Just a normal day (or most of it was)……
January 21,2014 was just another day. I headed home after work, looking forward to Tuesday night Kung fu. Driving 65 mph in the left lane on eastbound Highway 94, I saw something moving fast in my peripheral vision. A white compact was cutting across the lanes going approximately 75 mph. The driver was trying to make it to an off ramp which exits off the left side of 94. I braked hard in an attempt to give him enough space to miss me, but it was too late. I knew then that the white car was going to hit me, but had no idea how hard the impact would be.
Things got much worse in a hurry. My car was knocked into the concrete center divider, then rebounded back onto the freeway. I was gripping the wheel and put the clutch in to keep from stalling the engine, but it really didn’t matter- the car was basically out of control. I spun across 4 lanes of traffic, and finally came to a stop when the passenger side of my car slammed into the concrete barrier on the right shoulder.
To make a long story short, I ended up in the trauma center at Scripps Mercy Hospital, where a trauma team went over every inch of me. I was extremely fortunate to escape this accident with a two way whiplash, some strained muscles, and damage to some of my dental work.
I recovered quite nicely from my physical injuries. But about 2-1/2 months after the accident, I noticed some emotional things happening which took me by surprise. I had become very forgetful- walking out to the car and absolutely blanking out about where I was going, or actually getting into the car, driving out of my neighborhood, and then forgetting where I was heading. I found myself having difficulty focusing and concentrating on things, and losing stuff around the house, which I rarely do.
I would get emotionally upset about things more easily, becoming more irritable and easily frustrated by little things, like not being able to find what I wanted at the grocery store. I started looking for little things to nit pick about my new car (“I hate this key fob”).
I was also noticing a physical manifestation in my driving. I began driving in an overly cautious manner, and my confidence in my ability to drive and handle a car reverted back to the level it was when I first got my license. In middle age, I was once again a tentative teenage driver.
As all this became more and more obvious (not to mention disruptive at work and home), I decided to seek a professional opinion and do some research on my own as well. It turned out that I was experiencing a mild case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
I was really floored by this, and frankly felt a bit guilty, too-PTSD happened to people who experienced “real” trauma, like a former work mate of mine who did three tours in Vietnam. I had “just” been in a car accident. And, I hadn’t had any nightmares/dreams about the accident since it happened. But as I thought more about it, something dawned on me:
This was probably the most physically violent episode I’ve ever experienced.
Typically, we tend to think of violence in the context of another human (or maybe a large animal) trying to harm or kill us. For those of us interested in martial arts and self-defense, I think this is especially true. But as I thought about the accident, I realized it had many of the hallmarks of a violent attack-random, sudden, messy, and relentless.
The “relentless” part was especially frightening. When someone attacks you physically, you can try and escape, or fight back, either hand to hand or with a weapon. And the physical forces are (somewhat, at least) proportionate-it’s you against another of your species.
When my car got hit, there was no escape. I was suddenly in an out of control machine, with tremendous physical forces involved-more than my human body might potentially survive. The car was going 65 mph, and was suddenly and radically knocked off its course. I was immediately aware that my vehicle was unstoppable. It was going to keep rolling, skidding, and spinning, until it either dissipated all of its kinetic energy and came to a stop, or until it hit something large and solid which stopped it (which it did).
“Oh, it wasn’t that bad, then….”
I also reflected on the experience itself, and how others reacted when I talked about it. Sometimes, when hearing about the accident, people would react with a mixture of relief and dismissiveness- “oh, so it wasn’t that bad then; you didn’t have any broken bones.” I would feel somewhat insulted and diminished by this-how dare they say that? How would they know how bad it was (or wasn’t)? It was hard to not take this personally, even though I knew others didn’t mean anything personally negative when they commented on my experience.
To clarify things for myself, and help with the emotional effect of these comments, I refined my own definition and description of the incident:
“Last year, I was in a hit and run accident involving 4 cars, and my car was totaled. I feel extremely fortunate that I wasn’t injured as seriously as I might have been-this was a really hard collision, and it could have been much worse.”
That’s all I say now-If people want to know more about it that’s fine, but I can’t concern myself with anyone else’s impression of the “seriousness” of my experience.
At this point my martial arts training and discipline began to really help me. Thanks to the self-awareness and detachment I’ve learned, I knew something wasn’t right emotionally, and my reactions were abnormal. I also knew it was my responsibility alone to take action and seek help. Others could (and did) support me emotionally, but just like in training, I had to do the work.
First, I sought help and treatment for the emotional issues with a health professional I’d worked with for a number of years. A key issue was my fear about being out of control in a moving vehicle. I want to be the one who decides where and how fast I go, which is why I don’t like roller coasters, and other rides, and I’m not too crazy about flying, although I have gotten used to it. This was a significant part of the fear I felt during the accident, and afterward. I began keeping a journal of my emotional reactions to various situations, especially any reactions I felt were out of the ordinary, so I could monitor what I was feeling.
Second, I made a greater effort than usual to be consistent with my martial arts training. Not only was the exercise helping with physical recovery and regaining strength, it was an outlet from the fear and tension I was feeling. Practicing detachment became more important than ever.
The final phase of my recovery would involve more work, time, and expense, but I knew I had to do something in order to fully face the fears I was feeling, and regain my confidence behind the wheel. For that, you could say I did what some people do when they’re looking for answers, and need to test themselves.
I went into the desert.