How I Learned To Breathe On A Motorcycle
This week, I went on a motorcycle ride for the first time. Both of my uncles are bikers, so I grew up hearing stories about the open road and biker rallies and long trips with the wind in your hair, but it wasn’t until this last visit with my family that my uncle actually offered to take me out. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older or maybe it’s because he’s finally starting to see me as an actual person rather than just his little uptight liberal niece, but whatever it was, he seemed really excited about introducing me to his passion.
I was pretty excited too, but I wasn’t really nervous at all. In retrospect, I’m not sure why, since I’m nervous about basically everything else in my life. For some reason, though, I thought it would be a low key activity. It wasn’t until I actually got on the bike and we started moving that I realized I may not be the motorcycle type. As my stomach tightened and we picked up speed, I started thinking that maybe I should have taken an extra dose of my panic medication before we set out.
As a side note, I’ve had anxiety for most of my life. There was a period of my elementary school years when I was infamous for going to the nurse. It wasn’t because I wanted to get out of class or anything; it was because any time there was something stressful in class, whether it was academically or socially, I would develop a severe headache or stomachache. I didn’t connect this to stress or anxiety until years later, so I assumed I was just getting sick all of the time and didn’t understand when my parents and teachers got frustrated with my apparent apathy. But I wasn’t bored or lazy; I was anxious. It wasn’t until college that I was diagnosed with and started being treated for generalized anxiety disorder, though. When this finally happened, it was revolutionary for me. I remember the first time I took a dose of medication and my panic attack just… stopped. There was actually a reason for my being so high strung and stressed out and paranoid all of the time. And best of all, that reason wasn’t my fault.
One of the things they don’t tell you about motorcycles is that when you get on the highway and start going pretty fast, the wind whips past you so quickly that it takes your breath away. And I’m not saying that in a poetic kind of way; I mean it literally takes your breath away — I couldn’t breathe. I was trapped on a little metal engine going 50 miles per hour, I was anxious as hell, and there was something physically preventing me from breathing. It wasn’t exactly the best experience of my life.
I tried a few tactics. I would breathe heavily when we slowed, hold my breath, and perhaps most comically, I tried to line up my head perfectly with my uncle’s so that he blocked the wind. For a while, I thought I would actually have to ask him to slow down or turn back entirely because I was on the verge of having a panic attack. Making a request like that to my big, hairy, biker uncle would have been beyond embarrassing, but I had to take care of myself, you know?
It turned out that I didn’t need to after all. About an hour into the ride, I noticed that I was no longer having trouble breathing. I had adjusted to the wind, and I was breathing quite naturally. I had started noticing the scenery and enjoying where I was and what I was doing. I had even stopped clutching my uncle’s sides and was blithely resting my hands on my thighs.
My uncle has always said that you notice more on motorcycles than you do in cars. I believed him, but I didn’t really understand it until I was actually on one. There’s just so much more interaction with the world around you than you ever get when there’s a windshield between you and everything else. The smells are fresher, your view is better, and people in passing cars or on the street can see you. The way people react to motorcyclists is really great, too: some shake their head with obvious scorn; some smile; and some just nod to you respectfully. And I was proud to be noticed.
This story is a really bizarre metaphor about living with anxiety, and it sounds like I’m trying to bring you some kind of Message that simplifies the everyday frustration of living with an anxiety disorder, but I’m not. It’s not as if I got on that motorcycle, had this experience, and am suddenly cured. It’s just really nice to have a moment that’s easy — that feels special in its ordinariness. I spend so much of my life struggling to stay calm and feeling like it’s never going to get any better, but that discounts the times when it actually is okay. It’s always a relief to realize that you’re doing something you didn’t think you could do. Of course achievement is great when you really feel all of the hard work you’ve done to get there, but sometimes it’s also valuable to realize that you didn’t have to work that hard at all; you just made it there. You’re just happy. You’re just being.