It’s Spring Break of my freshman year of college and my dad and I slip into the Ford Fusion in our apartment building’s parking lot. I had no intention of ever driving again after my accident, but my parents insisted.
Our building sits on a major road that cuts through the heart of our town. The turn out of the parking lot scares me, so I sit in the passenger seat and watch my dad drive us to a nearby residential area — a quiet neighborhood with tree-lined streets and cozy houses that sit close together. Calm down, I tell myself. It won’t happen again.
When my doctor asked me what it felt like, I told her it was kind of like being naked — a thick blanket of security I didn’t even know was there had suddenly been ripped from my shoulders, leaving me in a hyper-cautious and vulnerable state. I fought back tears as I tried to explain, but she told me this was good, so I continued:
Each time I crossed the street, entered a moving vehicle or heard balloons pop or glass bottles hit the ground, I felt all at once entirely exposed and defenseless. I would cringe, close my eyes, clench my fists and wait for the feeling to pass.
Not long after this feeling took hold, I began doubting my own common sense. I convinced myself that if I didn’t look both ways, three times each, before letting my feet leave the sidewalk, I would surely miss an oncoming car. If I didn’t close my eyes from the passenger seat as my friend made a left turn, my mind convinced my body it would happen all over again.
The left window would shatter as the car turned over, and there I would be: hanging from my seatbelt, my tears dripping sideways onto the shirt of my friend who had been driving. My ears were stinging from the blast of the air bag and my torso was aching from the pull of the seat-belt. People rushed into the intersection, tapped on the windshield and called 911, but I was screaming and no one on the outside could hear me.
I constantly remind myself that I’m among the luckiest people on Earth.
“The car did exactly what it was supposed to do; it took the impact,” the police officer told my parents, who were staring at the vehicle, tipped over on its side and compressed like a thin sheet of paper.
The emergency room doctor assured me after several X-rays that my pain was simply bruising that would fade in time. Some gross black and blue marks, and sporadic stiff aches that made it difficult to crane my neck or fall asleep, and that was it: I really am one of the luckiest people on Earth.
But in some sense, both the sheriff and the ER doctor, who each gracefully dealt with my family’s collective hysteria, were wrong. There was an impact that none of the latest safety features could absorb. There were bruises that wouldn’t fade for months — maybe even years.
It’s been almost two years since the accident, and I still find myself clenching my fists as I cross the street and letting out small gasps from the passenger’s seat in the middle of busy intersections. The most painful part is not the moment itself, but the memory: When crossing the street to meet friends for coffee or in the car on the way home from a movie, the feeling comes back to me unexpectedly.
The memory hurts, but I’ve noticed it’s gradually faded. With help, I’ve realized the most important part of the healing process is to let myself be upset — to let myself remember the accident without stressing over the fact that I’ll never be able to fully forget about it. In time, I tell myself, it won’t hurt as much.