"You Can’t Just Do That"

I recently became aware of the improbable story of Amanda Coker. It is noteworthy in several ways. Firstly, she just accomplished something that is radically difficult to convey in words: she rode her bike 86,000 miles in a single year. Fewer than 365 days, in fact. She smashed the previous record by over ten thousand miles. Which, by the way, is about the furthest I’ve ever ridden in a single year, and that was one in which I was sacrificing lots of things to squeeze in more time on my bike. If you click the above link, you’ll find that she often puts in two and three hundred miles in a day, an amount that comes closer to my current monthly total.

More pertinent to me, though, is the reason behind her staggering, Forrest Gump-ian repetition. A couple of years ago, Amanda Coker was riding bikes with her dad, Ricky, when they were both hit by a distracted driver. Neither of them were killed, but both live forever altered by brain and spinal injuries. The accident occurred while she was still in college, which led to difficulties focusing and learning that she has yet to overcome (I would imagine that I’d also have temporarily given up on college if I were still in school when I was hit). Not only did she get back on the horse in convincing fashion, she found purpose and brain-soothing rhythm riding laps from dawn ‘til dusk.

As I read this story yesterday, it seemed to be the latest in a string of much-needed affirmations after a beatdown of headaches and discouraging words left me unable to do the things I said I was going to, to be the man behind the words I’ve spoken to so many eager ears over the last year. I was recently accosted to the point of breakdown, told that one cannot “run away” forever and “keep going on road trips” and “just writing and putting it on the internet and hoping that someday it amounts to something.” Oh, and that, “It can’t just be you and your dog all the time.”

The obvious first response is: Why not?

But the more true response is: I’m not.

I’ve already visited the toxic myth that every escape is somehow a sign of weakness or inability to cope with reality. Running away mustn’t be a wholly pejorative thing, because it is as possible to run away with our thoughts as it is to run away from a bad situation. A blanket indictment of escapism is a concession that one must wallow in the mire out of sheer deference to the hand they’ve been dealt in that round. And blanket statements are the enemy of the ever-evolving human being. If you hated brussels sprouts when you were ten years old and love the fried, bacon-wrapped versions served at so many hip restaurants today, your taste has simply changed. You’ve admitted that you weren’t staking a claim to your eternity in your adolescent opinion. If pop punk music was a top-secret guilty pleasure when it was new and now you unapologetically blast it with your windows down in desperate search for nostalgia, then you’re just having a good time. I pray for everyone that they don’t let a moment’s despair come to define a lifetime, or an individual criticism to shatter their eternal dream. And really, I strive to healthily question the empty admonition, “You can’t just do that.”

I still battle headaches that threaten to bury me and a general sense of disoriented inertia that prevents me from accomplishing even half the things I’d like to any given day. But I refuse to give up or forget the sickening, sinking feeling of blood leaving my brain as the entire world rang and I thought I’d lost it all on Chicon Street. To push that aside and return to the 9 to 5 is the definition of insanity. So why is Amanda’s repetition different? Why is my insistence on repeated travels with Hank?

For one, there is little that is known for sure in the realm of brain injury. I rarely find that doctors offer me comfort or insight, though they often offer pills and skeptical glances. But stories seem to provide an immense amount of solace and relief. To learn of others who experience the same placating feeling of petting a dog or talking through a confusing memory, who know the specific horror of impact and survival, is to feel rescued from a darkness so deep that it’s little wonder fluorescent lights still bother our eyes.

For another, the amount of times that I’ve convinced others to listen to their instincts and pursue their dreams is staggering. From favorite friends who I encouraged to follow through with their inklings to transfer colleges to adult friends who I’ve pushed to quit their jobs or buy mountain bikes or adopt dogs, I pride myself on thoughtfully but sternly pushing the people I love towards their best lives. And yet, here I am, nearly buckling under the weight of others’ misguided direction for my life. Melting into the abyss of headaches and stagnation, of small discomfort and known devils.

On a good day, I try to frame the wreck and the subsequent wipeout and all of the pain, suffering, confusion, and trials of the last year as rapidly accelerated learning experiences. That every fearsome negative has led to some more enduring positive, that every hurt I’ve sustained has led to an equal or greater improvement in some aspect of my life. On a good day, I even believe this. On most days, I read about a certain accidental death or find a quiet moment while in the shower or walking Hank and am hit with a bone-chilling shudder of PTSD. Most days, my imminently attainable dreams feel distant and impeded by overwhelming to-do lists of trivial tasks that pale in comparison to the scope of the joy of goals attained.

I strive to de-clutter my life, to sell the unneeded in favor of flexibility and investment in experience. As a writer and as a human, experience is priceless and most ‘things’ are merely objects that facilitate or hinder experiences. I long to feel forward progress, literally and metaphorically, to not feel like a boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.  I want to go to Alaska with my dog, Hank, to pursue a goal with everything I have and to revel in the unknown and the repetition alike. To wake up optimistic and to go to bed the same.

Amada’s project is an utterly noble one. It’s possible to frame it cynically or skeptically, which is true of literally anything on earth—especially those things which we don’t personally relate to or understand. It’s preferable to both admire the sheer scale of her achievement and draw profound inspiration from the way she chose to face that gnawing agony of post-concussion syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder and of living another day while grappling with mortality. Life is a series of choices and circumstances, actions and reactions, soaring highs and crushing lows. It’s so many more things than all the words in the world can adequately describe. So if you’re given the unwieldy mixed blessing of coming too close to comfort with mortality, why do anything other than exactly what you need to?

Amanda needed to escape those situations which highlight the woozy, unsettling sensations of recovering from a brain injury. To avoid those stressors which can undo weeks of progress and make it feel like you’re banging your head against a wall while your brain bangs against your skull inside of it. To boil life down to acts of faith and commitment, to goals and radical achievement.
People who survive and overcome severe trauma tend to become exceptionally inspirational or fall to pieces as the healthcare system fails them and their loved ones don’t understand how to help. It may reek of cliché, but I say often that if I can write one thing per week that impacts one person positively, I’ll feel good about my week. And if I can broaden that scope and live in a way that mirrors what’s inside my head and heart, it’s only natural that the impact will spill over into my work and into the lives of those around me. Reading about the way so many people the world over became invested in Amanda Coker’s story reminds me of every wonderful simple truth about following your dreams and inspiring people and it taking a village.

Some people hear of my next dream and implicitly understand it in some way. They ask questions or listen longingly, they simply nod and ask “When are you going?,” or they make it clear that this uncertainty and momentum is very much something they would enjoy. Others cannot make heads or tails of it and ask things like “Why?” or “What’s in Alaska?” or “Have you read Into the Wild?” (the answer is no, by the way, but I know how it ends).

Everyone has different dreams, goals, and preferences, and this is all entirely well and good. The world would be flat (out boring) if they didn’t. But for someone who experiences agonizing inertia and the latent sensation that there are a few screws knocked loose in the back of my cranium, it’s mighty helpful to have those people in my life who simply understand. Who ask if you’ve started projects you told them about months ago, who tell you that what you’re doing makes them do more of whatever they’d like to do, who will stay up late and wake up early if that’s what it takes to accompany or encourage you. I’m not talking about enablers or living in a frivolous echo chamber—I’m talking about people who may not share a single belief or dream with you, but will fly across the country to make sure that you’re sticking to yours.

And so what of this repetition? Is there something soothing about riding bikes in elongated circles?  For some, the answer is yes. But for all, we require constant reminders of even our firmest beliefs. In modern times we’ve almost completely done away with anything that resembles a ‘ritual,’ so pejorative has the word become. Instead, we fall asleep three sentences into a halfhearted prayer or we check things off a bucket list and move on to the next, so as to lengthen our list of accomplishments faster than our memories can keep up.