When I got married at the very young age of 21, I meant every word in my vows. When we celebrated our 5th anniversary, I thought we might someday celebrate our 50th. Divorce was not a milestone either of us ever expected to reach. So when I moved out of the apartment my husband and I shared, it was confusing and traumatic and deeply painful for both of us. Only weeks later, I was in a serious car accident. Heading to a New Year’s Eve party along the oceanfront Pacific Coast Highway in LA, the car I was in slammed into the side of another car making a poorly-timed left turn across our lane. We were incredibly lucky: everyone was wearing their seat-belt, no one was intoxicated, no one was driving above the speed limit, and no one was seriously injured. Except me. Lying on the pavement waiting for the ambulance to arrive, I told the police over and over again through shallow breaths “I need to go.” Finally one of them lost patience and snapped back at me “you’ll get to your party!” I was shocked, he thought I was anxious to resume my night out. It seemed like no one believe that I needed to go to the hospital. At the hospital I learned that while the seat belt probably saved my life, it also snapped the 2nd strongest bone in my body, the sternum. The displaced bone served as a fulcrum that offset my entire ribcage, in turn breaking 4 ribs on my right side and squeezing down on my lungs to force air out through a tiny hole that really didn’t belong there. A sternal fracture alone is fatal in 45% of cases due to the sternum’s proximity to non-optional body parts (e.g. heart, lungs) so it was amazing how really alight I was. I was in agony but very much alive.
There is no treatment for these injuries other than “pain management” and frequent deep breathing to ensure that the bones don’t heal in such a way as to limit lung capacity. Due to the lung damage (called pneumomediastinum) my doctor warned me that my lungs might collapse if I was exposed to high pressure so I was forbidden from flying back home to New York for at least 6 weeks. I indulged in fantasies of an extended accidental vacation in California (Doctor’s orders!) and considered taking a train across the country. Then, days after the initial diagnosis, a second doctor cheerily told me I could fly home any time I wanted! With more than a little trepidation, I took his word for it and booked a flight.
For the weeks that followed, I lived in a tiny little world, somewhat dulled by cold temperatures and pain-killers, and waited for my body to heal. It was hardest to sit up after lying down but honestly, every movement hurt for awhile. I was shocked to find that my body was in such a state of self-preservation that I physically could not sneeze. Meanwhile my husband carried on with an impulsive divorce, something neither of us wanted but both of us decided to give each other. The physical pain in my chest symbolized the emotional pain in my heart, it was almost poetic, if pathetic. When I cried about my divorce, the sobbing motion shot darts of pain from my broken bones so that it was impossible to cry and impossible painful not to.
Sometime in mid-February, I sneezed for the first time. It was a thrill to see the little ways that my body was getting better. With that sign in mind, I decided it was time to let myself bike again. It was still the heart of winter and bitterly cold, but the joy of self-propelled wind-swept movement was intoxicating. I have always loved to bike but then it took on a new meaning, it became an act of freedom. I began to understand that biking gave me access to something else that I lacked in this great city: solitude. New York can be a very lonely place despite the fact that there are millions of people around, in fact the loneliness is all the more aching because it seems so absurdly unnecessary: “water everywhere but not a drop to drink.” And so to chose loneliness, to deliberately take myself to a place where others are not, was to re-appropriate that uncomfortable feeling and make it a gift rather than a burden. I had an overwhelming feeling that I had been pent up for too long and that it was finally time to be strong instead of meek.
The long decline of the Williamsburg bridge was the most perfect place I found to steal a moment of empowered solitude. I began to practice shouting: “ahhhh” “oooooohhhh” “wooooooh.” It was awkward at first, I would self-consciously look over my shoulder to check if anyone was coming. I got braver when traffic was heavy or the subway passed by, their passing noises shielding me from staring too directly at my recently released emotions. In time I settled on an “ohm” sound, which felt safe because I was already used to saying it loudly and longly in yoga class. I trained myself to hold a shout for progressively longer intervals, measuring distance in lightposts: 3, 4, 5, then breathe. It wasn’t about lung capacity but about emotional capacity, how well could I face and release all the tension of pain? I never reached a point where I really let loose, never ruptured a vocal chord with sheer force of my passionate exhortation, but I did get better. With the pain of my broken body starting to fade, I found joy on my bike. Stolen moments alone on the bridge, coasting downhill at a clip, I’d shout as loud as I could, smile at myself, and cry out again. Just trying to let it out.