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It took me three months to walk again, and five to walk without a cane. It wasn’t therapy or confidence that got me back on two wheels. It was anger.
The nice folks at Cycle Toronto call me a “Vision Zero survivor,” but “Vision Zero statistic” is a better fit.
According to the Toronto police, 41 cyclists were killed or seriously injured last year. I was one of them.
On a sunny Monday last June I strapped on my helmet, hopped on my bike and began my commute downtown to work. I was cycling westbound protected by the false security of the sharrows, a poor person’s substitute for a separated bike lane, when I was T-boned by an SUV.
There was no good reason. Visibility was fine, traffic was light and the signal in front of me was green. But the driver failed to slow down as he made a fast left. Video of the accident taken by a camera at a nearby construction site shows me flying about six metres in the air and my limp body skidding to a halt on the asphalt.
I sustained several serious injuries, including ligament damage on the left side of my body, shattered bones, internal bleeding and a concussion. A handful of bystanders came to my aid, but I don’t remember them. I was conscious by the time the ambulance arrived, but barely.
Every doctor I saw in the trauma unit (there was a revolving door of them) told me I was incredibly lucky to be alive. The kind doctor who glued my face back together assured me that the scars would be barely noticeable once healed.
I was eventually released from acute care and moved to a rehabilitative hospital where an intensive regime of physiotherapy began. It took me three months to walk again, and five to walk without a cane. One year later, I still have pain every day.
As I look back on that time, I remember many things – gratitude, frustration, confusion. But most of all I remember the fear. I carry it with me like another scar – hypersensitive, cold sometimes, but most days hot.
As my body healed, it became clear that I had work to do mentally as well. The accident didn’t just take away my ability to walk it took away the sense of security we all need to function.
That feeling of “it could happen to me” loomed large in my consciousness, reminding me that life-threatening events can and do occur and derail people’s lives every day. This knowledge crippled me mentally.
My brain injury doubtless played a role, but for a few anxious months every cold I got was cancer, and every time my husband was late, he was dead in a ditch somewhere. I became like that atheist who makes a deal with God when the plane is taking off.
Anyone who has experienced trauma knows what I mean. Once shaken, our sense of security is hard to rebuild.
I saw a therapist who told me that in order to function, we need to maintain an “illusion of invulnerability.” Rebuilding that illusion was harder than the hours of physiotherapy, in large part because I knew that I needed to create a lie – a polite fiction that I was safe – in order to return to my pre-accident life. I needed to rebuild my armour.
I meditated. I cried over imaginary threats and exaggerated risks. And I waited, because even with the best support system in the world, there is no substitute for the passage of time.
Despite all the work, I still face lingering challenges getting back on my bike. That’s the dent in my shiny new armour: I flinch just watching bikes and cars share the road.
On the subject of my (non)return to cycling, everyone has an opinion, invited or not – from my neighbour, who deems cycling in Toronto “suicidal,” to the well-meaning cycling advocate who asked, “You’ll get back on your bike though, right?,” while I was still in a wheelchair.
I’m back in the saddle, albeit less frequently and less confident than before. I often ride to work, but I have no delusions about my safety. I recognize the risks I’m taking, but I also recognize that I can’t live my life worrying about what might happen.
It wasn’t therapy or confidence that got me back on two wheels. It was anger at judicial and political systems that fail to protect vulnerable road users and provide the infrastructure needed to prevent devastating accidents.
After months of waiting, my case finally made it to traffic court and the driver who hit me was convicted of failure to signal. My first reaction was to laugh. As if his signaling would have made a difference.
The realization and anger that these systems are in place to protect cars, not people, pushed me to reclaim my place on the streets and in the bike lanes.
Bronwyn Graves is a Toronto-based writer and Editor-in-Chief at The Canadian Encyclopedia.
@nowtoronto | @bronwyngraves