpoint it.
This new low left me reeling. The roller coaster was tough but I thought I was making progress. To feel like I’m back to square one, or actually worse than I’ve ever been is incredibly demoralizing and depressing. I don’t know if I will ever feel ok again. Will I have to quit driving, quit my job, quit cycling, go on disability, and become a dependent recluse for the rest of my life? These are the thoughts, and much much worse, when I’m in that low. When the PTSD is in control, I am not. It’s like fighting a war, except the PTSD is a bomb and I’m armed with a rifle. Actually if you don’t know anything about cognitive behavioral therapy, you aren’t armed at all. I understand why people with PTSD become alcoholics, and much worse.
I knew recovery from PTSD would not be linear, but I did feel like there was a forward momentum. Do the therapy right, and eventually I will be free from it. If I’m not healing I must be doing something wrong. And then I did a bunch of research on PTSD, really getting into the weeds of the brain chemistry, and discovered that relapses are totally “normal” and expected. Everything I’m going through now is not surprising, not my fault, and not unusual. Armed with this knowledge I started to put the pieces together and found what set it off, a seemingly innocuous crash on a group ride where nobody was even injured. I didn’t even go down. But it replicated my accident in such a way as to set my conditioned fear response on fire.
I understand so much now. While previously I understood trigger warnings in a sympathetic way, as in, of course people shouldn’t be subject to traumatic content or events without their consent, now I understand it on a much deeper level. When someone has been spending years working on managing their PTSD, the right trigger can destroy all of their hard-earned progress. In my case I’m choosing to be surrounded by triggers so I can learn how to overcome, but this absolutely must be a personal choice. Starting over feels like the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m fighting for my life. And now I know I might have to do it again and again and again.
You know, it’s funny (not at all), there are so many similarities in the emotional tolls that we both endure. Perhaps it’s the non-linear nature of having a chronic condition. My therapist has me working very hard on becoming less result-oriented, less achievement-oriented. Which, as you know about me, means I have to work on re-engineering my entire psyche. It is also confusing because goals continue to be crucial to maintaining a balanced psychological outlook. But the shift that he is helping me with is that success isn’t reaching, remaining at, or progressing beyond a concrete milestone, and failure is non-existent. Success is working to achieve something, whether or not that achievement ever actually happens. And if I can’t get out of bed one day, or hit a stumbling block, or have a major setback, these things too are just part of the process, and the process is success. I haven’t been able to ride my bike or swim very much at all in the past several months. My bike has been on the trainer all summer. On my best days recently, I can get out and go for a short walk, or pull weeds in the garden for a few minutes. There are so many factors and variables that contribute to my ability to do very simple things. But simple things aren’t always easy. The approach, as difficult as it is to practice, is really quite beautiful. It helps quiet the self-judgment and self-criticism that comes when we perceive we have failed. By taking a more objective view of my abilities as they change from day to day, I tend to not catastrophize setbacks and get stuck in the “lows.” Which, being exceptionally high-functioning and high-achieving all my life I have a tendency to do… Eventually the hope is that I can stop thinking of them as “lows” at all, and just days along my “journey.” Most of the time, I feel like I’m lying to myself and simply trying and failing to brainwash myself. But, I do force myself to tell myself, “The leg isn’t so great today. I won’t be able to do what I wanted today. That’s OK. I’ll take a rest and try again tomorrow.” And then I do some relaxation techniques and cuddle my cat and watch a few episodes of Gossip Girl and congratulate myself for making the effort to be kind to myself and respecting that day’s boundary of my condition… It’s all a mind f*ck… Thank you for being so open and sharing. Love you. ❤
I think of you often when I’m dealing with all this, it really is remarkable how we both ended up with these similarities. Both used to stereotypical hard work and achievement and linear success, and both having to redefine all of that. I know you will understand when I say that my relapse was also precipitated by feeling like a failure at everything lately. And you are so spot on when you say sometimes you feel like you’re lying to yourself. I exercise my positive coping self statements and then wonder how on earth could this possibly work? Sometimes at the end of a ride or after my commute I’m not physically tired but my brain is totally spent from being in a battle with itself. Oh, and the open-ness and sharing is totally self-serving cause I get tired of having to explain myself over and over, and documenting it helps me process it. Keep on fighting my friend. We still have to fill up a few more chapters for our memoirs. ❤️