Last week I shared a personal account of an accident where I was rear-ended while working as a bike messenger in September, 2011. Although I was fortunate enough to walk away with little more than a concussion and road rash, the incident affected me deeply. The trauma I felt was compounded by the fact that the driver who hit me ran from the scene of the crime. There were no witnesses, and because I blacked out upon impact I was unable to identify the car or license plate. Because of these circumstances, the police officer I approached in the aftermath told me there was nothing he could do, even insinuating the accident had been my fault for riding on a street with no bike lanes.

Physical injuries heal relatively quickly. Scrapes scab, scar, and then heal. If you’re lucky, within a few months they fade completely. A concussion can be scary, but resolves itself within a day or two. Unfortunately, the psychological distress in the aftermath of an incident can take months to heal, especially if you don’t know that you’ve been traumatized.

It’s not unusual for survivors of accidents to experience post-traumatic stress disorder. Although we normally hear about post-traumatic stress in the context of soldiers returning from war, it can affect anyone in any situation. I’m sharing my story as part of the Bicycle Roots Campaign to Hold AIS Accountable—I believe that it’s important to inform the NYPD and the AIS that their failure to take incidents between drivers and users of alternative transit seriously has lasting effects on victims. If you never know who it is that hurt you, or you are unable to press charges against the perpetrator because of a shoddy or nonexistent investigation, you may never get the closure that you need to move on from an incident. Everyone—every driver, every vehicle—can be seen as a potential menace, and cause you to relive the trauma over and over again.

For more details on how Bicycle Roots is organizing the cycling community, click here  for information about our critical-mass Twitter campaign targeting influential individuals and organizations in NYC. If you missed the first installment of my story, click here.

A piece of street art located just a couple of blocks from my apartment in Flushing. This went up shortly after my accident and was weirdly apropos.

THE STREETS OF NEW YORK ARE ROUGH. Eroded by salt and rain, and punctuated by potholes, impatient pedestrians and drivers, they are not a place for private pain. With shaking hands and shoulders raked by sobs, a body covered in blood and dirt, I picked my mangled self and my mangled bicycle up from the sidewalk and walked uptown to the office.

I could have taken the subway. Maybe I should have. But I needed to walk, to put distance between myself and what had just happened to me, to test my legs and make sure they could still bear the weight of me without wavering. It took me an hour, but I made it. I made it.

The owner of the courier company looked me over, asked if I was OK. I didn’t know—how does one decide between being OK now and being OK next week, when the rent is due and your stomach is rumbling? I held my ground insisted I would finish my fourteen runs. I had only four or five left; if I completed them I would get the full-time rate, a few percentage points higher than part-time. The difference, although just a few dollars, could mean the difference between paying our rent and not having enough.

Grudgingly, dispatch said I could continue working, but to let them know if my condition changed. I headed to the dollar pizza shop to await my next assignment, certain that the dizziness I felt was for lack of food and nothing more. I ate three slices, trying to find my equilibrium. My stomach was full but I still felt strangely detached from myself, from my body, from the morning’s events.

I took one last run. The dizziness I had felt since the impact did not ebb; it grew in intensity. The sunny September afternoon, which had seemed so pleasant and gentle earlier in the day, began to glare. I squinted into it, trying to minimize the ache inside my head. As the headache intensified, a new feeling took root in my stomach—something bitter and acidic, something that crawled up my throat and seized the air from me every time a car passed just a little too closely, every time I heard the rumble of an engine behind me.

Even my trusty Cannondale began to wobble; with every stroke of the pedals something clunked, something began to work itself loose. The strong and trusty amalgamation of parts that had carried me thousands of miles, the geometry over which I had draped my body with an intimacy akin to a lover’s, had begun to wear down beneath the stress. The fork was bent, the rear wheel warped beyond repair; even the pink tape I had lovingly applied to the handlebars, like a woman adjusting her husband’s tie to her liking, had begun to unravel.

Something in me had come loose too, like that pink scrap of cork flapping in the wind. It rattled against my ribcage, against the inside of my skull. Despite the muscles into which every mile I had ever ridden had been etched, my legs felt shaky and exhausted. Each pedal stroke seemed like it would be the last. But still I kept pedaling, until I reached my destination. My body did not know what else to do; it was either ride or give up, ride or give it all up.

A sculpture outside 26 Federal Plaza, the endpoint of my last run ever as a messenger. This is what this particular piece of street art looks like when you’re concussed and demented.

I delivered the envelope to the department of buildings, then called dispatch. I told him I wanted to go home, that maybe I wasn’t OK after all.

“I think… I have a concussion. And there’s something wrong with my bike.”

He told me to take the rest of the day off, cautioned me to take the subway home. For once, I listened, knowing somewhere deep inside I could not navigate all the way back to Flushing with the constant buzz of traffic in my ears. I called James* (not his real name) and told him what had happened, that I was coming home, my voice strangely emotionless as I recounted the events—They hit me from behind; I didn’t see it coming. I think I blacked out, my head must have hit the pavement but I don’t remember, I feel it, there’s a bump on the right side of my head. I’m all scraped up, but I’m OK. Cannondale is f**ked. It feels like it’s falling apart beneath me. Yes, I’ll be taking the train. Are you home? Please come home. I need you.

I arrived in Flushing sweaty and disoriented; it took all the composure I had to navigate home, everything looked strange, foreign, like someone had rearranged the storefronts and street signs in my absence. Nothing registered—maybe it was the concussion, maybe something deeper. James ran me a bath and sprinkled in Epsom salts, then sat by the tub as I tried to relax, pouring water over me and murmuring nonsense words, telling me it would all be OK, inspecting the damages. He cleaned my cuts and rubbed Neosporin into the raw skin, murmuring It will heal, I’ll take care of you, I won’t let my beautiful baby scar.

He wrapped me in a towel and brought me to bed. We lay down together; his arms around me, his words of comfort soft against my ear as he stroked my hair, my face, kissed my wounds. He asked how I felt, if I thought I should go to the hospital.

Neither of us had insurance. Although my courier company offered insurance to all messengers who had been working full-time for more than six months, I had been full-time for just over five months, and wasn’t eligible for their insurance plan. I resisted, You know we can’t afford the hospital; I’ll be okay. Just stay awake with me tonight.

Whenever James began to drift off, when his murmurs slowed to an unintelligible slur, I shook him awake. Don’t let me fall asleep, I begged. Whatever you do, don’t let me fall asleep.

We held each other and waited for the dawn. James told me I was brave, that I shouldn’t worry about the money, he would take care of us. I wanted to believe him.  After months of messenger work, the endless miles and the burden of the packages I carried, I was exhausted. I just wanted to sleep, but couldn’t until we were sure the concussion had passed.

As the sun rose, I saw the bags under his eyes, the tiny lines as the corner of his mouth, marveled at how even at twenty-three someone could look so old. I wondered if the recent months, the stress of being the only breadwinner, had begun to show on me as well, if the lines that had recently taken up residence on my forehead were the inevitable result of the struggle to survive.

He begged me not to return to work that Monday. But what else could I do? James had been unemployed for three months already with nothing on the horizon. We’d been denied food stamps and cash assistance because of the illegal nature of our sublet: we didn’t have the documents required to show the state that we had bills to pay and not enough money to pay them with. So I got out of bed, adjusted the brakes and replaced the tubes on his heavy mountain bike, and took to the streets.

I made it as far as the Queensboro Bridge, down the ramp, around the corner and onto First Avenue. But that was as far as I could go. The bustle of Manhattan traffic, the honking, the motors, the angry drivers—it was too much, how was I supposed to fit my bike in between it all? The anxiety that had settled around my stomach the day of the accident began to wrap its fingers around my throat, settling one by one and squeezing. I pulled my bike to the side of the road and quietly commanded myself to breathe. And then I turned around, rode over the bridge and back home to my apartment, climbed under the blankets and called dispatch—I am not coming back.

My apartment in Flushing overlooked the courtyard; that’s the bedroom window on the second floor. I became nearly housebound by anxiety after being rear-ended on Church St in lower Manhattan– a far cry from my former adventurous self.

ALTHOUGH WE WOULD HOLD ON FOR ANOTHER SIX MONTHS, through the fall and winter, we began to fall apart. James and I had loved each other, had supported each other through some of the most difficult times of our lives, even before we’d ever kissed. But neither of us knew what the following months would have in store for us. By the time the winter thawed and spring began to settle, we would both be utterly broken; we could not go on.

For the next three weeks, neither of us worked. I picked up my last check from the courier company; we paid the rent out of my paltry savings and bought dried beans and rice with what was left. We ate the beans for a week; our stomachs puffed out and bloated, bellies aching. Eventually the beans ran out, so we ate the rice, sprinkled with soy sauce and black pepper, nothing more. It was all we had. I was frustrated with myself for failing us—why can’t I ride? Why can’t I get back on my bike and back to business? We need the money—but I. Just. Can’t.

The accident changed me. I was no longer the strong, carefree girl James had fallen in love with. He had admired my strength, how I had pulled myself out of the cocaine-saturated atmosphere and shark-infested waters that had threatened to swallow us both, how I had been able to bear not only the weight of my sobriety but carry him along with me. We had known each other for three years before we started dating; our love had seemed indestructible, as though it could conquer everything. When the whole world was falling down around us, we had held on to each other, we called each other’s arms home.

I don’t think James ever understood or forgave me for what I would become: someone who cried all the time, whose anger and anxiety would simmer and then boil over without warning. I alternated between fits of rage and fits of crying, sometimes within seconds of one another. Although I had always been independent and involved with my hobbies of cycling and photography (often combining the two passions), I began to withdraw. I would force myself to take a leisurely ride around the neighborhood in the weeks following my accident, going impossibly slow, swerving to the shoulder of the road every time a horn honked. Invariably, I would return home a wreck. My heart would be pounding although I’d been cycling at a leisurely pace. My legs and arms trembled as I rode down 34th Avenue, to the roach-infested dump of an apartment we called home.

Traffic is heavy in Flushing, especially at the Roosevelt Avenue/Main Street intersection and on Northern Boulevard. I grew so terrified of traffic it was nearly impossible for me to leave my apartment some days. As soon as I heard a car horn, I’d relive the incident.

I found another job three weeks later, working as a telemarketer for a scam operation. Although the subway commute would have taken less than half the time by bike, I could not ride to work. As the days grew chillier and shorter, winter settling in over Queens, my anxiety grew worse. I’d be afraid to cross the street unless traffic was at a standstill—even the sight of a car coming at me from a distance or the sound of an accelerator or opening car door terrified me, I’d stop in the crosswalk or on the sidewalk, completely frozen. Eventually, I became afraid to leave the house alone, preferring to have James by my side as a lookout, shielding me from the traffic as we walked down the sidewalk.

To say the incident changed me is an understatement. I went from a fiercely independent adrenaline junkie to someone who was terrified of being outside, someone who couldn’t stand being alone. Prior to the accident, whenever I was feeling upset, I would ride my bike long and hard, feeling nothing but the wind on my face, the road beneath my wheels; the ache in my legs and lungs would eclipse everything else that hurt. Finally, humbled by the limits of my endurance, I would return home, if not happy then at least somehow unburdened, exorcised. In retrospect, being so terrified to ride again deprived me of an outlet that I had come to depend on.

Since taking up cycling, I had gained somewhat of a reputation among my friends for being a “bike evangelist”. Broke up with your girlfriend/boyfriend? Ride a bike, eventually your legs will hurt more than your heart. Lost your job and having trouble making ends meet? Ride a bike, stop paying for a Metrocard and a gym membership, save your money. When asked by my friends if I had been riding lately, I’d shrug, joking about “post traumatic bike syndrome”. It wouldn’t be until months later that I would realize this was no joke, this was for real.

Sometimes you can’t just walk away from an accident. The effects of an incident can last for weeks, months, or years. I lost more than a bicycle in the aftermath–I lost my ability to work and provide for my fiance and I, as well as a large part of my identity. I believe that the hopelessness and helplessness I felt was intensified by being told I could not file a report: I was powerless to assert myself to the person who had hurt me, and equally as powerless to assert myself to the NYPD. This feeling began to seep into other aspects of my life, making me feel powerless against anything that confronted me, and it took months to recover and take my life back for myself.

Stay tuned for part three in this series, which will go live next week. It gets worse before it gets better—but it gets better.

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