Ben Frederick Can Live with His Monsters
After suffering a brain injury in a freak crash, the bike racer learned that the best way to manage his challenges was to face them everyday
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Ben Frederick told his story to producer Stepfanie Aguilar for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I didn’t want to be in a position where I could fall again, because the challenges that I was working through and walking through, I would not ever want to have to go through again. And if that meant never riding again, I was signed up for that.
I’m Ben Frederick, or Benjamin if I’m in trouble. I currently live in San Francisco, California, but I spent a lot of my early adulthood living up and down the east coast.
It was August 2016 in Western Massachusetts. I was riding a bike as my job, and in the pursuit of making it as a professional cyclist. The sport that I focus on is cyclocross, it’s kind of a mixture of road cycling, mountain biking, cross country running, obstacle course racing.
Two weeks before what was supposed to be my best season ever, where I had support from industry sponsors and travel lined up, I was riding in between intervals, transitioning from one trail to the next. I was on a very innocuous section of trail that 99 times out of 100 I could ride by without even thinking about. I caught my front wheel, and I tumbled off my bike.
The way I landed my helmet hit the soft dirt and sand. There was no bounce, there was no slide. All of that energy went straight into the ground. Just impact.
It was just a very freak accident. I sat there, took a moment. I was cognizant of the fact that I hit my head pretty hard, but started riding again because I had to get through my intervals, because the season was coming.
After a few minutes I could tell something was off. I called my girlfriend at the time and asked her for a pickup.I did a quick search of Google to see what you do if you think you have a concussion, and saw don’t look at screens, sit in a dark room. The rest of the day I tried being really relaxed. The next day I tried to go out to breakfast with some friends, and I felt really overwhelmed, just really off. The slightest music, or screens, or sunlight would just exhaust me to the point where I could just barely function. I ended up going to the emergency room and getting some scans done, only to be told that I got a concussion. The doctor gave me a week off of work and sent me on my way.
I ended up staying more or less in the dark room of my bedroom for four months after that.
The recovery process was really slow, and so I had to begrudgingly embrace the fact that I might not ever be back to normal. I had to learn how to read again. I didn’t touch my bike for over a year, and I didn’t know if I wanted to.
Part of what helped me cope was acknowledging that hard things are hard, and it’s okay that it’s hard. After that acute year-ish is when the mental health stuff reared its head. I had to go to the hospital because of an eating disorder. I started seeing a therapist who specialized in brain injury and brain injury recovery. It felt like I had this big, scary monster in the closet that I couldn’t control, that was just overwhelming.
In the beginning of the recovery process, I felt pretty alone, because I had just moved to a new state. But then some local bike riders saw what I was going through on Facebook and reached out, and simply offered to come over for 15 minutes, just so I didn’t feel alone. From there, an amazing core group of people banded together. People signed up for things all the way from “give Ben a hug today,” to a carpool to get me to my appointments in Boston. That really allowed me to start having hope or start seeing progress forward.
I can still remember my first walk was to try to go to the bakery right when they opened so I wouldn’t have to interact with people because that was still hard. It was only a five minute walk. There’s a plant called sumac and it was at the perfect time of year where this normally green plant was a vibrant red and orange and yellow, it looked like a fire plant. I was able to fully appreciate that little moment of beauty. Whereas if I had not had my brain injury, I either would’ve been on the road or riding my bike past it too fast to see, or focused on 80 other things in a day. But my whole day was getting to the bakery and coming home. My world had shrunk to basically one square mile, but I was able to see every bit of that square mile.
So fast forward six years, I’m riding my bike again. I went through some crazy downs and some crazy ups, and I’m at a place in my life where the bike is a big part of me and what I love to do. But the success story here is not: and then he rode his bike again. It’s that he learned how to slow down. He learned how to have gratitude for every day. He learned perspective for what it means to exist as a human being. It made me learn empathy and ability to meet people where they are in their darkest times because I had just gone through them and, depending on the day, would continue to go through them.
Before my brain injury, I was all about trying to be the very best that I could be, and everything was set up to help me. But now, I’m trying to help others, the way that I was helped. So I created the Small Monsters Project, and the whole goal is to raise awareness and destigmatize mental health issues.
In recovery, my experience is that those big scary monsters don’t go away. You have to live with them every single day. It’s just how you interact with them that changes. And, the more you’re willing to look at them and, and live with them, the amount of power they have goes away. So, they end up becoming small monsters—that you live with every single day.
I have a cycling jersey that I ride in that has my small monsters with me for everyone to see. And it’s, if they’re out there, they’re not as big and they’re not as scary.
Ben Frederick is a single speed cyclecross national champion. He works with the nonprofit LoveYourBrain Foundation, and is the founder of thesmallmonstersproject.com.
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