It’s Monday, 11:00 am. I’ve been awake for at least an hour, but resistant to getting up. I just want to curl up into a ball and disappear – if I could squeeze my body tight enough, I might just cease to exist.
So I stay in bed, curtains shut, refusing to acknowledge the world outside of my bedroom, because looking outside would mean having to confront what happened.
I call for my cat, but she doesn’t appear. She’s probably by the bedroom door. She’s been up and ready to seize the day for hours; I’m always woefully behind her energy curve, and today even more so.
When I finally admit that I’m not going back to sleep, I force myself to sit up. I swing my legs out of bed and walk over to the window. I open the curtain and come face to face with exactly what I’m trying to avoid:
I feel my heart sink a little bit in my chest, no longer able to dream it didn’t happen anymore.
… … …
(2 days earlier)
I got up Saturday morning, grabbed my bag of nail strips, and set off for Laurelville, a small town about 50 miles south of where I live. I was setting up a table at a little monthly craft show, where I’d been selling my strips since October. It was a bit of a hike to get there, and per current social distancing mandates, they were running the craft show consignment-style. So I drove down Saturday morning, set up my table, and left.
I drove back on Sunday underneath the grey clouds and misty rain of that January afternoon, passing a small amount of fresh snow that had fallen the night before. I parked in the gravel parking lot and trudged through the brown slush, into the building, and up the stairs, to find that I had only sold two sets that entire weekend. Hiding my immediate frustration, I cheerfully packed up the rest of my inventory and supplies, loaded them in my car, and then begrudgingly headed home.
That weekend, I had driven three hours round trip, two days in a row, and had made a net total of $8 – I was feeling admittedly exhausted and disappointed. But I was thankful that the weather worked out in my favor, and I knew that once I got home, I would have the rest of my Sunday evening to chill out.
As I got off the highway, I noticed that the raindrops were starting to look more like a wintery mix – not quite snow, but not quite rain anymore, either. I was only ten minutes from my house, though, and nothing was sticking to the ground.
Five minutes later, while driving on a back road and looking forward to a warm dinner, I then noticed that I could see tire tracks on the road, as if there was just enough snow to see the evidence of the cars that had driven past only minutes ahead of me. I drove through a roundabout, and then a second, which turned me onto the road leading to my neighborhood.
I headed up the road, and around the bend, having only a quarter mile of straight road until I would turn left into the neighborhood. My car was handling without issues, but as I drew closer to my turn, I remembered the neighborhood roads were a bit slushy when I left, so I put on my turn signal early to alert the car behind me and started to slow down.
And then, a mere 20 feet from the entrance of my neighborhood – only 60 seconds from arriving at my destination – I hit it.
I hit what I can only assume was black ice that sends my car sliding –
– past the road I’m trying to turn into –
SHIT SHIT SHIT.
– as my car starts moving sideways –
– and then backwards –
STOP. STOP! NO! STOP!!!!
– and I’m screaming.
The passenger’s side door collides solidly with the street sign.
The car behind me keeps driving past.
I sit in shock. Horror. Shame.
I feel the frigid breeze blowing in from the now-nonexistent passenger’s window as I stare at the now-horizontal street sign.
… … …
I’ve never been in a car accident before. I’ve been driving for over eleven years and have certainly had scares, but I’ve never actually been in a collision, with anyone or anything.
Several years back, I was driving with my youngest sister on Valentine’s Day and we hit a slick patch and spun a complete 360 degrees. Luckily no other cars were around, and we didn’t hit anything. My sister reminisces about that moment every once in a while, commenting on how cool it would have been had it not been utterly terrifying. But that’s as dramatic as I can ever remember it getting for me.
I always took pride in being a good driver. But in a matter of seconds, that pride, like my passenger’s side window, was shattered.
Now, that being said, there are a number of things I am thankful for upon reflection:
No other cars were involved (the car behind me had continued straight where I had tried to turn)
I wasn’t physically hurt in any way (my dignity is a different story)
I didn’t total my car (the damage was limited to just the passenger’s side door…somehow)
We were able to push my car out of the grass/snow and get it back home (with the help of two very kind individuals who did not live in the neighborhood but turned in just to see if we needed help – which we did)
So, all things considered, this accident could have been much worse.
Even still, when I got home, I sobbed, and sobbed, and sobbed, for hours. Even after I had calmed down, my eyes and eyelids looked red and raw from crying so much.
Which was likely due in part to the shock of being in a car accident that resulted purely from losing control of my car – there was nothing I could do, and that was terrifying.
But that wasn’t the only reason I couldn’t stop crying that night: the strongest feeling I felt, greater than shock and terror, was shame.
As I waited for my parents, I wanted to put my head down on the steering wheel to avoid seeing any of the cars that drove by because I knew they were gawking at the situation – but I didn’t, because I also knew that they’d likely assume I had been hurt or knocked unconscious. So I sat up to make sure anyone looking could tell that I was alive and alert. But I kept my gaze away from the road as best I could, trying to manage the overwhelming embarrassment that was already creeping in.
As I sat at the dinner table after we got back to the house, I ate nothing and was unable to look either of my parents in the eye; I could only hear the voice of my inner critic, screaming at me all the things I should have done.
You should have been driving slower.
You should have braked sooner.
You should have just tried to slide straight to slow down, then turned into the next entrance.
You should have turned the wheel the opposite direction, like you learned in defensive driving school.
You should have stayed home and picked up your stuff later this week, like you had originally planned.
You should have paid more attention to the fact that it was F*ING SNOWING, you arrogant bitch.
Over the course of that hour at dinner, I could feel my shoulders and chest slowly tensing with shame and anxiety, as the tears continued to fall. I felt sick to my stomach, and my dad offered to call and report the damage to the street sign for me because I was still too upset and ashamed.
As I tried to decide what to do to help myself relax and ease my tension, nothing sounded appealing to me. I didn’t want to talk to anyone (and I certainly didn’t want to admit to anyone what had happened). I didn’t want to watch anything. I didn’t want to play any computer games. I didn’t even want to get up from my seat at the dinner table.
I hadn’t felt such overwhelming shame in years. In the moment, I wasn’t sure how I was going to break out of it. How I was going to move on. How I could forgive myself for making a mistake like that.
… … …
Eventually, I found a way to give myself some distance from it that Sunday evening, and when I finally peeled myself out of bed on Monday, I spent the afternoon writing the bulk of this post, processing what had happened and how I felt about it.
And now, by the time I’m writing this bit, it’s Thursday – four days since the accident.
And that accident seems like it was years ago. The shame that was so strong I thought it would last weeks, is gone. It’s almost startling to me the difference, because when I feel emotions that strongly, they tend to last. But these didn’t.
When I had started writing this post on Monday, I thought that the purpose of it was to simply tell my story and process my emotions – and I certainly think that has a lot to do with how quickly I’ve been able to let go of my shame. But I also think there’s more to it than that.
Historically, when I’ve felt shame like this, it has been in the context of bullying – and the sad thing about bullying is that it’s not a one-off experience. It keeps happening. The moments of deep shame were fleeting, but I learned to live in a perpetual state of low-level shame and humiliation. Even the most recent bullying experience in my adult life kept me in a similar state of shame and stress for months before we were all able to leave the situation.
So despite that this accident was a momentary situation, with short-term ramifications (namely, auto repairs), my mind and body were prepped for long-term emotional turmoil.
But that didn’t happen.
Two days after the accident, I was out in the garage helping my mom tape up the busted window like it was no big deal, so she could drive it to the auto repair shop to get an estimate for insurance.
Three days after the accident, I sat in the passenger’s seat of my mom’s van as she drove us to our church to do some volunteering – and I saw the busted street sign, which someone had moved away from the road and propped up against a tree. When we drove back, I didn’t even remember to look for it.
Four days after the accident, I drove myself to work in my mom’s van – and I surprised myself with zero anxiety or fear or second-guessing my driving abilities.
For the first time in my life, I endured a traumatic experience – and it didn’t traumatize me.
It didn’t traumatize me.
I know we hear the word 'trauma' tossed around a lot, so before I continue, let me provide some brief context regarding what trauma actually is and how it manifests.
“Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and isolated can result in trauma, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. It’s not the objective circumstances that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event.” (Emotional and Psychological Trauma, HelpGuide)**
We often think of very intense experiences that threaten our lives to be traumatic – violence, war and combat, armed robbery, rape or assault, natural disasters, car accidents – and yes, those do often traumatize those involved. But trauma can manifest from any situation, and what is experienced as trauma for one person may be nothing more than a stressful experience for another.
Trauma experiences are relative, and how those experiences may impact individuals moving forward is also relative. Some people display symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), such as denial, numbness, and flashbacks (and there are many more symptoms beyond that). However, many people living with trauma do not display such strong symptoms – but that doesn't mean that they've 'moved on' or aren't impacted by past traumatic experiences still. I fall into the latter category.
My body and mind have been trained to endure trauma – years of relentless bullying left me in a constant state of fear, feeling isolated, anxious, and hopeless about my value in the world. I learned that my sense of goodness had to be earned, and any threat to that fragile sense of value sent me down a shame spiral.
I’ve been working on healing the trauma of my bullying and undoing those hurtful lessons for years, but I didn’t realize until I started writing this section of my post that I have always unconsciously assumed that every traumatic experience would traumatize me – that every intense experience I underwent in my life would take years of healing and therapy to let go of. I had never considered that I could reach a healed enough point in my life where traumatic experiences don’t have to be traumatic.
As unpleasant, stressful, and embarrassing as my accident was, it didn’t traumatize me.
I processed my feelings, dusted myself off, and kept walking.
I’ve never been able to do that before – and for that, I feel extremely proud.
Much prouder, in fact, than I would have been with an unblemished driving record.
… … …
**If you are interested in learning more about trauma, I recommend reading through "Emotional and Psychological Trauma" on Help Guide (where I pulled my earlier quote from). If offers a fairly comprehensive rundown on what trauma is, symptoms to look for, and how to heal from trauma, to name a few topics. Note that there are many books that have been published on trauma that are obviously much more comprehensive than this one article, but it is a good starting point for those who have little to no experience in learning about trauma.
… … …
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