What it Feels Like to Break Down
There are some stories that are impossible to tell until a lot of time has passed. Stories that are too full of emotion, that tell of experiences that shook you to your core. Stories that leave you this kind of vulnerable need to wait until your ego has healed and your subconscious has learned all of its lessons. And then, when they can be told without the tears, they can be gently introduced.
In August, we gave a presentation in Durham, North Carolina. At the end, someone asked if either of us had ever had a moment of wishing we weren’t traveling, of hitting a point where we just wanted to quit. Russ and I looked at each other, and I told my story for the first time. At our presentation in Boston, I told it for only the second time. And, afterwards, someone thanked me for such honesty, and asked why I had never posted it on the blog. The answer is simply because, until just recently, I had been way too close to it, and I couldn’t find the lesson beneath the pile of emotions.
In February, we were in Far West Texas. It’s an amazing place to tour on a bicycle, but the wind can kill you. We had ridden down into Big Bend, battling a headwind the entire way, comforting ourselves that it meant we should have a tailwind when we turned around and headed out of the region. We spent several incredible days in the Big Bend region. And on the day we headed north, the wind shifted. Our ride out of Big Bend was broken into two days, and it was the second day that the wind really decided to howl. 20mph sustained, with gusts that threw you around like you were nothing. 40 miles to the town of Marathon. We thought about just waiting it out at the campground and riding the next day, but we were severely lacking in food, so we decided to just rally as much energy as we could and push for it. The iPods came out, blaring our personal choices of “you-can-do-it” music, and we drafted off each other, trying as hard as we could to ignore the sheer pain and frustration.
At mile 20, my determination ran out. I was moving 6mph down the road, sobbing, screaming in my head, “I’m done, I’ve had enough, I don’t want to be here anymore.” It was that last part that really had me crying. More than just the exhaustion, it killed me to hear those words in my head, to think that I no longer wanted to do this thing that I had so completely longed to do. Tears streamed down my face as I thought about giving up everything that I had worked for, as I thought about how my dream life had become such a nightmare. How could it have come to this?
When I could no longer catch my breath through all the sobbing and the screaming in my head drowned out the sound of the music in my iPod, I stopped pedaling. I pulled off on the side of the road, got off my bike, threw my bike off the road, resisted the impulse to kick my stuff, and screamed bloody-murder at a visibly-shaken Russ. “I don’t want to do this anymore!”
“Do you want to hitch a ride?” Russ quietly suggested. “Yes!” I screamed back. And we spent the next hour trying to flag someone who would drive us the rest of the way into town.
Maybe we just have bad luck with hitching rides, or maybe there was more that I was supposed to learn that day, but we found ourselves on the one road in Texas without a single pick-up truck. Small passenger cars and utility-repair trucks only. Nobody stopped. And we ended up deciding to just try to keep riding. Russ rode in front most of the rest of the way and I felt entirely broken inside. Several hours later, as the sun was setting, we finally got into town, physically and mentally exhausted, and I handed over my debit card for an overpriced hotel room.
It took us several days in Marathon to recover physically from the strain of that day. It’s taken me much longer to recover emotionally.
The glimmer of hope for me and the reason that I found the energy/willpower/desire to keep traveling is that, even as I was screaming at myself in the middle of my breakdown, I knew that it wasn’t the entire trip that I was done with. It was when I asked myself, through all the tears, how I could be done with this entire experience, that I realized that it wasn’t the trip I was done with, but that particular moment. I had had enough of the wind and the exhaustion and the frustration, but not the journey. I lost the battle, but not the war.
I realized, in that moment of thinking about giving everything up and going back to the life that I was living before, that I wanted to keep traveling. I wanted to see more of the world from the seat of my bicycle, I just wanted to do it without the brutal headwind. It’s a weird experience to have a heart-to-heart with yourself in the middle of a complete breakdown, but that’s exactly what happened. I’m sure that only a few minutes actually passed, but time slowed down for me as I had this argument in my head. And the small voice of my true inner me spoke very clearly that I needed to separate this moment from the bigger picture; that I could absolutely give up and not win this part of the experience, but I couldn’t throw in the towel entirely.
The thing that gets us through every harrowing moment is perspective, the ability to compare this struggle with some larger idea. I know that I can climb this hill, because I’ve climbed larger hills. I know that I can finish this project, because I’ve succeeded at other projects. I can get through this, because I’ve gotten through worse. The further we traveled, the more perspective we gained, and the easier it became to tackle the hard times.
That day in Texas, however, I didn’t have any perspective. It was the hardest day I had ever been through, and I didn’t know how to keep pushing. So I had to create perspective. I had to dig deep and find a way to keep that day from over-powering everything else. And now, whenever I have a hard day, I have perspective, because I can’t imagine anything shaking me to my core more than that one afternoon.
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