By Bill Turner
Note: Though I am a survivor of acute, exacerbated post traumatic stress disorder, and I discuss how I am treating it here in this post, I am also writing this in SAFE mode. This post contains no specific triggering descriptions of any trauma.
I got a bike because I lost my pocket knife. More specifically, I got a bike because I lost my pocket knife and rather than allowing my brain to be hijacked by dissociation at the loss of my favorite tool, I moved forward into a new healing phase in my life. If this sounds a little peculiar to you, allow me to assure you that it is almost impossible to encapsulate with the English language just how peculiar the last year of my life has been.
In May of 2017, I made my first trip to the hospital to deal with the existential threat that untreated PTSD had become to me. For about four decades I have lived with the illness, which was the result of repeated childhood trauma. By December of 2017, I had spent a total of four months of time off and on in inpatient treatment for both PTSD, and the stroke that I believe was the inevitable extension of the combined effects of the illness and the struggles associated with being homeless. Not many people can spend a third of a year in the hospital and still keep their living arrangements intact, and I’m no exception.
But I’ve made incredible progress in the last year as well. I’ve learned many tools to help me cope with my illness. I have become a practitioner of meditation, and have learned to incorporate ideas like “radical acceptance” and mindfulness into my system of treatment for my PTSD symptoms. I am now reading a book on attachment-based Yoga and meditation to treat my illness with compassion and mindfulness. The book outlines ways to stay grounded in the present, which is really the only way one can get a handle on the dissociation that PTSD can provoke.
All of this leads me back to the pocket knife. As a homeless person, I have very little that I own. As a PTSD survivor, I have a tendency to be hypervigilant in the care of what I do own. That pocket knife was not intrinsically valuable - I think I bought it for under twenty dollars at a sporting goods shop - but in some ways it was a symbol of my triumph over the challenges of homelessness.
I do not use drugs of any kind, including cannabis as of May 3, 2018 - I quit so that I could better feel my body and deal with triggers more effectively. I quit smoking in August of 2017. I’ve lost over 100 pounds in the last year through exercise and portion control. And above all else, I take really good care of my equipment. All of my gear is well maintained, and that is rare for someone living outside.
That pocket knife was my little sidekick. I used it frequently for all kinds of tasks. I set it down on Saturday, June 2, 2018, and accidentally walked away from it. I had only travelled one hundred and fifty yards when I realized my mistake. Unfortunately, living outside exposes one to the reality that there are a large number of people who just take whatever they can find. By the time I got back to where I had set the knife down, it was gone.
I searched for it all over the place. I double checked my pack, my pockets, and all around the area where I set it down. The fact is that I knew exactly where I had left it, and it was gone. No amount of searching was going to change that fact. At that moment I had to radically accept that I had lost a knife that I had come to love, and then I made a decision that changed every cycle in which I normally engage.
Instead of focusing on the injustice of someone taking one of the very few things I own, I made a decision that I was going to ground myself in the present and focus on the facts. It was a cheap pocket knife that I can replace, even though I had attached greater significance to it, and there was nothing I could do to get it back. I then made a second decision that was revolutionary for me, and one that has set in motion something entirely different from anything I’ve ever experienced.
Less than 3 hours after I walked away from my pocket knife, I walked through the front door of Bikes for Humanity. As it happens, that was 15 minutes before the shop was actually open for business. I met Andrew and Raul inside and announced that I wanted a bike. Andrew asked what my price range would be, and I explained that I had no income and was homeless, but was willing to work in trade. He then explained he needed to finish setting up the shop and that he would talk with me when that was complete.
I agreed to wait outside. I sat on my bag on the front sidewalk, and literally shook my head for a moment. I had been telling some friends that I thought it was time to get a bike. I’d lost the weight, gotten in much better shape (I couldn’t walk to the the end of my driveway in my old house without huffing and puffing), and had contemplated how a bike could extend the range of everything I do - including moving to safe distances away from dangerous situations in short amounts of time. What I couldn’t believe is how freely I had announced to complete strangers that I was homeless and broke.
Andrew stopped outside as he was moving bikes out and asked what experience I had. I have taught history, been the executive director of an environmental non-profit where I testified before a U. S. Congressional subcommittee and frequently testified before the local government, written newspaper columns, worked on political campaigns, served as a content editor for a large internet company, and even co-founded a literary journal that published original work from authors like John Updike, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Former Poet Laureate Daniel Hoffman, along with many other esteemed writers and poets, and I had even interviewed Ben Watkins of the electronic music staple Juno Reactor among many others for that journal.
What I hadn’t done, ever, was fix a bike. I know very little about bikes, except that if you are going to fall off of one, try to do so in the grass. So when it came to figuring out what I was going to do to earn a bike, I was at a disadvantage. I think I mumbled a few ideas, but settled on “office work” as something I could definitely do.
As luck would have it, Bikes for Humanity has an abundance of office work-y type things to do, and I jumped right in. I found that I enjoyed the company of the other volunteers, and I love the peaceful vibe that the shop exudes. In return for working in such a nice place, I received a bicycle. I couldn’t take it with me right away because I needed to get a lock, so I agreed to come back on the following Monday to get it.
I planned my first trip on the bike to include the Tilikum Crossing. Instead of moping around and wallowing in loss as a way to dissociate from the grief of having so little and losing something, I was engaging in healthy behavior, being around people and getting something to help with my health maintenance. And the feeling of riding a bike again is a great one.
When I got to the top of the Tilikum Crossing for the first time on a bike and saw the grand vista of the Willamette with Portland sprawling on both sides, my first thought was “Just keep breathing and I won’t die.” My second thought was “Dude, next time let’s start with a flat bridge.” But I’m still riding each day and have now crossed the Tilikum about six times.
Most importantly, my journey of healing now has wheels, both figuratively and literally. I have met a wonderful group of volunteers over the last week, and just working in an environment of respect and care has tethered me back to sanity. The bike riding is helping me to change old habits and to connect with new people over a new shared interest.
I’m even kicking around starting an impromptu weekly weekend ride with other people who are looking for a healthy outlet to deal with the stress and challenges in their lives. I just want to do something simple and easy on the body, maybe even including a time for meditation or yoga in a park along the way. I’m still learning my way around the bike, so I’ll leave the Tilikum out of these plans, as I’m not sure I’d be comfortable panting and puffing in front of new friends.
Yes, I lost a pocket knife, and I’m very happy I did. I might have procrastinated on getting a bike and might never have enjoyed the experience of having complete strangers reach out and offer a helping hand, and a really fun bike. If you ever wonder what Bikes for Humanity can do for someone, I can tell you that it met physical and emotional needs that I have. And I know it can do the same for other people like me.
Also, I’ll be contributing new posts about my experience here as I go along, so check back regularly if you are curious about how much impact B4H can have over time. Thanks for reading.