The Ghost Bike of Billthy

1280px-Ghostcycle-2005
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_bike

This is a ghost bike. If you’re looking, you will see them around cities marking the places where cyclists have died. Car crash fatalities have crosses, piles of flowers, pictures, and ribbons memorializing a life lost on the road, and cyclists have this.  It’s simple. Just an old, busted bike, chained up at the scene of an incident, spray painted completely white.  They can be found worldwide, wherever cyclists die, and there’s a cycling community in mourning. People say it’s to raise awareness for drivers, to help remember to share the road with bikes, but people who don’t ride often don’t understand, or care, what the bikes are for.  For me, they stand as a bleak reminder of how vulnerable cyclists are, that a car doesn’t have to be fast to be deadly, and that friends can easily die tragic, preventable deaths.

 

19248153_862039687276381_7287884645714141693_n
Photo c/o Austin Horse, in Philly, halfway through his ride to D.C.

This is Austin Horse. He’s a New York City bike messenger, adventuring cyclist, winner of a few world bike messenger championship races, and based on all accounts given by mutual friends, a decent human being.

 

Once upon a time he had another friend that was named Bill. He was also a New York bike messenger, as wild and scrappy as his long beard, which had helped earn him the nickname Billthy. He had a serious case of bikelust, and was cherished for his presence at the back of the RAGBRAI pack that cycles across Iowa every year. He was a brother, an uncle, a father, a friend to many, and also, by all accounts, a decent human being.

One day, Bill woke up feeling ill. He dealt with it, as most grown ups do, but he didn’t feel any better. At this early point in the story, he could have gone to see a doctor, received some medicine, and been fine.  Or maybe had a yearly check up, where the doctor would’ve told him he couldn’t heal without treatment.  But he didn’t see a doctor, or have physicals because he couldn’t afford them. He took a risk, and assumed that like whatever maladies he’d experienced before, it would eventually go away.  Instead it became worse, and then unbearable.  Bill finally went to the hospital, but it was too late. What had started as an ulcer had perforated, then turned into sepsis, commonly known as blood poisoning. At 52 years of age, on February 1, 2015, Bill died.  From an ulcer.

If you met Bill you might think he was an uncommon person, but stories like his have become so common to me that it holds no surprise.  DC messengers I worked with have also died young from treatable conditions that went untreated, cancers that weren’t detected early enough, or chronic conditions that weren’t properly cared for.  These weren’t bad people. Despite whatever personal baggage they may or may not have had, they worked hard and were usually willing to drop what they were doing and run a package. Even if the whole city was under a foot of snow and even the US Postal Service was closed.  Typical of bike messengers and other working class people, Bill couldn’t afford preventative care because he was uninsured, even with medicaid expansion, and even with subsidies in the marketplace.  For many in this position, survival does not allow sick days, because hourly pay is how food finds its way onto their table. Illnesses come and go, but the need for income remains the same, especially if you’re living paycheck to paycheck, hand to mouth.

Austin thought Bill’s death needed a ghost bike. He was a cyclist, and this was a tragic, preventable death, common to many messengers, and it warranted some public awareness.  But where would it be displayed? There was no crash sight, or landmark to place the blame.  So Austin decided that in honor of his friend, and to advocate for universal health care that might have saved him, to make Bill’s ghost bike mobile.  Instead of a random ghost bike, he would bring Bill’s actual bike which was already white.  He would ride it from Bill’s home in Brooklyn, in his hand, by his side, all the way to Washington D.C and up to Capitol Hill.  Austin and Bill’s bike rode the stretch all this week, while the senators were debating  behind closed doors legislation that would affect the future for millions of Americans like Bill. He took the bike and Bill’s story to the people in congress, hoping to remind them that what they’re creating is not just a bill. It’s a way to change people’s stories. It‘s a chance to give them life.

19225891_861653730648310_3499097774449606432_n
Image c/o Austin Horse, In Brooklyn, starting out toward DC

Austin is an experienced cyclist, but riding a long distance in this way is no small task. Any amount of riding with your hand on someone else’s bike is awkward.  I’ve ridden bikes that needed repairs to a shop about a mile from my house. It was unpleasant. It threw off my balance and slowed me down.  I’ve also ridden the distances Austin traveled each day. It hurts. Not just in your legs, but in your palms, your wrists, your back, and your butt. Being able to let go of the handlebars to sit up and stretch your wrists and wiggle your back is just about the best thing ever. Being able to have both hands on your own handlebars to adjust your weight or get out of the saddle is probably the only thing that might feel nicer.  You can’t do either of those things if you have one hand on someone else’s bike.  

It was a noble gift to Bill’s memory, to take a piece of him back out on the road, and to share his story with people who don’t understand what it’s like.  Often we make this debate about penalties, taxes and money spent, but we leave out the friends we’ve lost, and how they suffered. 

There are definitely problems with the system now. It costs more than a monthly house payment to insure a family like mine, even with my husband’s employer subsidizing it.  At different times my husband or I have remained uninsured because we’re healthy, and it was cheaper to pay the penalty and for the occasional doctor’s visit than it was to buy insurance.  But through that I’ve watched my husband go to work with chronic back pain for months at a time, and suffer through things like strep throat and the swine flu without antibiotics. Even when we are insured,  the polict we had was so crappy it would only pay for something if you were about to die.  Even though the bill was created to help people like us, I feel people’s frustration with the Affordable Care Act. 

I’m fine with fixing the problems, looking at the legislation again and even repealing the parts that don’t work, but not with forgetting that all people need affordble health care.  How many people have to die from small complications before we are willing to negotiate around this issue? I wish I was wise enough to speak into the future and calm everyone’s fears about the possible solutions and how they might work best for our country. I wish I could say, beyond a doubt, what measures we needed to take to ensure that greed and corruption won’t triumph at the expense of the vulnerable and less fortunate.

I know we all have our strong opinions about what should be done, and that there are no perfect answers, but the answer can’t be nothing, nor can it be looking back to the time before the ACA with fondness, when millions more were uninsured.  This is not just a bill, it’s people’s stories and so we need people like Austin out there, sharing the ones that people can no longer share for themselves.  Because it’s friends and family like Bill who are lost in ferocity of this battle.  

It has not been effective for us to yell, argue and growl at one another, while we forget that we are capable of empathy and understanding. We need more stories. So we can understand about the family who’s son was saved from addiction and mental illness because it was an ACA provision to include substance abuse treatment.  So we can hear about the family that is already swamped with insurance payments, and dreads a trip to the ER because they have no room in their budget to also pay down the deductible. Tell people this story, or your story, or the story of your own friends. We need them. That’s what the debate should center around, because nobody ever sold the child to save the farm and because we need to find a way to treat something as simple as an ulcer.

A documentary clip of Bill in action…May he rest in peace.

 

Advertisements

To Fight a Scourge

I was only 19 when I became a bike messenger.  I didn’t know anything about what I was doing, or the other people who I worked with, but the lifestyle and the conmunity were fascinating.  Everyone was so radically different from each other, but still they were bonded together through the experience of doing such a weird, hard, adrenaline-inducing job.  There was a haunting among them though, that I was still too innocent to understand.

In defense of my naivete, I had little experience with the power of addiction.  In my suburban middle class life, I know people struggled with it, but never publicly.  Occasionally someone’s parents would freak and they would disappear from school. Rumors would be whispered, but the official story would usually be something about boarding school, or visiting an aunt’s house. But being a messenger exposed me to people who were desperately lost in their addiction, who didn’t have the stigma caused by class, and who were to abused by the world to care about what I thought of them.

Working as a messenger was different than an average working class job. Most companies hire you as an independent contractor, meaning you’re free to accept work or not, and you can call out hungover without getting fired. Because you work on a voluntary basis, the job attracts as many drug addicts and alcoholics as it does thrill seekers and cyclists, although for many I knew, these categories overlapped. Instead of hiding the truth or being embarrassed about their drug and alcohol use, it was a safe place to flaunt it. Everyone was just as drunk as you, so a night of bad behavior would be something to laugh at the next morning and not a mirror to reflect the truth about your habits.

What I realized in time was that wherever addicts gather in community, tragedy follows. There was always somebody or something to worry about- a person in jail, an injury that might not heal, or someone living on the street because their girlfriend dumped them. Messengers die all the time, but not from getting hit by cars, or from drug overdose, as my parents assumed.  Some die from being poor, having treatable conditions that they can’t afford to get proper care for.  But more often they die from the side effects of addiction- usually chronic health conditions like cirrhosis, seizures, and cancer. Sometimes the cause is a tragic, intoxicated accident.  The first funeral I remember was for a boy that lost his life in a drunk bar fight, he hit his head funny as he stumbled around, and died in the hospital a few days later.  Since then, about a dozen people have passed away, at least one for every year I’ve been sober, making my own sobriety feel bittersweet.

Losing friends makes me angry.  While we can always do a better job of educating youth for prevention, many addicts already know that drugs and alcohol are bad. Most sober stories begin with that very sentence, “I knew what I was doing was wrong, but…”  People usually know the consequences of their actions, but they do it anyway. Meanwhile those around them, who have been making an effort to act responsibly, are left bitterly carrying the burden. Addiction is a mental illness, but if you haven’t suffered from it, or watched a loved one try to break free, it’s hard to find compassion. 

0905-2017-08067014994580798Between the lost productivity, the health care costs, and the criminal justice fees, we spend an estimated $520.5 billion dollars because of people’s addictions (That’s just drugs and alcohol.  I won’t even go there about smoking.)  Although, the real pain is more than the money wasted; it’s the destruction of our neighborhoods, the broken families, and the trauma it influcts on our children.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and that includes addiction.  It’s not a purposeful descent into madness to wreak havoc on the rest of us, even though it can feel that way to outsiders. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains,

“Many people don’t understand why or how other people become addicted to drugs. They may mistakenly think that those who use drugs lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop their drug use simply by choosing to. In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting usually takes more than good intentions or a strong will. Drugs change the brain in ways that make quitting hard, even for those who want to.”

So even if we’re cutting them off financially or emotionally, they still need encouragement to find real help. Currently, out of the 20 million people suffering from addiction, less than 3 million will actually seek treatment, which is pathetic.

Substance abuse has always been a problem in our country, but lately trends show that it’s getting worse, and the consequences have become deadly. It’s not just my friends that are dying. Overdose deaths have quadrupled since 1999, largely to the opioid epidemic. Overdose is the leading cause of accidental death, surpassing deaths by car accidents, guns and AIDS at its peak. 

Screen Shot 2017-03-31 at 4.52.46 PM copy (1)

 These statistics are horrifying, but they are only half the story.  Like my friends, people die twice as often from the long term damage of substance abuse. According to the CDC, the rate of alcohol related deaths is about about 88,000 people a year, and this article in the Washington Post cites research showing that this rate is at a 35 year high.

imrs

The other reason it’s important to talk about substance abuse during Mental Health Month is that many people who are addicts have a dual diagnosis of another mental health issue, like depression, PTSD, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.  When we’re scratching our head in anger, wondering why someone made the choice to abuse a drug, even though they knew better, this is often why.  It’s hard to determine an exact percentage of how many people are self medicating, but according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2014 (p. 32), at least 8 million people have co-occurring disorders.  In my experience that’s a low estimate, many addicts don’t even fully realize they’re self-medicating until they’re sober, and others are unable to stay sober because they don’t realize they’re only addressing half their problem.  

It’s hard to know where and how a person can fight against it,  because what feels like helping an addict is often enabling them, and what’s actually helping they will insist is ruining their life. These are enormous problems, with roots that spread twice as far as the branches and trying to solve them, for even one person, feels like trying to rid your yard of dandelions. It seems like this evil is winning, that we are not powerful enough to fight against it, but we are not that way.

Pray.  “...We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”(Ephesians 6:12)  This is addiction.  It’s undiluted evil, and it’s a spiritual battle for an person to break free. I am stunned about how few people are publicly praying on behalf of addicts, especially when you consider that almost everyone knows and loves someone who is struggling. We can pray for addicts seeking treatment, that they will find the support they need to get clean, and we can pray for the families that are broken and suffering in silent isolation. The people surrounding them need our prayers, too. Churches need resources for outreach; therapists and counselors need wisdom to diagnose; people running treatment centers need strength and patience. Also, the police, the first responders, jails, local leaders, and elected officers who are overseeing community efforts to fight addiction are understaffed and underfunded.

Pray for this evil to be crushed, but also pray about how you can fight against it.  As I mentioned in my last post, there are grandparents now raising their grandchildren who need babysitters.  There is a nationwide shortage of foster parents. Rehab centers have waiting lists and need beds, money and volunteers. Mentors are needed to teach people in recovery life skills, like how to budget or write a resume. Support a newly sober person by offering them a job or a second chance at friendship. Reach out to someone whose child or spouse is suffering. Sit with them at the hospital and teach them they have nothing to be ashamed ofa.  Many families have no idea where to look for help or answers, and they may need a shoulder to cry on, or someone to pray with them.  

Educate.  I’m amazed at the people who have been caught off guard by the power of addiction and the drugs on the market today.  Heroin is a problem today is because people had no idea that oxycodone was almost the same thing in a perscription.  And how many people would have avoided their addiction altogether if they had known they were suffering from a mental disorder? The more we know about substance abuse, the stronger our communities will be against its influence.  The more we know about the warning signs of what addiction looks like, the less we will enable people to continue in it.   If we were an educated community, we would offer more support to the parents and relatives who feel isolated. Substance abuse is all over the news if you look for it.  Make an effort to research and read about what’s happening in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, and in your own state too. Don’t ignore this problem because you don’t see it happening to you.

Speak.  Lawmakers don’t tend to fund research for addiction recovery because it’s not on the lips or the minds of their constituents, so the cause gets shorted compared to other medical research, even though addiction is a major killer.  There are no big 10K races or silicone bracelets sold to raise money for research on subtance abuse disorder.  But if we speak out, if we make this a major issue, lawmakers will fund more treatment centers. Advancements will be made to understand what addiction does to your brain and how we can counter those effects to help people find effective treatment. Teenagers may be more aware of the risks involved. So share articles you find that are important on social media. Talk to people in your church and community about what can be done for outreach. Speak out and make other people aware of what’s going on around you.

In addition to being a voice for legislation and action, you will also be a voice for people who still need help.  One reason the number of people seeking recovery is so small is because of the stigma surrounding it. Every single sober person can help to end that, by coming forward with their own recovery stories. People who have never struggled can help by listening, and not judging those who have been through it. Sadly, stigma doesn’t end with addicts themselves, for the families that surround them are often ashamed to ask for help too.  In Portsmouth, Ohio (a town plagued by overdose), it took almost eight years of living with epidemic heroin use before the parents were willing to confess what was happening in their homes and form a support group.  Don’t let that be your town.  If you’ve recovered or have supported someone who has, tell your story.  Hiding it compounds the consequences. People who are struggling are listening whether you realize it or not, and they need encouragement, so speak out.

20170509_155946

Faces & Voices of Recovery is an organization dedicated to lobbying on behalf of recovery and ending the stigma, because its not just an issue for vagrants and rock stars. Respected people everywhere- leaders, politicians, businessmen, athletes, etc. are in recovery too.  To share your story on social media use #ourstorieshavepower or #recoverymatters or go to their website http://facesandvoicesofrecovery.org/get-involved/  to learn more about joining their movement.

Substance Abuse is a scourge, not just an epidemic, but as a church we don’t treat it this way. When we first moved out here, we visited different churches for a year before I heard someone praying for recovery, or that had a program that was actively pursuing people who needed support.  Spirituality, finding the higher power, is the second step to any recovery, but only a small minority of Christians were acknowledging this, usually the ones that had experienced the pain of addiction personally. 

People even within our congregations are dying, kids are being raised by grandparents and towns across the country are crumbling under the cost. Spiritually speaking, how can we ignore that? Address it in your churches and with your friends. Pray about it and talk about what’s happening, because evil grows in the presence of our apathy, anger, and resignation. Refuse to believe that the fight against addiction is hopeless, either for yourself, a loved one, or your community.  This is your problem, even if it doesn’t feel like it.  Everyone is involved somehow, because 1 in 10 people have a problem which means no community is unscathed. So pray, educate, speak and step up to fight the scourge.

The Best Worst Thanksgiving

     I was 23 when I decided to host my first Thanksgiving. It has always been my favorite holiday, but my parents had divorced earlier that year, so it wasn’t  as exciting as usual. Instead of going home to face the misery, I thought instead I would maybe find similarly homeless people to share the meal with.  I had been working as a bike messenger in DC, and had made some good friends. We always joked that a messenger without a girlfriend is called homeless- and since most of them were single, I thought hosting a thanksgiving meal like this should be easy.

     I let everyone know if they wanted to celebrate, we could do it at my house. Even though it looked abandoned from the outside, it had an enormous eat-in kitchen which was perfect for entertaining. The exposed electrical wiring and chipped lead paint just made it even more of a perfect setting for a gathering of misfit souls. I imagined the night would be like an Adams family Thanksgiving; set in my spooky old house, with crazy people, delicious food, and enough alcohol to forget we were all abandoned. It would be so fun no one would even miss their family.

wp-1478800806503.jpg
Photo cred. Kevin Dillard, http://www.demoncats.com

The Guests

      My boyfriend, Adam, loved the idea of not going home. Growing up his dad was in the navy, which made them nomadic, so my rowhouse was as much a home to him as any.  Also, his mom was an alcoholic, so he was quite happy not spending money to travel down to Georgia just to get in a fight. I was relieved he had agreed, because no one would come if they thought I was cooking the turkey, but Adam had once worked as a chef, and agreed to cook the entire meal for me if I would make him pumpkin pie for dessert.

     My original plan was to ignore my parents completely, but I heard my Dad wasn’t going home either, since he had to work. When I called, he said he was going to volunteer at a homeless shelter instead, and I thought if he wanted to eat with a bunch of surly strangers, he could do that at my house. So I invited him too.

     Inviting him did not fit with my plan though, and I worried how people would react. My friends were mostly heathens and atheists and my dad’s idea of a good time was reading theology while listening to gregorian chants. If he came, he would be coming straight from church which meant he would certainly be wearing a suit, and maybe even a tie. He had also sternly disapproved of my decision to become a bike messenger, and he didn’t seem especially fond of Adam either.  But the divorce had brought some fresh humility into our relationship, and he bravely accepted my invitation.

     The other problem with my plan was that my friends, crazy though they were, were not as willing to give up on their homes as I was. And the people who were going to stay home had been so abused by their loved ones they had no interest in celebrating anything at all. Like my moody, motorcycle mechanic roommate, who locked himself in his room with an 18 pack of cheap beer, and spent the whole day listening to death metal.

     The exception to this was Ed. I adored Ed, almost all the messengers I knew did. He was fairly private, but his collections of punk rock records and vintage Italian bike parts were infamous. He had the nastiest dreadlocks I had ever seen, cultivated out of a complete aversion to shampoo and hairbrushes.  Ed was also the only person I knew in my generation with a mustache, which made him look Parisian to me- like if you stuffed all of his dreads into a beret you would see him painting along the Seine. Although in real life, I could never imagine him doing something so generic.

     I was surprised he wanted to come, since we weren’t especially close, but I really admired that he didn’t back out when I told him my dad was coming.  He was a vegetarian, so he wasn’t lured by the promise of turkey.  He must have desperately wanted to eat something besides pizza. Or maybe he felt pity for Adam, not wanting his friend to be stuck alone at a table with my dad all night.  I knew his family lived too far away to buy plane tickets home, but whatever the reason, I was glad he wouldn’t be sitting somewhere sad and alone.wp-1478542963582.jpgThe Dinner

     As the meal approached I started to regret everything about the dinner. The guest list was smaller and more mismatched than I had imagined, and I quickly learned that pie from scratch was beyond my baking skills. I was so worried about being a hostess. I had no idea how to create conversation among such incredibly different people.  How could I have been so foolish to think we could all come and laugh together, and that would solve anyone’s problems? I didn’t think I had anything in my life worth laughing about right then, anyways.

     When we all finally sat down, it was everything I was dreading. The food was delicious, but no one knew what to say to each other. My dad stared at the crumbling plaster walls, and I assumed he was wondering if he should send me some money. Ed nervously assured us that the tofurkey he brought was actual food, but no one else was willing to try it.  I tried to catch Adam’s eye so he could make some adorable joke or use his southern charm to break the ice- but he wasn’t looking up and his mouth was full of turkey.  I felt horrible that I had invited everyone and expected them to get along.

     But between everyone’s first and second servings, we finally found something to talk about…what it was like to pee in a trough. It was startling for me to realize that I lived had 23 years ignorant of this humiliation. Silently I began to thank God for the ability to always use the bathroom privately, and vowed to never complain about someone peeing on the seat again. The men proceeded to enlighten me with horrifying detail; the length, the texture, the difference before and after a football game. We laughed at their experiences of fear, of dodging drunk football fans and of urine streams gone crazy. The men were equally startled to learn that, even at a stadium, women’s bathrooms always have stalls with doors, AND locks. They cried together at the injustice.  The conversation continued on this way for quite a while, until I showed everyone the pie I made. Suddenly they were all full and ready to go home.

* * *

     Years later, after Adam and I married and left DC, we heard that Ed had died.  His individuality made him so loveable, but it was also part of what isolated him. I guess being an outsider made it too hard for him to fight the temptation of alcoholism. When he passed, Adam and I each remembered this as our favorite memory of him. And surprisingly to me, my dad really loved this Thanksgiving too. I felt bad about subjecting Ed to my family drama, but I felt worse for not including him in more of our broken gatherings.  More than anything, I wished Ed knew how seeing him laugh with my dad made that my best Thanksgiving yet. Even though I was so sure it was going to be the worst.

wp-1478801025684.jpg
Photo courtesy Ed Hermanson Memorial

fb_img_1478808013310

     Somehow the weirdness of it all saved it. In the end, I realized what we all needed to cope that year was less like the Adams family, and more like the Velveteen Rabbit. The celebration was shabby and the people brokenhearted, but that made it more real and beautiful than anything I had imagined. I still stress out about hosting people, but now I know nothing is as important as letting people know you don’t want them to be lonely. And it’s okay if it’s awkward, because even the saddest people might find a trough to laugh about.