I don’t remember when I first learned to ride a bike. I remember where: it was when we were living in Upper Michigan, so I was somewhere between 6 and 11, probably closer to 6. And I remember the bike: It was an orange banana-seat bike my dad got secondhand. It started out with training wheels, so I was mobile pretty quickly. I don’t recall when I got them off. I taught my brother to ride that same bike, sans training wheels. Eventually, my mom upgraded her bike and I moved up to her 3-speed, which is what I was riding the last summer we lived there.
I lived in a smallish town, in a time where it was considered reasonably safe for kids to roam the neighborhood in the summer until their mothers hollered for the third time for them to come in. We got around pretty well on foot in all directions, but a bike doubled the available range you could go, and how fast you could get there. By the time I was 11, I was riding my bike down to Lake Michigan to go swimming. Back then, they still had the budget and the desire to have lifeguards posted on the public beach. And once I could do that, I was pretty sure the whole world was mine, as long as the whole world was Escanaba. The freedom a kid on a bike feels is a freedom that is unrivaled until the first time her parent hands her the car keys and lets her take it out on her own. If you’ve got wheels, you can go ANYWHERE.
I never thought I’d feel that way about a bike again, but I did, Tuesday. I’ve been trapped in my body for weeks, maybe longer–I’ve lost track–prisoner of unrelenting chronic back and hip pain that has resisted medication, heat and ice, chiropractic, yoga, and massive amounts of skillful massage provided by my dear friend Pam. It’s the kind of pain that, when it’s gone on long enough (and that’s always too long), it makes you have desperate thoughts and drives you to tears. It had gotten to the point where it was affecting every single facet of my life. I try not to be a whiner about it, but sometimes it’s more than I can take; it never leaves me alone. Not only am I harried by the pain itself, but it prevents me from doing the things I want to do. I’ve barely touched my guitar in weeks, because I can’t sit comfortably in a way that allows me to play. Yoga just makes it worse, so I haven’t gone; the last time I tried, I was nearly crippled for a week. I gave up going for walks in the neighborhood a year ago; that’s what started all this. I have to live my life between sessions with the ice pack and the hot tub. Standing still long enough to wash my face and brush my teeth can make my back cramp up, and I have to roll up into the fetal position and catch my breath.
It is, in a word, a bitch.
Tuesday was really bad. I hurt, and I was considering all possibilities, including food allergies, for the recalcitrance of this pain, which should’ve surrendered by now, given all the efforts to vanquish it. I was pondering a future without wheat in my diet, and whether it was a future worth having. I have an appointment next week with a hip specialist, but have little faith in medicine at this point, so I don’t even dare to hope. It was such a bad day, I didn’t even want to talk to my friends. I just wanted to go home and distract myself with TV and pretend I was someone else for awhile. Someone else with a body that doesn’t fight her at every step, literally. Someone whose every movement wasn’t frustrated by and fraught with pain.
But I’d also decided that I was going to try to ride my bike, and see if I could tolerate that relatively low-impact exercise. I’d wanted to try it a few weeks ago, but the pain was too bad for me to make the attempt. But I was beyond tired of being sedentary; I wanted to move. So I dug out my bike, and wiped the dust off of it, and gingerly pulled out of my driveway.
I was amazed to find that the knot in my back that had been tormenting me all that day, and all the days before it, was not complaining too much as I pedaled down my street. The other side complained, but not to the same degree. And for the first time in I-can’t-remember-how-long, I was moving, breathing, and seeing what was going on in my neighborhood.
This neighbor had put in a new wall and gate around their house. Another neighbor had painted their house an awful Pepto-Bismol pink. My favorite house in the neighborhood, way at the back, had put up a fancy decorative metal door to hide their RV.
I was pedaling, and I was doing okay. And I felt just like that little girl on her bike so long ago, reveling in the freedom of roaming the neighborhood under my own steam.
And here’s the happy ending: a small miracle occurred on that bike ride. The knot in my back dissolved. Just like that. Things are pretty crunchy, vulnerable, and stiff, still–I have a ways to go. And the hurt I still feel might be considered intolerable for a person who doesn’t deal with chronic pain. But for me, the quality of my life has improved 500%. For the last 3 days, pain has not been the first (and sometimes only) focus of my attention. This change has been both physically and mentally freeing in ways that you probably cannot understand unless you’ve been a long-term captive of your own long-term infirmity.
Mostly, I’ve been careful, afraid that this reprieve is going to come to an unexpected halt, shattering the barely renewed hope that perhaps I’m not going to be physically miserable as I have been for the rest of my life. I’m hoping this is a trend toward healing, finally.
And all because I got on that bike in a fit of stubborn pique. Bikes are, and ever were, magic.