By Cristina Henriquez.
On September 1st I had an “accident”. The facts of the event are fuzzy in my head. I don’t remember much of it except for a few things. It was day one of a five-day trip, which would have taken us onto the Idaho Backcountry Discovery Route. Our group of seven women, loaded up for some adventure, camping, and fun departed our meeting area in eastern Washington at 8:00 that morning. I was number two in the lineup on my BMW F650 GS. About four hours into the ride, on a two lane highway the rider ahead of me accelerated to pass a truck ahead of us. In an uncalculated move, I followed her. As I sped up to pass the truck, my front tire began to shake violently. Before I knew it, there was an oncoming car that was approaching too fast and too close for me to clear the truck. I lost all control. The situation looked dreadful, in that instant I was sure I was going to die.
I woke up on the side of the road looking into my friend’s eyes, asking, “What happened?” As I heard her relate the events back to me, it all felt like a dream. “Really?” I kept thinking. Everything became a lot more real the minute the adrenaline subsided and my body burst into pain. Later, I found that I was dealing with a broken clavicle; five fractured ribs – the possibility of one puncturing my lung; three fractured fingers; and a number of bruises. I was in bad shape, but not dead. “Not dead” kept echoing in my head. How was that even possible? Seriously? Yes, I was alive, but it felt like I was in between worlds, in out of consciousness. One minute, my body lying there on the ground feeling excruciating pain, the next, I was floating above it, very much at peace.
There is one specific moment, which has stayed with me since the crash. It repeats frequently in my brain. It’s the instant I knew I was in trouble, certain that I was about to crash. Tears still flood my eyes as I remember it. I thought, “This is it. This is how I will die.” I let go of the handlebars and felt a deep sense of acceptance for what was about to happen. My life did not flash in front of my eyes. Instead, what came next was the sensation of falling back into the warmest of embraces, some otherworldly Love surrounding and catching me. I had never felt such deep and profound peace before. And then, everything went black, until I woke up on the side of the road.
It is January 29, 2017 as I sit to write this. So much has happened since. I am happy and grateful to say, that aside from some minor aches and pains, I am doing well. My doctor tells me it’s all quite miraculous and that I should consider myself lucky. There is no doubt about that, and then there’s the fact that I was wearing the right gear. A good helmet, jacket, pants and boots saved my face and the rest of my body from what could have been horrible road rash at the very least. Recently I’ve come across people who have fared worse than I, with severe damage to their legs and/or spine, now restricted to a wheelchair. I feel humbled by my condition in comparison to theirs. These days, when I see riders on their motorcycles with no protection whatsoever, or simply wearing a helmet with the rest of their body unprotected, I cringe inside. I have the urge to stop them, run up to them and scream into their faces, “Do you have ANY idea what you’re risking?!”
That said, I do think surviving this accident was a miracle. I was traveling at about 70 mph when the front tire wobble started. Recently, I’ve spoken with some of the women riding behind me about what they saw. Each has a different recollection of what followed after I lost control. One of them saw me going under the truck, skidding across the lane to where I ended up on the side of the road. Another rider saw my bike dart on a diagonal in front of the truck, somehow throwing me off, before it crashed. It’s hard to know what actually occurred. Everything happened so quickly. Different riders had different views based on their positioning. At the end of the day, what’s left is that I’m alive.
According to Wikipedia, an accident, also known as an unintentional injury, is “An undesirable, incidental and unplanned event that could have been prevented had circumstances leading up to it been recognized, and acted upon, prior to its occurrence.” Yes, there were several circumstances that led to the crash. Before the trip, I was nervous. I felt insecure about my level of experience despite having done a number of trainings. The world of adventure riding, although exciting, felt foreign to me. With the added tasks of planning for meals, and packing camping gear, I was feeling overwhelmed. I did my best to fit everything on my bike in a way that made sense to me, but I forgot to distribute the weight equally between both panniers. This might have been the main reason my front tire started to wobble so violently when I accelerated. Additionally, I had recently changed my tires out from street to 50/50 dual sport. While everything had checked out OK at the BMW shop, I was still getting used to the bumpier ride these new tires provided on asphalt. It felt like a completely different bike to me. Not a good thing before a trip I was already nervous about taking. A third factor was that I wasn’t at my best physically. I had tried a new medication for lower back pain just days before that had wrecked havoc in my belly. It had left me more than a bit shaky.
Looking back there is a large number of things I would have done differently. But isn’t that usually the case? In retrospect, we always have more clarity than when immersed in life. While I was in bed recuperating from all my injuries, there was a strong pull toward obsessing about all the details leading up to the crash. A part of me needed “to know”. But then, something stopped me. I saw my mind spiraling into a circular pattern of thinking that was not conducive to healing. I felt tense and contracted. “There would be ample time to tackle all those details”, I told myself. Instinctively, I knew it was best not to try to figure it all out then. Instead, I chose to go back to that one significant moment when I let go of the handlebars. I sat with it for a long time, recalling what I’d felt, the sensation of complete and utter peace. I had surrendered without holding anything back, and some inexplicable force had safely carried me through. It was then I saw that this “accident” could become a tragedy in my life or it could be an opportunity. I had the choice to trust and see how everything was happening in perfect order, or I could fight, blame others and feel like a victim.
Trauma takes away an individual’s ability to choose. This I learned the year before when I completed the second of a three-year program on trauma based on the work by Peter Levine. The first two were mostly theory, the third would have been more hands-on. Well, this was my hands-on moment. It was time to put all that knowledge to work, on myself.
After the ER doctors assessed my x-rays, they decided to transfer me to a facility that was better equipped to monitor the rib that was pushing against my lung. When they were loading me into the ambulance, I felt the heartache of separating from the group. Once the doors closed, I turned to the attendant sitting beside me and said, “Please hold my hand and don’t let go, even if I fall asleep.” He didn’t. I will be eternally grateful to him. This was the beginning of me tapping into some instinctive knowledge of what I needed in order to heal naturally. I realized that when I felt safe and at ease, an innate intelligence took over that accelerated the process. When I was stressed and trying to be in control, I got in the way of that. So my challenge was “to keep letting go of the handlebars”, in a manner of speaking. I had to remind myself over and over that I had and could make choices that felt right to me, even if they seemed illogical to others. I needed quiet and lots of rest, I needed to feel loved and supported, and I needed emotional space to feel what came up for me. There is a lot I could say about this stage but the point I’d like to make is the importance of trusting yourself. Along this process, I encountered many professionals that told me what they thought was necessary for me to heal. I listened, took their advice into consideration, and ultimately followed what felt right to me. I learned that understanding and caring for my nervous system was of supreme importance. The more connected I could stay to my instincts and feelings, the more progress I made. There were days I woke up in tears, others in rage or fear. The tricky part was to allow it all without judging it or trying to attach a story to it. If I needed to cry, I cried. My body had a memory of the crash that my mind did not share. My doctor could not understand my speedy recovery. It certainly wasn’t because of the Percocet he’d prescribed.
Inevitably, the question came up for me, “Why didn’t I die?” It still does. To say that I was surprised when I opened my eyes and saw my friend looking back at me is an understatement. I wanted to stay in that warm cloud of Love I’d felt surrounding me. Weeks after my accident I heard of a man who had died. He was walking to his office when the scaffolding on a construction site nearly collapsed on him. He ran to safety only to suffer a heart attack minutes later. He was 50, with a wife and two kids. Why him, and not me? Some questions just don’t have an answer. At the end of the day, what I know for sure is that I’m still here. I got a second chance. Will I live in joy and appreciation of what I have in my life, or will I stay resentful of the things that have not gone my way? My choice.
There were many blessings that I did received from this experience. Little by little I began to see and appreciate them. Among them was the love I got to feel coming from my family. Broken enough to finally be willing to take in all they had to give me, I realized how much I’d isolated from them. I needed their help in every way; from bathing and getting dressed to scratching an itch I couldn’t reach! A couple of years before the accident, I had started pulling away from Miami and spending more and more time in Seattle, growing comfortable with the idea of making it home. My two brothers lived in Miami with their respective families, my sister in El Salvador. Both of our parents already deceased. Running from family issues, I’d gone as far away from them as I could while remaining in the United States. Before the crash, I’d been itching to go on retreat to some exotic location. Maybe Bali, I’d thought. There were some things I knew I needed to resolve internally. I never thought that exotic location would turn out to be Miami, the place I’d been running from! I had to laugh when I found myself on a bed, unable to move, at my brother’s home. Life has a sense of humor. It was perfect. Not always fun, but perfect.
Throughout this process I’ve observed that there is always abundant evidence for whatever I want to focus on. After the accident, it was easy to fixate on what was scary and unfamiliar, what hurt or didn’t feel right. I started to make my world smaller just to feel safe and in control. The challenge was to see what was working, what did feel comforting, what was supporting me, and to remember that I had choices. Seeing this “accident” as a blessing was a choice I got to make every day.