Giving Thanks: A Year After the Accident

One year, a week, and three days ago, I was in a car accident.

I still don’t really know how to talk about it. How do you explain a traumatic event? Do you talk about the physical trauma—cuts, bumps, bruises—or the mental? The minutes before, hours after, or following months? How do you sum up an accident that lasted seconds but still touches today? It’s hard, but I’ll try.

The Captain and I had decided to go to Thanksgiving in my hometown in Oregon. The downside was that I’d signed up for a presentation slot in my history class that didn’t get out until 2:45 so we didn’t leave Reno until 3. My mom had sent a text warning us about the roads, but we were optimistic about our chances in Natasha (The Captain’s truck) and promised to turn around or take it slow if things got too bad. We made it to Likely with minimal snow, and were laughing and enjoying things. It started to snow so The Captain put on classical music for some ambiance.

Isn’t it funny what you remember?

We were halfway between Likely and Alturas, slowing down because the road had turned a little icy and the snow was a bit thicker. I think we were talking or laughing about something when the back of the car kicked out. I got a feeling like the one you get when a rollercoaster drops. I remember the car sliding across the highway, turning backwards, and screaming The Captain’s name. Then…I don’t remember much.

The Captain remembers everything, says it happened as if in slow motion to him. We have a theory that the experience was so traumatic that my brain just deleted the memory of the actual crash. The next thing I remember is the crunch the truck made as it impacted with the snow, how afraid I was that the glass right next to my head had broken, the sharp scent of gasoline, the pounding of my heart. The truck landed on the passenger—my—side. Miraculously, neither of us had broken any bones and we were coherent enough to work through the situation.

The Captain climbed out of the truck, jumped out into the snow and freezing cold, and soon after kicked the side of the truck. Then he came and checked on me, and tried to figure out where the gasoline smell was coming from. The extra can we’d brought with us had spilled all over, but the tank itself was intact. I knew that I had to call for help, but my phone was nowhere to be seen. Luckily, The Captain’s cell had landed near my head and worked fine.

In hindsight, I should have realized how odd it was that I, a person with a diagnosed anxiety disorder, was perfectly calm in the chaos following what should have been the worst event of my life. It paid off in the moment. I talked with the dispatcher, told her where we were and what had happened, and waited for help. A couple of minutes later, another truck pulled off of the side of the road. The woman who came and talked to me was a trained first responder. She asked me my name, birthday, what the date was, and other basic info. She checked my pulse and continued to ask questions. I can’t remember why I was still in the truck, but I think it had to do with a worry about my head. Since she didn’t seem too worried, I worked my way out of the truck, climbed out, and practically jumped into The Captain’s arms in order to get to the ground.

The woman let me stay in her heated truck while her husband and The Captain tried to figure out what could be done. I was thankful that, for once, I hadn’t taken off my shoes on the ride like I normally do. Otherwise in the snow, freezing wind, and cold I might have been shivering worse than I already was. A few minutes later, a police car and a fire crew pulled up to the scene.

I was largely ignored during this part, but I remember giving my information to an officer, stubbornly refusing to go to the emergency room because I was afraid of the cost and how long we would be there and where would we stay if we didn’t make it to Oregon that night, and getting checked out by a medic on the fire crew. I thought I was fine, and I kept saying so. “I’m fine; I’m okay, don’t worry.”

I used The Captain’s phone to call my mom and tell her what happened. Once again, I was probably too calm than I should’ve been. She promised that my stepdad would drive out to pick us up. A policeman drove us into town with all of our stuff that could fit in his car. Some things hadn’t survived the crash: tea cups I’d bought for my grandpa, my hairbrush, deodorant, and cell phone were missing. Some things, hilariously, did, like the two wine bottles I’d brought for Thanksgiving.

Looking like hitchhikers from hell in the gas station, The Captain and I accessed the damage. The gas can and shattered window behind me had left pungent fumes and glass shared in my tangled hair. The entire right side of my body was stiff and I discovered a growing bump on the left side of my head. The Captain had cut up his hands when he (stupidly) tried to lift up the truck to get to me, his ribs felt bruised, and he was also stiff. Still, we thought we were fine.

It took about another hour before my stepdad made it. We loaded up all of our stuff and went back on the icy roads for another two hours to make it to Grandma’s. I didn’t have a panic attack, didn’t cry, didn’t worry about going back out—I should have realized something was wrong. Once we made it to Grandma’s we carried in our stuff, took hot showers to rinse off as much of the glass, gasoline, and dirt that we could, and went to bed. I completely passed out, but The Captain woke up every couple of hours with nightmares and continually checked on me.

That’s the last really coherent memory that I have of that weekend. It’s funny that I can remember most of the before and the hours directly after, but the days that followed are all a blur. I spent my Thanksgiving weekend and birthday wrapped up in blankets, sleeping mostly, and barely having enough energy to do anything. We soon found out that something—we don’t know what—had hit my head in a key place and given me a full-blown concussion.

I knew from my linguistics courses that the left side of the brain is the part that deals with language: the words we know, how we form sentences, what kind of things we’ve learned to say, etc. It was clear by the next day that my bump had affected all that. I could barely say a sentence without stuttering at least twice, and most of the time I just repeated a one syllable word that got the point across because otherwise it was frustrating to continually try to say one thing (I hate repeated myself anyway). My sentences were all jumbled and I didn’t make much sense when I did talk.

The stuttering was the main reason I went to the E.R. on Monday with The Captain in tow for his own check-up. We were separated—even though that practically gave me a panic attack—and I underwent a CAT scan, physical exam, and was asked a lot of questions. We were there for hours, and I was recommended to see a neurologist. The damn hospital didn’t even know where to find one, and I had to do all that kind of stuff on my own. It was ridiculous.

I missed the following week of school because I was pretty incapable of reading, writing, or saying much of anything. The stutter stayed for two weeks before slowing fading away, but the problems with my words and speech patterns haven’t fully gone away. I passed my classes, thank God, but I started having panic attacks anytime I rode with The Captain or anyone else. My passenger-anxiety continued to go on and get worse, to the point where it affected my relationship and we were seriously worried about the long term affects. The anxiety didn’t lessen until after my vacation in New Zealand, but it still hasn’t fully gone away.

What I didn’t realize, or admit, until recently was that I had experienced PTSD. I blamed it all on the concussion or my already existing anxiety, but I was unwilling to admit how traumatic the accident had been for me. The Captain seemed to be doing fine, so why shouldn’t I be? I made the mistake of cancelling some additional brain scans in January, and I’m regretting it now. A lot of the information about concussions says that most of the symptoms should be gone by eight months after the impact. It’s been over a year and I still get minor headaches, terrible migraines, dizzy spells, and have trouble speaking the way I did before.

The Captain and M say that my language is about 80% of what it was before. I forget what I’m saying a lot, or forget words for pretty basic things. I’ve created some new words to replace ones I can’t remember and there have been some hilarious slips-of-tongue when I don’t quite pronounce something right. When I get excited and talk fast my speech patterns go downhill pretty quick, and it can be a little embarrassing. Most of the time, I shrug and laugh off what I say, but it also hurts. I’ve spent my whole life being defined by the way I use words and now I can’t use them the same way I did before. Hopefully, I’ll continue to improve, but it sucks to be conscious of how wrong my speech is.

One year, a week, and three days ago, I was in a car accident. I don’t remember the actual crash, but I remember the deep purple bruises on my right thigh that lasted for weeks. I remember the sizeable bump on the left side of my head and the thin hospital gown I wore in the ER. I remember too many passenger panic attacks to count, and the disappointed look in The Captain’s eyes each time I reached for a bar or slammed my hands down on the armrests or gasped at the smallest motion.

Each day is progress. On the day before Thanksgiving this year, we went back to Oregon and I drove for an hour in some light snow and minor slush without crying, without hyperventilating, without freaking out (too much). Things will get better. We’re alive and too many miracles happened in that one night, but I am so, so thankful to be here. And to be able, no matter how much trouble it is, to speak.