How to Live Through a Car Crash
In Chicago, on a May morning so bright it teased tulip heads from their sleep, I nearly killed a man I’d never met.
I had just dropped off my daughters at school and was headed to work. I turned off the radio, unable to focus on it anyway. Even though I functioned and appeared fine on the surface, the combination of a new divorce, a new boyfriend, and my children’s emotional needs had turned my brain into a tangled mess of anxiety and grief that needed a daily combing out.
So, on that short little car trip, I did what I’d been doing so much of lately: I dove head-first into the world of my thoughts. I finally had some blessed space to do so.
Like every morning, I checked the oncoming lane of the busy street before turning left. Only this particular morning, instead of yielding to the vehicle coming straight at me, I turned anyway, hitting it head-on.
What I remember from the aftermath of that wreck — before the ambulances arrived, before I assessed my wounds, before I heard a bystander say, “Is all of that blood?” and another one respond, “Thank God, it’s just fluids from the cars”—was the sight of the other driver’s face. I could just make it out through the spiderweb of my windshield, through the chemical smoke rising from my deflated air bag. I mouthed to him, “I’m sorry.”
He grimaced and shook his head.
After the hospital released me, I closed the curtains and buried myself in blankets on the couch.
That evening, a group of friends came to check on me. It took every bit of strength I had to get up and answer the door. My weakness didn’t stem from the purple welt lashed across my chest, a shadow of the seatbelt that had saved my life. It didn’t come from the throbbing bump on the back of my head, where something from the back seat had flown forward and struck me.
The force immobilizing me wasn’t something that shows up on skin or even with an X-ray. But fighting it required everything I had to open the door.
I sat at my kitchen table with my head in my hands. My friends stood around me. One of them rested her hand on my arm, another on my back. Another friend coaxed my hand into hers and gently squeezed.
The reality of my mistakes and poor choices balls up in my belly like a knotted length of rope and tugs me down into an ocean of shame.
I told them in as few words as possible what I’d done. What I’d caused on a sunny morning. What I had done to, I later learned, three different people in their respective cars. Three people just trying to make their way to work. I told my friends about the looks on my kids’ faces when I explained why we didn’t have a car anymore.
“I keep thinking,” I whispered, “maybe it would have been better for everyone if I’d just died.”
I don’t remember what my friends said. Not that anything they could have said would have made any difference. No admonishments for talking that way, no rationalization of my thoughts, no comfort foods coaxed into me would have lifted the weight of what I had done. Or of wanting to find some escape from it.
What I do remember is that my friends were there.
I have had many moments in my life where the reality of my mistakes and poor choices balls up in my belly like a knotted length of rope and tugs me down into an ocean of shame. It’s a place so deep that breathing is hard to manage. Light is hard to see.
“Struggle and fight,” my brain pleads, so I do a mental search for any possible way to reset the situation, to retrieve my words, to press the rewind button so I don’t have to see the image of the mess I made ever again. I want a do-over. I want to make things right in a way that no one has to feel pain.
But there is no rewind button. There are no do-overs. The rope keeps twisting, and I can’t slip out of the knot. All I can do is search for pockets of air.
In his book Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer writes, “I understand why some depressed people kill themselves: They need the rest. But I do not understand why others are able to find new life in the midst of a living death, though I am one of them.”
Then Palmer tells a story of how, in the midst of a long-term depressive episode, a friend came into his home, propped up his feet, and rubbed them. There were no words. No maxims of hope intended to ease his depression. Only kneading hands and a relentless witness.
I’ve never battled long-term depression, but I have sat in the suffocating presence of shame. I can imagine that long-term depression feels like waking up each morning anew to the nightmarish knowledge of a car wreck you’ve just caused, only without the relief of time’s passage softening any edges.
I’m a counselor and a social worker, and through my work I have learned not to judge people for overmedicating themselves for depression, anxiety, or mental illness. I don’t shrink back when someone tells me what they do to escape the thoughts that crush in on them. I don’t need to crawl inside their heads to imagine their personal swallow of shame.
All I need to do is bring up that moment just a few years ago when I sat at my kitchen table, pushing out words I knew sounded ugly hanging in the air yet at the same time were the truest words I could have spoken.
This is the gift I am able to bring to my clients: to be a witness in the moment when the lights go dark and the rope tugs them further into the deep.
I know what shame feels like, yet I also know how important it was that I experienced the other feeling I had that night. It was the feeling I had when something else besides shame took up space in the room. It barely registered above a whisper, but I knew it was there. It even reached out its warm hands to prove it.
There isn’t always an escape from the dark places our hearts go. But there are knocks we hear in the middle of the night, and lengths of hallway to be shuffled through, and kitchen doors that need to be opened.