Well, I'm going to share something more personal than my sandwich preferences today.
As I'm typing this, my heart is pounding, my breath is shallow, and I feel sick and lightheaded. My TV is on, and I can't turn it off. The program? A popular British medical drama called Holby City - quite similar to ER for the Americans in the audience. I don't watch it, but my parents do, and if there is nothing better on I just zone in and out of it.
This week is different. Medical dramas are never going to go well when they start with things going well, and this episode started with things going about as well as they could be. Four of the main characters are driving in two separate cars on their way to some fancy award thing - the young, boyish doctor and his nurse sweetheart in the lead car, and two senior surgeons following behind. The young doctor, driving, misses a turn, and one from the car behind calls to tell him. As he turns to look at the nurse, a coy smile on his lips, the surgeon on the phone screams "NOO!".
And it happens. A farm truck, stopped in the road on a bend. He doesn't see it, because he isn't looking. He tries to swerve out of the way, but he can't, and the passenger side of the car collides and slides under the back of the truck. The car behind manages to avoid them, but rolls up the embankment on the side of the road, crashing. The nurse is critically injured, and the others aren't exactly okay either. They show the typical "aftermath" shot of a drama show - everything still, quiet, decompressing from the action. The wreck, broken glass, mangled metal, some blood.
And I lost it. My mouth dries up first, and my hands begin to tremble. I can feel my heart rate rising, and my head is spinning. I'm not good with blood, even on TV shows, but that isn't why I'm having a panic attack.
You see, the same thing happened to me.
Not exactly - not in the same way, at least. But the screech of tyres and the smash of metal and the violent jerking of unnatural g-forces are the basically the same in every car crash.
Here's how mine went (names and locations changed, of course):
Driving back from my friend Amy's mother's wedding in a shitty early-90s Saturn micro-sedan. Amy is driving, her friend Terrance in the passenger seat. I'm in the back, squashed into the middle, with my SO on my right, and our friend Kayleigh to my left. I wish I could say that I'm making it up when I tell you that the date was September 11th, but life is funny like that.
We're winding through some upstate backroads, about 30 minutes outside of town, listening to music, laughing, joking like teenagers do. We come about as far as we wanted to, so we look for a spot to turn around to head back home. We come to a T-junction, and figure that we'll just turn around in the intersection and head back. I look left. No cars. I look right. No cars.
Amy begins the turn, pulling slightly off the road at the top of the "T". I don't know why, but she started the second half of the turn, heading back down to the stalk of the "T". I've been looking at my phone the whole time, so I don't see it. I only hear someone shout "DUDE!", the too-short and too-close screech of rubber and brakes.
I know it's almost a cliche, but it's amazing what happens in your mind in the microseconds of a trauma. I'd been in a car accident before - about a year prior to this, I'd been rear-ended outside a shopping centre by a guy going around 30. It totalled my car, but apart from some minor neck pain that went away the next day, I was a-okay.
So I hear the screech, and I can remember thinking "not this again."
I was right, I wasn't "this" again.
I hear that sound of impact - like a crash test video, but louder and closer and Much. More. Real. In the middle seat, I sway violently left and right. The hit - on the driver's side, near the front - is so forceful it lifts the side of the car up and pushes us down the road. We keep rolling until we hit an embankment, about 40 meters from where we started.
It seemed like a long time, although it could have been at most 3 seconds from start to finish.
I think we were all freaking out to one degree or another, but I somehow have the presence of mind to unbuckle my seatbelt and that of my SO and lean across her to unlock and swing open the door. I practically shove her out. All I can think of is getting her away from there, protecting her, rewinding time to stop the crash - whatever it took to keep her safe. It's silly what goes through your head, but for a second I wanted it to be possible.
We all get out of the car, and collapse on the grass by the side of the road. I don't know if I am okay, but there is blood on my shirt. Terrance is sitting, silently, but looking unhurt. Kayleigh is bleeding profusely from her head, and my SO is panicking about it, convinced she's going to die. I take a quick look, carefully moving he hair to see a number of small cuts from the glass. I've had a cut on the head before (another story for another day), so I know that head wounds bleed disproportionately and look worse than they are. I tell her she's okay, that it's not bad, and give her someone's cardigan I grabbed from back of the car to hold on her head.
My SO is bleeding quite badly from the arm, a small flap of skin hanging loosely halfway up from her wrist. I take my hoodie off and help her put pressure on it. Despite the crash, everyone seems okay, more or less.
Then I hear Terrance speak.
"Amy's still in the car."
I look back, and run up to the wreckage. Well, I hobbled, because now, probably 3 minutes after impact, my lower right leg is in a great deal of pain. I look in though the shattered passenger window to see Amy, groaning weakly, in the drivers seat. The other car impacted just in front of the door on the driver's side, crumpling the body panels and chassis around and into her legs, pinning them in place. The second impact of the car against the embankment, we would later find out, forced her left femur through her hip bone, shattering it. She was trapped in the car, not that she would have been able to go anywhere.
My SO and Terrance come over to try and help, but we can't do anything. I pull out my phone and dial 911.
"911 What is you emergency?"
"We've been in a car accident. It's really bad."
"Where are you?"
I give them the name of the two streets at the intersection. What I hear next still sickens me to this day.
"That's in Mechanicville*"
"This is Albany 911. You need to call Schenectady emergency services."
As I stammer down the phone that I don't know the alternate 911 number, the operator hangs up on me. Thankfully, Kayleigh managed to get through to the 'right' 911, and was told they would be sending ambulances as soon as possible.
At that moment, knowing that help was on the way, I think some switch in my brain flipped, turning off all of the adrenalin that had kept me level-headed. My leg was on fire, my neck and shoulders were stiff. I felt weak, and tired and shaky.
Turning to walk back to the side of the road, I collapsed. Apparently, I slumped to the ground unconscious, and was out for just under a minute. I came to to the sound of my SO screaming my name and crying. She told me later she thought I was dead. All I remember was having a trippy dream about the wedding, and waking up not knowing what was going on.
I managed to get to the grass next to the road and sit down, and spent the ten minutes waiting for the ambulances fighting the urge to fall asleep, which I've learned from the movies not to do.
At one point, I looked up to see what had become of the other car, and saw the driver, by himself, standing about 20 yards from the wreck, perfectly fine. So fine, in fact, that he lit a cigarette, and stood there puffing away as my friend sat pinned inside a twisted metal heap.
The firefighters came to cut Amy out of the wreckage, and the paramedics assessed each one of us in turn. After hearing I had passed out, I was deemed second-most critical, and was bundled into the first ambulance next to Amy, who was laying conscious on a stretcher. The next few hours, at the hospital, going home, the few days after - I don't remember much at all.
I came away with a handful of tiny cuts to my head and a tear in my calf muscle, from bracing myself for the second impact. Not too bad. My SO needed stitches on her arm, but was otherwise okay. Kayleigh was sore for about a week, and Terrance was completely unhurt. Amy was in the hospital for three months, her hip now an amalgam of bone and screws and rods.
For me, the real injury came later. I tried to shake it off - I went straight back to college, going to my classes, changing nothing. But every so often, out of nowhere, I would be back there. I would hear it, feel that dread feeling that comes in that microsecond before the car hits, only no car would hit, and I would feel it for minutes at a time.
For weeks it was like this, re-living it over and over, with no warning and no trigger. I couldn't sleep and didn't want to eat, and ended up heavily self-medicating with weed and alcohol for a period of time just to keep my mind away from it.
Gradually, all the feelings of anxiety and tension and numbness and irritability lessened, and my life returned to it's usual not-quite-normal state. Still, when I'm driving or riding in a car, I my pulse raises, and I look left and right and left and right at every intersection. If I'm out and I hear tyres screech or an engine rev, my chest tightens and it takes me all the way back, and just for a second I feel just as awful again. Seeing car accidents, even fake ones on overwrought TV dramas, make it worse, and I panic.
My SO was diagnosed with PTSD stemming from the event about 18 months afterwards, and is slowly but surely overcoming it. I haven't seen anyone about it, and I find it very difficult to talk about to people close to me. This all happened three years ago last month, and although there have been times where I have felt that I am finally "over" it, I'm not. At least, not totally.
I don't know if something like that can ever leave you, or if it's supposed to. I don't know if I will be able to consign that moment, one of many millions of moments I will experience in my life, to my mental archive, or if it will always be right there, on the periphery of my consciousness, ready and waiting to show itself. I don't know what effect it has had, does have, and will have on my behaviour, my life, my relationships.
What I do know is that a trauma doesn't just happen to you. It becomes you, melds itself into your very being, and persists long after the wounds have healed, long after the memories fade behind the fog of time.
I know my story isn't shocking, and isn't unique, but after reliving the crash for the thousandth time tonight, I wanted to tell someone. Sorry it turned out so long.