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Riding Right: Getting Back in the Saddle After An Accident

How to recover mentally and emotionally

By Brenda Bates


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As a therapist and hypnotist I have a problem with a certain old biker adage. Most motorcyclists have heard it. "There are two types of bikers. Those who have been down and those who are going down."

Laurie Ingstrup is back in the saddle on her Honda Valkyrie after having an accident where it took her time to emotionally and mentally recover.
Laurie Ingstrup is back in the saddle on her Honda Valkyrie after having an accident where it took her time to emotionally and mentally recover.

From a psychological perspective this saying is potentially dangerous as it could create what clinicians call a self-fulfilling prophecy. A self-fulfilling prophecy is a mental process whereby an individual subconsciously creates an event due to the mind's belief in the inevitability of that event. In hypnotic theory there is a similar mental process called waking hypnosis. Waking hypnotic incidences occur to everyone on a regular basis. For example, if someone said to you, "What happened to your hair?" chances are pretty high you would quickly go to the nearest mirror to check. The reason is because you became hypnotized around the idea that something was different about your hair simply through the power of suggestion.

Waking hypnosis is especially strong when the person giving you the suggestion has some kind of prestige. So, if an experienced rider tells you that you are going to go down, you may be more hypnotized around the suggestion than if a non-rider tells you the same thing. The point is, be careful what you buy into. Don't think of accidents as a right of passage.

Further, that old biker quote fails to qualify what is meant by, "going down." Consequently, many people will jump to the most catastrophic imagery possible such as a fatal crash. Imagine the self-fulfilling prophecy and hypnotic impact that kind of thought could have.

The Truth
In reality, it is possible for a motorcyclist to never go down. Ask around. You'll be surprised how many motorcyclists have never actually been in an accident. Oh sure, they've had scary moments, war stories even. But quite a few have never been down in any kind of a serious way. It is also possible for a rider to go down once and never again. Psychologically it is important to keep a careful watch on your belief system. This is the psychological end of risk management on a motorcycle, just as taking a safety course and wearing proper riding gear is part of the behavioral aspect of risk management.

However, motorcycling does clearly carry risks. There are, after all, other activities we motorcyclists could engage in that would be much safer. And unfortunately, there are riders who have been in accidents. A problem not commonly discussed between motorcyclists is the psychological symptoms that can linger long after the physical wounds have healed. Interestingly, men are likely to turn to alcohol or another substance in an attempt to quell their symptoms. While women may do this too, symptoms are more likely to turn inward and become depression.

Recovery Problems
Often, the clinical diagnosis of someone who has had a life-threatening trauma is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Sometimes, an individual may only have some features of PTSD but not enough to warrant the actual diagnosis.

Whether or not an individual has full blown PTSD, common symptoms post-accident survivors will most likely go through can include:

  • a loss of self-esteem
  • nightmares
  • a numb feeling
  • avoidance of places, people or situations reminiscent of the accident
  • panic symptoms
  • depression
  • anxiety and fear of motorcycling, and a general questioning of one's ability to be effective in their decisions and abilities. 

If you have been in an accident it is best to consult with a mental health professional to determine if you have PTSD or just a few of its symptoms. Let's see how some of these symptoms affected women who have had motorcycle accidents, beginning with the loss of self-esteem.

Case Studies
Vicky Racine of Michigan had a scary accident while riding her motorcycle. She hit a deer. Vicky's husband was riding ahead of her. Vicky had been riding her own bike for three years at the time. As a result of the accident, she suffered a lot of bruising and a broken bone in her hand. After the accident, I asked her to gauge her self-esteem on a scale from one to 10 (10 being the highest). "After the accident," a soft-spoken Vicky began, pausing to take a deep breath, "my self-esteem was about a four. I really questioned if I could have avoided the accident. I really doubted my ability then. Now I'm riding again and my self-esteem is about a seven."

Laurie Ingstrup of Illinois also had an accident. The incident occurred in a construction zone covered with loose gravel. Laurie was riding her own motorcycle along with her husband and a friend. She incurred a broken collarbone and lots of bruising. Laurie spoke very definitively when remembering her self-esteem on a one to 10 scale. "After the accident I was about a one," she chuckled. "I didn't even feel like myself. I had no confidence in anything I did. I'm tall, 5 feet 9 inches, and at that time I went around feeling like I was 4 feet high. I sought therapy for my symptoms and now I'm riding again. My self-esteem is now about a 9.5.”

Self-esteem Problems
The loss of self-esteem is a serious issue. Left unchecked it will likely move into depression. Psychologically, self-esteem is directly related to an individual's feeling of competence and a sense of having a positive effect in the world. After an accident, it is common for people to loose that sense of personal effectiveness, not just in motorcycling, but with life in general.

Another common symptom after an accident is a feeling of numbness and a tendency to avoid anything connected with riding, especially motorcycles. Laurie recalls, "[My husband and I] have four motorcycles in the garage and after the accident they were nonexistent to me. It was like a black hole in the garage. I wouldn't even look at them. I didn't connect with riding at all."

Symptoms of panic, which include a pounding heart, shortness of breath and tremendous fearfulness are also typical for people who've had accidents. Vicky remembers, "After I started riding again I started looking for something to jump out at me. The first time I did see a deer I actually panicked. My heart went up in my throat and I started shaking."

Laurie Ingstrup battled low self-esteem initially after her accident.
Laurie Ingstrup battled low self-esteem initially after her accident.

Fear Levels
Most motorcyclists do experience some degree of fear while riding, at least some of the time. But after an accident the fear factor can become a true force with which to contend. Etta McQueary of California had a serious accident and and was on life support as a trauma patient and not expected to live. Etta was hit by a four-wheel vehicle on a twisty mountain curve. Etta now speaks publicly about her accident and her decision to ride again.

At the time of her accident Etta had been riding her own motorcycle on the street for about 10 months, though she had had years of experience riding off road in the desert. Etta says, "My fear is not completely gone but I ride anyway. After my accident my self-esteem was about a two. Now it's about an eight." When asked about what personality trait Etta believes contributes to her riding again, after a long thoughtful pause, she replied, "Perseverance...and a strong desire to overcome fear." 

Etta McQueary is using her accident experience to inspire others through motivational speeches.
Etta McQueary is using her accident experience to inspire others through motivational speeches.

Strong Support and Character
Etta also surrounded herself with an adequate support system that helped her to make the decision to ride again. One friend in particular, was very supportive. "I felt safe with him after the accident because I knew I could ride at my own pace." Vicky also had support from her husband after her accident, "My husband didn't pressure me. He understood it was my decision."

Vicky, Laurie and Etta all exhibit the strength of character needed to overcome such trauma. Psychologically, the decision to ride again has been life affirming for these women. Note the high number for self-esteem each woman gave after riding again. Of course, it's also O.K. to choose not to ride anymore. Among other things, this decision should revolve around how much of the individual's identity is tied in with being a motorcyclist. If riding is not that important to the person, it's not unreasonable to give up riding altogether.

Psychologically, though, something, like riding, may be a part of an individual's identity if it involves some or all of these qualities: that something plays a role in the individual's social life, married or romantic life, it gives that person a sense of feeling unique or special, it is a coping skill in that it causes pleasure, relaxation or a sense of freedom and, the individual invests time thinking and planning activities around this special something.

Learning from the Past
They say that hindsight is 20-20. So, when asked to think about the day of the accident and what, if anything, these women could have done differently, Vicky replied, "I guess I could have been more aware, instead of just staring at my husbands back. I always ride behind him. Now I'm always very aware of my surroundings."

Laurie responded, "Since then I've learned to ride my own ride. I feel I'm a better rider now because of this." Etta reasoned that, "On the day of my accident I had just a light breakfast. I know now that my blood sugar was very low. I'm self-sufficient now. Before my accident I used to just carry a little purse with me. Now I have saddlebags and I carry food, water and clothes so I can dress according to the weather changes." All three women agreed that safety equipment, such as leathers and a helmet, is extremely important to them now.

Needless to say, it was not easy for Vicky, Laurie or Etta to return to riding. Each concurred that taking it slow and not being pressured by others is the best way to proceed. Additionally, having a support person is most helpful. Psychologically, this is sound advice. Gradual exposure is the best way to begin to ride again. If you have been in an accident and want to ride again your "cycle-therapy" prescription is to start by simply reading about motorcycles and looking at pictures. Then move to just sitting on a bike. Set up small goals for yourself and do not proceed to the next until you are comfortable with the last.      

getting back in the saddle after an accident book
Brenda Bates book, "Back in the Saddle Again: How to Overcome Fear of Riding after a Motorcycle Accident," has been hugely popular for helping accident victims regain confidence to get on their motorcycle again.

Editor's Note: Author Brenda Bates wrote a very helpful book, "Back in the Saddle Again." You can learn more and order it at BikePsych.com.

Related Articles
Riding Right: You Flunked! Now What?
Beginner's Guide: Common Obstacles and How to Overcome Them



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Reader Comments


July 4, 2015 will make one year since my accident. I had only been riding a few months on my own. I also had taken a riders course, but I had ridden as a passenger for several years with my husband. We were in Arkansas riding the pig trails. My husband was in front of me; we were approaching a hairpin curve that was not marked. As I approached the U I thought I saw my husband's foot on the ground and his back tire across the white line. There was gravel in the road were he was at in the U. At my point I did not feel I could brake enough to stop and I would not have been able to go in front of him without T-boning him so I chose to go behind him off the road.

About 10 feet or so off the road it was a drop off of about 10 to 15 feet. I totaled my bike ended up being air lifted to a hospital where I had eight broke ribs, four broke twice, my back was broke in two spots. I had a ruptured spleen a fractured hip and a broke arm. As I lay in the ICU I told my husband one day we would be back to finish this ride! He felt terrible like it was his fault for me being such a new rider. I feel like it was a judgment call, nothing other then that!

I plan to ride again. We were a couple hundred miles from home. I stayed in ICU for about three days, within a weeks time we were on our way back home with all the medical instruments, back brace, sling for arm. Once I got home I was back at work (desk job) within two weeks. My doctor asked me not to ride again until at least March 2015. I have ridden with hubby a few time since. I have no fear of riding, no PTSD.

People think I have a screw loose, but I think I am fine. I love riding -- the freedom, the power between my legs! Last week, I purchased a 2015 Fat Boy Lo. I love it! I never had a fear of dying, never had my life flash before my eyes, none of the things people often say they may have. Maybe I do have a screw loose?

I have overhead people (friends) who ride also say things like is she crazy, she just wrecked not even a year ago. I do not know why they have to be so shocked that I wanted to ride again. I thought maybe because I am a woman, I wonder if it was a male if they would say the same things?

During the time in the hospital I would not let my husband call home and tell my family, mainly my boys (24, 27 and 28 yr old). It wasn't until Sunday night after the 4th of July that I let him tell them. I did not want to ruin there holiday. People may be shocked not sure why, even my sons, my youngest when we told them I had purchased another bike, their words were good, she deserves it!

God never grants us tomorrow. Life is too short not to do the things that make you happy! I truly am happy riding!


Alisa
Eight mile, AL
Sunday, July 05, 2015
Editor Response
Alisa,

Thanks for sharing your incredible story with us. Glad to hear you're back on the bike.
Genevieve Schmitt
In 1987 I got hit from behind on a highway, which caused me to strike the curb and break my left knee. Took me about a year to be able to get enough strength in my leg to hold up my bike. I have ridden more than 500,000 miles since then on motorcycles. Since then I have been hit twice, once by an idiot that was road raging with the bikes at a stop light and once by a lady who pulled into a carpool lane from a dead stop right in front of me.

Even with my level of experience looking back there is nothing that I could do differently. Being stopped with no where to go and being hit. Seeing a car about to pull out and hitting my brakes but unable to avoid a collision. We chose to ride, and know the risks. You have to be cautious on a bike, but I am not sure about calling this PTSD.

David DeLeon
San Jacinto, CA
Monday, June 29, 2015
I have a Heavy Kawasaki Concours 1000 and I dropped it twice already. First time was just trying to back it out of a muddy driveway, (even my husband dropped it the day before) but I have learned already of this feeling of not wanting to ride. I just dropped it yesterday, only a few scratches, but I was out riding and my esteem took a beating too. I have only been riding for a week or two tops and picked a heavy bike to start on, and felt foolish for doing so.

I haven't gotten on it again as it happened yesterday, but my husband just took off on it. I was about to get on the back and just said no, and came to this website. I am going to have to face the fear, but I really think that I just want to ride alone, and don't want him riding me around because I want to be responsible for myself and he for himself. We are getting him his own bike again soon as he had a Harley and rode for 20 years then had a very bad highway accident and broke his neck, but he's all better now, loves it and will never stop.

It does seem to get into your blood because I am addicted to riding my motorcycle now. I would say that certain medications that hinder your judgment of weight could really put you at risk on this bike, so I now won't ride until my injuries are healed and I am not on any pain medication. I hope Simon gets back on a bike, from Australia. Your story made me jump on and say what's happening with me. The bike has been dropped three times already, but we are going to keep riding.

Janice Garza
Lake Charles, LA
Friday, April 24, 2015
I was hit by a car nine months ago. Nothing was broken, thank goodness, but with the concussion and soft tissue injuries to both legs, it was six months of rehab before I was able to physically get back on my bike ('04 Harley-Davidson Road King.) That said, I was still not mentally ready to start riding on my own again. I took it slow, and thanks to the understanding of my long time riding partner, was able to begin riding again. I started out riding behind him, first on short rides, then increasing in distance until we were out on full day trips. This was not easy. I had other well-meaning friends who kept telling me that I needed to get back on my own bike ASAP or I might never ride my own again. However, those closest to me told me to take my time, that I needed to do whatever was comfortable for me. They were right. After a couple months riding as a passenger I felt ready to get back on my own bike again.

I have been riding on my own now for a couple of months. There are times when I feel a sense of panic when a car or another motorcycle gets to close, and there have been instances where I have had to pull off the road and take a few minutes to calm down. I have every confidence that this will pass with time, the more I ride the more confident I feel in my abilities to do so.

Ride your own ride is the best advice I was given once I got back on my bike again, and it is so true. Never again will I ride to someone else's abilities, my safety is more important to me than keeping up with anyone else around me. I also never go out on my bike with the mindset that I am in a hurry to get somewhere, if that is the case I will take the car.

Be bold, but ride your own ride ladies. Every one of you is an inspiration to me and every other aspiring woman rider out there.

Sandy
Pittsburg, CA
Friday, March 20, 2015
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