May 26th 1999. I was a junior in high school. We had been let out of school early and I decided to take a ride with a classmate. An hour later, I was hanging upside down from my seat belt just trying to stay alive. The months ahead were uncertain, scary, and painful. I had to relearn how to live life sitting down. The things that were once easy for me, like brushing my teeth, were things I had to psych myself up for, just to get the energy to do. My legs no longer worked. My fine motor movement was completely gone. At first, I didn’t even know how I would make it to the next day.
After awhile, my body healed the best that it could. I gained the stamina to be able to get up in the morning, brush my own teeth and hair, do my own makeup, and go to school. I taught myself how to grab onto things between my palms, in lieu of my non-existent ability to grip. I tried my best to move on with my life in this unwanted and different, but new way.
Fast forward 22 years. I have adapted to life in a wheelchair and I do many things independently. I run a household, I raise children, I work, I go to school, and I engage in my community. But one thing will always be staring over my shoulder, reminding me of the fact that I haven’t overcome everything. My trauma.
Every time I get into my car and pull onto to the road, the intrusive thoughts hit me like a Mack truck. “What if someone doesn’t see me and T-bones me?” “What if my brake lines don’t work when I try to stop?” “What if the hand controls fall off the steering wheel and I can’t control the car?” I am completely aware that these things are extremely unlikely, but they will pop into my head at the most random times. I don’t think I have had a drive without worrying that I could die since my car accident 22 years ago.
And it doesn’t just end with me. My trauma reminds me often that this could happen to any of the people I love. If I know my mom has to work, I worry that she’ll go off the road into a ditch and nobody will see her. Or that she will get robbed walking to her car in the dark. If my husband is even 5 minutes late from work, I’m calling him to make sure he didn’t get into an accident. If my kids ride the bus to a sporting event, I’m a nervous wreck until they’re back with me.
For the longest time, I didn’t understand why I did this. It took my therapist explaining everything to me before it all clicked. Trauma is one of the few things the human body doesn’t heal from. So, even though I get in my car every day and get to the places I need to go, my brain will always have that memory of the time I didn’t return home safely. And of the thousands of times the driving was uneventful, that one time will always continue to come back up.
This is so common with people who obtained their disabilities in traumatic ways. We may seem like we have moved forward and gotten on with life, which for the most part we have, but that trauma will always be a part of us. The intrusive thoughts are a normal thing for people with disabilities because we have seen the worst and felt the worst… And every day, we try to get through it without going back there. In my case, exposure therapy has been scary but also helpful. At my last session, I was told to start doing things while driving that I generally attempt to avoid. For example, instead of pulling left on to a busy road, I will turn right and go out of my way until I get to a light where I can safely turn. Sometimes, it makes me late to where I’m going, but I have avoided being uncomfortable, so it’s just something that I do now. As of this week, I have officially started to try doing those things that make me nervous. I assess whether or not doing these things are safe, then I do them, even if I am scared. I had a small victory yesterday when I pulled left out of the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot instead of going right like I always do. There were no cars in sight, which usually does not deter me from avoiding anyway, but I knew I would be OK, so I went ahead and I made myself a little uncomfortable. I think eventually this will help me to confront my trauma and overcome some of the things that scare me about what has happened to me in the past.
If you are a trauma survivor and you constantly find yourself worrying in otherwise safe situations about all the bad things that can happen, this is completely normal. Our brains and bodies do not forget this type of thing. I urge you to talk to someone about what you’re feeling because there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We live with the disabilities our trauma has left behind, but that does not mean that we need to be subconsciously reminded of it every day. We can take control.