Learning How to Ride a Bike Eased My Chronic Anxiety
At 25 years old I thought I could teach myself how to ride a bicycle. My first attempt: scooting up and down a dead-end Brooklyn street on a Citi Bike one late August morning. With the exception of a few delivery trucks, the streets were empty, just as I’d planned. There I was, a grown woman waddling around on a bike, gripping the handlebars for dear life. For a good hour I pushed off the pavement, trying to keep my balance. But my feet never fully left the ground. I couldn’t muster the courage. I couldn’t let go.
Despite growing up just outside NYC (where I enjoyed your average active suburban childhood), before that day I had never even been on a bike. Since moving to Brooklyn two years ago, I took the train, Ubered, or walked to get around the city. But once the pandemic made public transportation no longer a safe option, I suddenly had the urge to get out and learn how to ride.
For weeks I’d watched bikers effortlessly weave through traffic and park paths on their own. There seemed to me more of them, too, particularly women. Perhaps they were seeking refuge from the enclosed spaces of the subway or their own apartments. Or they were just looking to soak up the warmer weather in a socially distanced way. My piqued interest stemmed from something else, though: I wondered if cycling could help me cope with a deeper issue I’d been facing.
The piercing body aches first swept over me in mid-April. Some days I felt too nauseous to eat, other days I was so lethargic my body felt tethered to my bed. I swallowed supplements to sleep, guzzled Pedialyte to help boost energy, and popped Tylenol every six hours to subdue the pain. By then New York state had reported more confirmed COVID-19 cases than any country in the world. Mobile morgues could be seen parked across the city, as hospitals and funeral homes could no longer keep up with the death toll. I hadn’t lost my sense of taste or smell, but the fatigue was so overwhelming I convinced myself I’d contracted COVID-19—because what else could it be?
Before the pandemic I didn’t think much about my health until it got in the way. I don’t have any preexisting conditions; like a lot of young people in the city, I buried myself in work, trying to carve out a life here. When it came to wellness, every few months, I’d cut down on my coffee intake between the occasional lazy attempt at yoga. So when my body started telling me something was wrong, the new uncertainty swallowed me up and spat me out—into sterile doctor’s offices and Zoom medical appointments. We ran diagnostics and checked vitals. Each time I defended the reality of my symptoms, as if on trial, and each time doctors returned, negative results in hand. They said there was nothing wrong with me. In their eyes I was a young Black woman with no medical history of note. With some stress-reducing exercises, they told me my symptoms would pass soon. But “soon” turned into several agonizing months.
Then, in early August, I found myself wheezing in a surprisingly quiet Brooklyn emergency room. I rarely ask for help in my personal life and was embarrassed to be in the ER during a global pandemic, but I desperately needed answers.
Finally, after hours of tests, I was told I was having a panic attack, due to chronic anxiety. I had never dealt with anxiety to the point where it manifested in me physically, but the culmination made sense. I’d recently lost my service industry job and was unsure of when or if I’d ever go back to work. My dad had spent the better part of spring in and out of the hospital, battling COVID-19. Pandemic-induced fears had engulfed my reality. Now, with a diagnosis, a sense of relief washed over me—my pain was real.