Guest Blog 6: Karen McPhail-Bell

I’ve tried to use this blog as a way to spread the amazing stories of the many inspiring women I know, and Karen is one of those women. We met when she liked one of my previous blogs, and since have connected over cycling, Indigenous health, and our passion for an equal future for all. Karen is one of those people who makes an incredible impact on the lives of everyone she meets, and I am so grateful that she was willing to share her story. Follow Karen on Twitter (@solomon_kazza)

I was pretty humbled when Eliza asked me to write for her deadly blog. I admire Eliza’s attitude and grit, and what she is doing for women’s cycling. I have definitely benefited from her honesty and generosity in sharing her journey to achieve new goals and challenges.

Eliza suggested I write about my experience of recovery and returning to cycling after a fair-decent stack on my road bike, almost 2 years ago. I accepted – what a great way to share that its OK at the other end of a crash… but when I came to actually start writing, I felt blocked. It hasn’t been an easy journey; perhaps I was blocked to resist a return to the difficulties I experienced in ‘getting back on my bike’, both metaphorically and literally speaking. I have dipped into some deep emotional ruts in working through the changes within myself that arose due to the accident. In many ways, I’m a different person to who I was before this crash. So, that is where I will begin.

karen

l-r: Karen winning the prime sprint at Lakeside; Placing in the Women’s A grade with fellow inspiring women.

Before the accident, I was mad into cycling (I still am but in a different way – more on that later). I was no pro, don’t get me wrong, but I was becoming fitter, stronger, faster, and learning skills and confidence on the bike. I was part of a fabulous cycling community of men and women who helped each other. I was setting my sights on particular cycling goals. I was beginning to place in our women’s A grade races, and keeping up with “the fast boys’” rides. The NRS girls shared their skills and experience with girls like me learning the ropes. The guys did too, with some particularly standout support from certain blokes (such Tony Pratt below). I was having a bunch of fun – cycling was my community, my health, my transport, my life, my identity.

TP & Kazza

Tony Pratt and his family are among the hugely supportive and inspiring people in Karen’s cycling community.

The guys I rode with would say that as a cyclist, it is not a case of if, but when, you will crash. I never liked this adage. Then my turn came. It happened on a training ride, due to factors outside of my control; it was simply an accident. The combined impact for me was almost 80km/hr. I don’t remember what happened, I just remember waking up in hospital later in pain, confused, experiencing relentless nausea and dizziness – and a head that really hurt. I had various injuries and lacerations but it was my fractured skull that took most of the hospital staff’s attention. I spent days in ICU and then the neurosurgery ward. The experience was awful but I am thankful it wasn’t worse.

When I was discharged I relocated to mum’s to heal, which meant moving away from town and the proximity of my cycling community. The changes in life began. I took some months off my PhD, as the neurosurgeon recommended (9 months added to the PhD timeframe). I wasn’t allowed to drive for five months, or cycle; I lost my independence. I’m still not supposed to drink alcohol now. There were many hours a week of travel to numerous health care appointments and tests (and I’m incredibly grateful for the therapy at the Brain Injury Rehab Unit, that helped my recovery from the moderate brain injury). The journey ahead of me began to reveal itself and walking that path was draining and heavy. I tried to put on a brave face and be optimistic when friends checked in but ironically, when I needed friends the most, I was generally too exhausted or confused to have energy to see people. It took a lot of energy to see people and concentrate. The stress of recovery was amplified when the other cyclist involved in the accident sued me; I was too unwell to follow through and defend myself in court. My mum was also significantly bearing the brunt of these life changes.

In time, I re-engaged with my PhD. Very slowly. Concentrating for even 5 minutes seemed impossible. Hours would pass involving me trying to write, with little to show for it apart from exhaustion, frustration and anxiety from my failed attempts. My memory and concentration were very much affected. It was humiliating and stressful. Likewise, I tried to return to cycling. I experienced a great deal of fear in trusting the wheel in front of me and cars on the road. This fear was most pronounced after I relocated to a new city to join my husband. I joined a new club but I lacked the cycling community that would help me regain confidence and fitness, and had to adapt to big-city traffic. I was no longer fast, fit and strong on the bike. The confidence I had before the accident dwindled and I doubted myself more as I struggled to remember people I had met, forgot experiences I had had, or became disoriented and lost. With a body unable to perform aspects of my life, and a mind gripped with fear while riding, my self-identity as a cyclist and a researcher was shifting.

I could talk more here about the challenge of recovery but instead I want to share what I have learnt from it. Perhaps the most poignant realisation for me was the value of growing with unwanted change, rather than resisting it. There are new sides to me that I have discovered in this journey because of change triggered by my injuries. I have an openness to life outside of cycling and I have a reinvigorated connection with myself – with my needs, fears and hopes. For a while there, I couldn’t push myself beyond just being and so now I have an appreciation of what it means to allow myself to be. Being translates to mean compassion with myself and with others; I know from experiencing an invisible injury never assume all is as it appears, even when someone appears to be ok.

My journey also illuminated the importance of our identities for our health and wellbeing. There are nuances to identity to consider. For example, identity is in part anchored in social relationships with a role for others to confirm that identity. When I had to make new friends who knew nothing about what I was going through, or pre-existing friends brushed aside my ‘invisible experience’ it was easy to feel powerless, for people were seeing me differently to how I knew myself to be. I was dealing with a changed capacity that people could not see. But with this, I know there is power in our stories, and that healing comes when we move from silence to speech. Perhaps Eliza asking me to write this blog is symbolic of this phase of my journey.

Another lesson is that even when you’re afraid, or scared, you can still try. It can be anything that you’re afraid of: following that stranger’s wheel; reaching out to new people despite not feeling like yourself; being the only woman on a group ride; or speaking out and sharing your experience and views – whatever it is you are facing right now. What’s more, its OK if you fail when you try. In fact, quite often, that failure is actually a success. When I was eventually able to concentrate for 15 minutes to write, I felt like I was failing compared to the long hours I pulled before the accident. But instead of comparing to my capability before the accident, if I recognised my improvement from 5 minutes to 15 minutes, I could see I was progressing; it was actually a success. Success and failure are often in the same thing; we just need to let go of preconceptions.

In the end, life changes. Nothing stays the same. But while we may travel some dark valleys in life, we will get to climb new mountains too.

MtVentoux2015

Karen and her husband, Mo, after climbing Mount Ventoux, France.

If you’re in the Brisbane area and looking for a cycling club to ride with, Karen highly recommends the Logan Cycling Club and Lifecycle

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One thought on “Guest Blog 6: Karen McPhail-Bell

  1. Margaret Walton says:

    Dear Karen How well written and what a triumph, so proud of you and what you have achieved. Much love as always from your Granny

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