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How Almost Dying Restored My Will To Live

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Balmer near the area of the crash, next to the remains of his bike.
Balmer near the area of the crash, next to the remains of his bike. John Rothwell

By Mike Balmer – Collegiate Staff

Feeling the road under my wheels, I dug into my pedals to get that burst of acceleration I needed to reach to my full coasting speed. Biking had become one of my few sources of true, unadulterated joy, and I counted myself lucky to make money riding my bike. I worked for a local sandwich shop, and among other responsibilities, ran sandwich deliveries on my bicycle a couple days a week.

In my line of work it paid to be fast. I rode hard, and pushed the limits, to ensure that I was one of the fastest. I was on my way back to the store after dropping off my deliveries, and naturally, I was hustling. The stoplight at Fulton and Ionia was green, and a quick scan told me that the bus in front of me should have an open left turn, which meant I could keep my speed up. Something that a lot of drivers don’t think about when it comes to bicycles is the importance of maintaining momentum. I ride a fixed gear bicycle, which means that if the rear tire is moving, the pedals are moving. I don’t have brakes, I use my legs as brakes to stop the back wheel. In this form of biking more than any other, maintaining speed is key. The bus approached the green light and then began to slow.

Why was he stopping? The road was clear, I was sure of it.

There was an exit drive for the Ionia parking ramp on the left just before the street where the bus was turning. I could turn out from behind the bus, cut the corner through the parking lot and carry my speed up the hill, all the way back to work. Without a second thought, I made my move. The next moment would soon become the longest of my life.

It didn’t take long for me to realize why the bus driver had been slowing down. I emerged from behind the bus, to see multiple cars bearing down on me, the most obvious of those being the navy-blue Chevy Impala that was about to smash into me at full speed. I hadn’t even given the driver a chance to brake. I was a literal deer in headlights.

It’s incredible how quick the human brain works. It’s said that when you are about to die, you see your whole life flash before your eyes. I didn’t see my whole life, but I know that for me, time stopped. In the same few seconds, when the driver of the car couldn’t possibly have time to move his foot from the gas pedal to the brake, I had time to process a number of complete thoughts.

My first thought was “What was I thinking?”

I had been convinced that there had been no cars coming, but replaying the scenario in my head, I am not entirely sure how I came to that conclusion. Did I really look, or had I just assumed in my haste that the way was clear?

The next thing that came to my mind was, “Wow, I hope this doesn’t destroy my bike.”

My order of thoughts here explains my life at the time. I was more concerned with the condition of my bicycle than my own body. My bicycle, a few metal tubes welded together with some wheels and a seat, entered my thoughts before I considered what the car was about to do to me.

Sitting frozen-in-time in front of this Impala, it wasn’t until my third complete thought that I reached the most important realization of all. That was when my brain told me, ‘This might be the last thing that you ever think.’ It wasn’t until faced with that thought that I realized I might not be as alright with this as I had thought.

Throughout the previous couple of years, I had been gradually losing my desire to continue on with this journey called ‘life.’ I was 27, and for years I lived my life with one plan: To have as much fun as possible. I played in multiple bands, rode a motorcycle and generally prided myself on being the guy who was up for anything. If people were doing something fun, I wanted to be involved. The world to me was all about the party.

The thing about living to party, was that it became something that defined me. When the party would end, I wouldn’t know what to do. I tried to keep my schedule packed; seeing live music, playing shows, taking trips, anything really to help me escape normality. Everyday life had become an arduous process that I was becoming less and less interested in. I knew that I had to go to work in order to continue living the lifestyle that I adopted, but that’s about as far as my goals went.

In 2011, I moved to Grand Rapids, from the small town of Hartland, Michigan, and was instantly swept up in city life. I loved living in a place where you could find something to do every night of the week. I began going to the bar nightly, drinking and smoking weed. These were all my old habits, only compounded by my fast paced new environment. Months went by like this, and I was having a great time. I was making more and more friends in GR, and I was finding out a lot of things about myself and my life.

As time passed, I began to find that while I had fun drinking and smoking with my friends, it wasn’t enough for me. I had never been interested in trying hard drugs, and nothing had changed for me in that department, however there are a lot of things that don’t typically fall into that category. I began to experiment with psychedelics. I was very interested in different ways that the mind works, and for me this became a scientific venture. Using drugs and our imaginations, my roommate and I would turn our apartment into a completely different world. We would record our results and experiences, and have very in-depth conversations about what we were learning.

As we experienced more, it became harder and harder for me to resist the temptation to delve deeper. It became our routine to do this once a week. Mondays were my day off, and I didn’t work early on Tuesdays, so this became our “special” day every week. Mondays for me took on a whole new meaning, not only had they become my favorite day of the week, but it started to become all that I was living for. For the rest of the week, I would walk around an empty shell, just waiting for Monday, so that I could get back to ‘really living.’

During these trips, which usually lasted 10 hours or more, it seemed to me like I was living a complete life in one night. My concept of time was skewed, and in each metaphorical journey I would struggle to get a little bit deeper and make it last a little bit longer. When the end of the night (usually around 8 a.m.) came, long after my roommate had gone to sleep, I would face myself in the mirror, and tell myself that it was over. I had to go back to real life the next day. Over time, it became harder and harder to convince myself to carry on, pretending that the rest of my life mattered.

Even now, looking back, it’s hard not to glamourize what I was doing. My experiences were teaching me a lot, about not only myself, but about the world around me and the vast differences between people in general. The world and my experiences, however, were beginning to weigh heavily on me. Something that became very clear to me was that my roommate and I were having very different experiences outside of our “extracurricular” activities. For me, my psychedelic experiences were my “happy time,” whereas he was taking his newfound perspectives, and applying them to his everyday life. Together, we had figured out the secrets of life. We had reached enlightenment. He was happier than ever, while I was sinking deeper into despair.

I found the answers to the questions I had. Unfortunately for me, I found these answers in the wrong place, and I couldn’t access that happiness in my daily life.

Rock bottom, for me, came on a night when I had decided to deviate from our normal routine. My roommate was having less desire to continue on with our exploits. He found what he was looking for and was satisfied. I, on the other hand, was compelled to keep looking for something more. It was not Monday, and I decided that I was going to trip by myself. I had heard mixed results from friends about taking psychedelics alone, and wanted to make my own judgements. I’d heard stories and jokes about people having a bad trip, but nothing could have prepared me for what was to come.

That night, something broke inside of my brain. I had set out to find my “happy place,” like I had done so many times before, but without my normal elements, I found myself unable to locate it. Not only could I not find the happiness I had come to expect, but my thoughts began to turn inward, focusing on all of the negative feelings that had been casting a shadow over my daily life. The worst part was that I couldn’t just get off the rollercoaster because I wasn’t having fun. That’s something that people don’t talk about when they talk about drugs. When you take a mind-altering substance, you can’t change your mind two minutes later. This was going to last for at least six hours. That night, which I spent mostly sitting in my bed, crying and scribbling sentences on a tracing pad, I knew I couldn’t continue living that way.

I wish I could say the day I decided I was going to stop doing drugs was when things turned around for me, but that is far from the truth. The reality was that I had been changed by my experiences. I worked very hard to present a happy face to my family, friends, and co-workers, but the truth was that I was tired. Not tired as in “I didn’t get enough sleep last night,” but tired down to my very core. I was tired of working to support my vices, tired of partying, tired of pretending that I cared about what happened tomorrow or the day after that.

The only things that really brought me joy were music and biking. I have always loved music, especially live music. I became obsessed with listening to recordings, and watching videos of live bands from earlier generations, back when music really meant something. I would listen to live concerts from guys like Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones, and I would find these were people who I could relate with. People that had sought out the answers to the questions that I was asking, and had gotten the same answers I had.

In the history of music there is an anomaly, commonly known as the 27 Club. The members of this club are all successful musicians who, by one means or another, died at the young age of 27. Some of the most influential artists in history are on this list. Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, even Kurt Cobain years later. Dozens of musicians are in this club, and they were seen as some of the biggest tragedies in music history. I read stories of these legends, and the lives that they lead, and thought that they were the lucky ones.

It is a very common saying that life is short. People tell you that all of your life. There are thousands of quotes out there that begin with the phrase “Life is short”, and end with some attempt to get you to go out and do something risky. When I would hear someone say, “life is short,” all I could think was, “not short enough.” At 27 years old, I felt like life was far too long. The members of the 27 Club were the lucky ones, they didn’t have to keep pretending. They found freedom from the weights of the world, and I was jealous. I never contemplated taking my own life, but inside I was begging for something to happen to rescue me from the monotony. The way that I saw it, I had already lived a full life. I was content, and I was ready to be done. The best way that I can describe the way I felt, brings me back to my early childhood.

As a kid, I had a Nintendo Entertainment System. Like many from my generation, I grew up loving video games. I would sit for hours, playing a single game all the way through. No matter how long it took, I had to beat whatever game I would play. A problem with early video games, however, is that they lacked a way to save your accomplishments. I would focus all of this time and energy into beating a video game, and then it was over. Sometimes, if you didn’t turn the game off, you could continue playing after you beat the game, but it was never as much fun as the first time you played it through. I was always torn. I didn’t want to turn the game off because of all of the effort and time I had invested, but I didn’t really want to continue playing either.

Every once in awhile, with that old Nintendo, something would happen and mess up the game. The dog would walk by and trip on the power cord, or my sister would bump the system and the game would freeze. When I was stuck playing a game that I finished, but couldn’t bring myself to turn off, I would secretly wish that something would come along and bump the game, making it freeze, saving me from having to make the decision to turn it off myself.

That was what life had become for me. I had played the game, poured in my heart and my soul, and I had won. I was now playing the game, even though I was tired of it, to avoid turning it off. It was like I knew that I had come too far and done too much to just quit, yet inside I was begging for something to come and pull the plug on me, so I could finally rest.

In the fraction of a second before I became very familiar with the windshield of the navy-blue Impala, when my secret wish was seconds away from being granted, a shadow of a doubt formed. Suddenly, I was unsure if I was ready for the game to be over.

Somehow, in the last possible moment, I had the insane thought to give a little hop and throw myself onto the hood of the car. I knew that if I ended up under the car, I was as good as dead, but if I was above the car there was probably a 50/50 chance that it wouldn’t be the last day of my life.

Two things that I will never forget are the blinding force of the impact, and the complete lack of control I felt as I flew through the air. My ears exploded with sound as my shoulder smashed the windshield of the car, bouncing up and over. The next thing I knew I was somersaulting out of control, with my arms and legs helplessly trailing behind.

After tumbling through the air, another car passing beneath me, I came crashing down to the pavement in the middle of Fulton Street. Some part of my brain told me that I needed to get out of the street, traffic was still moving and I didn’t want to get hit by another car. I pushed myself to my feet and stumbled to the sidewalk, gingerly trying to identify where I was injured.

I know I was in shock, because I didn’t feel any pain when I landed on the pavement. I couldn’t move my right arm at all, but I was dimly aware of a stream of blood trickling out of my coat sleeve. I took a look around for my bike, not that I had much hope that it survived, and saw it about 50 yards down the street. Even at that distance, I could tell the bike would never be ridden again.

The subsequent events passed by me in a blur. Drivers stopped to help, someone called an ambulance. People worried that I might have a broken back, and warned me to stay as still as possible. I was convinced that a dislocated shoulder was the worst of my injuries, and that I would be back on a bicycle and returning to work in no time.

Sitting on the curb, waiting for the ambulance to arrive, the shock began to wear off and the pain began to sink in. The ambulance arrived and I was loaded into the back. The ambulance lurched into motion, carrying me the two or three blocks to the nearest hospital. It was in the ambulance, my shoulder on fire with every excruciating bump, that I was forced to face the fact that I had serious injuries and wouldn’t simply be returning to work.

After hours of x-rays, MRIs, and a lot of waiting, the doctors told me that my shoulder blade was broken in half, my collarbone was broken, and I had bruised ribs. After the medical staff determined that reconstructive procedures were too risky, I was discharged from the hospital a few hours later. The only thing to do was put my arm in a sling and spend the next couple of months at home, hoping that everything would heal on its own.

While my body slowly healed, I had a lot of time to think. My recovery was going to be a long process, and I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to use my shoulder again. I knew that I was in for a lot of pain and frustration, but I was alive, and for the first time in months, I felt good about that.

The first two weeks were the biggest challenge, and it was a struggle for me not to sink into despair, but the outpouring of support I received from my friends and family acted as a life preserver for me. I had visitors constantly, telling me that I was lucky to be alive, and that they were glad I was okay.

Over the many months of my recovery, it really began to sink in just how lucky I was. I had been forced to face the fact that I still had time left, and nothing was going to come and save me from my life. The only difference was that instead of being disappointed, I was excited. I stopped thinking about how tired I was, and started thinking about the things I could do to make life better, ensuring that I didn’t fall back into my old habits and attitudes.

I had spent too much of my life wishing that it would end, and my wish had almost come true. I was happy to be alive, and most importantly, I was ready to have a future.