I was a late bloomer when it came to learning how to ride a bike. I was nine when I got the hang of it, and my younger sister and close friends had already learned and were rolling around our suburban Minneapolis neighborhood. I was jealous of their independence, but at the same time, I was a little afraid of riding. Eventually, with the help of a number of individuals, I finally mastered the two-wheeler. I can recall the exact moment I got it right, and it was a truly joyous moment. I look back at this event as the birth of my independent self; one of the first times I felt the power of my own agency.
When I moved to Chicago for college in 2006, I didn’t bring a bike with me, and I wouldn’t have one again for another seven years. In that span of time, I endured the most difficult part of my young life, and maybe (hopefully) of my entire life.
I found myself, still a teenager—tender-hearted and extremely excited about my new college life—in the deep, dark pit of an abusive relationship with my significant other. As a feminist, a critical thinker, a person who thinks of herself as strong, being in this relationship caused cognitive dissonance on every level. While somewhere deep down I remembered who I was, I started to believe every hurtful and degrading insult that was hurled at me on a near constant basis.
“You are an idiot. You are a dumb bitch and you don’t deserve me. You’re weak. You need to repeat it after me or I’m gone and I’ll never come back.” Tangled as I was in the cycle of abuse, I did it, I repeated those things. I knew on some level that he was wrong, and I knew he was horrible not only for saying those things, but for slowly turning me into someone who would actually say them about herself.
I desperately wanted out, and wanted to unleash every little part of myself that I had to bury as a means of self-protection. I hated him with a vengeance but at the same time, I didn’t know how I’d make it in the world without him. I felt so trapped.
My ex told me explicitly that I was not the sort of woman who would ever ride a bike in Chicago. He said those women were tough, bold, and confident. The implication, of course, was that I was none of those things. Any opportunity to remind me that I was weak and pathetic was seized. I am not sure why he chose to tell me this when he already had an arsenal of other, more on-the-nose insults always at the ready. It stood out to me as unusual for him, and because of that it stuck in my memory.
By that point in the relationship I believed him. I began to look at women out there on their bikes and thought of them more or less as demi-goddesses. They were assertive and skilled, the epitome of self-reliance and confidence. I believed I, a completely isolated and depressed shell of a person, could never be one of them.
After nearly a decade of crushing degradation, intimidation and verbal assaults, somehow I decided that I wouldn’t do it anymore. Something clicked and I’m proud to say that I was able to get myself out of that relationship. It was really, finally over. I was free. That relationship had been the cause of all my major problems and was a severe detriment to my mental health, so I thought: “No relationship, no problems. I’m good now.”
If only it worked that way.
My therapist tells me that it’s unrealistic to expect that I could move on and heal from seven years of abuse after only a couple years on the other side and in therapy. She’s right, of course. But like it was with my first days of bike-riding, it’s taking a long time to learn, and I continue to learn the only way there is: the hard one.
In the summer of 2013, after some compassionate pushing from my current partner (an avid cyclist), I went to get a bike. I found it on Craigslist and I met up with the seller at an L station. The old Schwinn was perfect: the only problem was that I was too afraid to ride it home to my apartment five miles away. I had worked up enough courage to buy the thing, but frankly, it intimidated me and I felt unworthy to ride it. I still didn’t see myself as one of those women.
The first time I took it out for a spin was the next morning. I hadn’t ridden a bike since before I left home for college (i.e. before everything went to shit). I was exhilarated and so nervous. Would I remember how to ride? Would I get lost? Would my ex see me riding and get mad? Would a car hit me?
Perhaps a little ironically, I was the one who did the colliding. I bonked into a parked car less than ten minutes into my ride. A construction worker saw me and laughed, told me to be careful. I laughed, too. I was a little wobbly on u-turns, but I was okay. I had something to prove to myself and that’s all I could think about.
After a couple of rides and tag-along lessons from others, I felt like the queen of the road. Even though my bike was huge and heavy, and I wasn’t any good at zig-zagging in and out of traffic, I felt amazing. I may forever be praying silently at the back of my mind that I don’t get into a terrible accident, but ultimately, I feel confident on my bike. I feel free; and I feel that it’s possible for me to work through everything that happened in those seven years. I see it as more evidence that the the terrible things I was made to say and believe about myself couldn’t be more untrue.
Every mile I ride is another measure of how far I’ve come psychologically, and how much I care for myself. I tell myself: I can make healthy decisions, I love myself, I can choose to be happy. Now, I have a much lighter road bike named General Sherman (I named him after the largest tree on earth, something that reminds me of my connection to nature and makes me feel powerful). The General and I go out for joy rides, commutes, and hopefully some community events this summer. I never thought it would happen, but an old Schwinn and the Chicago streets helped me turn myself into one of those women.
Elizabeth King is a freelance writer and nonprofit coordinator living in Chicago, IL.
She is an ardent feminist, and a proud graduate of DePaul University's Philosophy program. Follow her on Twitter @ekingc | Instagram - @mr.sweatpants