Op-ed: AIDS/LifeCycle Is About Facing My Fears

Editor's Note: In the first in a series, Nicholas Oakley, a participant in the annual AIDS/LifeCycle, shares the reason he rides.

BY Advocate Contributors

May 03 2012 11:22 PM ET

I woke up lying in the middle of the road with the freshly scraped-open wound of my cheek stuck to the cold asphalt. My legs were tangled in the bike frame like twisted pipe cleaners.  As I opened my right eye (my left eye stuck shut by congealed blood), I could see the hustle of shoppers on the crowded sidewalk passing each other, and I noticed that they were staring at me as they hurried from store to store. But only one lady stopped and approached me.

“Are you all right?” she asked. I peeled my face off the ground, pieces of gravel embedded deep in it. I didn’t really know what was happening, but because I was able to get to my feet, I said, “I’m OK.” But I was far from OK. 

This was the last time I cycled, about 15 years ago, back when I lived in England. About five minutes earlier a car had knocked me off my bike when it turned left into my lane without looking (wrong side of the road there, of course, this was England). I got up and cycled on, down the steep hill toward the shops – completely oblivious to the fact that my brakes were no longer working until I reached the bottom and couldn’t stop. Panic. Instead of plowing into the wall of shoppers crossing the street, I instinctively dug my heels into the spokes of my front wheel, which threw me over the handlebars, to land smack on my face. 

On impact, my skull cracked like a boiled egg – a long fracture from my left eye socket to the back of my head. And yes, before you ask, I was wearing a helmet.  It left me a week of concussion and two months out of school.

But as I stood there, dazed, I had no idea about the enormity of my injury. My first instinct was to lock my bike to a railing, as if anyone would want steal the now Dali-esque tangle of metal. I stumbled like a zombie past scared shoppers into the shoe shop where I had a summer job, with my white shirt saturated in blood. The girls screamed, “Oh, my God, Nick!” and, underplaying it like a typical Brit, I insisted, “I’m fine, I just need a little sit-down.

When I began speaking gibberish and passing out into sale racks of ladies’ court shoes, the prim manageress grabbed her keys and urgently drove me to the ER. My ambulance was her prized new white Mercedes with white leather seats. I vomited out the window down the side of the car and left the interior looking like a scene from Pulp Fiction. Sorry, Susan.

I didn’t get on a bike again for years. Following this accident, I developed an intense fear of speeding downhill. And then along came the AIDS/LifeCycle. While other riders are scared of the steep uphill climbs, I’m the freak who’s scared of the easy downhill part.

My partner, Ken, signed up for the 2012 ride first. But fear prevented me from joining him.  I felt really left out and soothed my own insecurities by downplaying how useful the ride was.  It’s just a vacation, I told myself. But then one day I read in Vanguard, the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center’s newsletter, that last year’s participants had raised more than $13 million. Wow. This was not just a small drop in the ocean but an amount that could really make a difference for the lives of people living with HIV and AIDS. And thinking about the enormity of that disease really put my own fears into perspective. 

Eventually I bit the bullet and said I’ll get back on my bike. So yes, I’m riding to raise money to help people. But I’m also riding to prove something to myself. Because heaven forbid if I ever have to face something as challenging as HIV, I want to know that I can face my fears head on.

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