Fear and Consciousness: What I Learned from a Bike Accident By Elizabeth Sullivan, MFT on 5/9/14 - 1:50 PM

"Smile, breathe, and go slowly." — Thich Nhat Hahn

I got doored on Saturday night. I was riding my bike out to dinner with my husband and a guy in a big SUV opened his car door into the bike lane without looking and knocked me over. My face hit the pavement, I still don’t really know how my teeth weren’t knocked out, but my lips were cut and bleeding and my forehead was gashed and scraped. It happened so quickly and was so scary and weird.

Immediately kind people came up to me and asked over and over “are you ok?” “are you ok?” I didn’t want to answer yes because I didn’t really know. I was sitting on the street with blood all over me and I wasn’t sure if I was ok. I assessed my pain, my mind, my body. But when I didn’t answer immediately people began to say, “she’s in shock”; “she might have a concussion.” Although I was reluctant, the hostess at the Chapel bar across the street called the EMTs to come and assess me, and I didn’t argue.

When the EMTs arrived, they crowded around me, about four or five people, and began firing questions at me about what happened, “were you wearing a helmet?” “do you take any blood thinners?” “do you remember what happened?” “is this painful? is this?” Again I had the impulse to stay quiet and try to think before I answered questions, a state of being that was a bit unfamiliar to me, a person who normally anxiously blurts things out, responding as quickly as I can to anything that comes at me.

When they determined that I might have head trauma and drove me to the hospital on a back-board, an epic round of this activity began. At the trauma center people swarmed around me, some asking questions, some doing things to me, sometimes introducing themselves and explaining what was going on, sometimes not, questions, questions came one after another. I began to feel at home in my temporary (of course it was temporary) stillness. I was alive, I was still a human body, my man was with me, I was going to go home. I thought about the questions and answered them. At one point I said, “I need to cry a bit now” and I did. It was strangely wonderful.

And the funny thing was, the more chaotic it became the more calm I grew. I felt like a still, benevolent presence in my neck brace, slowly breathing and thinking about what was happening‚ exactly what is usually so hard to achieve internally. It was only when I was home and quiet later that I felt shaky, scared, and overwhelmed, but I think I had more tenderness for myself than I normally would. For instance, I would not let that internal voice berate me that the accident was somehow my fault. A breakthrough for sure.

What all these interactions reminded me of was nothing more than my own mind. It was as if by experiencing a state of high-anxiety all around me I was given some distance from that way of being in the world. All the pedestrians and EMTs and doctors were like representations of all my worries and concerns, they were each vying for attention so they could do their job, and so they could help and even save me. But what helped me was being safe in my own mind, feeling calm, thinking about what was happening and speaking when I knew something.

I greatly respect and feel gratitude towards all the kind people who helped me that night, they were doing their jobs wonderfully and I would not want them to behave any other way. What I mean to offer here is idea that life’s experiments with us can lead to a better sense of how we’d like to be present in the world.

I don’t recommend a bike accident to get to experience a tiny little shard of perception, but I bow to its terrible wisdom.

File under: A Day in the Life of a Therapist