My leg screamed in agony as the dashboard was lifted from it. The pain was followed by a crunching and pop. The dash fell back on my broken leg. I took a few deep breaths of grease- and smoke-stained air. God. My leg felt better. Just leave it on my leg, I thought. It hurts less. But they lifted it again and I bit my bleeding lip in agony. Once again the dash fell.
The mind is a funny thing, because although I had no conscious memory of this event, the accident nonetheless had a major impact on me. After having our legs fixed in the hospital, my mother and I were sent to a rehab hospital to help us re-learn how to walk and build strength in our legs.
At one point during our stay in Rehab we became due back at the hospital for a follow-up. We were loaded in a handicap van. Our driver took us to the hospital via the highway. Seeing the highway, the cars on the road, my body shook. My heart threatened to strangle the air out of me and I felt ridiculous for being afraid. After all, I wasn’t driving and couldn’t remember anything about the crash. I only knew what I had been told. Despite that I was forced to focus on my breathing, deep, slow breaths to force the panic down to and from the hospital.
Once we were released from rehab and replaced the demolished car, I tried driving again. I had no problems driving in-town, but the highway…terrified me.
We got me back on the highway late at night so there’d be less traffic for me to deal with. My back was taut with tension, my hands tight on the wheel. I felt dizzy, probably because I kept forgetting to breathe. I was certain I’d crash again. I may not over correct and cross the median like I had before but I’d no doubt crash again. Mom and I would be in the hospital again, because of me. I jumped and bit back panic every time the sound of the road changed and I spent more time watching the vehicles trying to pass me than the road, especially if they were semis. The drive was short and we returned home safe.
I remember at one point taking Cory, my youngest brother, to the store. Unfortunately, I missed the turn and ended up on the highway. Cory is seven years younger than me and, at the time, too young to help me drive or help with my fear. I believe my exact words to him were “Keep your mouth shut.” With my heart pounding, I managed to get us off the highway and to the store, though I still have no clue how I found my way to the store from the highway. We stayed at the store for an hour because it took me that long to stop shaking.
A few practices later and I was driving on the highway during the day. I had fewer anxieties but the fear of driving on the highway still felt the same, just as strong. Mom drove in a car behind or in front of me, depending on what part of the trip we were on. Cory was with me. I think he was my only passenger again. Together we came up with a game to help me drive. The game was heavily influenced by their then recent movie release, Ice Age. We named the center lane Diego. Sid was the fog line and any Semi was named Manny. Whenever a Manny grew close Cory would watch the road. “You ran over Sid!” he’d say whenever I crossed the fog line. Diego was rarely in danger and Cory’s proclamations that “You killed Sid!” became fewer as I grew more comfortable with the trucks I once crashed head-on into.
After that I developed the confidence I never had while driving on the highway. Nine months after my first accident, I started home from college to attend a friend’s wedding. Rain pounded hard that day and I hydroplaned. The guardrail I ran into spun me in front of another semi.
I specifically remember thinking, “Oh, shit. Not again.” I jerked on the wheel to avoid another head-on collision. The semi slammed into the driver’s side door. Glass shattered, and my elbow slammed into the semi, the heat from the engine burned. Glass covered the seats, some embedded into the material. Other then dazed, I didn’t feel hurt.
When the ambulance arrived, I crawled out of the car, through the passenger door , on my own power, and stretched myself out on the stretcher. I was laughing and making jokes. I’m not sure that I was all that funny, but the paramedics were kind enough to laugh at my jokes as they took me to the hospital. I even laughed hysterically when I called my mother. “I was in a second crash, with another semi, on the same highway!” Needless to say Mom didn’t appreciate the humor.
At the hospital, I went through a long list of tests. With the endorphins and adrenaline out of my body I started feeling my injuries. My hip hurt so badly I limped when forced to walk. My arm hurt, but it was badly scraped, not broken. A few scars remain. I never felt a problem with my head, but I’d needed five or six staples to get it to stop bleeding. I only knew I’d hit my head when they showed me the blood on my pillow. The scans they did on my head revealed an abnormality that my doctor was concerned about.
The doctor said that I had what looked like a bruise on my brain, but it was the wrong color. The color of what they would normally see of an old bruise. He told me what some of the symptoms of a bruised brain was. The major one was that someone will ask a question, receive the answer and immediately ask the same question again because they didn’t recall getting the answer. I remember this being the case in the hospital. For the longest time, I just couldn’t retain what I was told for any amount of time or stay awake. But the hospital had told me I had a minor concussion. This doctor told me a bruised brain was just above a seizure and just below a stroke in seriousness. We suspected the bruise was from the first accident, but to be safe my doctor wanted me watched for 24 hours by someone to make sure I’d be fine. They were fine with my mother watching me.
The next day the bruise I was sure to have on my hip, never appeared and the pain had disappeared. I felt tired and still shaken, so I missed the wedding. But physically I’d walked away basically unscathed.
We got me another car several months later. My fear of the highway wasn’t as bad as when I tried to drive on it after my first accident, but my grip on the wheel was too tight, my shoulders too close to my ears. Cory and I played games when I drove.
After I graduated college, I drove half the distance from Indiana to Idaho on the highway. I am comfortable on the highway again, but I’m cautious. If I have a choice between back roads and taking the highway, I will take back roads. This habit has some people believing I’m still afraid of the highway, but they’re mistaken. I don’t fear the highway. But I treat the highway like I do fire. I handle it expertly when I need to but I avoid using it when I don’t need to.
The fear I suffered on the highway after both car wrecks was the most debilitating thing I’ve encountered in my life, even more than having a broken leg and bearing the guilt of having caused the accident. But I’m glad I overcame it, not once but twice. I can drive wherever I want now because of it, even if I’m sometimes taking the road less traveled.