Just like riding a bike, I had to take control.
I was a late bloomer when it came to learning how to ride a bike. I was nine when I got the hang of it, and my younger sister and close friends had already learned, rolling around our suburban Minneapolis neighborhood.
I was jealous of their independence but at the same time I was a little afraid of riding. Eventually, with the help of a number of individuals, I finally mastered the two-wheeler.
I can recall the exact moment I got it right and it was a truly joyous moment. I look back at this event as the birth of my independent self, one of the first times I felt the power of my own agency.
When I moved to Chicago for college in 2006, I didn't bring a bike with me and I wouldn't have one again for another seven years. In that span of time, I endured the most difficult part of my young life and maybe (hopefully) of my entire life.
I found myself, still a teenager — tender-hearted and extremely excited about my new college life — in the deep, dark pit of an abusive relationship with my significant other.
As a feminist, a critical thinker, and a person who thinks of herself as strong, being in this relationship caused cognitive dissonance on every level.
I started to believe every hurtful and degrading insult that he hurled at me on a near-constant basis.
"You're an idiot. You're a dumb bitch and you don't deserve me. You're weak. You need to repeat it after me or I'm gone and I'll never come back."
Tangled as I was in the cycle of abuse, I did it — I repeated those things. I knew on some level that he was wrong, and I knew he was horrible not only for saying those things, but for slowly turning me into someone who'd actually say those things about herself.
I desperately wanted out and wanted to unleash every little part of myself I had to bury as a means of self-protection. I hated him with a vengeance, but at the same time, I didn't know how I'd make it in the world without him. I felt trapped.
My ex told me explicitly that I wasn't the sort of woman who'd ever ride a bike in Chicago. He said those women were tough, bold, and confident.
The implication, of course, was that I was none of those things.
Any opportunity to remind me that I was weak and pathetic was seized. I'm not sure why he chose to tell me this when he already had an arsenal of other, on-the-nose insults always at the ready.
By that point in the relationship, I believed him. I began to look at women on their bikes and thought of them as demigoddesses. They were assertive and skilled, the epitome of self-reliance and confidence.
Whereas I was a completely isolated and depressed shell of a person and could never be one of them.
After nearly a decade of crushing degradation, intimidation, and verbal assaults, somehow I decided that I wasn't going to put up with this anymore. Something clicked and I was able to end the relationship.
It was really, finally over. I was free. That relationship had been the cause of all my major problems and a severe detriment to my mental health. So I thought, "No relationship; no problems. I'm good now."
If only it worked that way.
My therapist told me that it was unrealistic to expect I could move on and heal so quickly after seven years of abuse. She was right, of course.
Just like my first days of bike-riding, it's taking a long time to regain my confidence.
In the summer of 2013, after some compassionate pushing from my current partner (an avid cyclist), I went to get a bike.
The old Schwinn was perfect — the only problem was I was too afraid to ride it home to my apartment five miles away. I'd worked up enough courage to buy the damn thing but frankly, it intimidated me and I felt unworthy to ride it.
I still didn't see myself as one of those women.
The first time I took it out for a spin was the next morning. I hadn't ridden a bike since before I left home for college (before everything went to sh*t). I was exhilarated but nervous.
Would I remember how to ride? Would I get lost? Would my ex see me riding and get mad? Would a car hit me?
I bonked into a parked car less than ten minutes into my ride. A construction worker saw me, laughed, and told me to be careful. I laughed, too.
I was a little wobbly on U-turns but I was OK. I had something to prove to myself and that's all I could think about.
After a couple of rides and tag-along lessons from others, I felt like the queen of the road. Even though my bike was huge and heavy (and I wasn't any good at zig-zagging in and out of traffic), I felt amazing.
Fast forward to present-day.
I feel free and more importantly, it feels possible to work through everything that happened in those seven years.
Every mile I ride is another measure of how far I've come psychologically and how much I care for myself.
I tell myself: I make healthy decisions; I love myself; I choose to be happy.
These days, I have a much lighter road bike named General Sherman (I named him after the largest tree on earth, something that reminds me of my connection to nature and makes me feel powerful). The General and I go out for joy rides as much as we can.
I never thought it would happen, but an old Schwinn and the Chicago streets helped me turn myself into a confident, self-loving woman.
This article was originally published at wildspicemag.com. Reprinted with permission from the author.