Magic in the Metal Rods; Rehabilitating the Mind and Body Following a Bike Crash

Flick pumping chair

If someone had told me four months ago that I’d soon be the owner of a valid disabled parking permit, that I’d have become a keen meditator or that instead of getting up at 5 am to ride my bike for a couple of hours every day, I’d instead be sharing a warm and smelly rehabilitation pool with people fifty years my senior while attempting to recover from a broken hip, I wouldn’t have believed a word of it.

2014 was planned out. I had it sorted. I would be working and training as normal until April 30th and then, in what I consider to be one of the best things about Australia, I was to take my reward for ten years service to a job I love and fulfil a life long dream of riding my bike 7000kms across America. It was all lined up, the panniers were dusted off and the tickets were about to be booked. This trip had me purposefully choosing to travel east to west; against the prevailing wind. I wanted to feel the freedom and the adventure of going west, even if the trade off was to be increased head winds. I was doing it this way because I wanted to experience just a little of what my Irish ancestors before me would have gone through. Even though in this day and age, I knew a lot more about where I was going, I would have had reliable maps, a tent, enough food and water and sporadic internet access, I still wanted to feel a bit of what they felt. The unknown, the anxiety and the freedom that those emotions bring. I even had a plan to write about it along the way by visiting the small town graveyards and respectfully tracing the human stories of endeavour and courage, as they followed the setting Sun and headed West.

Instead of that, I now find myself ironically, in a somewhat similar place. I’ve more uncertainty in my life that I’ve ever felt before and I’m very certain that if I allowed it to control me, it could quickly become disabling and counter productive to my healing. Although a fall at slow speed on my bike resulting in a broken neck of femur (hip), the addition of a fair bit of surgical metal and significant soft tissue damage to my knee and shoulder, has delayed my plans of touring the US and the goal of uncovering the stories of my ancestors across small town America, I’ve nonetheless discovered some valuable lessons of my own and obtained an unusual lens into some wonderful human stories closer to home. Through unplanned misfortune, I’ve seen a rainbow and maybe even a glisten or two of gold.

Five Lessons a Fall on my Bike Taught Me

1 Surrender or Suffer

‘What you resist, persists’. Someone said that once, probably a long time ago. I’ve learned that they were right. My own situation didn’t hit me for a few weeks after, until the initial acute pain management through a cocktail of opiates, became more stabilised. In those early days, I remained convinced that life would continue along the trajectory I had originally planned. Apparently (I have no memory of this), I was adamant to my mum (on the phone while lying in Geelong Hospital) and friends that I would be up and about, back riding my bike and still heading West in April. I was convinced this wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t until week number three, while lying on my best friend’s couch that I lost the plot. I cried. For 48 hours. I couldn’t stop and I didn’t know how to get out of it. No one could do anything. It had finally hit me how big this was and it wasn’t until I realised in a flash of awareness, around hour 49, that I had a choice. Accept my situation or don’t. My healing (and probably my friends) were thankful I chose the former.

2 Take off the mask and surround yourself with great people

Things are pretty crap when you break a big bone, smash your shoulder and chip fragments off your kneecap, causing it to be the approximate size of a watermelon (in contrast to the diameter of the leg which disappears at a rate of knots due to muscle atrophy). You’ll become an instant expert in the bucketload of drugs you’re ingesting, you’ll be constipated for weeks, you’ll need to inject yourself in the stomach to avoid getting blood clots, and be required to spend days and weeks lying flat. Doing nothing. You’ll be too out of it to use that time for anything other than thinking and staring at the ceiling. Not surprisingly, morale will be somewhat low.

It’s back to choice time. I could be grumpy and sad and feel sorry for myself about the situation I found myself in. Or get angry at anyone and anything. I was even shitty at one stage at the rain because I crashed on a slippery wet road! That’s just plain stupid and it’s living in a place I can do nothing about.

What I could do though and am really glad I did, was surround myself with people that were so good for me and my healing. They were simply amazing. I had to let go of my ego and ask for help. Realising that being ‘strong’ was actually about letting go of the need to control and do everything myself. I have phenomenal people in my life who I am so lucky to call friends.

I had friends whose expertise wasn’t just their kindness but also their professional knowledge. Some who, in their day jobs were doctors, surgeons, physios and psychologists, were so helpful with their time and advice. It helped and continues to help enormously once I gratefully accepted it.

3 We all have a voice, no matter how we may look

I spent the first couple of months in a wheelchair when I ventured out of the house. One evening, my colleague Ben got me out of the house and we headed into the City to eat dinner before going to a lecture being delivered by Professor Martin Seligman, the ‘father’ of the Positive Psychology movement.

As the wheelchair couldn’t block the aisles, we were relocated to the very back of the room, behind the 1300 able-bodied attendees. After negotiating the chair to its spot, the usher at the venue looked directly at Ben and asked, ‘Would she like a glass of water?’ Ben, a good friend for many years, didn’t miss a beat and responded with ‘I’m not sure, perhaps you could ask her’. I’m convinced this lady was well meaning and kind. She was trying to be nice. I wonder though how many of us make assumptions, me most definitely included, as to what others are capable of simply due to how they look or speak. I remember how this comment, well meaning as it was, completely disempowered me. I was angry and even my smartarse response of ‘No, but I’ll take a beer’ didn’t quite shake me out of it. I’m glad it was at the start of a talk on positive psychology though.

4 Good can really come from bad. You just have to look for it.

It would be easy to just look at the negatives. On a weekend when my fluro-clad Bicycle Superstore teammates and friends are racing their legs off and killing it in Adelaide at the first National Road Series event and I find myself surrounded by my crutches, disabled parking permit, Panadol Osteo tablets by the truckload, rehab tools and attempting to muster the energy to go get in a warm pool and attempt painful exercises that I would have very much taken for granted four months ago, life and my thoughts could get bleak.

I then try to remember to recall to front and centre of this little black duck’s brain, the experiences I have been lucky enough to have during this time. Experiences and insights that I have no shadow of a doubt, I otherwise wouldn’t have, had it not been for the not-so-soft landing I endured.

I got to witness firsthand what it is like to be an elderly person in a hospital ward. The spark still there for some and for others, the hopelessness at the situation they found themselves in. Yet through everything they were going through, they wanted to know how I was and showed genuine care and concern. That experience in the oldies ward affected me deeply.

I had my mum arrive from Ireland for a month to look after me. As you would probably understand, it’s not the easiest thing in the world as an independent 37 year old to give up all control and have your Mum look after you. Without hesitation though, I would break a hip again for the positive change that accompanied her trip and I’m not just talking about the deep cleaning that my little crib received or the amount of food in my fridge whilst she was here. We were blessed with time together. She was here to look after me and when I let go of the need to be argumentative, be ‘independent’ or stubborn, we both won. More than won, I had the most valuable time with my wonderful mum since I left the troubled shores of Northern Ireland to travel the world at 18. Actually, probably better as back then, I wasn’t grateful for what my parents had done for me. Now I am. I can picture my Dad looking down at me and approving of those last three words.

Due to the injury I experienced, I’ve also been privileged to spend time talking with and hearing the stories of many older people who I share time with in the rehabilitation pool. I’ve met people fifty plus years my senior who are still committed to getting the best out of their lives, who understand the importance of social interaction and physical movement. One experience will stay with me forever; a day when life was not looking all that rosy to me, I was hobbling into the tiny pool with my knee and back all taped up. Most people normally assumed those two areas were my primary injury points.

Except this Grandma. In her black old lady style swimsuit, she asked me how many weeks post hip operation I was. After replying with nine weeks and asking her how she knew, she said, ‘We have matching scars. You’re just a baby dear. Me, I’m five months!’. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry -cry because if I’m still there in five months, confidence will get really really low, or laugh, as she was just spot on with what I needed that day. She made me see that all is never lost and that we all have our stories and challenges. As this beautiful old lady slowly exited the warm water, she touched my shoulder and left me with, ‘You’ll be ok dear. You’ll get through this’. Magic.

5 Face your Fears and Stop Overthinking

I’ve had a number of people ask me if I’ll race at the level I was at prior to stacking. My internal response to this question has unnerved me. Honestly, I don’t know. I can’t tell if that’s because I’m too scared to say yes or whether I don’t have it in me anymore to make the sacrifices to get back there. I have enormous respect for the people I have raced against and the team I am privileged to belong, to know what they put themselves through to race at such an elite level. Or, maybe I’m unnerved because it’s that I don’t trust my body anymore. Or that I’m scared it’ll happen again. Both those thoughts horrify me.

I am though, really glad I can acknowledge and express those fears and talk them through. It doesn’t mean I’m a raving lunatic for feeling them and it also doesn’t mean that I’m subverting them. I’ll deal with them in due course. Right now, as my phenomenal Physio has helped me see, I don’t need to. I just need to keep taking the little steps to healing and when the time comes, we can deal with that head stuff. I know I’ll ride my sexy Giant bike again. No one can get close to stop me doing that and I have absolute goals in my future that I want to achieve in bike racing. Right now though, I don’t need to get all obsessive about them. I just need to heal and do what’s right for me.

I credit three major additions to my daily routine that I feel have really assisted my recovery, mentally and physically. I’ve embraced and taught myself how to meditate. Although I’m an outdoor educator, I’m no card carrying hippy and had previously struggled with such endeavours into cross legged silence. For obvious reasons, the cross legged position is still a ways off but I have found tremendous value in keeping myself in the present moment, in stilling the mind chatter and in being kind to myself and my situation, through daily silence. As an analyst, I’m happy the research is there about the benefits associated with meditation but as a recent convert, I’m sold. It’s been transformational.

The second major factor I think has really helped me is in being in contact with others who ‘get it’. From the first week, I had young people who also broke hips after coming off their treadley’s, contact me to offer empathy and support. I was and remain, incredibly humbled by their kindness, Specifically Grace, Mat, Josh and Brian. If I have to be in a club I didn’t choose, I’m glad I’m in yours.

Finally, it’s about the food. Now, I’m no Nigella or Martha but I have taught myself a lot more about what I’m sticking in my pie hole these days and have, through my nutrient intake, increased my best chances of healing. Anti-inflammatory foods are the norm these days, lots of veggies, good fats, lean protein and heaps of fluids. Sugar is gone but not sweet, tasty food. I’ve just expanded my larder of ingredients. If I’d have seen a picture of me sitting drinking peppermint tea and eating cacao balls on a nightly basis after a dinner of cauliflower rice, steamed kale and broccoli and lemon myrtle kangaroo for example, I’d have checked my temperature.

What I’ve learned over the past thirteen weeks, I wouldn’t swap for a fully functioning body pre January 4th, 2014. Although I may end up with some permanent side effects of the injuries I sustained, whether that be a limp or a heel lift due to a shorter leg, I’ve gained enormous insight as the trade off. I know there’s a fair bit of challenge ahead of me and that there’s a long way to go. I also know that somedays are just crap. But at least I know that. And I’m grateful.

One day I will ride across the USA. But for now, I’m travelling at my own speed, albeit still heading West, into the unknown.

Perhaps the last words can best be summed up by this little gem. Apologies as I have no idea where they came from or who to credit; they just arrived on my desk in my handwriting. I’ll put that down to the morphine.

“I have no fear of the depths, but the idea of an unexamined, inauthentic life spent in the shallows horrifies me”.

Wheelchair helpFluro Girls

Phenomenal teammates and friends, on and off the bike. In both the good and the tough times.

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6 Responses to Magic in the Metal Rods; Rehabilitating the Mind and Body Following a Bike Crash

  1. Jason Parker says:

    I think that we all take our health for granted, until something happens to us. I can’t imagine what life would be like suffering with chronic pain, as some do.
    It’s a reminder of how fragile our bodies really are.
    However, we can heal, our minds help us forget the pain and can we move forward, like you are. You are a strong and determined person Clare. Make sure that no dust settles on that bike of yours. Keep it clean and lube the chain, ready to ride again.

  2. Doug Rose (Albury) says:

    Great read Clare, best wishes with your ongoing rehab. I am not injured but got a lot from your article
    , and I will pass it on to a friend who is mentally injured. Many thanks, Doug.

  3. Chris White says:

    Thanks Clare. There’s something about this whole experiential learning thing, hey?
    I am quietly confident you will smash the recovery. After all; learning about your body, daily suffering, short term goals, long term goals, doing the session that you don’t look forward to, surmounting setbacks, mental and emotional resilience are all bread and butter to a committed athlete!
    With the growth you have experienced with all you have been through and continue to endure, I now find myself pondering what the formidable Clare 2.0 will be capable of.

  4. Patricia Campbell says:

    Having read your story of suffering, pain and recovery i wish you all the best for the future and the great adventure yet to be experienced into the West. I also cycle and suffered a crash, thankfully the neck wasn’t broken, or the leg and the smashed head didn’t hide a brain bleed. Yes it was hard to get back on the bike, with fear but great team mates are priceless . Wishing you a progressive recovery with laughter along the way.

  5. Pingback: Podcast 2014 Episode 11 – Ronde van Amazing | Unofficial Unsanctioned Women's UCI Cycling Blog

  6. Eamon says:

    I had not realised the extent of your injuries and only occasionally visit facebook. Not only is your story very well written but it is pretty inspirational. Good to see that your are well on the way to recovery and you are well blessed with great friends. You will undoubtedly do the American adventure in your own time.

    Uncle Eamon

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