Facing Fears, Wiping Out, and Getting Up Again

Early last week, I was about to write about fears and the process of facing up to them. I would talk about traveling to places that once frightened me, meeting and interacting with large groups of new people, and jumping out of airplanes. Then, I would channel all those fears known and met through a more recent apprehension I’d tackled: riding a motorbike.

I would ride off into the sunset and deliver a life lesson about what a great feeling it is to overcome fears, to do something that scares you.

And then I crashed.

Fear, A Living Definition

I’m inclined to believe we all have fears, regardless of whether and how we choose to approach them.

Fear is defined as: an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain.

That pain can be physical or emotional. It can even be a dissatisfying combination of both. Fear is a protective instinct that can be used productively, particularly when coupled with accurate perceptions of risk.

It can also prevent us from doing new things, from moving forward.

The Motorbike Looms

In the world over, and in Southeast Asia in particular, everyone seems to be on a motorbike. There’s something about one that appears relatively innocuous, suggesting that riding it will be fairly straightforward and if you take it easy and pay attention, you should be fine.

Vietnamese Baby on a Motorbike - Hanoi, Vietnam
Family on a Motorbike in Vietnam

Guys ride ‘em, gals ride ‘em, kids ride ‘em. I believe I even saw a coconut-plucking monkey riding one the other day.

But in all our visits to Southeast Asia (i.e., motorbike territory), we resisted renting one. We fashioned elaborate excuses; we rationalized our way out by saying that we preferred to walk or take public transport, despite the inconvenience. In retrospect, we denied ourselves opportunities, access, exploration, and experiences that a motorbike would have enabled.

So why did we fear driving a motorbike?

Part of the fear was bodily injury, but I believe the larger fear was one of not being able to handle it properly. I imagined wobbling all over the place, looking foolish, and then possibly having that foolishness translate into injury.

Then we spent some time on the island of Koh Samui at a friend’s house. And unless we wished to starve, we’d have to learn how to ride. (There’s nothing like the threat of going hungry to motivate you do to something you really don’t want to do.)

So we did.

I took a brief lesson. It was surprisingly easy, perhaps too easy. As I moved, my apprehension quickly faded. I wouldn’t say it was replaced with unassailable confidence, but surely confident I was. I was getting the hang of it, I was giving others rides on the back. And because we had our own wheels, we were seeing and experiencing things we otherwise wouldn’t.

Riding Around Koh Samui on a Motorbike - Thailand
Around Koh Samui on a Motorbike

I had begun to think how silly we were for putting off renting one for so long.

But much like flying a plane, the greatest challenge of handling a motorbike is less about the grace with which you get it to move and more about the elegance with which you get it to stop.

The Crash

In a matter of about a second, I learned that lesson rather painfully.

I was on a friend’s motorbike when a pickup truck barreled around the corner of a jungle road in my direction. The driver cut the turn short. In response, I applied the brakes (back brakes, there were less than I’d hoped; front brakes, there were plenty).

Skid, then twist, then fall, then wipe up the road with chunks of my flesh. Then blood, then adrenaline.

I bounced right up, more concerned for the condition of my friend’s bike than for my own body. And for as much pain as my left shoulder, elbow, hip and knee would be in during the days that followed, it was my ego that morning that was bruised the worst. I felt stupid.

It’s funny the nonsense that runs through your head when you are standing bloodied over a piece of machinery that you literally just ran into the ground.

The Postmortem, Facing Fears

I was very lucky that things didn’t end up much, much worse. I limped, but had no broken bones. With the help of a friend who was an EMT, I have been nursing my wounds and bringing my limbs back to health, cleaning and bandaging daily, wrapping in plastic wrap before getting into the shower.

Samui tattoo repair - Ko Samui, Thailand
Dan getting bandaged up from motorbike accident

All the road rash and scars – on this island alone – stand testament to the fact that the fear of motorbikes and motorcycles is relevant and real. When I walked through town bandaged, people nodded in understanding: “Ahhh, Samui tattoo.”

Audrey’s mom captured the concern best when, as she considered a best friend who’d lost a husband years ago to a motorcycle accident, she said over the phone: “You know, I don’t like motorcycles. And I don’t like the thought of you on one.”

We also have friends who have injured themselves riding one, who have decided never to ride again.

Why Face Your Fears?

Wow, what a great story. You had this fear. You faced up to it. Then it kicked you in the ass. So what’s your point?

Bad outcomes experienced while facing up to your fears do not automatically validate inertia and retreat.

Doing new things and failing is how we learn. It’s also how we gain experience.

So I reflected and I made a deliberate decision.

My reflection: I don’t regret getting on a motorbike in the first place. I also realize that going down again is a distinct possibility, one that I will do my best to avoid.

My decision: to get back on. I drove on Monday. The bumps in the road vibrated through a sore elbow, but I get around to do the things I need to do.

I do not advocate everyone hopping on a motorbike. It’s for some, and not for others. I do, however, advocate acknowledging your fears — whatever your personal motorbike is — by taking a close look at the things that frighten you, and figuring out whether you can press the edges of your apprehension.

Facing your fears may not only enable you to get from where you are to someplace more satisfying, but the process itself may also transform you.

So go ahead, get on the fear. Give it a ride. Go slowly. Pay attention to things around you. Anticipate.

And especially when something bad happens, understand that bad things can happen independent of whether or not you’ve chosen to do something you fear. But just as you consider those bad things, give some airtime to the good things — to the opportunities, experience and enlightenment that your courage helped expose.

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Comments

  1. says

    Hey Daniel,

    Sorry to hear about your crash, but it’s great that you’ve turned the situation around to help people face their fears.

    I’m glad you managed to get back on the motorbike again, lesson learnt and all, and I hope you heal up real quick!

    By the way… ‘I believe I even saw a coconut-plucking monkey riding one the other day.’… Brilliant!

  2. says

    It was kind of good to see you in this post. I have to admit, my imagination showed much worse after I read your Facebook updates.

    And damn, good for you for both admitting your fears prior to renting a bike and how you deal with them after. I think we’re sort of trained to believe it’s not ok to have fear. That we should conquer fear and live life boldly without them, without actually acknowledging that we do actually have to face things and be scared by them before we can move past them.

    Most times, it’ll be much easier than you thought. Like, driving stick shift in Salta. The roads are run by maniacs and even though I knew how to handle a manual when we got here, I still didn’t have as much control as with automatic.

    The fear of death is palpable, especially with also a family history of Noah’s mother dying in a car accident when he was 12. But what am I going to do? Allow my world to become smaller and smaller as I fence myself in with the things I can’t do out of fear?

    I’d rather not.

    (I’d also love to see this coconut plucking monkey.)

  3. says

    Mostly, I’m glad you’re okay. I’ve had road rash, it hurts like hell, and I’m sorry you’re suffering from it. Motorbikes scare the you know what out of me, and while I can see the appeal, I prefer to let someone else drive. Also, it’s great to try new things, don’t get me wrong, but the statistics on those things are terrifying. I’m glad you’ve opted out.

  4. says

    Yeah, those things are dangerous.

    Hate to say it, but wiping out once without severe injury is probably a good thing.

    Both my girlfriend and I each wiped out once — and never again. It gives you a new respect for the things, and you tend to be a lot more careful after that.

    Oh, and wear a helmet.

    Glad that you weren’t hurt too bad.

    Keep on truckin’ (or riding in this case :)

  5. Pete De Ritter says

    Dan, I feel sorry for you even if Audrey isn’t giving you a sufficient level of sympathy. ;-)
    Years ago I found myself on a motorcycle doing 95 in a 25 zone while in a back brace because of several broken vertebrae. When I got off I vowed not to drive a motorcycle again, not for fear of motorcycles but fear of my own craziness.
    Hope you heal soon.

  6. Agne says

    From my experience with bikes, I have a constant paranoia about flat tire… I really hope not to experience what you have.

  7. says

    Glad you are okay. Dave and I had a motorbike crash in Koh Samui in 2000. We haven’t ridden a motorbike since. We heard at our muay thai gym in Phuket that during the time they have been open, 7 tourists training at their facility have died in a motorbike accident. They warned us not to rent a motorbike and we told them don’t worry we have no intention. Tow days ago a crash happened right in front of us between two local drivers. The guy that pulled out in front of the bike illegally fled the scene. The victim was okay, just bruised, but it was nuts. There was no way of catching the other motorbike that drove off.
    I understand though, you feel very stuck without a motorbike especially in Koh Samui. Take care.

  8. says

    Yes, Glad you’re OK. I have never ridden a motorbike – or owned a car, etc – beyond being a passenger, all my life. Fucked up, yeah? Simply, I just get on /in the back (front in a taxi) and hope life is OK – but I realize that one day I may have an accident that changes, everything ….

    the candy trail … a nomad across the planet, since 1988

  9. says

    So glad that you’re healing up and that the injuries were relatively minor. Like you guys, I constantly debate over the motorbikes in my head – I’ve never yet rented one but plan to in CM…it’s a tough one though, to read this and not let fear of your injuries overtake my decision to rent one. Safe biking to you both!

  10. says

    Dan, glad to hear you’re on the mend! I must wonder for how many others has Koh Samui been the place to get over motorbike driving fears?
    I had the same fear until a larger one took precedence and forced me to ride. After nearly dying from Influenza A and the subsequent 10days in Bangkok Hospital on Koh Samui (talk about insurance-paid luxury!) I was told to take it easy for another week, except the only guest house that would allow me to stay was in the horrible smelly resort town of Bo Phut (at least it was when I was there). After a few days couped up there I decided I had no choice but to get over my fear of motorbikes or the fear of the smell suffocating me would make me sick again! At least I had already tested out my insurance.
    Hoping you heal quickly and you both get plenty of practice in!

  11. says

    I think the key thing is to wear protective clothing when you ride. Long sleeves, long pants, a helmet. If you’re going to do any significant speed, which it sounds as though you won’t from your account here, you should probably also wear gloves, if you want your hands left…

    Also, I think, automatics are easier to start with than manuals. I wiped out with my son on the back while taking a hilly dirt track at a pace so slow I should have walked the bike: he was fine, I’ve still got the scar.

    Over-confidence, in any case, is a major killer. Get well soon.

  12. says

    Thanks everyone for your concern, well wishes and thoughtful comments. I’m thankfully very much on the mend.

    @Andrew: It was helpful for me to examine the situation and to understand what was motivating my decisions. I thought it might help others, also.

    Glad you liked the coconut-plucking monkey. I’m hoping I can actually photograph one riding a bike one of these days.

    @Leigh:  I was very lucky to come away in the condition I did.

    As for fear discourse, I think it gets a royal screwing from some of the “gurus” in the self-help world when they even remotely imply that fears are not warranted.  Like you, I believe we have to acknowledge them fully in order to to understand them, process them, and hopefully move beyond them.

    That’s very sad about Noah’s mother.  I almost addressed cars in this piece (but I felt it was getting long).  The danger cars pose is taken far too much for granted, the continual risks we take in them too often underestimated.  And when we take things for granted — things like cars (and also alcohol) come to mind — that’s when things become exceptionally dangerous.

    The conflict you feel between your fear and your concern that your fears may restrict you strikes me as healthy awareness.

    The coconut plucking monkey I had in mind actually looked just like his owner. The two of them on the bike, priceless.  I hope I come across them again before leaving the island.

    @pam: We are in good company. When I was limping around, just about everyone had road rash stories to share.

    So I opted out, but only for a spell. I’m now back on, but with a heightened awareness that hopefully sticks and keeps me a bit safer.

    @wanderingt: It is like riding a bike. Gotta take your scrapes to move forward.

    @Jason: I think you are exactly right. Wiping out without severe injury is a small price to pay for a valuable lesson.

    Absolutely right on the helmet, too.

    @Pete: I’m laughing. I probably didn’t deserve much sympathy. And even if I did, there’s probably some sort of sympathy surplus that I’m running.

    95 in a 25!? I cannot even imagine. Am glad that you are in one piece and harnessing your craziness in other ways.

    @Dave: Funny you noticed the scrappy makeshift doctor’s office. The alleyway (and that couch) were about the furthest thing from sterile. But hospitals aren’t the cleanest places either.

    @Agne: All I can say is “be careful.” Of everything, flat tires included. We had one early on and its an odd feeling. You just hope that you are not riding too fast when the tire blows.

    @Dave and Deb: I thought about you guys when I wrote this. Like I said to others above, I think you are in good company. And I can completely understand never getting on one again.

    The statistics and anecdotes are awful. One of our friends claimed that one person a day dies on a motorbike on Samui alone. Not sure if I can trust that figure exactly, but given the way people drive here, it’s probably not far from the truth.

    @Michael: I don’t think your choice is all that unusual. I know plenty of people who’ve continually avoided motorbikes and cars for all sorts of reasons.

    @Shannon: All I can suggest is be careful, keep your eyes on the road, on your mirrors and about 1/2 mile in all directions ahead of you. Do that, and all will be fine.

    @Caron: Samui seems like the motorbike gauntlet. So maybe this wasn’t the best place to break ourselves in. (Although I think about cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon and imagine it could be worse).

    What a story about flu and stink motivating a move from Bo Phut. We’ve spent little to no time there, in Chaweng or Lamai.

    @Theodora: Ideally, you are covered. My left shoulder was spared because I was wearing a t-shirt. If it were bare, my wounds would have been much deeper, uglier. Good point about the hands. I can also tell you that wearing sandals isn’t advisable (my feet are not pictured above).

    Although I love a manual transmission on a car, I don’t think I’d appreciate one on a motorbike.

    Overconfidence, never advisable.

  13. says

    Just happy you’re okay and weren’t seriously hurt!

    I usually liken these situations to being super careful and using all the right gear, yet having a drunk driver rear-end you or worse.

    You can always prepare and be careful, but ultimately, life isn’t within our control.

  14. says

    @Lola: Thanks. It wasn’t fun, but I was relatively fortunate. And I learned a valuable lesson about the span of my control. Certainly there are things I could have done to prevent or contain the accident, but beyond that, I couldn’t have grabbed the steering wheel of the truck coming at me.

    Maybe next time.

  15. says

    There are great motorcycle safety/riding courses in the US at community colleges that cover a lot of ground and really help a lot. That said, there are times when the bike is going down, and there is not a lot to do about it. The front brake cannot be used on dirt and gravel, that is one situation. Glad you are back on the bike. They are indeed the way to travel in SEAsia.

  16. says

    @Jeff: Thanks for the support. We’re hoping to rent a bike while in Bali.

    I probably should have taken one of those courses, but you are right there are times when the bike is going down and all you can do is attempt (in split seconds) to mitigate the damage.

  17. jeannie says

    Sorry about your run-in with the road. It is said in Thailand “Not IF you have a motorbike accident, but WHEN you have a motorbike accident…..” PS Totally mind blowing and amazing you got your money back from BKK robbery……one person in a million….your tenacity paid off!

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