It took me a long time to learn how to ride a bike. I think I learned when I was five, and it took the entire summer just for me to be able to ride a short distance on a dirt road. For some reason, I lacked both balance and confidence, so I couldn’t just hop on the bike and go.
I imagine it was frustrating for my father because of how easy riding a bike should be, and I was making it much more difficult than it had to be. He started to get angry, and he would yell at me. This rattled me, making it even harder to ride my bike. Not to mention, I WAS A CRIER, and so I’d be sobbing uncontrollably while trying to somehow will the bike into staying up on it’s own or, better yet, disappearing altogether.
Once my nerves were rattled, I stopped making progress, and I was doing much worse than before. This, in turn, frustrated him even more, and so he would yell more. He would make threats of punishment and say that I was going to be a laughing stock around all the other kids. I would keep saying I didn’t want to do it, but he wouldn’t have any of that.
I have no idea how long we would be at it each day, but it felt like hours. Every afternoon, I waited in dread for the words Let’s get the bike out. I would get an intense sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that would only worsen as I wheeled the bike off the porch and onto that dirt road.
I’m not saying he was a terrible parent for putting me through this. I needed to learn how to ride a bike, and he was doing his best to help me. All parents get frustrated at things their kids do. This wasn’t the cause of deep resentment that I have held within my core for all of these years. It wasn’t psychological trauma. I don’t think any less of my father for this, and I still love him dearly.
My point is that I hadn’t thought about this in probably fifteen years.
Since that summer, I hadn’t ridden a bike at home. There’s really nowhere to ride my bike, and none of my friends ride bikes. The only time I’ve ridden it since that summer was on bike trails a few times.
Yesterday, my dad fixed up a bike for me to take to school. It’s a ten-speed, and I had never ridden anything other than a one-speed before.
He called me out when he was finished working on it. He wanted me to try riding it so I could test out the different speeds. I grabbed the bike and turned around. In front of me was the same dirt road I had learned to ride the bike on.
All of a sudden, all of the bitter memories flooded back into my mind. The same feeling was in the pit of my stomach. My legs shook as I got on the bike. As I started riding, I heard my dad yell from behind me, “Change speeds!” I couldn’t even keep the bike straight at that point. In that moment, I was the five-year-old girl with the purple bike and pink helmet. My heart pounded in my chest, and I had to put all of my concentration into breathing.
It’s really interesting how easily strong emotions can return like this. I wasn’t just remembering the memory. I was living it. Every single emotion I felt, every bodily symptom I had came back in similar force.
Sophomore year of college, I went through a really bad spell with my mental health. It was one of the two worst time periods in my entire life. I listened to the album I Speak Because I Can by Laura Marling all the time during this period because I had just recently bought the album, and it made me feel strong. Now, every time I listen to this album, I get taken back to that period all over again.
Similarly, when I was a child, there were songs my mom would listen to while cleaning the house on Saturdays. One of them was “December” by Collective Soul. Another was “Man on the Moon” by R.E.M. Now, every time I listen to these songs, I get the happy, carefree feelings associated with innocent childhood.
I can understand how songs and places can bring back strong memories, but it is shocking how strongly and vividly it can bring back the associated emotions. How can a simple test drive on a bike trigger symptoms of a mild panic attack? How can listening to music make me think about suicide?
I guess this just makes me wonder how much of what I feel is based on the present reality and how much of it is rooted in some abstraction from my past. What if the reason I hate Tim Allen isn’t because he’s Tim Allen but because his jawline reminds me of some cartoon villain from a Disney movie I watched once when I was three? What if I don’t actually hate the taste of beets, but the first time I ate beets was the day my first cat ran away? Maybe I only like Jason Bateman’s hair because it is the same texture as the blanket I was carried home from the hospital in.
They say that all we are is the sum of all of our past experiences, but does that also mean that our present reality is only a sum of all our past experiences, too? Does this mean that we’ll never be free of our baggage?