Please note: this article contains material of a highly sensitive nature, including mention of suicide, that may be triggering for some individuals. If you or someone you know is suicidal, please contact your physician, go to your local ER, or dial 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
I can’t f*cking believe that I am actually out here doing this.
That thought passed through my head hundreds of times during the 2021 Pinyons and Pines bikepacking race. It was sandwiched in between the more typical long race thoughts such as:
I’m so f*cking tired.
My ass hurts.
I should probably eat something.
I wish I had brought a raincoat.
After 82 hours of pedaling 302 miles through headwinds, epic Arizona sunshine, rain, and temperatures ranging from 20 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, I arrived back at the Flagstaff Bike Revolution shop. I was the last finisher, but half the field had dropped out. Race organizer, Dana Ernst, and one of my riding buddies who had broken his rear axle the previous night, Spencer Holmes, were there to congratulate me. I was completely filled with gratifying exhaustion.
The race experience was amazing in so many ways and I could write pages about it… fan-girling Alexandra Houchin at the start line, eating empanadas with a crew of riders at the Pie Bar in Pine, knocking on Dylan Turner’s cabin door at the Mormon Lake Lodge and asking (re: begging) if I could sleep on his floor because it was 20 degrees out. But this story is less about the actual race and more about how I got myself there.
Minutes after finishing. Wholehearted gratifying exhaustion.
Though I had aspirations to finish in three days, it was so perfectly fitting that I finished on May 23rd, 2021. Almost to the exact hour, a year earlier, I had sent my dad a text that started with “Dad, I feel normal today!”
May 23rd, 2020 was the day I finally got my life back. It was the first day in nine months that a cloud of blackness no longer blocked the view of my future. It was the definitive last day of the downward spiral that almost ended me. I still, to this day, don’t quite know how I managed to hang on.
Nine months earlier, on August 24th, 2019, I was riding downhill trails at Grand Targhee Resort in Wyoming and hit a familiar tabletop jump. I was in the zone that day, but my timing on that jump was slightly off. My right foot slipped off the pedal in mid-air and caused me to lose control of the bike. I landed on my front wheel and flew straight over the bars, hitting face first at roughly 20 mph. Despite a full face helmet, my chin still hit the ground and split wide open. The ER doctor later quipped “it looks like you have a second mouth.” I didn’t laugh at that one.
Bike patrol showed up and for the first time in my life, I was on the other side of the Patient Assessment System, a standard wilderness medicine rescue system used to evaluate patients hurt during the first minutes of a backcountry emergency. I had been trained on this for eighteen years while working as an outdoor educator at NOLS. While I hadn’t blacked out, one of the few things I remember while sitting up, covered in dust, is being asked the four questions to assess how alert and oriented someone is. I was A+Ox4. My brain still works, I remember thinking.
I was carted down to the bike patrol station and then driven to the local small-town ER. They X-rayed my right arm and left hand and checked that my jaw wasn’t broken by twisting a tongue depressor while I clenched my teeth. The doctor stitched up my chin and basically sent me on my way. I remember walking out of the hospital thinking I was incredibly lucky.
Arrival at the ER. Not stoked.
In the weeks before the accident, my life had rapidly been falling apart. Long story short, my relationship of eight years was on the rocks and because of other life stresses, my nervous system was on overload. When unfamiliar levels of anxiety crept in over the next few weeks back in Tucson, my mind solely attributed it to the breakup. The same thing happened when I had my first ever suicidal thought mid-conversation with a friend three weeks after the crash.
Initially, I chose to combat the anxiety and growing depression by drinking, which was very uncharacteristic of me. When I realized what I was doing, I stopped and found a therapist, saw a doctor at a clinic, and started anti-anxiety medication. I was scared to take the prescribed antidepressant because the label said they caused suicidal thoughts. I was already having those and they terrified me. I had never been on any medication before.
The weeks wore on and I became more and more non-functional. The symptoms piled up: lack of concentration, short- and long-term memory loss, insomnia, inability to regulate emotions, hopelessness, minimal energy, lack of appetite, inability to make decisions. November was the tipping point. That was the month I “hid” my kitchen knives from myself and lost the ability to functionally read words. Then one day I could no longer control my thoughts or my heart rate. Scared sh*tless, I had a friend drive me to a local Tucson behavioral health hospital. I was checked in as a patient and kept there for six days. I spent Thanksgiving day drawing a turkey on a placemat with Crayola markers. They took away my belts and strings. I remember thinking I must just be dehydrated and carried around a small styrofoam cup of water. I was put on a bunch more medications and kept under full-time watch. I couldn’t get thoughts about death out of my head. I didn’t want to die but they just kept coming, completely uninvited. I could no longer recognize myself in my own body.
When the hospital discharged me, I figured it would all be over because I had survived this crazy experience and all I had needed was rest. I was wrong. Sixteen days later I checked myself into an in-patient residential treatment facility when I could no longer manage new hours-long crippling anxiety attacks without the use of Xanax. The whole time I was so confused about why I was reacting to the relationship difficulties like this. It didn’t make any sense.
When I arrived at the treatment facility late at night, fully dosed up on Xanax, I truly believed that this was my last option and that it would save me. I still had hope. I was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and clinical depression and spent most of my time there processing my relationship downfall with various therapists. They allowed me to have my gravel bike, and when I had free time, I would ride laps around the facility’s driveway which was a half-mile paved loop. Six weeks and $27,000 later, I left in worse shape than I arrived. The day before I had to leave I was balled up on the ground with my hands around my knees, shaking and crying, while my therapists stood over me. I deeply believed that I wasn’t going to make it. I no longer recognized myself. My brain was so sick.
My brother flew out and picked me up from the treatment center. My then eighty-year-old father, who is the calmest and most positive man I know, moved in with me and tried desperately to help me stay afloat for the next six weeks. Vision issues had now been added to my symptoms list and I thought they were a side-effect of medication. I had been on and off of thirteen different medications by this point. A friend came by one day and tried to take me mountain biking to cheer me up. I pedaled around Lone Cactus loop, a trail I had ridden a hundred times, feeling like I was drunk and unable to focus my eyes while moving. This was the day I gave up hope that I would ever be able to ride my bike again.
It was now February and I could barely get out of bed. My gut fell apart and I had to carry around a tupperware bowl with me anytime I left the house because food I ate was going right through me, undigested. My executive functioning disappeared and I couldn’t read or think or watch TV. I tried to fake my way through work days to keep my job. The anxiety attacks typically set in by 9am and Xanax was still my only tool for them. When trying to describe my internal state of being to others, I used terms like “my brain feels like it’s stuck in clear molasses” and it “feels like I have the flu all the time.” On the outside, I still looked fairly normal, but on the inside I was in severe, yet invisible pain. I wished aloud to friends that I had broken both arms and both legs, because someone could tell me what was wrong and how to fix it. I played video games on my phone for hours to distract myself from feeling like I was going to die. I wrote a suicide note to myself in a journal one day. I was terrified of being left alone in a room.
March 2020. One of the only photos I took of myself while sick.
In March, my chiropractor pulled off some kind of miracle and managed to quiet the anxiety attacks with his twice-a-day adjustments (note: chiropractic work helps reset your nervous system). I never took a Xanax again. COVID arrived and my dad narrowly made it back home right before everything shut down. I was still unable to drive or care for myself, so I Hail Mary’d my way up to Teton Valley, ID in mid-March to try and see a functional medicine doctor I knew. Nothing had been working in Tucson. I wasn’t acting rationally at this point, I was making decisions based completely on day-to-day survival.
The nutritionist I saw diagnosed me with leaky gut and encouraged me to follow the Auto Immune Protocol (AIP) diet. So I only ate meat, fruit, and vegetables. With the lack of energy I had available to cook for myself, that often looked like a pound of ground beef with some salt and an apple. Within days my brain fog (aka: brain inflammation) started to dissipate. A small amount of hope creeped back in as I was able to digest food and see well enough to drive again. The depression still clung to me, but I was hanging on each day.
I had to get a new therapist because I was now in Idaho. During our intake call she asked me a question about past head injuries. I rattled off the two known concussions I had suffered playing soccer in college. While she jotted that down, a vision from the bike crash flashed through my mind.
“I did hit my face really hard back in August in a bike crash.”
She paused and said “You know you can get depression from a concussion?”
I did not know that. How the F did I not know that? I’d been playing competitive sports for over thirty years at that point. A complete tidal wave of different feelings crashed over me. I was in shock. At that moment I knew that there had actually been a root cause for all of my symptoms. I hadn’t just gone totally crazy. We got off the phone and I started the greatest Web MD’ing session of my life. I discovered the term Post Concussion Syndrome (PCS) and slowly read through the very long list of possible symptoms. By then I had every one of them EXCEPT for dizziness, light sensitivity, and headaches… all the symptoms that I had previously associated with concussions.
That same week, with tears streaming down my face, I begged my psychiatrist for another medication as the depression was still overwhelming me. I had spent two hours lying on top of my dog’s bed sobbing the previous night. She finally succumbed and prescribed me Wellbutrin, which is an antidepressant that works mainly on the dopamine system. I’d been on serotonin and norepinephrine based medicines for months to no avail. I sent the text to my dad 48 hours after I took my first Wellbutrin dose. It was the missing link. The foothold I needed to survive.
The rest of this story is about the upward spiral. Or what I like to call “bonus time.” Bonus time is every day since May 23rd, 2020. It’s about living without fear of dying. It’s about not being afraid to do things that scare me or are outside of my comfort zone. As hard as it all was, the biggest blessing has been to have survived something that now gives me so much perspective for the rest of my life.
I started riding my mountain bike again. The first ride back, my face was covered in tears as I got a view of the Tetons from high up on a ridge. I could not remember the last time tears had come from joy instead of grief. A conversation with one of my therapists popped into my head. She had asked me one day what I wanted to live for. I remember sitting there in her office and the only vision that ran through my head was me, coasting downhill, on my bike, on a trail flanked with tall billowing grass at golden hour.
First ride back. May 2020
I thought about that answer a lot as I continued to get better over the following months. What was it about riding my bike that made it be what I wanted to stay alive for? I think my answer is the freedom of moving my able body through the natural world at speed and under my own control. And it’s strongest in the moments of riding through a huge open space when all you feel is a sense of awe for your surroundings. Those moments of awe are the ones worth living for. And for me, they occur most when I am on my bike.
As the months ticked on I continued to slowly get better. I lost my job of eleven years the week after the Wellbutrin dose, so I became unemployed for the first time in my adult life. I landscaped my friend’s yards for money to help pay for the ongoing medical bills. My brain healed enough that I was able to start a full-time job and be on a computer all day. I choked down twenty pills each day and finally saw a physical therapist who confirmed that what I had experienced was post-concussion syndrome. I did vision therapy and played memory and processing games on my phone. I struggled to get out of bed in the mornings, which I later found out was a result of severe adrenal fatigue and hormone imbalances. I continued to forget conversations I just had and had a hard time recognizing people’s faces. I got diagnosed with a very low grade autoimmune condition, likely due to the trauma my body had suffered through. I got another dog to add a bit more joy to my life. I struggled through the loneliness of COVID isolation along with everyone else in the world. And I realized that I was no longer afraid of the things that used to hold me back. I adopted “f*ck it, why not?” as my life motto.
The climb out of the White Rim – April 2021
In the winter of 2021, I got it in my head that I wanted to do something big to test myself and prove that I was “back.” Bikepacking was something that I had only ever done with my ex and I had not been confident enough to do trips by myself before the accident. So I called upon “f*ck it, why not” and signed up for the Pinyons and Pines race. That winter I trained by riding a fat bike in snow and making a trip to the desert to ride the White Rim in a day. I bought some more gear, studied the route, and asked around for advice. I drove myself 900 miles to Flagstaff to ride my bike in a circle for 300 miles.
I showed up at the start line on May 20th, 2020 in complete awe that I had actually gotten myself there. Grateful to be alive and so very proud that I had survived the trauma that I had been through.
It’s now been 1088 days of bonus time and I’m doing my best to keep that streak alive by living each day with courage over fear. I’m so excited to stand at the start line of Pinyons and Pines again this week, two years later, feeling healthy, strong, and ready for more desert adventure!
Lindsay currently resides in Driggs, Idaho in what’s better known as the Teton Valley. She is now a Certified Life Coach (CLC) and owns her own life coaching business Lindsay Nohl Coaching, LLC, where she’s excited to help people overcome their fears and take on life’s next big adventure. She’s also inspired to coach traumatic brain injuries (TBI) survivors to get their lives back on track. Lindsay coaches women’s mountain biking clinics for Ladies AllRide and Dirt Series around the country and also works as a strength coach for Wright Training in Victor, Idaho and Jackson, Wyoming.
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