I imagine most of you are familiar with the movie Thelma and Louise and its tale of two women finding their strength through a series of unexpected and escalating ordeals. In one of the most enduring scenes towards the end of the film, Geena Davis’ character, Thelma, says to Louise “I feel awake. Wide awake. I don’t ever remember feeling this awake. You know what I mean? Everything looks different. You feel like that too? Like you got something to look forward to?”
In the wake of the crash and other complicated life stuff that compounded the stress, the past two years have been more challenging than rewarding. It hasn’t all been miserable of course, but there’s been an underlying weariness and dullness even in the bright moments. I’ve had to dig deep into the depths of what fortitude I possess to manage all of it.
Throughout this time I continued to do the things I knew I loved even when they didn’t necessarily fill me with the same awe and excitement as before. Those things—riding motorcycles, hiking, traveling, exploring—still felt good. Pleasant. Nice. There was happiness in them. But muted.
In the last couple of months there’s been a shift. I feel like me again. I have genuine, deep delight in life once more—meeting new people, going new places, learning new things. I’m once again fully engaged in life with joy and amazement.
From the beginning of my recovery process, I knew that being true to myself was crucial. In my head I knew I needed to anchor myself in what I loved before the crash. Emotionally though, that was an extraordinary challenge because pursuing those things didn’t always feel good or the challenges seemed physically overwhelming with my damaged body.
In all of this time I expended a lot of energy dancing between forcing myself to focus on the positive and allowing myself to feel all of the inevitable anger, frustration, and grief. Make no mistake about the deep and lasting impact trauma of any kind has on someone and the burden of dealing with it on top of the other tasks of life.
One of the underlying themes of being in that mental space is feeling incapable, lost, small. I’ve written about regaining confidence in riding but the larger truth is that my entire confidence as a person—who I am, what I want out of life, feeling relevant—was shattered.
That all-encompassing self-doubt had broad implications, including making it a struggle to keep this blog going and all of the writing, business, and social media that goes along with that. A lot of the time I just didn’t care about keeping any of it going. I knew I love doing this but mustering enough enthusiasm was exhausting. With sheer will power I had to develop almost a blind trust that at some point life would fall back into place. I convinced myself that if I simply kept showing up and participating as best as I could, life would work itself out.
There was no magic moment when that happened. Just enough fading of stressors, memories, and challenges. And enough time to put mental distance between myself and them. Enough time to figure out how to manage my body as it is now and still be able to enjoy doing the things I love. Enough time to come to terms with the pain and difficulty that are a daily part of my life now.
Some might file this under “Time heals all wounds.” I don’t. I’ve learned to hate that patronizing, dismissive cliche’. Time gives you the space to cope and weave bad experiences into the fabric. Maybe time even fades the memories a little. But I would in no way call it healing.
In this process, I also made a collection of choices that have helped me get to this point. The bulk were small to moderate decisions and re-prioritizing after asking myself questions like “Is this adding to my life?,” “I want _____; how do I achieve that?,” “What do I want more of? Less of?” Those little choices added up but there were big notable ones that provided the framework—getting back on the bike and moving to Nevada. Both were extraordinarily difficult and more worthwhile than I can articulate. I think it’s poetic that one represents holding on to a core value and the other giving myself a clean slate from which to rebuild.
And so I find myself happy and vibrant again. Awake. Aware. Confident. Unlike Thelma who was unfamiliar with that feeling, I knew it before. I loved that feeling and I wanted it back. Badly. One of the overriding sensations of rediscovering it is relief. Profound, extreme relief. I’ll confess that there was so much of this time I thought I’d never get here, that I’d never get myself back no matter how hard I worked at it. That I wouldn’t be able to move beyond simply getting by. That my greatest loss of this ordeal would be to never have that feeling again.
There were surges when I thought “This is great. I’m better.” Only to have that feeling fall away or get buried underneath a new round of challenges. Those waves felt good but the crash afterward continually undermined me. I felt like I couldn’t trust the positive surges. I knew I was getting there at the one-year mark but I began to fear there would be an upper limit. That I’d never fully be Val again.
Of those who have spent time with me in the last two years, most would probably say I seemed happy and myself. I was never gone, just incomplete. Allowing myself to enjoy the good moments wasn’t about hiding my struggle or being disingenuous. It was about letting good moments be good and not carrying all of the painful weight of the last two years on my sleeve. That’s too heavy a burden for myself and the people around me. There was certainly plenty of talk with my closest friends who helped me through this. With the larger audience much of time I was simply tired of talking about it.
Despite being ok, I still struggle with the effects of trauma. I always will. But it doesn’t run my life anymore. Given the longevity of this process and the head-spinning ups and downs I’ve hesitated to announce “I’m better!”
So why is today different? It just is. I can’t explain it other than it feels different. I feel light, free—in a way I haven’t in the last two years. I have the same sense of giddy excitement about doing the things I love that I used to. None of the events and struggles have been erased but in the deepest core of who I am I know I’ve made my peace with the last two years.
I’m back, friends.
I feel awake.