Why It Matters

5 Aug

Here’s a slightly truncated version of the narrative I sent to the 105 AMAZING individuals who provided donations to Ride2Recovery in support of the Italy Challenge. Most of “my” donors are not JustAdventures followers and I told them that although my recent blog posts “chronicled the what and when of what transpired” in Italy, the truth is that none of that really matters.

What DOES matter is the “why” — Why injured veterans need (and love!) Ride2Recovery; why I promote R2R’s programs, and why supporting R2R is absolutely the right thing to do (YOU should do it, too, dear reader:  https://www.ride2recovery.com/donate.php.

Here’s why:

One of the things I was most excited (and anxious) about with regards to the R2R Italy Challenge was reuniting with some of the TBI veterans who participated in last year’s Battle of the Bulge (Belgium/Luxembourg) Challenge:

  • Would they remember me (who *is* that random girl)?
  • Would I remember them (how much would my etch-a-sketch brain retain)?
  • Would a year of cycling have improved us in any appreciable way, beyond helping us lose weight (i.e., what are the implications for my PhD hypothesis)?

The answer to all these questions was a resounding: YES!

Facebook gets a lot of credit for the first two issues — R2R’s vibrant online community enabled me to keep tabs on folks throughout the year (and vice versa). So when we all showed up in Vicenza, there wasn’t a whole lot of “How are you?” nonsense. Instead, we jumped right into more important matters, like:

  • Z, did you know they have bacon at the buffet?” [my reputation precedes me!] or
  • Who’s watching _____ [insert name of service dog here]?or
  • What classes are you taking next semester?” [Many of us have re-enrolled in college courses to challenge our broken brains and broaden our life’s horizons]

The person I was most eager/anxious to see was my roommate during last year’s ride, Jennifer. I was curious to see if she’d made as much progress with her TBI recovery as I had. I got worried when this post showed up on Facebook the day that I arrived in Vicenza:

Ok, so, change of plans. I missed my flight yesterday, but I’m on my way now! I have two more flights before I get to Milan, Italy. Once I get there, I have to figure out the public transportation and take a train to Verona. This is the first time that I have been in a big city by myself let alone abroad. Getting prepared for the hustle, the loss of personal space and being confused. Part of the experience! Thriving not just surviving!

Traveling abroad, alone, can be disorienting for anyone, but for a person with TBI it can be a real doozie. I had yet to attempt any significant solo-foreign travel myself [Iceland didn’t count — there’s only 1 road!], so I was very curious to see how this derailed approach to Italy might work out for her.

One of Jennifer’s trauma recovery specialists chimed in with the following FB comment:

Pay attention to early warning signs, then step off the plan for a moment. Find a corner, look around, and reorient yourself. All 5 senses, take it all in and lower your [heart rate]. This way you don’t miss the trip just trying to survive!!!!! GO girl.

This advice worked quite well for Jennifer — she arrived to Verona on Day 2 with an astonishingly upbeat and invigorated attitude. If this travel snafu had happened last year, she would’ve been a disoriented, agitated, angry mess. When I commented on how much more “together” she seemed this year, she laughed and said: “Well, you know riding a couple hundred miles a month can do that for you! You should read the magazine article I wrote. I think you’d love it

She could not have been more correct. Her story is remarkable in its own right (you can –and should– read it HERE), and it’s also remarkable for how universal its moral is for the men and (especially) women who participate in R2R’s programs.

Key phrases from her article which details how she acquired PTSD and TBI as a result of several deployment incidents:

  • I honestly thought I was going crazy; I didn’t understand what was happening to me.
  • During the winter of 2005, I not only did not leave my house for six months, I barely left my bed. I was in a deep dark place with no idea how to get out.
  • I felt like a burden. The shame of not being able to take care of myself became overwhelming.
  • Suicide became my only option, to end the pain, to end the shame, to end the burden that I was placing on my family.
  • [Outpatient therapy] helped with the depression but didn’t address the underlying issues. Then I learned about the Women’s Trauma Recovery Program at the VA in Menlo Park. … It was there that I was introduced to cycling, which became one part of my treatment plan.
  • I finally found the right path to recovery. When you’re in that “dark place,” it feels hopeless. Cycling illuminated the way to start living and thriving, not just surviving.
  • The hardest part is the first three minutes of a ride. Once I’m on the bike, everything changes. When I’m riding, I’m focused. I’m grounded. I pay attention to things that keep me in the present.
  • When I ride …  I feel a sense of freedom being outside with the wind in my face. It satisfies this “small” adrenaline addiction that I have in a relatively safe way.

This is what R2R does — not just for Jennifer, but for everyone.

In fact, you can multiply R2R’s benefits by the fact that they are shared. Riding ~6-8” from one another at 20+mph through foreign territory instills a camaraderie that nearly approximates (or so I’m told) the “brotherhood” one experiences on the battlefield. You literally have one another’s back. You have a united purpose. And you develop a type of “Spidey sense” that allows you to intuit what the person in front of you is about to do.

Yes, we have hand signals and short verbal commands to indicate “slowing,” “stopping,” or the need to navigate around obstacles like “hole!” “bump” or “gravel.” But after a few days of riding with your pack, you just know. You settle into a rhythm, you trust your leader, you look out for your follow riders, you keep pedaling, and at the end of the day even when you’ve been wrung out and worked by some truly brutal climbs, you just marvel at how strong and good and marvelous you feel.

You’ve never felt better and you know that you are capable of even more, so you go out there and do it again the next day.

Or as the Navy Seals say to motivate themselves: “The only easy day was yesterday.”

Every single one of us on these rides will tell you that regular cycling makes all other physical efforts in life easier — whether you’ve got a busted brain, a missing limb, or a body littered with shrapnel, a mind becalmed by cycling feels more at ease and able to function more effectively.

Jen offered FB reflections on two of our tougher climbs, the Gavia and Alpe d’Huez:

The Gavia Pass. This mountain ripped out my soul. It forced me to exam my very being. I didn’t get to the top, which was extremely disappointing to me. I gave it everything I had and learned that sometimes that’s all that you can give. I have gained a new perspective through this experience that I wish I had the words to explain. Sometimes there are bigger lessons learned when you fail to accomplish a goal. There will be a next time Gavia, and I will make it to the top.

[Regarding Alpe d’Huez] It was a great climb! I was really scared at first because of all the people. But it made it!! [It was] a once-in-a life time experience for sure!! So many different people, so many different languages. Tackling the climb and the crowd issues [meant that] I accomplished something that I never thought I would do!!

Two “comments” to her FB postings stood out to me as being emblematic of what R2R is all about:

 It is not what you didn’t do, it is what you DID do. You have come so far. Be proud of your progress. I’m in awe of what you’ve done.

And,

Sometimes you get to the top of the mountain and you may not hear what the mountain is trying to tell you. Other times, you won’t get to the summit, and the mountain tells you all its secrets. The goal isn’t to summit or not, it’s simply to climb.

The hardest thing about these R2R Challenges, for me, is keeping my isht together when our healing heroes pull off remarkable feats of strength and compassion, again and again.

Many R2R riders have stories that one could only rightly imagine as being movie fodder. Their tales contain horrors and heartbreak that no one should have to endure, but endure they do. They’ll say, “the third time I got blown up” with a tone like you might use when saying “the third time I had to go to the DMV…” — it’s a simply an annoyance to be endured.

You lose a limb and you just get on with life.

I marvel at their strength and optimism. Bombs LITERALLY went off under them — sometimes more than once — and they view their lost limbs or shrapnel-filled lungs as inconveniences that simply require them to do some things a little bit differently than before.

When Nate (our paraplegic veteran) summited each of the 3 big climbs (the Gavia, the Ghisallo, Alpe d’Huez) in his hand cycle, cheers and high-fives (or low-fives, as the case may be!) erupted among ALL who witnessed his accomplishment — an accomplishment shared by the teams of “pushers” who assisted him. Every time I witnessed a “Nate Team Summit,” my heart filled with emotions and my eyes swam with tears. It was almost too much to take in at once.

[See the Day 4, 5 and 7 JustAdventures blog postings for more details about each of these climbs and Nate and his push teams…]

You think about all the pain (both immediate–from the toughness of the climb, and bigger-picture–from the injuries that “qualified” these veterans for R2R to begin with), and all of that pain and struggle and strife and badness gets completely wiped clean as speakers of all languages offer open arms to these heroes, surrounding them with a palpable sense of abiding love that one normally might imagine only existing in a fairy tale.

For some of our participants, this trip really WAS like a fairy tale…

We were joined by a few French and German veterans. At our closing dinner one of the Germans remarked that one of the unique joys of this trip, for him, was having strangers come up to him and say “Thank You for Your Service” — this is not something that is done in Germany. To see the respect people have for American troops was astounding to him.

Another posted on Facebook that “It was a great honor to be here and … it was one of the best exprience [sic] I did in my life. You taught me to be opener for the world and don’t look away. Ride 2 Recovery showed me how motivated injured and wounded soldiers can be. [At home] too many people close their eyes, and I want to say ‘wounded soldiers need [y]our support and help to get back into life’!

Finally, the cyclist that everyone came to love in spite of themselves, “Frenchy” closed out our dinner with the following words of tribute: https://www.facebook.com/video/embed?video_id=671639816184415

In case you couldn’t open that video clip and/or if you couldn’t understand him, he said:

Sank you, Ride for Recovery, Sank you, Sank you, Sank you America!

I wish that I could have taken you with me on this trip. Everyone should get to have this experience. Spending time with these women and men changes your life, or, if nothing else, at least radically alters your perspective — which we all can benefit from, from time to time.

“Sank you” for participating with us virtually. The staff, soldiers, veterans, cyclists, challenged individuals, and others involved with Ride2Recovery and I are all humbled by your interest and we’d appreciate your support.

http://www.Ride2Recovery.com/donate

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