Happy Camper (redux)

7 Nov

Let’s try this again…

The first sleep-away camp I ever attended was an all-girls’ camp run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I cried almost every night while I was there and spent a copious amount of each day in the nurse’s cabin, suffering from tummy aches (home sickness). And although I eventually came to love that sacred place in the mountains, the joy was a long time in coming (like, about three years…) and I always loved coming home FROM that camp way more than I ever loved going TO it.

My most recent camp experience was different.

Ride2Recovery’s Project HERO Training Camp in San Diego: (1) offered “love at first sight,” (2) engaged and inspired me fully while I was there, and (3) reduced me to tears when it came time to depart. Apparently my (proverbial) Church of the Spoke-n-Wheel speaks more powerfully to me than does the more conventional church of the spoken word.

The fact that I got to ride bikes for much of the day and drink beers at night while at HERO Camp actually had very little to do with why I loved it so much (though, of course, I sure didn’t complain about those activities!). No, what I loved the most about Bike Camp was the same thing I was supposed to love about Jesus Camp: Mainly, the miracles enabled by belief in these entities.

They say “Jesus Saves” and maybe He does, but I’m not sure from whom or what He saves us, nor how He performs this miracle in our present-day lives.

And although I know quite well how and why and when and where the Bike can act as a savior (because I’ve borne personal witness to its miraculous healing powers), sometimes I forget and I take it for granted. HERO Camp renewed my faith in cycling’s healing powers and reignited my passion to proselytize for the cause.

Sometimes –not very often, but sometimes— I catch myself wondering about just whatthefuck I’m doing with my life. Why did I chuck a completely fulfilling, more-than-modestly remunerative, incredibly flexible, and generally well respected professional position as a major law firm’s pro bono partner to become a partially employed (and, comparatively, WOEFULLY paid) full-time student in a field of study (science) that previously proved too difficult for a younger and mentally sharper version of myself just to pursue some cockamamie dream of healing brain injuries through cycling especially when cycling clearly can CAUSE such injuries?!?  What a ludicrous decision! I must be delusional. I must be running from something (i.e., fear of failure brought about by my ongoing brain damage challenges) rather than toward something…

Those thoughts gain more power now that I’ve re-engaged with the legal profession on a part-time basis and I find myself, much to my surprise, succeeding rather than failing at it. It seems that I may have an innate ability to handle certain areas of the law and manage various aspects of a legal practice. WHYTHEFUCK am I going to school to become a friggin’ scientist at age 40+??! It makes no goddamned sense.

Until you get reminded about how Bikes Save Lives and how you, personally, can be a part of that miracle — Then everything makes sense.

Good lawyering, particularly in the pro bono/legal services arena, often leads to lives being metaphorically saved and sometimes –much more rarely– it can result in the *actual* saving of lives, as reflected in the video embedded in one of my recent posts. And of course there are the tales about innocent people being saved from execution thanks to tenacious legal advocacy. I was very fortunate to have many such experiences as a lawyer. That said, however (and truth be told), none of them live up to what can be done by/on/with a bike.

At Bike Camp, we learned how to build, adapt, and maintain bikes that can be used by amputees (arm, leg, multiple, above/below the joints, disarticulates, etc), paraplegics, quadriplegics, hemiplegics, the blind, those with stroke, those with brain injuries, those with vestibular issues, and a whole host of other physical challenges. We learned how to accommodate not just their physical disabilities, but also how to appropriately address associated social / integration challenges. We learned how to teach ALL KINDS of riders (and not-yet-ready-to-ride individuals) essential bike handling skills. We learned the principles of proper fitness and nutrition training. We learned how to make the most of our resources — material, mental, and managerial. And while that’s all well-and-good, and interesting, and helpful, it’s absolutely secondary to the REAL point, which is why it all matters in the first place.

bike_love_massive“Joe” was 19 when he joined the Marines. While on patrol in Afghanistan, his convoy was attacked. Most of the guys died. Joe lived. He kept all his limbs. He took home some embedded shrapnel, a TBI (although he didn’t know it at the time), and a whole host of demons and fears after opting for voluntary separation without medical review (which meant that his TBI and PTSD went undiagnosed and untreated). Things did not go well at home. He drank — a lot. He experimented with drugs — “just a little,” but enough to get him fired from several jobs. He ate a crazy amount of fast food because it’s all he could afford and he didn’t know how to cook and he didn’t like having to “depend on his wife” for anything.

At age 23, he tipped the scales at 389lbs, although he barely could find the energy to even get on the scale. He rarely left his house. He mainly sat alone in the dark. He was angry and alone and hurting and unable, despite all his very strongest desires, to connect with his wife or kids in any meaningful way.

Eventually, he tried to kill himself. That got him sent to the VA for a psych consult and related in-patient treatment. While there, an R2R supporter (I don’t think it was even an “official” staffer, but I could be wrong about that detail), continuously asked him: Hey, Joe, wanna go for a ride today?

Joe looked at this dude in his “crazy clown costume” (i.e., the somewhat obnoxious red-white-and-blue spandex cycling kit all R2R riders wear) and said, in various ways that were actually WAY more colorful than this: No. Fuck you. Leave me alone.

And so it went. For days and weeks, until one day Joe said: OK, man. Whatever. If you can find a bike that can hold up my fat ass, I’m in, but I’m not gonna wear your sissy-fucking leotard.

A bike was procured and off Joe went, in his “fat-boy sweatpants, grunting away like a pig in heat” for 30 miles. It took nearly 5 hours and when he was done he was amazed that he was able to ride that far + sore as hell both because (a) he rode FAR and in entirely the wrong gear(s) because he refused to listen to anyone’s advice to downshift because he thought he was “tougher than that” and (b) his his fat-boy sweatpants left him with some rather uncomfortable chaffing in his nether regions. So he figured: Maybe if I put on a clown suit and listen to these guys it won’t suck as bad and I can go even farther, and faster, next time.

And that’s exactly what he did.

And it’s what he’s still doing.

He’s been riding for about 14 months and he’s dropped over 130lbs. Sometimes he’ll hook a trailer to his bike and tow one of his kids behind him. Sometimes he’ll just pack up all of the kids in his car and just go for a drive out to the countryside to amble with them in the hillsides — something that would’ve been completely impossible for him ~2 years ago. Hills reminded him of Afghan ambush sites. Reminded him of his friends who died. Reminded him that he “should” have died. Made him want to die. Made him stay at home, alone, in the dark, shunning his kids.

I am not exaggerating one bit when I tell you: That bike gave me back my life. It gave me back my family. 

But it’s not just that. The bike doesn’t magically “fix” everything. Joe still has challenges. He still loses his focus, but he no longer loses his cool because when he feels like things are starting to go sideways, he just gets on the bike and rides. Once, after experiencing a really bad day, he rode more than 120mi (taking him w-a-y out of cell phone range) before he thought to inform his wife. As the hours went by and he didn’t call or answer his phone, she was convinced he’d killed himself. Eventually he stopped because he’d run out of food and he realized that he’d left his wallet at home. The “sandwich artists” at Subway allowed him to use their phone. He called his wife. He explained where he was and why he was there and that he definitely planned to ride home ASAP (and, no, he did not want or need her to pick him up, thankyouverymuch), but first he needed to eat — So could she please give her credit card number to the Subway guys?

By the time he got home, he had forgotten what had troubled him so much in the first place and he was filled with love for his wife and his family and his life.

All because he rode his bike.

He then took a really deep breath and paused for an uncomfortably long amount of time and said:

Guys, I’m telling you. You saved my life, but I gotta say, I don’t think the actual riding is what did it. I think what did it was that kook at the VA in his clown suit who just kept trying to engage me. He wasn’t an ass about it. He never argued with me. He didn’t try to convince me of anything. He never said: You should try riding a bike, you’ll feel better. He’d just ask, every day, no matter how rude I was to him the day before: Joe, you want to go for a ride today? The fact that he kept caring is what did it for me. The fact that he valued me. The fact that he found me worthy of inclusion. He didn’t write me off and he made me believe that even a fat fucking loser like me could ride a bike. That shit matters. What you do matters. Please keep doing it.

Which is why I left camp a weeping mess.

And it’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.

And it’s why Project HERO Training Camp made me one truly happy camper.

Parting Thought: This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, or own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness. ~Dalai Lama

PS — Since Veteran’s Day is just around the corner, please consider making a donation to enable more miracles through Ride2Recovery’s programs: https://ride2recovery.com/donate.php. Just enter my last name (Zeisler) in connection with your offering. Thanks in advance!

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4 Responses to “Happy Camper (redux)”

  1. Amanda November 7, 2013 at 8:25 am #

    Amazing, inspiring story – both Joe and the volunteer who invited him to go for a ride

  2. Carissa Barker November 7, 2013 at 4:09 pm #

    “What you do matters. Please keep doing it.”

    Love that. It can be hard to remember on some days.

    • justadventures November 7, 2013 at 5:28 pm #

      It’s almost always the little things that matter the most. And it’s always helpful to receive that reminder.

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