The Heart of the Matter

Anytime you push yourself out of your comfort zone you’re bound to be thrown some curve balls. For the most part, it will be a totally amazing experience that you will be overwhelmingly glad you had. But sometimes, every once in a while, something will occur that tests your commitment and resolve. More often than not, these events will be completely beyond your control, are usually the last thing you expected to get in your way, and really put your decision making skills on the spot. Today I am being faced with one of these conundrums.

When I woke up yesterday morning, I felt like I had gotten hit by a bus. Every nook and cranny of my body ached and throbbed with frustrating persistence. All the tylenol and ibuprofen in the world couldn’t help. My arthritic hands could barely make fists, and my knees ached and cracked with every step, but the worst thing was the feeling I had in my chest. It periodically felt as though my heart would skip a beat and all the air was being vacuumed out of my lungs. Then it would subside, and I would feel okay for a few minutes until it would happen again, over and over. I tried not to think about it, hoping that if I didn’t focus on my symptoms that they would go away. I reassured myself that I had just been putting my body through a lot recently so it was bound to experience some changes that were probably completely normal. I gave myself a day to relax, and thankfully had another gracious Warm Showers host who was incredibly understanding and let me stay an extra day. When I got up this morning, the symptoms still hadn’t subsided but I was determined to get back on the road. I packed up all of my things, and loaded my bike while I tried to ignore the persistent discomfort in my chest. “It’s all in your head,” I assured myself, having been so used to my hypochondriac mind creating ailments in the past. My host was getting ready to bike with me so he could lead me the way to the trail, and I thought I should say something, but I decided to let it roll off as we rolled out of the driveway. After about 10 minutes and one small incline later, I felt dizzy and lightheaded and as though I couldn’t fully catch my breath. The weird skips in my heartbeat became so frequent that I could no longer ignore it. Okay…this wasn’t in my head. My gut was telling to go to the ER and I strongly felt that I should listen. But I reeeeeaaaally didn’t want to. I despise the ER. My history of Web MD’ing symptoms and convincing myself I was dying of intestinal cancer would land me in the ER with some frequency when I was in my early twenties. And everytime they would say, “we can’t find anything wrong with you. It’s probably just IBS,” leaving me feeling completely delusional and insane for making such a fuss over nothing. So when I was faced with the decision of going again today it was a huge internal struggle. I was sure they were going to tell me, “we can’t find anything wrong with you, except that you’re a delusional hypochondriac, and we’re going to put you on a 72 hour psychiatric hold.” Okay, maybe not quite that extreme. I just didn’t want to feel crazy. But my gut feeling was relentless. I asked Gregory (my WS host) to stop and finally told him what was going on once the sensation evolved into minor chest pains and a headache. Shit. I really don’t need this right now.

The ER entrance felt like that of a penitentiary. The guard collected my belongings as he led me through a metal detector, then confiscated my knife at the door. I checked in at the front desk, and was whisked away by a nurse within one minute. (They put me in a bed next to a woman who was clearly psychotic, wouldn’t stop yelling at the nurses, and straight up pulled the IV out of her arm as she tried to make a break for it before she was escorted to the psych floor. It was palpably more peaceful after that.) As I lied there hooked up to the heart monitor, I watched it in fear and with expectation, wondering if anything would show up. I felt weirdly torn about what I wanted to see. I almost wanted something to be wrong with me so it would justify my trip to the ER, but I didn’t want there to be something wrong that would stop me from continuing my bike trip. It was a very strange conflicting emotion. But there was something. Apparently I was experiencing something called PVC, or Premature Ventricular Contractions, which is when one of your heart ventricals fires out of rhythm for no reason. It can be caused by a number of things, like drinking too many energy drinks, stress, or over exertion through exercise. Ahh. It was all making more sense now. The day before this started, I had pushed myself insanely hard, biking in hot humid weather in a thermal jacket all day because I was out of sunscreen. Pushing over hill after hill for sixty miles until I had sweated through my waterproof jacket, leaving salt deposits in the seams. I had completely depleted my body of its salt and electrolytes without immediately replenishing them. I had done this to myself by pushing myself too hard. One thing the nurse and doctor found to be strange was how intensely I could feel the PVC because most people can’t feel it at all and don’t even know it’s happening. “But am I going to be okay? Can I continue with my bike tour?” Which was really all I wanted to know. The doctor responded, “If it was me, I wouldn’t continue. There’s just no way to be sure that there isn’t more going on here, and I don’t want to tell you that something bad won’t happen while you’re riding because it could.” My prematurely contracting heart sank into my stomach. That wasn’t really the reassurance I was hoping for. I was hoping more for a “Oh yeah, definitely! Yours is the healthiest heart I’ve ever seen.”

He told me to rest and relax through the weekend and see how I feel, but as I lie here in a strangers home, my mind going over all of my options, I don’t feel very relaxed. The sensation in my chest has not diminished in its frequency nor its intensity, but I have come too far to stop now. The heart of the matter is, continuing my bike trip could damage my heart, but stopping my trip would break it.

The Joy and the Tears

One of my favorite high school teachers had a favorite quote. “Only through suffering comes enlightenment.” I always took those words to mean that in order to truly appreciate your life, you have to have had come close to losing it, or at least something to that degree. While I sat in his massive drama class, surrounded by other young thespians and disciples of the late Steve Quinn, I marveled at his words. I never thought, however, that I would ever attain such clarity in my life. That was a privilege that was reserved for those far more deserving than me.

A few months ago I could not imagine I would be where I am right now. I don’t just mean my physical location on a map, but where I am spiritually. I had no idea that this kind of elation existed with such persistence and consistency. I only knew joy in small doses, usually the inauthentic kind brought on by some kind of substance. Alcohol, the occasional pain killer, and food would all bring me brief moments of bliss that were sudden and intense, but never real and never earned. They were a welcome release and distraction from my perpetual depression and lethargy that had plagued me for years like a houseguest that comes for a few days but keeps extending their stay indefinitely. (I’m sure my sister can relate to that analogy). I don’t think there was ever a time in my life in which I ever truly felt joy in its most pure and untainted form. That is, until now. This journey has been far from easy. It has been, without a shadow of a doubt, the absolute hardest thing I have ever done, and possibly will ever do, in my entire life. And it is because of this fact that it has been the most rewarding, most incredibly fulfilling and miraculously enlightening experience as well. It is more than I could have hoped for. Even the bad parts are good.

Last Wednesday (I think it was July 29th just for the sake of keeping an accurate timeline) had all the markings of an epically shitty day. It was over ninety degrees and about ninety percent humidity already at eleven in the morning. I was exhausted and was quickly approaching a dangerous level of hunger and thirst, yet again. I had just found out that someone very dear to me was in the hospital in critical condition (for the sake of their privacy I won’t mention their name), and I was still recovering from a medical issue of my own that had put a lot of strain on my body. While I was riding (at about mile 40 for the day) I passed a church and thought maybe I should just go there and see if they would let me camp out on the grounds for one night. I just really didn’t think I could go another twelve miles to my original destination. I couldn’t make up my mind in time so I just rode on by. I made it another mile when I decided to stop at a convenient store for some Vitamin Water to replenish my electrolytes. The shopkeeper took one look at me in my helmet with a fountain of sweat pouring from my face and asked, “are you okay? Are you really biking in this heat?” I explained to her what I was doing and she said, “well I can totally drive you to your next destination. I mean, if you want. It would be no trouble.” I can’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure my response was a resounding “FUCK. YES.”

All I had to do was wait for her to get off of her shift in thirty minutes, so I gathered up my two Vitamin Waters and went outside, plopped myself down on the hard ground by my bike, and began quenching my thirst in large desperate gulps. But what was I going to do for a half hour sitting out on the concrete in the suffocating heat? I decided to call Sundance since we had been keeping in touch and had had a few great thirty minute long conversations over the few weeks since I had left the farm. This time was different though. He didn’t answer with his usual enthusiastic “hey Izzy! How’s it going?” Instead I was greeted with a hushed, and confused sounding “…hello?” I announced myself in response, “Hey Sundance, it’s Isabelle.” Not quite getting the reaction I was hoping for he said, “Oh…hey.” I immediately knew something had changed. Just a few days ago he seemed excited to hear from me, and our conversation flowed effortlessly. Now I was straining to get any kind of conversation going at all. I filled him in on my travels and the recent events in my life, and he could not have sounded any more disinterested. My heart was breaking with this sudden and drastic change in our dynamic. I couldn’t ignore it so I asked, “Is this a bad time for me to be calling? Or should I still be calling you? I’ve been trying to keep in touch because you said that you still wanted me in your life and you wanted to continue to know me, but I’m kind of getting a different vibe.” He explained that it did make Sarah feel uncomfortable and that they were working things out (basically meaning they were back together), and that it wasn’t exactly “a simple yes or no answer to my question, but it was certainly a conversation we should have,” and so on. I swallowed my real feelings, trying to take the high road and said with a lump in my throat, “it kind of is a simple yes or no, Sundance. If me calling you is causing problems with Sarah, then I should stop. Like you said, you are working things out with her, and I don’t want to do that to you guys.” He said, “Well, how about this. Instead of you calling and wondering if it’s a good time, or where I’m at with things, how about, if there is a time in my life where it makes sense to call you, I will call you. How does that sound?” With this statement, I could feel all the color leave my face, and my heart drop like a stone into the pit of my stomach. I was getting the old “don’t call me, I’ll call you” speel. “Sure, of course, absolutely,” I replied in sickeningly overcompensated enthusiasm. He went on to say, “Okay, Izzy, well have a wonderful adventure.” I concluded the conversation, with the full and painful knowledge that I was never going to hear from that man again, by saying, “have a wonderful…uh…life…I guess.” (Smooth.)

Well, that was certainly not how I expected that conversation to go. I was in a mild state of shock as the lady from the convenient store, having finished her shift, came out to retrieve me. (Well, at least it made the half hour pass quickly.) As I stood up and all the blood rushed to my head, that’s when I felt the depth of my sadness. I burst into tears, completely catching the shopkeep lady, and myself, off guard. “Can you actually just help me find a place to stay in town tonight? I just need to go somewhere now. I need to bury my face into a pillow.” She and the other shopkeepers teamed up and called around in an effort to find me a place to stay while I stood there numb with tear stained cheeks, staring at the floor in shame of the fuss I was causing. Over a guy. The nice lady told me that they had contacted a church down the road and that she was going to drive me there now so the pastor could find me a place to stay for the night. She helped me load my bike into the bed of her truck and ended up drivng me right back to the very church I had passed on my way into town. Considering there were, like, three other churches that were even closer than this one to the convenient store, I thought that was a bit of a coincidence. Josh, the Pastor, helped me unload my things and showed me around the church. I decided to sit in the sanctuary while I awaited my fate about whether or not I would have shelter tonight. As I sat there in the sanctuary of the church, I was surrounded by silence, the kind of peaceful silence that seeps into your soul, and I began to pray. Not necessarily to God in the conventional sense, but to the universe. I was praying to the void. I began asking for clarity. I wanted to know that things were going to work out for the best. I was really crushed to know that my hopes for any kind of reunion with Sundance and his farm were just snuffed out of existence. Clarity on this subject had been something I had been silently yearning for for weeks now, and that’s when I heard my own voice inside my head assuring me, “but they are working out. Don’t you see? You got exactly what you are praying for.” My voice was right. I had been wanting to know if I should hold onto my feelings for Sundance or not, and I just got my answer. I had been wanting clarity, and things were pretty damn clear now. I felt a warm blanket of relief wrap around me like a swaddled infant. My body relaxed, and a long breath escaped me along with all my troubles. I was at peace (at least for a few minutes). Josh the Pastor came in to find me almost asleep in one of the pews to let me know that he had found me a place to stay with a really nice couple who lived just out of town. They came and retrieved me just as a giant thunderstorm rolled in unloading an ocean’s worth of rain on top of us. Thank God I wasn’t going to have to camp in this.

Steve and Adrienne, the couple who took me in, turned out to be two of the most interesting, generous, and pretty much just all around badass people I have ever met. As I listened to them share their stories about their years worth of adventures and traveling I felt a rush of excitement that I was finally amassing stories of my own (and a tinge of jealousy at the sheer epicness of theirs). They made me my first pastie (a savory meat and potato filled pastry popular to Michigan), and gave me a warm bed to sleep in and a shower. They offered to drive me to Marine City the next morning so that I could have a day out of the horrible heat. I didn’t have anywhere to stay in Marine City because the only Warm Showers host in the area was unavailable, so I booked a room in a motel. A motel that I had absolutely no idea how I was going to pay for. I had just enough money in my bank account to cover the stay, but it would mean sacrificing food for a good long while. Shit. As we pulled up to the motel, Steve and Adrienne and I said our goodbyes, and Adrienne handed me forty dollars. I could not do my gratitude justice. I was so surprised and humbled by their generosity that I wanted to cry. I went into the motel office and began checking in. The motel owner saw all of my stuff on my bike and inquired (as people often do when they see my bike) about what I was doing. After telling her my story, I told her that I didn’t have a lot of money on my card because I live off of donations, but I had forty dollars cash, so could we split the amount between the two. She looked at me for about thirty seconds and said, “how about this. I’ll take the forty cash and the rest will be my donation.” I couldn’t believe her generosity either. I was so overwhelmed with joy and gratitude that I felt like I was glowing.

These events were the beginning of a completely new chapter of this journey. That feeling of joy and gratitude has not left me for a moment since. I am so incredibly in love with life that I am overflowing. I have so much faith in the universe to provide that I almost never worry. Every day that I get on my bike I have no idea where I am going to stay, but I always end up with shelter. I am always fed. Things tend to come into my life exactly when I need them to. Sometimes it’s the things that hurt us in the moment that lead to more happiness in the future.  Getting closure with Sundance ended up being the best thing that could have happened to me, and I see it as an enormous gift. It was a major weight that was lifted off of me that I hadn’t even realized was so heavy on my heart. I was no longer emotionally tied to anything or anyone, and I was able to completely let go and open myself up to new possibilities. It was a pivotal moment in my journey that was absolutely necessary to allow me to get the most out of this experience. It may not always feel like it, but even in moments of pain and hopelessness, or even just mild disappointment, the universe may be giving us exactly what we need. After all, “only through suffering comes enlightenment.”